Before heading out on a hike, Ruby just used to pack mac ‘n’ cheese packets, Tim-Tams and maybe a bottle of red. After a chat with a dietitian, she’s reconsidering what makes it into her pack (and stomach).

When you’re planning for a big adventure, it’s important to consider your nutritional needs in order to maintain your strength and reduce the risk of injury on your trip. We spoke to an expert about five important things you should know about diet and rest.

It All Started With a Ride Across the Desert

This time last month I, in my naive, barely-trained body, was hauling a bicycle and 80kg of gear across the Outback. I was riding alongside a total stranger, a guy called Brando, who had invited me (over Instagram) to join a small leg of his expedition across Australia. I took up the opportunity with glee. Four days after the message landed in my inbox, I was walking out of Alice Springs airport. 

What I didn’t realise prior to this time in our dusty Red Centre, was just how important nutrition is when you’re pushing your body in such an extreme way.

I’ve dated a bunch of protein-counting gym junkies in my time, and I was always skeptical of the importance of counting macros when you’re not fussed on bulking, or reaching a certain aesthetic. But nutrition goes far beyond aesthetics, and it wasn’t until this bike ride that I realised just how far.

In the desert we were eating freeze-dried meals made by a solar-powered New Zealand company called Radix Nutrition. They feed the New Zealand army with this stuff, so I knew every ingredient served a purpose. Each morning I would wake up to a delicious apple, cinnamon and nut concoction that would keep me full until dinner, where I was then greeted with something else like a free-range chicken, tomato and basil or Mexican chilli with organic beef dish. 

Mmmm, yummy.

I didn’t realise that the reason why I felt full wasn’t necessarily because I was eating a lot of food, but because of what that food consisted of. I was eating 31g of protein at dinner, alongside 47g of carbs and 52g of fat. My body needed it!

I decided to sit down with my good friend Daniel Roumieh, an Accredited Practicing dietitian working with triathletes out in North West Sydney. I wanted to know why this food kept me full, and how I could ensure that on my next adventure along the Overland Trail I could keep myself well-fed and strong. 

1. See a Professional

If you’re going on a big adventure, where you’re doing considerable exercise and pushing your body in a way that you haven’t before, it’s worth booking in a session with a dietitian. Every single body is different, and your pre, during and post-activity diet is based on what your body is used to, how it reacts to certain foods and the nature of the activity. There are a whole bunch of numbers that need to be crunched, and those numbers will determine the meal plans.

Drool Over This Gourmet Campfire Toastie // Camp Kitchen, Jonathan Tan, sandwich, Cheese, plate, log

Get. In. Mah. Belly. | Photo by Jonathan Tan

For example, we can assume that multigrain bread is best most of the time. For the general population exactly so. Multigrain bread is slightly higher in protein, lower GI, higher in fibre, unprocessed and higher in minerals. But if your body needs energy quickly, white bread is best, and doesn’t sit in your body for long. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to nutrition.

2. Understand the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist

I think it’s important to mention the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist here, because this was something that really surprised me when chatting to Dan. 

There’s no peak body for nutritionists like there is for dietitians, so technically anyone can use the term and not be reprimanded. Many nutritionists are great, but it’s worth checking their qualifications are legit.

‘You can get good and bad dietitians and nutritionists,’ Dan assures me, ‘However, other health professions who aren’t dietitians (naturopaths, nutritionists et.c) may recommend newly discovered, emerging evidence or evidence without a lot of scientific backing with more anecdotal evidence. Dietitians on the other hand, are legally required to recommend evidenced-based options, or they won’t recommend it.’

Studies say a glass of red a day right?

So where are all the dietitians on Instagram? Dan was quick to tell me that dietitians are not actually allowed to write testaments of their own clients. No before and after shots. Nothing. That’s why you never see them post about their clients online. It’s illegal. The protected body is essentially saying that all dietitians should have similar knowledge, so there is nothing you can do to one client that another dietitian can’t. Makes sense.

3. Carb Load at Night

‘When we eat carbs, it turns into glucose, and gets stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver. When we start the next day, we want those stores to be ready. We want to have stored energy so this means a good dinner. If you don’t have good stores, you’ll start the day lethargic and tired. Too big a breakfast can lead to bloating and tiredness, so the balance is important.’

So, make sure there’s carbs in your dinner, folks. 

Daniel tells me that ‘The intensity of the activity affects how many grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight you’ll need per hour. Depending on energy needs according to intensity, time and type of activity, anywhere between 3-10g carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day should be appropriate. These carbohydrates can be implemented at intervals to ensure a steady energy intake which matches output. So it does depend on the nature of the activity. To put that into perspective, there’s roughly 15g of carbohydrates in a slice of bread, medium apple or small, full fat yoghurt. That sounds intense, but in terms of your energy stores, it’s what’s needed.’

4. Use a Holistic Approach

Rest is just as important as good nutrition, especially if you’re doing a multi-day activity. You know those ice baths everyone seems to be doing lately? They’re great for reducing inflammation and aiding with recovery. However, if you’re doing a multi-day adventure, you don’t always have access to a couple of bags of ice, so simply sitting back, kicking your feet up and digging into some good tucker is good too.

What’s a Good Snack?

You’re at the local supermarket, the morning before a big few days of hiking. What should you pick up? Dan recommends rice cakes and peanut butter– a bloody good combo if you ask me. 

While fruit is important, it can weigh your pack down, and often has a pretty small shelf life. The sugar is what’s essential with the fruit, so hit up that lolly aisle! Dan also recommends a good energy chew or energy bar. You want to focus on foods that are high in carbs and moderate in protein. 

Scroggin // What’s In It And Why’s It So Damn Good?, photo by Andy Lewis, hand, food, nuts, trail mix, snack

Scrogalicious | Photo by Andy Lewis

After my chat with Dan, I realised there was so much more to this nutrition thing than I thought. You can totally get away with your Continental soups and muesli bars on a multi-day hike, but if you’re planning to embark on a mammoth trip, reach out to a professional and get that diet sorted.