For many Australians, the Kokoda trail in Papua New Guinea is best known as the location of one of our most significant and bloodiest campaigns during World War II. Increasingly, more Australians seek a better understanding of what these young war heroes experienced by tracing their footsteps, walking the very arduous and personally demanding trek.
For those who are considering walking ‘the trail’, using a reputable tour operator will give you the benefit of accessing guides with valuable experience, as well as knowledge of the historical and local village contexts.
The Kokoda trail is 96km in length and usually takes between 9 – 10 days to walk (averaging 4 -7 hours per day). The recommended time to do the trek is between April and November, avoiding the very hot wet season over summer.
It is vital to prepare nutritionally, particularly given the demands on your body, the remoteness of the location and the high degree of team work required to complete the trek. While you are training for the trek, try to improve your diet and become familiar with these dietary strategies.
1. Carbohydrate, carbohydrate, carbohydrate!
Carbohydrates should be your fuel of choice as it is readily broken down into glucose, which is absorbed quickly and utilised efficiently. Your carbohydrate needs during endurance events of greater than 90 minutes of moderate to high intensity exercise, are 6-10g per kilo of body weight. If you are 70kg, this amounts to 420-700g carbohydrate..
2. Carbohydrate loading
Carbohydrate loading allows the muscle glycogen levels to increase to a level that has been shown to improve endurance exercise, and allow athletes to exercise for longer. This same strategy can be applied to endurance hiking. To assist with maximising your muscle glycogen level before you start the Kokoda trail, it is recommended to have 1 to 4 days of high carbohydrate intakes (7-12g/kg).
Find out how many meals your tour operators provide. Some provide two to three meals per day and meals are prepared for you ahead of your arrival at the night stopover. Others may provide breakfast and dinner, and you will be required to carry snacks and lunch that are light weight, and easy to prepare.
If you have to provide your own lunch, some good options include: crackers (wholegrain) or flat bread topped with flavoured tuna (in a sachet), portions of spreads like peanut butter/jam, small cans of corn/ legumes (125g).
4. Fill your pack with energy
While you are trekking, you will need readily absorbed carbohydrates that are low in fat and fibre. These will restore and maintain your muscle glycogen stores. Have snacks in your day pack like crackers, dried fruit, muesli bars, sports bars and sports energy gels. You may also have the chance to purchase fruit from local villagers along the trek.
5. Hydration, humidity and hyponatremia
Exercising in hot and humid weather can lead to dehydration and hyponatremia which is dangerously low salt levels in your blood. In humidity, the body loses heat by sweating, but instead of being evaporated, which is a mechanism to prevent the body from overheating, the sweat stays on the skin. Without evaporation, the body’s core temperature can rise leading to serious medical emergencies such as heat stroke or hyperthermia. Symptoms including fatigue, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea and muscle cramps. Each kilo of weight loss accounts for one litre of fluid loss. During your training, you can estimate your fluid losses by weighing yourself before and after an exercise session.
Avoid drinking excessive amounts of fluid. Sports drinks (Gatorade™, Powerade™) have appropriate concentrations of electrolytes and carbohydrates, to promote fluid balance, prevent injury and improve performance. Drink 500ml of a fluid containing carbohydrate and sodium 1-2 hours before the hike each day. Maintain fluid intake by having small amounts every 20 minutes while hiking.
6. Water purification
Water bottles/bladders can be refilled at the villages along the way however, it is advisable to take purification tablets containing iodine to kill most microbes in water that can cause disease.
Dr Jane Read is a Sydney-based GP Registrar who also holds a Masters Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Deakin University in Melbourne. In addition to working in general practice, Jane also runs her own nutrition consultancy business providing nutrition and dietetic services at the Northern Cancer Institute in St Leonards. She has also been a nutrition consultant to various corporate clients.
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