The author in a tank top, carrying a backpack standing with her eyes closed in front of a field with multiple signs indicating different directions.
All photos by the author.
Life

How Hiking 130KM Over Mountains Changed My Relationship With Food

Putting my body under intense physical stress reminded me nothing is more important than listening to what it needs.
Giorgia Cannarella
Bologna, IT
October 10, 2020, 10:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

At the beginning of August, I walked along Italy’s Wool and Silk Road, a 130KM trek that follows the ancient trade route from Bologna to Prato, crossing the Apennines mountains. I love walking. I’m that girl who says, "It's just around the corner, let’s walk," when something’s 3KM away, and my daily step count is always right up there.

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But none of it prepared me for trekking 20–25KM per day for six days, up and down steep slopes with temperatures of up to 35 degrees and an 8KG pack on my shoulders. It’s a gruelling hike, offering enormous satisfaction and beautiful landscapes along the way, and you simply can’t do it without the right sustenance.

A hand holding bread with parma ham and cracklings, wrapped in a tissue. Background: grass.

Crackling is also delicious inside crescenta, a focaccia-like bread, stuffed with prosciutto.

As someone who’s had a difficult relationship with food, embarking on a long hike was an enlightening experience. You’ve likely heard about intuitive eating, the idea that you should tune in with your body and feed it according to what you feel and desire, rather than focus on “diets”, “good foods” and “bad foods”. Walking all day, sometimes my body would tell me to eat enough for seven people. But sometimes, especially in the evenings, it would tell me to stop after a few bites to help with digestion.

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And honestly, I didn’t question it. For example, arriving at the guesthouse where we’d spend our fourth night, we first had to face a 300M ascent under the unforgiving August sun. I felt like I was on the verge of heatstroke. When the host saw me arrive, the first thing she asked was: "Would you like a beer?" That ice-cold Ichnusa (a Sardinian beer) was one of the best I’ve ever had – and I’m dating a brewer who was disappointed by that statement. Personally, I found beer a great post-hike drink. Not only is it refreshing and surprisingly not dehydrating, it replenishes your energy and salts. One beer, that is. Not ten.

The author. Brown bob, black flowery summer dress, sitting at a table with an empty dish with a bit of olive oil and a glass of red whine. She's smiling and looking off camera.

The author drinking a glass of red with her dinner.

Another important hiking food group that gets a bad rep in clean eating circles is carbohydrates. Carbs are the main source of energy for our bodies and are especially important for endurance activities like hiking. Ideally, we’d all be eating a perfectly balanced diet of carbs, fat, protein and five servings of fruit and veg a day. But on the road, more often than not, my meals were bread, butter and jam for breakfast, a giant cheese sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. And that's OK. It wasn’t the time to count calories – which, as we often forget, are just a unit of energy. We need energy, especially while trekking.

Bread with yellow jam on a plate, on top of a map.

First (but not last) carbs of the day.

Another food I re-discovered on this hike was pork rinds. Hear me out. Like beef jerky and other dried meat, they’re a great boost of energy, fat and protein when you most need it. They’re also a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous muesli bar.

Some people will tell you that the most important thing on a long hike is the right type of footwear. That’s not true. For me, it was making sure I gave myself the energy I needed to keep going. And, to be honest, making sure to poo every morning before I set off. When you push your body to its limits, you learn how important it is to treat it with respect. And that’s an important step to feeling good in your own skin.