Hunting Isn't cheap. Period.
Sure, sure, you could get by with grandpa’s rifle, a full tank of gas, and a $30.00 tag in the state you call home. But, the costs add up when you factor in the acquisition of gear and the fact that a single tank of gas turns plural and involves multiple trips to your honey hole before a tag is ever filled.
Another expense a lot of backcountry hunters forget to account for is food.
“Should I buy those pre-packaged meals at $13.00 apiece? Should I buy bars? I know a guy who ran marathons and swore by those (insert popular “sports” product). Maybe I should get some of those!”
While researching for this article, I did a mock cost-analysis of what a lot of guys I’ve worked with tell me they’ve taken on past trips into the backcountry; a list full of “backcountry approved” nutrition products. The cost of one day on the mountain was about $30.00. The menu included a pre-packaged oatmeal from a popular “outdoor brand”, a packaged dinner, snacks, bars, and fancy single-serve “electrolyte/amino acid replacement” powders offered by a separate popular outdoor supplement company.
Even if you do only one weeklong backpack hunt per year, you’re looking at over $200 for that single hunt.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that most of these products aren’t tailored towards what matters in nutrition. Behind their fancy packaging, these foods are a conglomeration of ingredients that lead to less-than-ideal targets in the world of performance nutrition on the mountain.
What Matters in Nutrition & Why
There are two main "buckets" of knowledge to consider. One bucket contains FOUR major numbers to know, and the other bucket contains THREE things that have dramatic effects on digestion.
First Bucket — The 4 Numbers to Know
Calories, carbohydrates, fats, and protein. That’s it. The quantity and balance of these four things (collectively called "macronutrients") can mean the difference between great or mediocre performance on the mountain.
I meet a lot of guys who are solely focused on calories, but calories only matter when they’re from the right source of food. Calculating total calories without considering the type of calories needed to properly fuel your activity would be akin to having your gas light come on 50 miles deep on a forest service road. And although you have a great supply of diesel fuel in the bed of your truck, your engine runs on gasoline. You've got plenty of fuel, but not the type of fuel needed to keep your engine running and to get you to your destination.
The beautiful part about nutrition is your body only cares about these four numbers, not where they come from. It has no idea if you paid $8.95 for that bar from the natural grocery or made it at home with ingredients from Walmart. In fact, (brace yourself) it doesn’t even know if it’s organic or not. Your body just recognizes that there is fuel (calories) and what type of fuel (carbohydrates, fats, and protein) that is available to be used.
Second Bucket — The 3 Determinants of Digestion
Fat. Fiber. Protein.
This is typically the second pitfall in a hunter’s plan. They want to take AS MUCH fat and AS MUCH protein on the mountain as humanly possible. The rationalization here is “if it works at home, it has to work on the mountain; right?”
What’s more, is they want these sources to admirably be from “natural” sources or (insert popular adjectives that conjure ideas that our ancestors once ate it) sources. These are typically higher in fiber; a nutrient known to be good for overall health, but wreak havoc in high altitude environments and/or during high-output activities.
This combination of foods high in fat, fiber, and protein slows digestion in the stomach and controls the mechanism responsible for opening the “door” between the stomach and small intestines. This means food will sit in the stomach longer. The fiber and undigested carbohydrate then gets fed on by gut bacteria. This process is called fermentation; yes, the same process that happens with beer production and bread making.
If a gurgling gut wasn't enough, there’s more! When hiking, the body prioritizes blood supply to the place it’s needed most — your legs. When the body's limited blood supply is giving your legs priority, it pulls from less important places and functions of the body, such as digestion in the stomach.
This combination of limited blood supply to the stomach and nutrients known to stay in the belly longer results in much of the indigestion men and women experience in the mountains and on endurance events like ultras, ski tours, and the like. (Side note: these are compounded even more when at high altitude where less oxygen is available for digestion, athletic pushes, etc.).
With this information in mind, I’m guessing you know where this is going. Nearly every pre-packaged “sports food” nutrient label contains a combination of ingredients that end up being high in fat, protein, and fiber. It’s no wonder so many folks have trouble “processing” food on the mountain.
5 Everyday "Performance" Foods On The Cheap
Before we dive into the specific foods, let's establish some basic rules you can use when creating your next meal plan for the mountain…
- Think moderate, not high in protein. Protein is not an energy source. It’s designed for growth and repair. Set it up as such. The goal isn’t to get swole on the mountain, so stop trying to tote 200 grams of protein into the backcountry. You simply don’t need it. Moderate protein for recover is sufficient.
- Create a combination of slow and fast-digesting carbohydrates. An unpopular, but factual truth is that carbohydrate is the predominant fuel source for every cell in the body. This is especially true when exercise intensity (i.e. hiking uphill) increases. There’s value in having a combination of slow and fast-digesting carbs. (More to come on that in a minute.)
- Don’t load up on fiber. Recommendations for fiber and overall health are about 25g per day for females and 35g per day for males. I would suggest targeting slightly under that when in the backcountry or for other high-output activities (Because of the digestion discussion we had above.)
- You don't have to "eat clean". No, your overall health won’t suffer because you didn’t get your vegetable smoothie in for 7 days. I am all for healthy habits and quality nutrition in your everyday life, but there is a difference in what is needed while riding a desk and typing on a computer, compared to hiking a mountain and hauling a pack.
- Keep fat moderate. Yes, I realize fat is lighter fuel. Yes, I realize you get a lot of calories out of fat. Yes, fat can be used as a fuel source. But, calories only matter when they’re from the right sources (see above) and just because fat can be used as fuel doesn’t mean it’s the best source of fuel. We know the complete breakdown of food to usable fuel for muscle contraction happens 3x faster with carbohydrates than it does with fat (Williams, et al.).
Believe it or not, it can be quite easy to ditch the expensive, pre-packaged performance foods and use your own creations to easily (and cheaply!) meet all five of these criteria.
Here are five foods that can be absolute rocket fuel on the mountain. The best part is, you likely have all of the ingredients already in your cupboard.
- PB&J — It doesn’t get any better than this classic. PB&J is the perfect combination of slow-digesting carbs (the bread) and fast-digesting carbs (the jelly). The bread-peanut butter combo will yield a protein intake of about 10-12 grams, which is perfect for a snack on the mountain. Word to the wise: don’t go nuts (pun intended) on the amount of peanut butter. We want to mitigate the aforementioned digestion issues that can be caused by ingesting too much fat.
- Gummy Bears — Guaranteed to taste AND function better than a “goo”, shot-block, or similar. The miracle beyond these colorful little morsels is they’re a combination to TWO fast-digesting carbohydrates. This allows for maximum uptake and restoration of fuel stores after digestion (Google “muscle glycogen” for more reading on the restoration of these stores).
- Tang — Or as one recent client put it after the death hike “high octane fuel!”. That’s right. This stuff is dirt cheap and in just about every gas station in the US. There are a load of powdered drink mixes on the market that range from the ultra-fancy (Tailwind) to stuff your kids get after tee-ball (Gatorade). Tang is in a unique boat in that it has a combination of three types of carbohydrates, zero fiber, and is cheaper than dirt. Tang is the sleeper among performance fuels for the mountain.
- Kids cereal - Good news! It turns out Trix isn’t just for kids anymore! Not only are sugary cereals low in fiber (i.e. easy-to-digest), but they’re also usually fortified with a variety of vitamins and minerals like iron the b-vitamin family. The latter of which has a crucial role in converting food into usable energy. No, don't start pounding these cereals for breakfast before your trip to the office, but they are an ideal snack to fuel high-performance activities.
- Dried and Salted Edamame — Eddie who?! No, no, not Eddie; Ed-A-Mommy. Edamame. They look like small peas and taste like sunflower seeds. I’ll typically take a handful or two to add to a trail mix I make. The unique thing about soy protein, which is found in edamame, is that it’s one of the very few complete sources of protein that doesn't need to be refrigerated. Because of this, it’s an excellent option to throw in your pack.
Put A Plan Together
Nutrition can be a confusing topic and some nitty-gritty details can make a big difference, but with the knowledge, rules, and examples we discussed in this article, you can create the foundation of a good backcountry nutrition plan.
You need not rely on expensive foods to fuel your endeavor. A little planning can not only improve the way you feel on a hunt, but can also save you some cash. Cash that can be converted to more tags and time on the mountain. And, at the end of the day; isn’t that what we’re all after?
Interested in learning more about nutrition and creating a personal plan tailored to your specific needs? Download the FREE Backcountry Food Guide or connect with Kyle for personal consultation at Valley to Peak Nutrition.
The author, Kyle Kamp, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. In addition to working with clinical patients in the healthcare system, Kyle started Valley to Peak Nutrition to create resources and offers one-on-one consultation for everyday men and women preparing for optimal performance in the outdoors by getting leaner and improving performance through the removal of confusing nutrition myths and teaching them to include everyday foods they love.