By Helen Battle
Canyon and desert hiking is often physically arduous, and it’s absolutely crucial to remain adequately hydrated, and to have plenty of food available. Without adequate food and water your health is at risk, and in extreme cases, even your life. The equipment you carry with you is crucial to your success, and food and water may be the most important equipment of all.
Food and Nutrition
Choosing the right foods to give you the nutrition you need from easily-digestible sources is a crucial consideration when you’re exercising over several hours, but it’s particularly important for desert and canyon hiking because you’re more likely to experience temperature extremes in these areas. Your body expends a lot of extra energy keeping you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cool, so for your body to keep itself at a normal temperature when hiking, you’re typically going to need more food than you think. It’s always better to have too much food than not enough, and as long as you’re choosing high energy foods you should be able to pack plenty without having to carry a huge amount of excess weight. While your normal every-day diet might be packed with vegetables and other healthy foods, these aren’t foods you want to include too much of when hiking: most vegetables—especially those that can be eaten raw—are far too low in calories and carbohydrates to serve as adequate sources of energy, particularly so considering the vast amounts you’d need to pack and carry. Small amounts of vegetables are great, but they shouldn’t form the bulk of the hiking diet.
In general, it’s best to eat small amounts of high-carbohydrate food every 30 to 60 minutes, and avoid high-fat high-protein foods, which digest much more slowly than carbohydrates, and can leave your stomach feeling queasy when you’re hiking in the heat. While it’s best to stick to complex carbohydrates like breads, crackers, and grains, small amounts of sugar can be useful too. Sugar does have a bad reputation, it’s true, but when you’re expending a lot of calories, sugar—and small amounts of fat—can actually be a very useful way of getting energy into your body without having to eat a large amount of food. Sugar is harmful when you’re eating large amounts of it without putting the calories it contains to good use, but it’s definitely useful for hikers, since it gives you a quick boost of energy when you need it. Choosing foods that have a mixture of complex and simple carbohydrates is a good bet—certain breakfast cereals can work, as well as crackers, and trail mix, as long as it’s low in dried fruit and nuts. Dried fruit requires a lot of water for digestion, and most tree nuts are high in both fat and protein, so trail mixes should be chosen fairly carefully.
It’s hard to say whether water or food is the most important consideration for hikers: people can survive for much longer without food than without water, but without food to provide energy for temperature regulation and for replenishing salts, you’re at risk too.
In general, plain water is the best choice for hydration throughout the day, although there are reasons to choose water with additives of one kind or another. For example, since canyon and desert hiking is typically dry as well as hot work, you’re losing a lot of water through sweat and evaporation, and you’re also losing a lot of salts as well. Electrolyte-replacement drinks are a good bet for replacing both salts and water, and can be drunk at half-strength to make sure you’re not overloading on salts. If you prefer to drink your water plain, bear in mind that you’ll need to replenish salts with the foods you eat, so be sure to choose salty snacks for eating while hiking.
Avoid, as much as possible, any drinks that contain caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic, and will cause you to lose more water than you take in when you drink it—for this and other reasons it’s best to avoid both tea and coffee, as well as other caffeine-containing beverages. If you must drink coffee or tea, try and limit yourself to one cup a day, as this has only a minimal diuretic effect, but ideally all caffeinated beverages will be avoided entirely.
Article contributed by freelance writer, Helen Battle. Helen is a writer now, but before she took to penning articles for a living, she worked as a fitness instructor and dietician for many years. When she became a mum, her outlook on life and priorities changed and now she stays at home to look after her children and freelances in her spare time.