Wilderness Ranger Andrew Post answers the food question:
I get this question almost every time I tell people what I’ve been up to this summer. It’s an interesting question that I actually put quite a bit of thought into before the season started and experimented with during my first few hitches out. We’ll get to specifics but I want to address a few things first to set some parameters within which we can make decisions. When you have a goal or objective it can clear the path for a streamlined, functional, dynamic environment to move around some ideas. Hang with me and hopefully you’ll learn something. This is an area of academic interest for me so it’ll probably dig a little deeper on the ‘why.’
To put my back country days in context let’s first recognize there are days (though fewer) that I have access to modern conveniences (fridge, oven, percolator, etc). Usually on one of these days of I prep/cook/repackage nearly all of my meals to minimize cleanup and garbage.
My goal for this season was/is to just maintain my current weight and strength levels. There’s a certain “ruggedness” you start to adapt to from hiking in the mountains. I’ve never found that from distance running or even sprinting… the ability to, as Jerry would say, “just keep truckin’.” Even though I haven’t been lifting weights too often, once every 7-10 days has been enough to continue getting stronger.
Hard training and high activity levels require lots of rest/recovery/rebuilding for your body. Obviously, adequate protein should be considered. My target is usually 1g/lb of lean body mass (lbm). This is high and most peer-reviewed literature will agree that not all the protein will be used in resynthesis/turnover of muscle protein. There are other advantages to eating more protein however… mainly satiety via slower gastric emptying (peptide yy)… meaning you stay full longer by slowing digestion while simultaneously increasing nutrient absorption.
The rest of your calories can come from either carbohydrates (starchy, fibrous, and simple) or fats (saturated and unsaturated). Your body has developed pathways for readily turning both of these substrates into usable energy though all have different effects on your blood sugar. Some people will swear by carbohydrates and others will sing the praises of higher fat. I tend to stay away from extremes (having tried them both). We should, by no means, demonize either group. Both have their advantages and limitations. You’ll be missing out on some cool metabolic tricks if you eliminate either. I try to keep them balanced or lean toward higher fat (we’ll get to why later).
By the numbers… that’s how you make it scientific… no guessing… know what’s happening… change one variable… see what happens… that’s how you figure out what your body likes and is telling you. I’ve been doing this for years and found what works for me. There are numerous ways that have been devised to calculate your caloric requirement for the day. Of the ones I’ve found, the regression equation based on lean body mass (lbm) seems to be the most accurate.
How to calculate lean body mass (lbm):
lbm = (total lbs) * (100 – body fat %) / 100
(178) * (100 – 6.5) / 100 = 166 lbs (so 166g of protein/day)
Basal metabolic rate (bmr): how many calories you need sans physical activity… aka laying in bed
bmr = 370 + (21.6 * lbm in kg)
370 + (21.6 * 166 / 2.2) = 2000 kcal
When you add your activity (calories burned) to your bmr you get the total calories (energy) you need to maintain your weight. So if I add in about 10-15 miles of hiking I’ll burn about 1500-2000 kcal extra every day. Carrying 4000 kcal of food every day would be heavy and a chore to eat. So I’ve accepted that I’ll be short of calories out there and can overcompensate on my off days (by eating the same amount… but comparatively resting). I’ve found that I can keep hunger at bay with around 2500-2800 kcal. Being in a caloric deficit means you will lose weight and if you’re using your muscles that weight will more likely come from stored body fat. Even when you’re lean you have TONS of stored energy. I’m at around 6% body fat and that’s still about 12 lbs of fat (42,000 kcal!) so I’m not too worried about withering away.
Now that we know quantities we can start plugging in food sources, timing, and activity type. My goal is to meet my protein requirement each day, not be hungry, and have steady energy (fats) all day… no crashing. I’ve experimented with large meals (1-2 /day) and small meals (up to 8/day). In the back country, the standard 3 meals seems to work well and break up the day naturally. Some people prefer ‘grazing’ all day as they’re moving and then having a larger dinner. I like a strong morning push to move camp and then a long day-hike with a smaller pack.
I tend to forego cooking as much as possible (though I love cooking with access to a kitchen). So out there al lI bring is a Jet Boil. Google it (if you’re interested) but it’s basically a lightweight/compact fuel-canister stove that is awesome at boiling water but good luck finding its ‘simmer.’ There’s also a convenient French press accessory you can find. Gotta have a warm drink on those cool mornings!
So with three meals a day I divide the protein (166 grams) by 3 meals getting just over 50 grams per meal. when I have time in the mornings and haven’t started hiking yet I like something warm to get moving so heating up some oats with a little bit of protein powder (and possibly fresh picked huckleberries) starts the day. All I do is heat the water, turn the stove off and pour in the oat/whey mix that I already pre-measured and bagged up before I left “civilization.” Afterward, I rinse out the Jet Boil, drink the watery swirl and heat up more water for coffee.
While the food settles, I drink my coffee and start packing up camp for a big push until lunch. This is my favorite meal of the day just because it means the heavy pack hike is over and I can set up camp. If the bugs are bad or it’s raining I’ll do that first so I can eat in peace/comfort. Otherwise, I usually eat first and then leisurely set up camp. My lunch is almost exclusively tuna and avocado. It’s so great. I love it — protein, fiber, vitamins; deliciousness. If I’m feeling a bit low or didn’t find many berries while hiking (huckle, black, thimble) then I’ll have a granola bar as well. No cooking, no cleanup… easy and satisfying.
Then I’m off on my day hike for the afternoon – often to go check out a nearby lake, pass, ridge, etc. by the time I get back to camp I’m usually exhausted and quite hungry. Dinner is some sort of protein (fish is my favorite, specifically salmon). This part of the meal I’ve precooked and usually pair it with some sort of starchy carbohydrate (sweet potato, rice, oat/granola) that’s either ready to go or only requires boiling water.
Good ideas: repackaging, freezing 1/2 of the meat (or bringing cured meats for the latter days) and storing it all in one waterproof bag (bear hang!)
On my “civilization” days I usually try to avoid the foods I eat in the back country… not because I don’t like them. I do, that’s why I choose them but instead to add variety. Breakfast is usually eggs (6-8 whole) and vegetables (onions/peppers/greens). Lunch is usually some form of dairy (cottage cheese or whey) and fruit (banana/peach/berries) after I lift/climb. Dinner is some form of protein (fish/shrimp/turkey/chicken) and vegetables (mushroom, zucchini, broccoli). If I get hungry between meals I try to just drink water (because I’m probably just thirsty) or snack on some nuts (almonds/macadamia/cashews).
So there you have it! Find out what your body needs, carry the least you can without being hungry, choose simple foods to prepare and add variety (way more fresh produce) on off days. The source/quality of your foods is extremely important, especially your animal products. Healthy animal = healthy human. Balance this with your budget but when your health is on the line remember how much medical bills cost. Do yourself, your community, and (by extrapolation) the world a favor by voting with your dollars to support local farmers/ranchers. The hierarchy is fresh, frozen, canned. The less the food has been altered from its natural state the better. Don’t deprive yourself. Don’t over-indulge. Always remember to listen to your body. Experiment with fasting. Don’t be scared. Learn what hunger really means to you.