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Dustin Diefenderfer, MTNTOUGH Fitness Lab | 8.29.2018

Backcountry Nutrition

  • Pattern: Subalpine, Open Country
  • Pursuit: Big Game

When I first started backcountry hunting, I never thought much about backcountry nutrition. I had no idea how many calories I burned and no idea how many calories I packed per day.

Most of the time I’d buy food on the way out of town and grab the cheapest, lightest stuff I could find. I wasn’t paying attention to things like calories per ounce or finding foods that would help me recover from all the miles, boost my immune system, maintain strength, and give me energy over a multi-day hunt.

I had no clue what a significant mistake I was making and why it was causing me to struggle in the mountains.

The crash would come on slowly at first with some fatigue, loss of strength, and brain fog. At some point during my hunt, I’d always hit a wall. It’s known as “bonking,” and it’s the kind of energy crash that can put a hunter’s life at risk or send them home early.

I’ve learned a lot since those first multi-day backcountry trips nearly two decades ago, and I’ve seen many hunters make the same mistakes I made.

Avoiding the bonk is directly related to proper backcountry nutrition planning and habits. Better backcountry nutrition will not only keep you safer; it will keep you in a better frame of mind and more alert, which leads to better performance and success.

Hunter refuels on a mountainside.

Why Backcountry Nutrition Matters

MTNTOUGH is continuously researching backcountry performance in “The Lab” here in Bozeman, Montana.

Earlier this year, we kicked off a new study on caloric needs, caloric burn, caloric deficits, and their impacts on backcountry performance. Over this past year, we’ve been tracking mountain athletes’ calorie burn rates at high elevation, over rugged terrain, and on extended trips with both light packs and heavy packs.

Here’s what we found: Most hunters aren’t aware of how many calories they burn in the backcountry. In fact, they typically burn way more calories than they consume, and that’s the fastest way to crash during your hunt.

The combination of elevation, cold temperatures, rugged terrain, and heavy backpacks all combine to burn more calories than you’re used too.

During our initial research, we tracked several 200-pound male mountain athletes and found they burned upwards of 6,000 calories during 12-hour, high-elevation, shed hunting trips with a heavy pack this spring.

But here’s the problem: Many of these individuals only packed and consumed 2,000 calories, leaving them with a 4,000-calorie deficit.

Packing and consuming over 6,000 calories per day is typically unrealistic in the high country. Most individuals can’t consume that much food anyway and if they could, most don’t want to pack that much weight.

Hunters certainly can get by on much less than their daily caloric burn for short periods, but it really boils down to a matter of performance.

On-mountain performance (strength, stamina, and mental clarity) will gradually decrease as a hunter's calorie deficit increases day after day. Basically, you’re trying to manage the calorie gap between your daily burn and daily consumption, especially over multiple-day expeditions.

When your body burns more calories than it consumes during heavy exertion — especially during a multi-day event like hunting — it creates the conditions for a severe energy crash.

Properly fueling yourself in the backcountry can take some planning, especially when you consider the impacts of altitude, the weight, mass and cost of calorie-dense foods or simply forgetting to eat because you’re too focused on hunting. Proper planning and backcountry nutrition practices can help you avoid a crash and optimize your performance for the hunt.

How to Build Your Backcountry Nutrition Plan in 3 Steps

There are three key steps to building a backcountry nutrition plan:

  1. Step 1: Know now how many calories you’re burning during your backcountry hunts.
  2. Step 2: Plan your nutrition to support that hunt.
  3. Step 3: Make sure you follow the plan.

The idea of a having backcountry nutrition plan is simply to calculate how many calories you will burn per day versus how many calories you are packing per day on a given trip, and then manage it the best you can given the restraints of backcountry hunting.

Hunters cook their harvest over an open fire. Step 1: Estimate Your Daily Caloric Needs For Your Hunt

This first step is an eye opener for many backcountry hunters as they often aren’t unaware of the significant amount of calories they burn per day in the field.

That’s why we created the MTNTOUGH Backcountry Calorie Calculator to help you with this step using a calculation based on bodyweight, pack weight, distance, elevation gain and average hiking speed.

To calculate this number, we utilize what's known as the "ACSM" or "Pandolf" equations, which were initially developed for the military and have been used since the 1970s to estimate how much energy it takes to hike with a heavy pack on.

Remember, not all hunts are equal. The important part is understanding what each hunt will require from your body. Once you’ve calculated how many calories you’ll be burning each day during your hunt, the next step is to plan your nutrition to support it.

Step 2: Plan Your Daily Meals (Based on Your Daily Caloric Burn Estimate)

A big mistake many hunters make is to pack their meals without planning them. In other words, just throwing a bunch of food in our packs and calling it good.

Your food needs to be planned to accomplish specific calorie goals.

Now that we have an estimate on daily needs from Step 1, we can create a plan to manage our calorie deficit. The MTNTOUGH Backcountry Calorie Calculator will help with this step and has a tab to plan your daily meals based on your burn rate and allows you to manage your caloric deficit.

A hunter enjoys a snack bag of trail mix for backcountry nutrition.

Step 3: Follow Your Plan in the Field

The key is to continuously fuel your body throughout each day to reach your daily calorie goals. You need a plan to make sure this actually happens in the field.

Break your food out into daily rations and make sure you are consuming all the calories every day. Ensure the snacks you need each day to meet your calorie goals are easily accessible so you can eat throughout the day without stopping.

Make sure you're getting fuel every 1-2 hours to maintain performance. This is key; you can eat while you move and while you sit.

Start building your backcountry nutrition plan this year to have more energy, more endurance, and more success this hunting season.

If you’d like more help planning your next hunt, download the MTNTOUGH Backcountry Calorie Calculator to estimate your calorie burn, plan your meals, and prepare your gear for whatever the mountain can throw at you.

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MTNTOUGH Fitness Lab, located in Bozeman, MT is the collaboration of lifelong backcountry hunter & National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer Dustin Diefenderfer, Alex Fichtler (Former Navy SEAL), Ara Megerdichian (retired military officer & Army Ranger), and Jimmy Alsobrook (Mountain Training Legend & National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer).