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FOOD - BACKPACKING NUTRITION INFORMATION

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WRITTEN EXAMS
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Information on this page comes to us from the Backcountry Beacon website.

The most important point to take away from on-trail nutrition is this: eat! Calories fuel everything your body does, including heat production. Packing an energy bar on a day hike could make the difference between being cold and developing hypothermia if you’re caught in the dark. Here are some basic guidelines to staying energized on the trail.

Principle # 1: Super-Size your caloric intake.

Total Weight (Body + Pack)Calories Used in 8 hours
1253180
1503815
1754450
2005085
2255720
2506355
2756990
3007625

If you’re just out for a mellow walk in the woods, your calorie needs won’t be much more than normal. However, hikers, climbers, and others traveling with packs over difficult terrain will need at least 500-1,000 more calories than they normally would. A 150-pound person carrying a 50-pound pack for eight hours burns around 5,100 calories (see chart at right). Of course, this depends on body type, how long you’ve been backpacking, the temperature, and how fast you’re hiking, but you get the idea. Eat! Under-eating for a few days won’t kill you, but it robs you of energy twice. Not only does your body not have enough fuel, but it breaks down your muscle tissue, which makes you feel even weaker.

Principle # 2: Fat = Good.

Strive for around a 50% carbohydrate, 35% fat, and 15% protein diet. This is the ratio recommended by nutritionist and backpacker Brenda L. Braaten. Despite what Dr. Atkins or Jenny Craig might claim, the woods are no place for a high-protein-and-low-carb or high-carb-and-low-fat diet. During endurance activities, your main sources of fuel are fat and carbohydrates. Fat consumption spares your stores of glycogen (see below). It also takes longer for your body to metabolize, so you feel fuller and more satisfied.

Fats provide about 9 calories per gram, compared to around 4 calories per gram for carbs and protein. That’s twice the energy for the same weight! If you’re going ultralight, you’ll want to bump the ratio up to 45% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 15% protein. Here’s your opportunity to eat peanut butter straight from the squeeze tube and load everything down with cheese and butter.

A quick note on protein: it’s important, but not as important as fats and carbohydrates. If you’re a meat eater, you’ll probably be eating less protein than you normally would on the trail, and that’s OK. For vegetarians and vegans, getting 15% might be a little harder. Try incorporating lots of seeds, nuts, beans, or dairy into your meals.

Principle # 3: Snack to avoid the bonk

Ever been hiking, climbing, or skiing and hit the wall? Your legs feel like lead, and your pack feels 15 pounds heavier. It’s because your muscles ran out of glycogen (the preferred fuel for muscles). To preserve your glycogen stores, eat enough carbohydrates at meals, avoid sugary snacks before exercise, and try to eat a small carbohydrate-rich snack every time you stop. The bottom line–snack often.

For snacks or breakfast, try Probars. These little bars pack a caloric and nutritional punch, and they’re totally vegan. The Super Food Slam is loaded with 350 calories, 46g of carbohydrates, 17g of fat, and 9g of protein a 64/23/13 ratio. Seventy percent of the ingredients are raw, which provides plenty of fiber (key in the backcountry). In an informal Backcountry.com taste test, the Super Food Slam was the favorite, followed closely by Whole Berry Blend (which has real chunks of berry in it), and Cran-Lemon Twister.

Principle # 4: Dehydrate your food.

Unless you’re a masochist who likes to carry a needlessly heavy pack, carry mostly dehydrated food. If there is a water source available each day, there’s no reason to pack around the weight of the water contained in your food. Pack between 1.5 to 2 pounds of dry food per day per person for an average backpacking trip and 2 to 3 pounds for a more strenuous backpacking or climbing trip.

One of the best tools for any backpacker is a food dehydrator. Check out Lipsmackin’ Vegetarian Backpackin’ for tons of vegetarian recipes you can make, dehydrate, and package yourself. If you’re not feeling up to the challenge of making and drying your own backpacking food, there’s pre-packaged commercial camp food. My favorite meals are from Mary Janes Farm. The food is all vegetarian, organic, and comes in a recyclable, burnable package that you can cook most of the meals in. For dinner, check out the northwest garden couscous and garlic pesto frybread. Together, this meal would contain 470 calories of 77% carbohydrates (high), 16% protein (right on) and 7.6% fat (too low). You’d want to finish off the meal with a spoonful of peanut butter, some nuts, or another high-fat food to bump up the fat percentage.

FoodCalories per ounceCarbs %Fat %Protein %
Olive oil24001000
Mixed nuts175177310
Pringles17055414
Peanut butter166137215
Ramen noodles12458348
Cheese11027226
Oats100701515
Nonfat dry milk9853344
Summer sausage9537819
Bagels7479516
Fresh apple1595329
Notice how high-fat foods are the most caloric dense. Foods with a high moisture content (cheese, fruit, bagels) have a poor cal/oz ratio. Data from http://www.nutritiondata.com.

Principle # 5: Supplement your vitamin intake.

Nutrients are lost in the process of dehydrating or freeze-drying. This is bad news for backpackers. The vitamins you really want in your diet are C and E. They are potent antioxidants and will help combat cell damage that’s incurred from food oxidation and strenuous activity. Most long-distance hikers take a daily multivitamin to supplement their diets. Alternatively, you can also buy a powdered supplement like Greens Plus at your local supermarket or health food store. Add a pinch to your dehydrated meals. Don’t worry; the stuff isn’t as gross as it looks.

Pack raw food. Again, Probars offer a convenient solution. They’re packed with antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids to provide some of the nutrition not commonly found in other trail cuisine. Dried fruit is a good option, yet the nutritional and psychological value of packing some whole fruit is worth the weight penalty (a crisp apple after a couple days of eating rehydrated food is a real treat). Go for tougher fruits like apples over softer fruits like bananas, or you’ll have a nice banana puree at the bottom of your pack when you stop in camp.

Want to learn more about trail nutrition? Looking for recipes?

If you remember nothing else, remember this–eat! Even during a day hike when you think nothing can possibly happen, take extra food. If you want some more tips on nutrition or a few recipes, check out these resources for more information:

Thru-Hiker: Nutrition section and the Pack Light, Eat Right articles

The NetWoods Virtual Campsite Outdoor Cooking and Recipes Page

GORP Trail Side Cookbook

Backpacker Magazine website

FOR LIKE MINDED PATRIOTS WHO WANT TO SURVIVE ANY AND ALL SITUATIONS THAT THEY MAY FACE.