What Do You Really Need For Food?
Story and photos by Larry Bartlett
Food is one requirement on your hunting checklist that is worth a discussion. Cutting weight and condensing bulk makes best sense for the backcountry, but you still must bring enough food to fuel your efforts as a hunter for 10- to 14 days. Energy—essentially food, is required to pack, drag, and carry your provisions daily in the field. Calories matter for energy; the foods that provide them must be high quality, store well, and transport efficiently. Diet complexities are affected by body type, age, gender, metabolic health, athleticism, fitness levels, training routines, and personal goals leading into a hunt scenario. We have yet to devise a magic menu formula that will satisfy the needs of everyone, because how much of what food depends on the demands of the hunt plus the variety of parameters above.
To realize a smart field menu, I have spent nearly two decades minimizing my food kit with nutrient-rich foods. I am also collaborating with cutting-edge science professionals to refine our understanding of condition-specific nutrient requirements in the backcountry. These exercises have given me important knowledge to share that will help you accomplish your load carriage and nutritional goals.
The food that we take on a backcountry hunt should be selected with three considerations in mind: expectations of calorie expenditure, calorie-to-weight ratio, and nutrient quality.
How many calories does it take to hunt for moose and caribou? That’s the first question that must be answered to judge bulk-food requirement. Prior to our first backcountry health study in 2017, expectations for caloric expenditure were based on non-specific prediction equations developed in a controlled lab instead of a field setting like a 12-day float hunt. Now we have specific information about our caloric needs and physical exertion in the field, and are using this information to develop a lighter food kit with higher nutrient quality.
We now know that our study participants burned an average of 4,326 kcals per day over a 12-day hunt period, consumed an average of 2,174 kcals each day, and remained effective in the field with positive, healthy outcomes. The average body fat weight loss was seven pounds per person. These hunters expended twice the number of calories they consumed each day. Half their daily calorie supply came from food they brought, and the other half largely came from their own fat reserves. Science fact: One pound of body fat equals about 3,500 kcals. Had these study participants taken enough food to fully support their caloric demand, each of them would have packed an additional 25- to 30 pounds of bulk food weight. When comparing the efficiency of packed food volume to body fat reserves, a 4:1 ratio (food-weight energy to body-fat energy) is revealed. This ratio suggests food is less efficient as a calorie delivery system than our own body fat. Our study showed seven pounds of body fat delivered roughly the same energy supply as 28 pounds of bulk food (24,500 kcals). Let that sink in.
Negative Caloric Balance
While backcountry hunting it is likely we are often in a negative caloric balance; more energy is expended than consumed. We are fortunate that our stored body fat is a calorie-rich fuel source. Theoretically, a male hunter weighing 175 pounds with 8% body fat has 49,000 kcals of available fuel, or 24 days of “fat fuel,” based on the results of our recent study. Body fat is stored energy from excess dietary consumption, which means less food requirements in the field if you can afford to lose. That’s the first and easiest strategy to shed weight on food. I prefer to limit my weight loss on hunts because I’m lean and athletic. To avoid packing too much or too little food, we must identify our body weight, field readiness and field performance needs.
Our analysis suggests that operating at a 50% caloric deficiency coupled with 3- to 7 hours of physical activity each day for 10- to 12 days can significantly improve metabolic health and preserve skeletal muscle. This gives me the confidence to take less food in the field without a concern for loss in operational performance or muscle mass. The key is to specifically target the amount and best types of food that meet our performance goals. Now that we have a benchmark of an average calorie expenditure for middle-aged men in the range of 4,000- to 4,500 kcals per day on a moderately physical float hunt, our target could be to provide 2,000- to 2,300 kcals per person per day with an expected weight loss, or up to 3,000-3,500 kcals per person per day for just minimal weight loss.
Participating in this health study identified my personal caloric expenditure on two different hunts. Now that I know my true caloric demand on a moderate and difficult scale, I can dial in my specific nutrient needs down to the ounce for a 14-day hunt without a concern for drastic weight loss. Within limits, calorie deficiency is smart and healthy and does not necessarily compromise performance. But if you plan to shrink your food kit, you need a working knowledge of the role macronutrients play in endurance events like hunting.
Macronutrients and Nutritional Timing
What and when to eat in the field should match the day’s events, but we are required to bring a predetermined supply of food so we must go prepared. Nutritional timing is a crucial factor in maintaining our blood-sugar levels and helping to restore tired muscles. Surveying the physical work of any given day and eating particular foods at the right time to match our activity demands requires an understanding of how the body breaks down nutrients (food) into usable energy.
Food is separated into three categories of fuel called macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Carbohydrates and protein each contain four calories per gram, whereas fat provides nine calories per gram. A balanced macronutrient profile for mild hunting activities is 45- to 60% carbohydrates, 20- to 35% fat, and 20% protein. If 2,000 kcals per day is the goal, then 900- to 1200 kcals should come from carbohydrates, 400- to 700 kcals from fat, and 400 kcals from protein sources. These amounts won’t cut it for a strenuous hunt, as energy expenditures climb as does the need to repair muscle. When operating in a negative caloric balance, your body needs targeted macronutrients.
The more active or intense the activity, the more carbohydrates we need to consume. Carbohydrates are digested in less than two hours, faster than fat and protein, which is why carbs are used for immediate energy. Eat a carb-rich snack like figs, dried mangos, or a candy bar about 30 minutes before and after an event for your best performance. The two types of carbohydrate are simple (sugar) and complex. Simple carbs burn the fastest and offer a quick spike in energy and insulin. Insulin has unwanted side effects, so complex carbohydrates are a better choice because they burn slower, which extends energy output and helps maintain performance efficiency and insulin reaction. Excess carbohydrates from each meal get converted to triglycerides and stored as fat if not immediately burned, so eat enough carbs for energy but don’t overeat them. Stay mindful of total fat and protein needs when factoring your daily caloric consumption. Carbohydrate needs will vary from 5- to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight per hunting day. Generally speaking, a hunter that weighs 175- to 190 pounds is also 80- to 86 kg, and that hunter would need greater than 900 grams (3,600 kcals) of carbohydrates each day on a moderate- to difficult hunt.
Whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, couscous, and brown rice are all great sources of complex carbohydrates that typically take longer to digest and provide a more stable source of carbohydrate availability. Bagels, oats, and legumes are also good sources but bulkier. Even the consumption of simple sugars from sources like dried fruit and candy bars may be helpful in accelerating the rate of muscle and liver glycogen immediately after physical activity. Candy bars are also high in fat that helps improve the calorie/weight ratio needed for high levels of movement efficiency.
Dietary fat is important for vitamin absorption and essential fatty acids, but fat also provides flavor and texture to our meals. In a static environment like office life, much of our fat requirement is provided in the plethora of foods we consume each day. However, backcountry activities require sustained energy, stable body temperatures, and abundant slow-burning calories. Fat-rich food does this for us. Remember, you are not in a gym trying to impress the mirror—you are working, exerting, and surviving in the backcountry using dietary strategies that have already been blueprinted by evolutionary or intelligent design.
Fat takes the longest to digest, 4- to 6 hours, because it must be converted to triglycerides to be used as fuel, essentially co-functioning as immediate and slow-burning fuel. If carbohydrates were gasoline, fat would be diesel! Most enthusiasts recommend a ratio of at least 100 kcals per ounce of food. Fat ramps up this ratio as clearly noted with pure butter at 200 kcals per ounce. While butter would be a mess in our pack, this is one of the reasons that “cooked bacon” at 153 kcals per ounce, peanut butter at 165 kcals per ounce, and pistachios at 162 kcals per ounce represent great sources of fatty energy. Coconut oil is exceptionally rich in calories to weight at 248 kcals per ounce. Butter, coconut oil, avocados, cashews, almonds, cheese, olive oil, salami, and peanut butter are great sources of fat.
Protein provides the essential amino acids our muscles and cells need to recover and repair, which our bodies cannot supply from internal sources. All proteins are not the same in terms of their ability to help our bodies recover from exertion or stress. The term “protein quality” is used to confer the most beneficial sources of protein and represents the rationale why so many people turn to whey protein as a protein source, offering superior absorption of amino acids. Protein does take longer than carbs to digest, offering 2- to 3 hours of feeling full and stabilizing our glucose and insulin balance.
How much protein do we need? The recommendations for vigorous activity in a well-trained person are 1.5- to 2.0 grams per kg per day. This equates to 500- to 650 kcals per day for an individual weighing 175 pounds. We know from our existing data of males that we can increase our energy expenditure to over 4,000 kcals daily to maintain muscle and ensure operational effectiveness in a 14-day hunt scenario with minimal food provisions. We are still working on specific results in females from our 2018 study effort.
Fish, meats, eggs, and dairy products all provide excellent protein quality that truly represent a greater level of rebuilding efficiency for the weight carried. Ranking eggs, lean meats, whey powder, wild meat, wild fish, cheese, jerky, fatty meats, protein bars, nuts, and peanut butter in order of highest to lowest protein quality are good rules to follow.
Hydration is a Separate Sustenance
The importance of water cannot be understated. In 1981, Irish hunger strikers lived 71 days without food, consuming only water. Our need for water is much greater due to alterations in temperature and activity, even altitude in some scenarios. Hydration is key to sustainable movement and survival. Without water, you have just a few days to live. Every cell, organ, chemical, nutrient, muscle, system, and bone in our body relies on our commitment to drinking fresh water often enough to keep our pee the color of straw. Dehydration happens fast in the backcountry because we forget how much we’re moving, deep breathing, working, walking, rafting, and sweating. If we’re not diligent to recognize the onset, we get tired, develop muscle cramps, headaches, dizziness, infrequent urination, constipation, unstable body temperature, and the list goes on. Dehydration also wrecks the immune system and digestive performance, slowing the absorption of key nutrients to fuel our day-to-day hunting efforts. Drink water and lots of it!
How much water a hunter needs depends on the intensity and duration of the day, but the best identifier we have is the color of our pee and frequency of urination. A well-hydrated body will release light yellow or clear urine every couple of hours. If you haven’t peed in two hours, drink 30 ounces of clean water every hour until you’re back on track.
As an experiment to monitor hydration, I weigh myself before and after a one-hour ski or run. A common weight loss after one hour of moderate exercise is two pounds. This represents the loss of one quart of water (one gallon of water equals eight pounds). If my hunt requires three- to seven hours every day of physical activity, I must consume roughly one quart of water every hour of activity to maintain adequate hydration. Alaska hunters experience much more evaporation and convection dehydration because of our arid climate. Hydration is literally more important than food.
Larry Bartlett is the owner of Pristine Ventures based in Fairbanks, Alaska, and is an avid, hardcore outdoorsman. Pristine Ventures offers a slew of resources for backcountry hunters and fishermen like selling top-quality packrafts and canoes that can hold loads needed for outdoor activities. Larry also helps plan hunts for DIY hunters and provides equipment rentals.