Caloric Intake Required To Maintain Strength On A Thru-Hike

Hiker hunger, have you heard the term? It is due in large part to caloric intake and nutrition issues which occur on a long-distance thru-hike.
Written By: Josh Koop
Last Updated: October 20, 2019

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Hiker hunger, have you heard the term? It is due in large part to caloric intake and nutrition issues which occur on a long-distance thru-hike. In the article today we are going to cover how to properly handle your nutrition on the go, like during a thru-hike.

The caloric intake required to maintain muscle, strength, and weight on a thru-hike is to consume around 2 pounds of food per day or equal to 5000 total calories. It has been shown that hiking vigorously for a day can burn upwards of this value in the exercise.

Now that you have a solid grasp on the total amount of caloric intake required on a thru-hike now you must start to figure out how many days you need food for along with how to assemble a proper balance of nutrition within that food. All of this while ensuring it is calorically dense enough to sustain you through the hiking time.

How Does Calories Equate To Hiking Distance?

Typically when at rest you have an RMR, or resting metabolic rate, that your body is always maintaining to keep your body functioning. This is the number of calories your body burns without any activity, this is basically the same as you just laying in a bed and being immobile.

This means that to maintain your weight without gain or loss you need to consume at least your RMR, that is if you are fully inactive and really a bump on a bed. As soon as you begin to move and think and exist you begin to burn more, which means you must consume more or you will lose weight overall.

Your Caloric Intake will need to rise as you grind out the miles as you will be adding muscle to perform the work required

When you are putting in long, hot, exhausting days on the trail this can mean hiking 2-3 miles per hour. This is done while carrying a 30-50 pound pack depending on your gear and food for upwards of 8-12 hours each day!

Why Does This Matter To Hiking And Caloric Intake?

When you begin to hike daily you move from just your RMR to burning a tremendous amount of calories. The cool part is if you are overweight or looking to drop some this process will favor you tremendously over time you will be feeding off that stored energy!

Since you are now in a day of hiking burning up to 5000 to 6000 calories you will be in near-effortless weight loss if you have additional body fat if you manage what you eat. When your body runs out of consumed food it starts a transition to using stored body fat to supplement the energy needs.

For an overweight person, this means you can lose 3-5 pounds easily each week of a hike and considering most thru-hikes come in at 4-5 months this means a loss that could range in at 60-100 pounds or even more depending on exertion! This is also a con for those who are the normal or lower weight since there is a lack of body fat you will be short on energy if not ripping through food constantly.

Having A High Caloric Intake Requires Good Shopping skills
You will need to shop well for foods that will last

Planning your food will vary tremendously based on where you sit from a physical standpoint. Though if what you choose to bring to eat isn't nutrient-dense this will force you into "hiker hunger" mode when you reach a town.

What Is Hiker Hunger?

What hikers refer to as "hiker hunger" is the ravenous state many long-distance thru-hikers feel once they come into a town. They then will descend on restaurants and eat a tremendous amount of calories, sometimes over 10,000 in a day or more!

There are many things which are believed to contribute to hiker hunger that overwhelms people. The most common and believable is that most thru-hikers diets are caloric dense but actually nutritionally devoid of anything that can provide real sustenance to your body.

So while you are obsessively feeding your body it is slowly running through the reserves that it keeps for just such an issue as nutritional starvation. Once it observes food that will fit a mental understanding of the missing nutrient is starts to feed the part of your body that say you are hungry.

Watch To See A Thru-Hiker Explain On Video

How To Manage Better Nutrient Profiles and Density?

So the best ways to start managing this hunger in a more intelligent manner is to evaluate your food choices. This includes looking into options for supplementation along with choosing a more balanced assortment to your foods that are packed along. Sometimes it is better to be short on some caloric intake to make sure the nutrient profile is complete and healthy.

Bring Proper Supplements To Support Health

Many times people will overlook carrying supplements that will provide some of that extra nutritional value your body will crave. I believe so much in this I already wrote about some supplements you can't skip!

There are many people will try to sell you but to help you on your hike you need to focus on at least 3 of the most helpful. These are in no particular order but you should ensure you are bringing these with you on long-distance hikes for a good nutritional foundation.


Supplementation Including Fish Oil is important with a high caloric intake when devoid of nutrients
Making sure to increase your Fish Oil is important on the trail

Fish Oil is the first, and possibly the most important, due to the high level of Omega-3 fatty acids will help you need far less Vitamin I then you would need otherwise to hike daily. They are also healthy for good brain function and will ensure better decisions are made as you are providing your body a very necessary counter to the omega-6 fatty acids in most processed foods.


The next supplement is a high-quality multivitamin and not your Target or Walmart off the shelf vitamin full of low-grade sub-optimal vitamins. I have purchased these ones before when I do a week long hike. Something similar would be a good thing to have at least for the first run and possibly get more shipped to you each month from home.


The final and one of the most necessary is a high-quality electrolyte mix preferably in single-serve packets to be added as you continue to pour sweat into your water. Electrolytes help ensure you don't cramp up and that you replace sodium, potassium, and magnesium lost to the sweat that constantly leaks from you on a hike.

I prefer this as it is now the preferred electrolytes for the US Olympic team! If it is out of stock, which happens frequently because of the quality the other frequent option is this one which is a close second!

Balance Food Choice Along With Caloric Value

When making food choices to bring along with you on your next segment look at more than the caloric value. Instead, branch out and look at the mineral and vitamin contents of your foods and find something to help make sure you are providing your body all the necessary help.

Many physical ailments can and do occur on our long-distance hikes which can be plausibly stopped prior to occurring by helping our bodies perform. A diet full of top ramen while it may sound good and maybe light will not give your body even a portion of the nutrients needed for top performance.

What Does A Typical Caloric Intake Look Like?

What you need to imagine is that what you will eat in a day of hiking is equivalent to what you eat normally over 2 or 3 days. All while travelling 8-16 hours on your feet a day, that means no long keyboard breaks and no cable tv couch time.

For many thru-hikers, this food is primarily carbohydrate driven, with hikers carrying anywhere up to 500 grams or more of carbohydrates a day in their pack. This means they are consistently snacking and consuming to keep their energy levels from tanking, something many of us in our day to day lives have never had to encounter.

Traditional American Diet

This is the typical diet of most people when hiking the trail, it is full of processed high calorically dense foods that are light in weight. While this is optimal to carry as low of a weight as possible you pay a penalty in lack of nutritional resources at the same time.

Courtesy Of Bigfoot - Watch Video On YouTube

As you can see a typical day worth of foods is a lot to continually eat. You need to ensure you get food that you can eat while on the go as you can't stop to eat every time without losing speed on the trail.

Make sure to eat your protein with each meal when possible and to make sure it is the most important of the macronutrients to eat and maintain strength.

Ketogenic Diet

Where the ketogenic diet shines is in high-calorie value, nutritionally dense foods. Where most people will try to avoid fat for a ketogenic hiker a high-quality fat and protein-based diet is much lighter for more calories and nutrition. Since fat contains 9 calories per gram it is pound for pound a better, longer-lasting energy source perfectly fit for a duration based exercise like hiking.

Courtesy Of Zac Griffiths - Watch The Video On YouTube

As you can see above the ketogenic diet takes far less volume of food which allows you to carry a little less overall weight in food if you so choose. Many people following a ketogenic diet transition to fat from the body easier and faster. This means that you may need to make sure you eat even if you don't always feel hungry.

How To Plan Food For A Thru-Hike

There is no one way to manage your food planning on a thru-hike. For some preparing most ahead of time is the process they choose, others choose to wing it and find foods in stores along the path instead opting for a variety approach.

Pre-Packaging Food As Care Packages

This method appears to be the one most people start their plans around. This is because it easily allows you to apply a budget and control your costs with much more ease.

The only issue is that this means you must make all your food choices upfront and if you are like me they change weekly, if not daily. If I was to pre-packaged meals I would end up not wanting them within weeks of starting if not drastically sooner.

I do know that some people thrive on this choice as they are able to have the same foods each day without feeling the temptations or changes that I feel. This will really be where you need to evaluate yourself and possibly try to eat the exact same things for a week or two while preparing to see if you could sustain it for a month or more.

Restocking While In Town

This is where most people end up, even when well-intentioned sometimes you just need to have a break and a chance to help kick you back into gear. This is where you have to put more effort though into your food choices when in town as you won't be able to get Amazon shipped to you.

That means if all they have is a small corner grocery store then you need to figure out how to get your next 5-8 days worth of food from them to allow you to hike on to the next town and restart the process. This can be mentally taxing at first especially if you grew up not having to shop for yourself very frequently or you were a fast food junky!

Bottom Line

Reprogramming your body and mind how to eat while on the trail will take some time, this is why you should start out slow and build up your body and mind. This first time out the door, mostly your first week is a time to learn what you really enjoy, what you dislike and what will be needed for you to make the distance over time.

There is nothing like the freedom you will have while you attempt to thru-hike any of the big 3, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and last but not least the Continental Divide Trail. All of these are monumentally long, hard and have a failure rate into the 60 to 70% range. Most who start will never finish, I am hoping that what I have discussed in here will help you become one of the 30% who finish, sorry, not just finish, but DOMINATE the trail!

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