Backpacking Nutrition for Backcountry Big Game Hunters

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Do You Put Much Stock in Quality Nutrition?

It's especially important to eat right when you're hunting hard. (Bill Konway photo)The nutritional strategy of a backcountry bowhunter requires a systematic approach as cooking methods and food variety is limited. Here is my best recommendation for sustained energy levels, peak performance, combined with the most efficient system.

Meal Components

For breakfast and snacking, the staple of my backcountry diet is a bar. I don’t usually pack bagels, cookies, crackers and peanut butter because they don’t pack as well, they’re more difficult to ration, and they usually lack balanced macronutrient ratios. Macronutrients are simply proteins, carbohydrates and fats. In fact, the ratio of macronutrients in the meals you eat is the key to permanent weight control, optimal health and sustained energy. The bars are also more convenient because you can eat them on the go and their serving size of 200-300 calories per bar makes juggling peanut butter jars or 6-count bags gratuitous.

For dinner, I almost always cook myself a hot meal after chasing backcountry bulls, bucks or bears. The term “cooking” I use very loosely. This entails food that requires 1-2 cups of boiling water and that’s the extent of it. The reasoning behind this is simple: A long day of hunting will leave me feeling a little fatigued and any conservation of precious energy is important, plus I don’t have to pack as much cooking fuel around. I recommend freeze-dried meals from Mountain House. The following is my top five for taste and ideal macronutrient ratios for ‘zone’ performance: 

  • Grilled chicken breasts with mashed potatoes (200 calories per serving)
  • Beef stew (250 calories per serving)
  • Turkey tetrazzini (270 calories per serving)
  • Spaghetti and meat sauce (280 calories per serving)
  • Precooked scrambled eggs (330 calories per pouch)

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Grazing

My days usually start with a 500-calorie breakfast such as two packets of instant oatmeal and 1½-ounces of almonds or cashews. This is followed with a small snack every 2 hours of 200-250 calories. I eat my last snack about 2 hours before dark so I can chase after that last light bugling bull. In my opinion, grazing is like getting a steady IV injection of nutrients. It will sustain your energy level, minimize the length of a hunger pang, and prevent big-ticket meals that sit heavy in your stomach … prompting a post-meal nap.

Proper Caloric Intake

The key is finding your individual caloric need for the backcountry based on your bodyweight, type of terrain, pack weight, miles hiked and your fitness level. In order to maintain my body weight on the trail, I have to consume about 4 pounds of food per day, which isn’t realistic to carry on a multi-day hunt. Weight loss is fairly unavoidable and perhaps some bowhunters out there could afford to drop a few pounds, but this is not the time to starve your hungry muscles. Your intake should fuel your active muscles, encourage recovery and keep you satisfied throughout the hunt.

If you want to now how many calories you expend throughout a hike, the general rule of thumb is around 500 calories per hour trekked. Again, this number will vary depending on your conditioning, age, elevation, terrain, etc. I would soundly state that if you’re out West, it is not uncommon to expend 4,000-plus calories in a day. A 4,000-calorie-per-day ration should help avoid being hungry or from hitting the wall, which to me is more important than maintaining my body weight. I only carry about 2 pounds of food per day, allowing me to be more comfortable and to hunt harder, faster and farther than I could if I carried 8,000 calories worth of food. The choice is really up to the individual.

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Example Caloric Calculation: 20 – 25 kcal / 1 lbs body weight 
  1. Body Weight
  2. Kcal / LBS
  3. Daily Caloric Minimum

125 lbs

  • 20 / 1
  • 2,500 calories

150 lbs

  • 21 / 1
  • 3,150 calories

175 lbs

  • 22 / 1
  • 3,850 calories

200 lbs

  • 23 / 1
  • 4,600 calories

225 lbs

  • 24 / 1
  • 5,400 calories

250-Plus lbs

  • 25 / 1
  • 6,250 calories

Specific Foods

Energy bars and various nuts are my biggest source of calories. Generally speaking, energy bars and nuts are nutritious, taste fine and satisfy. Many of the bars are fortified with vitamins and minerals; they contain healthy ingredients; and they come in a variety of flavors and textures that are palatable. 

My energy bars of choice are Wilderness Athlete for their 18-20 grams of protein per bar, taste and their joint-supporting glucosamine (1,000 mg per bar). Zone bars are also in my pack and as I’ve eluded, I am a believer in this type of food intake program. If you’re not familiar with the “Zone” diet, I recommend the book by Dr. Sears, “Enter The Zone.”  Sears has similar family heart history as I do and has spent his life seeking one of the best food intake strategies for combating heart disease and achieving maximum physical performance. Remember, food is medicine.

Both bars mentioned previously have around 200 calories per bar, they’re well balanced so they digest a little more steadily providing longer-lasting energy. Putting the correct type of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in your system simultaneously is critical to backcountry performance. I would avoid a diet exclusive in high carbs and low in fats; rather seek the balancing act by taking in around 40 percent of your meal’s calories from carbohydrates, 30 percent from protein and 30 percent fat. Both bars are similar in these macronutrient profiles, so they digest steadily and keep you in the game with predacious energy.

Many breakfast bars and quick snacks often contain over-processed granola and sugars. They offer few vitamins/minerals and little fiber. Instead, look for bars with whole grains, nuts and berries and good sugars (e.g. honey, not corn syrup). Particularly, avoid Pop-Tarts and cereal bars, which set you up to crash-and-burn. Fiber-One and South Beach bars are my top two choices for a granola bar with a decent arrangement of macronutrients.

Candy bars are convenient, cheap and taste pretty good. However, they almost always have minimal protein and maximum sugar content. If you’re looking for the lesser of evils, then I suggest Baby Ruth or Snickers.

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Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements

On and off the trail, take a daily multivitamin, which can't hurt, and are actually now on the food guide pyramid. This will aid in your quest for vitamins and minerals, improved immunity and fatigue resistance.

If you’re interested in maintaining healthy joint tissue, then you might utilize glucosamine as a precursor to connective tissue lubrication and repair.

BCAA’s (Branched chain amino acids) are critical for muscle repair and often get used as energy when your body uses itself for energy. I would take these throughout the day, perhaps with each meal and you can pack them as a pill or powder, which makes them virtually weightless. BCAA’s will help tip the scale of recovery in your favor.

Calories-to-Ounce Ratio

You need to strive for a calories/ounce ratio of at least 125 calories to 1 ounce. For example, 4,000-calorie, 2-pound-per-day rations would mean 14 ounces of carbohydrates, 10 ounces of protein, and 8 ounces of fat. Be aware of foods that have a calories-to-ounce ratio of less than 100 (which means they usually contain water, which provides you with zero calories) and foods that come in heavy or bulky packaging (e.g. canned chicken or tuna), which sometimes can be easily solved by repackaging the contents. 

Hydration

Proper hydration is at the forefront of bowhunting in the mountains. Water comprises 60-70 percent of our body mass, 90 percent of our brain mass is water, and up to 75 percent of muscle tissue is water. Water is also the main component of blood serum — the important transporter O2 and nutrients. In general, your body loses 80 ounces of water daily through sweat, urine, feces, and expired air. This water needs to be replaced by daily fluid consumption of 100+ fluid ounces. An easier, albeit much less scientific, way to determine daily fluid requirements is to evaluate your urine. Dark and concentrated urine is indicative of insufficient fluid intake. Urine should be clear, pale yellow and copious. As you should already know, never drink water straight out of a stream, lake or pond. Microorganisms can easily be mixed into your drinking water and cause serious stomach distress and/or immediate illness. To avoid these potentially life-threatening aliments, always treat your water.

You should carry some type of hydration pack with you all the time, drink all the time, and if your pack doesn’t have an internal hydration system built in, then you have the wrong pack. My favorite backpack company is Badlands. I always try to properly hydrate before, during and after any bowhunting backcountry trips.

Although water is great for most sedentary activities, you should be hydrating with Wilderness Athlete’s hydration drink, Hydro2Max. I generally treat all my water with Iodine and then cover the taste with Hydro2Max, a healthy mix of carbohydrates, amino acids (recovery), mineral and electrolyte composition to replenish these vital elements and maintain peak muscle physiology. It also contains antioxidants, glucosamine, B Vitamins (energy) and helps support oxygen demands of the active body in the backcountry.

To briefly recap, staying properly hydrated throughout the day is crucial to your infield success. Find your individual food intake needs and pack the right foods. Bars, nuts and freeze-dried meals make up the bulk up an efficient system and grazing on Zone balanced snacks is much more performance-friendly than eating less frequently. Check into Wilderness Athlete for food supplements. Research the Zone approach for a sound nutritional way of life and never leave home without your Mountain House.

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Editor's Note: This was originally published September 2, 2008.

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