Backcountry basics: Food

Backcountry basics: Are you eating enough?

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When heading into the backcountry, your food situation is one of the most critical things to consider. What to bring, how much to bring, and how to keep it from attracting bears and other critters into your camp are all vital.

How much food do I need?

Bringing an adequate supply of food on any expedition is crucial for your performance and overall enjoyment. Going hungry is one of the surest ways to have a miserable time in the wilderness, but it can also lead to an unsuccessful hunt. Carrying a heavy pack for miles up and down a mountain range burns a massive amount of calories—far more than most people realize. If you don’t replace those calories, your performance will suffer, and you might simply be unable to perform when the moment of truth arrives.

So how do you know how many calories you’ll need for your trip? The U.S. Army developed an equation to help estimate caloric needs under load: the Pandolf Equation. It takes into account your weight, the weight of your gear, hiking speed, terrain slope, and terrain surface to estimate your energy needs. Outside Magazine has a great article explaining the Pandolf equation that includes a calculator for estimating your caloric needs at the end. (The calculator asks for the slope in percent. Calculate this by dividing the elevation gain of your hike in feet by the distance you’ll travel in feet.)

Let’s use a day from my elk hunting trip last fall as an example to illustrate just how many calories backcountry hunting can burn. I weigh 240 lbs. and my pack and all my gear came in at 70 lbs. On this particular day I had a grueling climb of 3,000 vertical feet over a five-mile hike—an 11.3 percent slope. When I put all of that information into the calculator, it tells me that I burned 645 calories per hour, or 430 calories per mile. This means that, in the just under 3.5 hours I was hiking, I burned 2,150 calories. After including the base metabolic rate for someone my size for the remaining 20.5 hours of the day (1,950 calories), I burned a total of 4,100 calories.

That’s a lot. And if all you brought was 2,500 calories per day of food, you’ll find yourself crushed after a couple days. You’ll have no energy and you won’t be even close to as effective a hunter as you would be normally, when fully nourished. Use the calculator to estimate your caloric needs and plan accordingly.

What to eat

The options for what to eat in the backcountry are nearly endless. From the ultralight—but expensive—freeze-dried meals to meal bars and trail mix, or even fresh veggies and meats (if you’re packing in with mules), there are options to fit every taste and budget.

For the backpacker having to carry everything on their person, freeze-dried meals are a godsend. You can get a full, nutritionally balanced meal for just a few ounces of weight, and some hot pad thai at the end of a long, hard day can really boost morale. However, freeze-dried meals can be expensive, ranging from $7 to as much as $15 per meal. And while these meals are light, they are pretty bulky for the calories they contain.

With this in mind, you’ll want to prioritize high-calorie foods for long, multi-night trips. Meal bars like the Greenbelly Backpacking Meals can provide you with dense, high-quality nutrition. These are much heavier than freeze-dried foods, but provide more calories in a smaller volume. Nuts are also a great, calorie-dense option. There are even single-serve, flavored nut butters available that can be added to Ramen noodles or freeze-dried meals, or simply eaten from the tube like an energy gel.

Finally, I pack a couple of Snickers bars and GU Roctane packets for every day to help supplement my food. The GU packets provide a ton of amino acids and a few calories to help keep my muscles fueled during the day, and the Snickers bars provide a ton of calories in a small package.

Food storage in the backcountry

In a recent article, “Here’s what you need to avoid becoming bear food,” The Ultimate Predator’s editor-in-chief Nate Granzow discussed self-defense options for bear attacks. But really, the best self-defense plan for bear attacks is to not get attacked in the first place, and storing your food properly is one of the most important considerations to avoid confrontations with bears. This is true on two levels: You certainly don’t want a bear wandering into your camp while you sleep, but as a general matter, bears that are never conditioned to associate humans with food are exponentially less likely to ever be involved in an attack. Even if you aren’t attacked by a bear that gets into your food, you have made the area much more dangerous for the next hunter or hiker.

The first rule for your safety is to keep all food and anything with an odor (toothpaste, bug spray, etc.) away from your tent and sleeping bag. Store your food and do your cooking at least 100 yards away from where you set up your tent. And never, ever bring any kind of food into your tent, even when in an area that doesn’t have bears. According to the National Park Service, black bears have a sense of smell seven times better than a bloodhound, so the next time you are in bear country, they will still be able to smell the granola bar on your sleeping bag.

When it comes to actually storing your food, you have two options: hang it off the ground or inside a bear-proof container. Hanging it off the ground is the more economical option, but it can be difficult to find a suitable tree with a limb at least 10 feet off the ground and strong enough to hold your food at least three feet away from the trunk.

Hanging your food also doesn’t guarantee the safety of your food from other animals. I was once in a part of Washington where flying squirrels were prevalent. Even though I had hung my food bag high off the ground and away from any tree on a park service food pole, I returned in the evening to find a hole in my food pack and some of my food missing. A flying squirrel had dropped in from one of the surrounding trees and gorged himself.

So, my preferred method of storage is in a bear-proof container, even when I’m not in bear country. You can store these containers on the ground—they have been tested and certified that bears can’t get into them—and they keep all animals out of your food, not just bears.

It takes a little planning to fill out your larder for a backcountry expedition, but the time and effort will pay dividends in enjoyment while in the wilderness. Once you’ve determined your energetic needs, choose your foods to balance how many calories you need with the amount of space in your pack.

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