Hunting from a backcountry camp opens up a world of advantages, but it also requires more logistics than a day hunt. Backcountry nutrition is at the top of the list, and it’s an issue we get a ton of questions about. How do you pack and eat enough food to properly fuel yourself so you don’t crash on the mountain and ruin a dream hunt, or worse, put your life at risk?
It’s a classic backcountry conundrum: do you err on the side of overpacking to ensure you have all the nutrition you need, or do you go minimalist and save energy by not having to schlep a 150-pound pack into camp?
Our approach has evolved a lot over the years. We’ve tried everything, from bringing the kitchen sink to bare-bones trips that left us skinny and angry by the time we got back to the truck. Solid options in the middle remained elusive. Unsatisfied, we started to dig into the science and found some pretty enlightening information that guided our backcountry nutrition plans.
While there are way more freeze-dried, gel, and powder nutrition options available to us now, at the end of the day, you’re simply going to burn more energy than you’re able to replace on a backcountry hunt. There is no silver bullet, but you can manage that deficit. The good news is, there are five primary considerations to pay attention to: calories, fat, protein, sodium, and hydration.
Above all, it’s critical to maintain a consistent intake of nutrients throughout the day. Don’t try to cram it all in at lunch or dinner.. We like to break our food out into daily rations that give us the nutrition we need for each day. This alleviates any guesswork so you know how much you need to consume per day. Make snacks easily accessible so you can eat on the go, and drink small amounts of water throughout the day.
With that said, here are our five backcountry nutrition priorities. As always, hit us up if you have any questions.
You need to get as many calories as you possibly can when you’re covering long, rugged miles in the mountains. The problem is, hunters typically burn more calories than they’re likely willing to pack on a backcountry hunt. An average 40-year old male will burn around 6,000 calories per day carrying a 50-pound pack in vertical terrain. For a four-night/five-day trip, that’s 30,000 calories you would need to pack. Try shoving 30,000 calories worth of food into your pack with all your other gear and you’ll realize why this may not be a realistic option.
With calories, it’s all about finding what your anticipated caloric burn will be and building a nutrition plan that will give you the performance you need, especially as you burn more calories than you’re able to replace. We built a Backcountry Calorie Calculator to help you estimate your caloric burn for up to an eight-day hunt. By inputting your weight, pack weight, elevation gain, and hiking distance and speed, the calculator helps you anticipate what that burn will be — and what your caloric deficit will be — so you can effectively plan for each day of your hunt.
The primary reason hunters bonk is because they run at a caloric deficit for too many days in a row. This can bring a long-planned hunt to an early end and even put a hunter’s life in danger deep in the backcountry. Planning for each day of your hunt will help to ensure you have the energy you need to stay on point and in pursuit day after day, especially if you get a kill and have to pack out an animal.
Find lightweight, calorie-dense meals and snacks for each day of your trip. Using the calculator, we like to place each day’s nutrition into a ziplock bag so we know exactly what we need to consume each day. Do everything you can to get 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day.
There are more freeze-dried meal options than we can mention here. The important thing is to find real food, calorie-rich meals that you like and then stick with them. We often like to eat our freeze-dried meals at lunch during the downtime between animal activity rather than late at night when we get back to camp after an evening hunt. This allows your body to fully digest a big meal instead of shoving 1,000 calories down your stomach at 9 p.m. before you go to sleep. Another pro tip we love is to throw a ramen noodle packet into your freeze-dried meals when you add hot water. They’re light, cheap, tasty, cook quickly, and add a nice boost of calories and sodium.
For snacks, dark chocolate and macaroons are great calorie-rich options. It’s also hard to beat the Honey Stinger Waffle’s high calorie-to-ounce ratio. Most importantly, keep your daily snacks at your fingertips so you can eat them all day long.
As we said earlier, the most important thing you can do is to plan your food strategically and spread your calories throughout the day. Understand your prey’s patterns, and eat accordingly so you can effectively digest your food and stay in pursuit when opportunities arise.
This one is often overlooked, but fat might be the most important source of nutrition in the backcountry. Fat provides essential fatty acids, which the body cannot produce on its own. Fat is also high in energy and helps the body to absorb vitamins.
Our heart rate slows at altitude, causing our body to burn more fat as an energy source. Your body will thank you for consuming as much fat as you can in the backcountry. Fat is typically a heavier option, but for us, the benefits of healthy fat consumption outweigh the downside of packing a few extra ounces.
Coconut oil is a great fat source, plus it’s lightweight. Bring a container of coconut oil and stir some into your coffee in the morning and even your freeze-dried meals. Mini Babybel Cheese rounds are another great fat source and can be eaten as a snack on the go. Some of us even pack an old school log of hard salami, which provides vital fat and protein. Is it lightweight? No, definitely not. But after eating freeze-dried meals and bars for days on end, sinking your teeth into some salami will make you forget all about the weight.
Protein is absolutely essential for muscle recovery and for maintaining your metabolism during active endeavors. Protein also provides calories, and experts recommend that anywhere between 10 to 35 percent of your calories should come from protein. Once you find your optimal daily caloric intake, make sure at least 10 percent (we aim for 25 percent) is coming from protein.
Freeze-dried meals containing meat are a great way to get a protein boost, but you should also consume other sources of protein throughout the day. Nut butter, mixed nuts, and seeds are all great sources of protein on the go. Those delicious salami logs we mentioned as a fat source are also a replenishing source of great protein. Protein powder is another nice option that can easily be consumed with water.
Most of us don’t need an excuse to eat sodium, so there’s no reason you should deprive yourself of this vital nutrient in the backcountry. Too much sodium is definitely not good, but it’s essential for providing electrolytes and maintaining the body’s proper pH level. Sodium is the primary electrolyte lost when we sweat. You could drink water all day long, but if you don’t consume enough sodium your body won’t be able to maintain its pH. Elevation, hot weather, and long periods of high activity all contribute to a greater loss of electrolytes.
You can easily get sodium in both your meals and snacks. Just make sure that your nutrition plan accounts for a healthy amount of sodium. The American Heart Association recommends eating between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.
There has been a ton of research done around sodium intake for ultramarathon runners, and there are some great products on the market that can give you a nice boost on the go. Many endurance runners now use salt tablets to maintain electrolytes. Salt tabs are lightweight, and they allow you to easily measure how much sodium you’re adding to your diet. In general, try to consume around 500 to 700 milligrams of sodium per liter of water. Remember, you are getting sodium from other food in your daily ration. Don’t overdo it, but if you’re running low on sodium, salt tabs are a perfect option to give you a boost.
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s really easy to avoid drinking water when we’re hunting. This leads us to drink large amounts all at once, which is a recipe for a severe stomach ache. Whether you prefer drinking out of a bladder or a bottle, make sure your water is in a convenient spot so you can sip on it all day long.
We also like to add supplements to our water, which give it some flavor to help encourage us to drink it and can also provide many other great nutrient boosts. Tailwind Nutrition has a ton of great powder concoctions that you can add to your water to replenish calories, electrolytes, and carbohydrates as you hydrate.
Lastly, water will likely be the heaviest thing in your pack. It’s crucial to understand where you will be hunting so you don’t have to pack in more water than you need. You may find an incredible hunting spot that is loaded with game, but if a water source is miles away, you’re going to run into problems camping there. Packing enough water for even just one day is completely unrealistic. Camp near good water sources, and carry a portable water filter like a Katadyn BeFree so you can drink as you cross water sources without having to haul several liters as you hunt.