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The Definitive Guide to Backpacking Nutrition

backpacking nutrition

backpacking nutrition

As I mentioned in my first post, this blog is for those who leave home in search of adventure. A large chunk of the “adventure” category includes those who desire to escape the urban jungle for peace and quiet in the great outdoors.

I absolutely love to backpack. Give me a lightweight pack, throw in a warm sleeping bag, small tarp, and a few pounds of food, and I’m ready to test my mettle against the unknown variables of Mother Nature. I’ve done weekend trips through Kentucky, a week long excursion in the Boundary Waters, and a week long trip through the Adirondacks. Every time I’ve “escaped”, it’s been difficult to come back.

But I digress. As much as I’d love to talk about all my adventures, it’s much more practical to give some solid advice that YOU all can use immediately.

So without further ado, I present my Definitive Guide to Backpacking Nutrition:

Although backpackers maintain a healthy physique for many reasons, they often miss the boat when it comes to nutrition.

For example, when I googled “Backpacking Nutrition”, the first link that came up suggested nutrient density had no effect on energy levels, a surprising assertion indeed. The second link? A similar perspective: focus on consuming whole grain oats, pasta, pretzels, and quinoa. Nothing at all about Real Food that’s so important to a healthy lifestyle.

With information like this, it’s no wonder why the typical backpacking diet consists of processed carbs (think pasta, crackers, chips), more processed carbs (cereal, oatmeal, granola bars), and just a few Real Food choices (beef jerky, nuts, dried fruit).

This diet is seriously lacking in a few important areas:

  • Little to no fat
  • Deficient in six different vitamin and mineral areas (Vitamin A, C, K – calcium, selenium and potassium)
  • Heavy and burdensome due to the focus on carbs (carbs provide 4 cals per gram, while fat provides 9)

When I backpack, nutrient dense foods are a must. Fulfilling my body’s nutritional needs – both macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) – provides a consistent source of energy while enabling my body to recover for the next day’s hike.

Granted, it’ll be tough to bring grass-fed beef liver, raw whole milk, and a big ass salad on the trail, but not to worry. The following recommendations are easy to prepare, readily available either through your local grocer or Amazon.com, and most importantly, filled with nutrients.

Fats/Protein

  • Hard Boiled Eggs – Hard-boil a few eggs before taking off, and make sure to consume them within the first few days.
  • Beef Jerky – Homemade jerky is the best (and easy to do with a dehydrator) but store-bought will suffice. Make sure there’s no yucky additives in the jerky. Costco has an excellent jerky brand called Pacific Gold that I highly recommend.
  • Trail Mix – A great source of healthy fat, but be sure not to rely too heavily on nuts (high in omega-6, can cause constipation if too many are eaten). A pound or so of nuts, with some dried fruit and dark chocolate thrown in, will be enough for a 3-4 day hike.
  • Dark Chocolate – Throw in a couple bars of 70% and above dark chocolate. Chocolate is always a wonderful treat to end a day – and at 70% and above, healthy to boot.
  • Canned Fish – Think wild salmon, tuna, and sardines. Excellent source of omega-3 fats and high-quality protein.
  • Pemmican – Dry some meat, render some tallow and mix together for a top-notch nutrient dense food
  • Nut Butters – Use a food processor to grind up any nut you want for delicious nut butters
  • Hard Cheese – Best to bring when the temperatures are a little cooler

Carbs

  • Dehydrated fruits and vegetables – think apples, mangoes, sweet potato chips, zucchini and eggplant
  • Dates – A lightweight, starchy fruit that provides 21g of carbs per ounce
  • Dehydrated Potatoes – Cook up some potatoes, dry ‘em out and throw ‘em in the food processor. Reconstitute with hot water once on the trail.
  • Banana Chips – Banana chips can be found at any local grocer – a lightweight and portable source of both carbs and fats

If you want to be extremely detailed in what specific foods to pack, follow the macronutrient breakdown that you feel ideal on, and add 5% to fat, while subtracting 5% from protein.

Why?

Fat has 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates have only 4. On a 3-4 day backpacking trip, you’ll need as much energy as possible. The more fat you bring, the lighter your pack will be. If you have yet to establish an ideal macronutrient ratio, experiment for a couple weeks before backpacking to do so.

To help you get a clear picture of what to pack, I’ll throw in an example concerning my own macronutrient need: I feel ideal on a breakdown of 60%F/20%P/20%C. So, for backpacking, I’d do my best to bring foods with a ratio 65%F/15%P/20%C.

Again, as a personal aside, I’m not someone who needs to lose excess weight. If you backpack every now and then to drop a few pounds, plan to hike at a significant caloric deficit. I try to bring as much food as possible so I can maintain my lean muscle mass.

Assuming I burn 3500 calories per day from hiking, and another 1000 per day due to metabolism, packing around 4000 calories of food for each day is ideal. So, if I stick to my 65F/15P/20C ratio, that’s approximately 289 grams of fat, 150 grams of protein, and 200 grams of carbs. Add in 60g of excess water weight, and you’ll carry around 1.5 pounds of food per day. And since most of you won’t be consuming 4000 cals, you’ll be carrying even less than that!

So, how do I calculate the amount of food to pack? By tracking one or two days worth of backpacking food using cronometer.com.

As a note, meal plans such as this are ideal for trips shorter than a week. If you plan to thru-hike an extensive network of trails, you may have to deviate from a Real Food plan.

Readers: Any other suggestions for types of food to bring on the trail? What are your favorite Real Food trail snacks? Please share!

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