The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 51: Fueling Yourself, part 1

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Our body's the engine that powers our wilderness trips. You'll go farther if you know how to fuel it up. This week on The WildeBeat, part one of Fueling Yourself.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number fifty one.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Picture yourself out in the wilderness for a few days, carrying all of your supplies. You have to make sure the food you have is enough to support the strength and stamina you need your travels. The way to make sure you have enough fuel in your tank is to plan the food for your trip with nutrition in mind.

A lot of people don't think too much about nutrition, even when they are planning time in the wilderness. But I found someone who's given it a lot of thought. Mary Howley Ryan is the nutritional adviser for the National Outdoor Leadership School, also known as NOLS. She wrote their Nutrition Field Guide. She's a masters-level registered dietician, and she consults from her company, Beyond Broccoli, in Jackson, Wyoming.

Mary, Welcome to the WildeBeat.

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: Thank's Steve. Thanks for having me.

STEVE: When we're talking about wilderness trips... At what point in our trip, or our planning for our trip do we really need to start bringing thoughts of nutrition into the process.

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: It depends on how much you want to enjoy that experience, I suppose. I live in the mountains in WY and we have a lot of people who come through here and are just going to take a day trip or an overnight into the Tetons, and when you're dealing with high altitude and potentially extreme weather conditions, even an overnight can be a place where good nutrition or smart planning for the food for the trip can make the trip more enjoyable. So I would say, depending on where you're going, how much experience you have in the back country, all of those play into how much you want to think about it ahead of time...

STEVE: In an ideal world people are thinking about their nutrition planning for a weekend trip the week before a trip.

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: Right... The two most important things when you're going into the backcountry, and actually doing any kind of prolonged exercise, would be fluid and carbohydrates. I think one of the most important things that you can do ahead of time is start making sure you're really hydrated so that when you begin your hiking or climbing or whatever adventure you might be having... that you have enough fluid to get going. And then carbohydrates is what you'll rely on pretty heavily as you go along. You will be burning fat stores, and you know, protein's important as well, for different reasons, but I think the two things that are the most important would be carbohydrates and water -- fluids.

STEVE: Lets take a look at what your foods might look like on that few days leading up to the trip. What kind of food groups should we be emphasizing and what ones might be safe or wiser to de-emphasize?

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: I would say just making sure you're eating a balance of things. the reason I mention the carbohydrate, aside from the fact that it is a very important nutrient, is that in our culture right now we are -- have a very carbohydrate-phobic culture still. Even though the nutritional pundits claim that the high-protein, low-carb diets are passe, I haven't really seen much evidence of that in everyday life, either in social situations or in my practice. So I think that if people are planning to go into the back country, and they have been keeping their carbohydrate consumption low, they might want to just make sure that they're not avoiding it. You don't necessarily need to carb load when you're going into the back country, but just making sure you're not avoiding you're not avoiding that so that your stored carbohydrate or that's also known as glycogen that you want those glycogen stores to be full so that when you start exercising those muscles can get the fuel they need very easily.

STEVE: Is it a myth the old adage that the night before a trip like this you should go to an all-you-can-eat pasta house?

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: It wouldn't hurt, but it isn't necessary. That's more of something that endurance athletes might be inclined to do, you know if you're going on a marathon. The thing is, the reality of the situation is if you're going on a hike, a long hike or a backpack, you're going to have the chance to stop to eat snacks along the way, hopefully, providing you packed them, of course. And that you realize you can listen to your body and it's OK to eat when you're hungry. I don't think there's any requirements for having a big all-you-can-eat fest before you go. No.

STEVE: In a weekend trip I assume that any deficiencies you get in what I understand are called micronutrients... you can suffer a deficiency in these and make up for it before and after the trip.


STEVE: Let's go out to approaching week trips and beyond. Does that make a big difference then, or do you have to go longer?

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: I think you definitely have to go longer than a week. In fact, you have to go longer than 3 weeks... And a lot of it depends on how well nourished you are going into the field... Iron deficiency, for example, fairly common among young women, and if the woman has a tendency toward anemia, or has some kind of known iron deficiency, well that might be something you want to address going into the field, even if it were a 3 or 4 wk period, but for the average healthy person going into the backcountry, you're not going to run into micronutrient deficiencies in say, a month's time... And then if you're eating a fairly well balanced menu while you're in the field, a vitamin probably wouldn't be necessary either.

STEVE: One of the micronutrients that causes a lot of discussion and controversy is sodium. When you look at the labels for a lot of packaged foods, they're pretty high in it.

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: Sure. That's actually an excellent point. And when I was thinking about micronutrients, I wasn't actually thinking specifically about sodium, but sodium, potassium and chloride are all electrolytes that are all important in fluid balance, and actually, when you're in the backcountry, you need more sodium... Those are things that we're going to lose in sweat when we're out in the backcountry, and so, we'll take them in the form of food. The concerns about sodium are not the same in the backcountry as they are for your average American that's not exercising.

STEVE: So you're saying it's a lot harder to overdo the salt out there?

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: Absolutely. Yeah. And in fact, you know, um, I gave a talk last summer local here to the Exum Mountain guides about hyponatremia, which is a situation where, people replenish their fluids with just water, and they end up losing too much salt or sodium -- sodium and chloride -- in their sweat, and don't replace it adequately, and that can cause just as many problems as not getting enough fluid.

STEVE: So a lot of people when they come off the trail seem to have extreme cravings for some kind of food. What are they doing wrong that gets them into that situation?

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: That's a great question. And actually, they're not necessarily doing anything wrong. I think a lot of people have this idea that if our bodies are craving something, that must indicate some kind of nutrient deficiency. And that's actually very hotly debated in the nutrition community... We use food for a number of different things. It goes way beyond nourishment, sustenance, fuel. You know, we use it for a lot of emotional reasons, and comfort and reward, and any number of other things. And I think when we're in an environment like when we go on a backpacking trip, and we don't have the easy option of access to anything we could possibly want, which is largely the case when we're here in the front country... There was a doctor involved in wilderness medicine that I connected with 4 or 5 years ago, and we made up this nutrition survey for Appalachian Trail hikers -- through hikers -- and it was hilarious, some of the things they were talking about craving, and the things they could get when they get to a town and they could get what they wanted. And, you know, from looking at those, it wasn't nutrition related. I mean, things like beer and ice cream, pizza, and you know, you're not going to convince me that there's a nutrition deficiency there. Although, I guess the one exception could be if you don't pack enough food, and you're just hungry. That's definitely, you could come out of the backcountry and want all kinds of things then because you're just hungry. But I think in general, um, those cravings aren't connected to any specific nutrient or anything that you're doing wrong. It's just sort of a different way of living than we're accustomed to these days.

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Next time — Part two of Fueling Yourself.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The Wildebeat, program number fifty one. Thank you for listening.

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