How sodium in your hiking food is really impacting your health and performance.
Now that it’s officially summer in many parts of the world, lots of us are venturing outside for new adventures or to escape the sweaty, smelly gym. And I don’t know about you, but I know that I tend to vastly overestimate my outdoor abilities. I’ll be slowly trudging my way up the trail, weighed down by all the meals and snacks (looking at you, energy bars) that I thought could pass for backpacking food--don’t even get me started on water!
When times get tough or we’re pushed to the max, we turn to food for both comfort and to push us forward. I return home after a long run feeling ravenous and end up throwing instant rice in the microwave. I’ve tried surviving on granola bars or staying hydrated by chugging water, but the result is always the same! I’m left feeling bloated, weighed down, and unsatisfied. I had heard of freeze-dried meals, but I didn’t think they were right for what I needed--and I was nervous about the sodium.
I started experimenting with dehydrated and freeze-dried meals, even though I was skeptical, and have loved them! The good ones can be expensive, but I really only wanted ones that had whole food ingredients. When I feel like they have been too bland and unsatisfying after a long day on the trail, like many backpackers and endurance athletes, I’ll add peanut butter, olive oil, ghee, or even powdered milk for creamier, richer dishes. All you need is to boil some water, wait, and enjoy. It’s great for when you’re exhausted and just need to get in the shower and then on the couch.
How does sodium impact your body?
Like I said, I was nervous about high sodium content when I started trying freeze-dried meals. It seemed so high! So, I did some research, and here’s what I found.
Sodium is an example of an electrolyte, a mineral that your body needs lots of to do things like control muscle contractions or transmit nerve impulses. Most sodium is located in your blood and in the fluid around cells. Sodium also helps to keep your body’s fluids in normal balance.
Also, fun fact I found while researching, sodium actually carries an electric charge when dissolved in body fluids (such as blood). Our bodies are so cool.
You shouldn’t try to pre-load with salt before working out! You’re more than likely already consuming more than enough sodium for your average daily life, according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Electrolytes and Exercise
Electrolytes’ best-known use is as a way to replenish your body during intense exercise. Salt is a good idea to carry and take with you during an endurance workout. There’s even pills or candies that fit perfectly in a backpack or fanny pack (I’m partial to the fanny pack, myself.)
When you sweat, you’re losing both fluids and salt. And the hotter you are, the more you sweat just to balance your body temperature. In a dry climate like the one here in Colorado, your sweat evaporates almost immediately! If you’re sweating more than usual, it could deplete your sodium supply and affect your performance by causing lightheadedness, a slower pace during runs, or muscle cramps.
As we drink water and it goes to our stomachs, it gets absorbed into the intestines. Electrolytes allow our bodies to properly absorb, retain, and distribute the water throughout our cells.
I want to make a note and draw your attention to the words “intense” and “endurance”. If you are taking the dog for a walk or attending a beginners yoga class, you don’t need to worry about sodium so much. In fact, you should avoid salt before a typical, moderate workout of about 30 minutes.
After you hit the trail for the day or the week, go for a long run, or take an intense bike-ride, these are the times you need to prioritize sodium intake. That way, your body can properly absorb water and nutrients so that you can recover efficiently.
How do I know if my sodium levels are too high or too low?
Your brain has a particular sensitivity to sodium level changes. If the level becomes too low, lethargy and confusion are the first symptoms many will experience. If the levels worsen, muscle twitching and seizures may occur. Older people are more likely to experience severe symptoms in this scenario.
If your sodium level becomes too high (called hypernatremia), you will feel extraordinarily thirsty. Brain dysfunction will also cause lethargy and confusion. Severe hypernatremia can lead to muscle twitching or seizures.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal blood sodium level is between 135 and 145 milliequivalents per liter.
Why do you need to eat enough sodium before a backpacking trip?
Many of the symptoms of low blood sodium (also known as hyponatremia) can be confused with altitude sickness. With a salt imbalance, a person can become confused, stumble around, or have seizures.
In general, to avoid low sodium levels you should keep in mind these principles:
- Moderately increase your salt intake during and after workouts and hikes
- Consume something with salt in addition to water (like trail mix or a freeze dried meal!)
- And if you start experiencing symptoms of low sodium, go down in elevation as soon as possible
Don’t forget about potassium!
Potassium is another type of electrolyte, that works in tandem with sodium to balance the fluids in your body. Most potassium is stored inside your body’s cells, while sodium is stored outside. The transfer of these minerals into and out of cells--otherwise known as the “sodium-potassium pump” makes between 20 and 40% of an adult’s resting energy expenditure. They are a match made in heaven.
Potassium is found in so many types of food that you usually won’t have to worry about experiencing low levels. Other than the incredibly well-known banana, fresh fruit like oranges, cantaloupe, honeydew, apricots, and grapefruit are all great sources of potassium. Even some dried fruits (prunes, raisins, and dates) are all full of potassium and great to bring on the trail.
A quick note about sodium and eating Paleo on the trail
While sodium is considered very beneficial on the trail, some people need to be more careful. Diets that have emphasized the health benefits of lower sodium levels (notably, lower blood pressure) should focus on eating whole foods on the trail, like fresh fruits and vegetables. The Paleo diet has been known to be a good solution for people living with high blood pressure. Paleo meals are a good option, but be sure to read the nutrition label and find meals that have sodium levels that are recommended by your doctor.
Paleo, without directly limiting the consumption of salt, gets at the root causes of what lowers blood pressure. Humans are physiologically inclined to eat a certain level of salt, and salt has been a popular way to preserve food for generations. As long as you balance our salt intake with potassium, you should be just fine.
Sodium and Wild Zora’s Paleo Meals to Go
Wild Zora’s Paleo Meals to Go have been a go-to. On an easy morning hike, I’ll usually eat half of a breakfast meal at the end. On a day-long hike, I’ll devour an entire savory meal no problem. Usually with a little bit of ghee in it to add some fat. The breakfast meals have significantly less sodium than the savory meals; ranging between 140mg sodium in the Cliffside Coconut Berry and Palisade Pineapple Mango meals to 760mg of sodium in the Mountain Beef Stew.
But, with this sodium comes a huge dose of potassium! The savory meals range between 30 and 40% of your daily recommended potassium value, and the breakfast meals even have between 15 and 20%. Whether you’re Paleo or just looking for something that’s fast, freeze-dried backpacking meals like can be right for you. And don’t be put off by sodium, which is pushing you forward on your next adventure.