I hadn’t planned to do any real hiking this weekend — too much work to do — but a last minute meeting change meant I could take most of Saturday off, so I planned a simple training hike up at Idyllwild. The goal was less about fitness than diet; I’ve been bonking or just feeling off on longer hikes, especially at altitude, so I wanted to try some different foods. Ideal outcome would have been a 20+ mile hike finished without feeling like total trash at the end.
The original plan was to sleep for a few hours Friday night, wake at 3am, get to Deer Springs Trailhead just outside of Idyllwild and on the trail by 6am. The hike itself was left someone open. I was going up to San Jacinto and returning by a different path, with options ranging from a simple loop to a sweep that included Tahquitz and a few other smaller peaks — all depending on how I felt, and how hot it got. I’m not a warm-weather guy, and the forecast at Idyllwild was for 80+.
As it turned out, Friday meant another bout of total insomnia — no sleep, and no sleep coming, so I got out of bed at midnight, finished packing, and was on the road. I was parked at the trailhead by 2:45am in total darkness, staring up at a clear night sky full of quietly winking stars. Always a great feeling.
After two brutal energy crashes or “bonks” on a hike in the Sierras from Langley to Whitney two weeks earlier, I really wanted to figure out how to eat more and more efficiently while hiking. This came down to how to force more calories down my throat faster, and more regularly, without forcing me to stop and slowdown too much. The traditional answer to this is Gu Shots or the like, but I really can’t stand them — they’re so artificial and disgusting that it seems to violate the whole premise of being outdoors in the first place. Plus, they taste the way I imagine rotting haggis smells.
Ironically, I did pack several Gu Shots just in case. That said, what follows is an incredibly over-thought bunch of nonsense about packing and food for my notes. No one should read it. Seriously.
After reading up a bit on long-distance hiking, marathons, etc., the general consensus seemed to come down to this. You needed to eat some form of simple carbohydrate at regular intervals, though what that was depended very much on personal preference and what your stomach could tolerate. Given my issues with Gu, I went looking for high-sugar foods that I could squeeze out of a tube at regular intervals. Mmm. Plus, I wanted to keep it simple. So I came up with two squeeze tubes; one with Nutella, one with a combo of peanut-butter-and-jelly that was like a sandwich without the bread.
Why Nutella? It’s simple, it’s delicious, it’s squeezable and it’s packed with carbs — one 2 tablespoon serving has 200 calories, and it doesn’t contain anything I can’t pronounce. Why peanut-butter-and-jelly? Same reasons, but also because it was familiar and had never upset my stomach.
Otherwise, the goal was to take a lot of calories and see what worked. Assuming I did a hike of 24 miles at an average (slowish) speed of 2mph, that meant 12 hours. In order to get 500 Cal/hr (the nominal goal based on what I’d read), I needed to bring at least 6,000 calories — which seems absurd, even now, but I was planning to force it down whether hungry or not, just to see if it vastly improved my energy levels.
This is what I packed: 1 bag of crushed Doritos for salt an carbs (1,680 Cal); 4 Panda all natural licorice sticks (100 Cal each, 400 Cal total); 4 Clif Builder’s bars (270 Cal each, or 1,120 total); 2 natural cheese stick (50 Cal each, 100 total); 2 Justin’s peanut butter packs (200 Cal each, 400 Cal); 1 dark chocolate bar (290); 4 Clif bars (average 235 Cal each, 1,040 Cal total); 3 Clif chocolate gel shots (100 Cal each, 300 total); 1 Bonk Breaker Espresso Chip bar for a bit of caffeine (220); 4 oatmeal cookies (130 Cal each, 520 total); 1 3oz tube of Nutella (600-700); and, one 3oz tube of peanut-butter-and-jelly (500-700). This works out to about 7,300 Calories. Drinks included 1 bottle of Gatorade ‘G’ series (200), and 3 liters of water with an electrolyte mix (240). I also brought along another 300 Cal of additional mix to add to water I got along the way, if any, which meant an additional 740 Cal — or nearly 8,100 Calories.
I never bonked on the hike, but I also never felt great after the summit, and as a result the longer hike options and constant calorie intake never happened. From the food above, I ate 1/3 of the Doritos (560 Cal); 2 licorices (200); 1 Clif Builder bars (270); 1 cheese stick (50); 1 pb back (200); 2 Clif bars (470); 1 gel shot (100); 1 Bonk Bar (220); 100 Cal of Nutella; 250 Cal of PB&J; 2/3 of the Gatorade (140); 2/3 of the water (160) and that was it. This adds up to 2,720 Cal. Over the course of 8.5 hours and 19.6 miles, this works out to 320 Cal/hour and 134 Cal/mile. More precisely, as only the Bonk Bar and gel shot were eaten after the half-way point, along with a little water, I probably had 2,240 Cal on the way up, or 525 Cal / hr. The math is a bit odd, but it means I hit my calorie target on the climb…and I never bonked at any point. Good news in isolation.
But given that I would never have been able to maintain the consumption rate given how I felt after that point, the real problem remains — how to eat enough without feeling nauseated on longer hikes.
Very quickly, I started the hike at 3am, got to the top by 7:15am including a 15 min break for breakfast at sunrise. For a hike of 9.5 miles, this meant a decent pace of 2.4 mph while moving or 2.3 all included, on climb of 5,000+ feet. Not bad, but not awesome. At one point, I was passed by a 30-something father and his young sun, who were jogging on the trail up from Marion Mountain campground. Humbling, but also interesting — there’s no inherent reason why I couldn’t go that fast, so it comes down to training and acclimatization.
I’d never done the climb to San Jacinto in the summer, and the trail was vastly different without snow. Many more switchbacks, of course, but also far dustier and bouldery than I would have thought. The views remained very similar — great, if hazy views of the valley in all directions. Just above the junction with Marion Mountain Trail, there was a campground with dozens of tents along a running stream. Above that, including Little Round Valley, I saw no further evidence of people or campers.
The view at the top is always beautiful but also hazy. Someday I’d like to see it after the rain, when you can see all the way to the coast.
The way down, I immediately felt off. Achy, tired, and my stomach was off again. It was hard to believe it was the altitude, though that’s probably part of it. I basically stopped eating in the hopes that a few hours without food would give my body time to adjust and figure itself out. Going downhill, calorie requirements were lower anyway. Not exactly to plan, but such is life.
I had planned to go down by way of Wellman Divide and then take a set of trails over to Tahquitz, come down the South ridge Trail, then walk or hitch back to the trail head at Deer Springs. But at the junction above Strawberry Cienaga, I wasn’t feeling it — I just headed back toward the car, skipping even the spur to Suicide Rock.
I was glad I did. After about 9:30am and below 9,000 feet, it got hot and hot fast. By the time I got to the car it was just below 90 degrees. Way too hot for an enjoyable hike. On the way down, I passed several groups of hikers — including one group of Asian men and one group of Boy Scouts. All were strangely over-packed for camping, overdressed for hiking, and looked miserable. Way too hot to carry all that stuff uphill.
The hike ended up being a simple lollipop. From Deer Springs at 5,620′, I followed the Deer Springs Trail to the junction to Suicide Rock at 6,900′ and then to Strawberry Junction at 8,040′ where the Deer Springs Trail technically ends. From there, I turned left on the PCT and headed toward the Marion Mountain Trail junction at 8,640′ and followed the usual path from there up to Mount San Jacinto. On the way down, I simply finished the loop part of the lollipop around Marion Mountain via Wellman Divide. The result is 9.5 miles up, 10.1 miles down, for the 19.6 total.
All the pictures from this hike are available on the Mount San Jacinto page. Still need to figure out the diet thing. Also, just as a reminder to myself, I really, really don’t like hiking in the heat. At all. 😉