September 14, 2023
Few things impact your performance and how you feel on a backcountry hunt as your nutrition. Most hunters I talk to and interact with in online forums—everyone from noobs to die-hards—seem to think there is one universally standard meal plan for the backcountry: Plain oatmeal packets for breakfast, granola bars and gas station snacks for lunch and a freeze-dried salt bomb in a bag for dinner. Does such a grub regimen get it done? Technically, yes. You’ll survive. But, it’s nowhere near optimal nutrition for fueling those days of high physical output and overnight recovery.
So, what does your body really want and need? The short answer is adequate calories and proper macronutrients. Start by determining what your individual caloric needs are. Calories equal energy. Each person’s body consumes a varying daily number of calories depending on his or her body size, composition, physical output and myriad individual metabolic factors like gender and age. To see what your daily maintenance needs are, search for an online “calorie calculator” and enter your stats. I suggest using the highest physical activity setting the model allows. It’s a great baseline for how much food, in terms of calories, you should plan to bring on your hunt. For me—41 years old, male, 6 feet tall, 180 pounds— it’s about 3,300 calories per day.
CALORIES PER OUNCE
Once you have a daily calorie target, you can back into fulfilling your vittles requirements. It is widely accepted among backpackers and mountaineers to pack only foods that meet a minimum calorie-to-weight benchmark of 100 calories per ounce. I’ve found you can easily improve on this standard with carbohydrates and fat, but it’s more difficult to achieve the target calorie-to-weight ratio with protein.
Overall, it is good to adhere to the 100-calorie-per-ounce rule as applied to the average of all of your food combined. For me, at an output 3,300 calories per day, my target is 33 ounces of food. However, I can usually get that down to 26 to 28 ounces with more scrupulous choices. My daily exertion is high, generally covering between 8 to 12 miles if I’m running and gunning for elk or making long treks above timberline to peer into multiple basins in search of bucks. Adjust for your hunting style, terrain type and mileage accordingly. In my experience, you can run on a hefty calorie deficit for a day or two and feel fine, but after that it starts to significantly impact performance.
MACRONUTRIENTS AND TIMING
There are three main macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat and protein. During periods of intense exercise, your body burns glucose in the bloodstream and stored glycogen in muscle tissue. Of the three macros, carbohydrates are most easily converted to glucose and glycogen by the body.
Generally, most Western hunters’ greatest periods of physical exertion are in the mornings and afternoons. That’s hiking to glassing points, traversing high ridgelines to check basins, covering country dogging elk or trying to solicit a bugle. Therefore, for breakfast and early afternoons (post mid-day snooze), I’m mostly consuming carbohydrates as I prepare to work.
Fat is the second easiest macro for your body to convert into energy, it makes you feel full and it has the highest calorie-to-weight ratio of the macros. I consume fats primarily in the form of nuts, nut butters, seeds and oils in conjunction with most snacks and meals throughout the day.
Protein, generally the heaviest macronutrient by volume, is mostly reserved for dinner time. Protein synthesis is essential for muscle recovery and repair. The most beneficial time for that is while you sleep. Instead of burning protein inefficiently for fuel during the day, let it “soak in” overnight.
DAILY MEAL PLAN
For breakfast, make your own super oatmeal, pre-portioned per day into zip-top snack bags. Add dried fruit, nuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, coconut flakes, 1 or 2 powdered eggs and a tablespoon or two of oil (at camp). One of the biggest game-changers for me has been the utilization of oils—olive, avocado, walnut and almond to be specific. Oils’ calorie-to-weight ratios are best in class; try incorporating them into most of your meals. Nalgene makes small containers conducive to oil transport, or you can find single-serving packets, like Marconi olive oil, at natural grocery stores or online. Take an electrolyte drink mix (like those by Skratch Labs or Hammer Nutrition), powdered BCAA supplement and a multi-vitamin to top it off before heading out for the day.
For midday trail food, try making your own fruit leathers. Ryan Lampers’ “Mountain Candy” recipe is hard to beat. Homemade wild game jerky, nut butter packets, calorie-dense energy bars, Packaroons, endurance gels and honey packets are all excellent choices. Leave the candy, Cheetos and Slim Jims on the shelf.
For dinner, freeze-dried meals like those made by Heather’s Choice, Outdoor Herbivore, Good-to-Go and others are good choices. With a fraction of the salt and higher quality ingredients than other offerings, you’ll feel better in the long run. Don’t forget to add a couple tablespoons of oil. Some of my favorite protein additions to freeze-dried dinners are Patagonia Provisions’ smoked salmon filet pouches, tuna packets, protein bars and a powdered BCAA supplement. It really provides an overnight boost in recovery I can feel.
One final nugget of wisdom: Test all of your food before you go. If you plan to eat freeze-dried meals with 2,000 mg of sodium minutes before going to bed on your hunts, try that at home a few times to see how your body responds. You’ll thank yourself on the mountain.