If you have ever been backpacking for a couple of days, one thing you may have noticed is how much weight and room food can take up in your pack. This variable is dependent upon the length of your trip (or how comfortable you want to be on your trip). For those who are keto backpacking, they notice a huge difference in their pack weight and how they feel.
Food is the literal energy you have in order to complete your trip. If you are lacking the energy to get to your destination, or you are just exhausted after every single trip you do, then you might want to take a look at your food.
Difference Between Normal Backpacking Food and Keto Backpacking Food
If you have ever looked at the back of your freeze-dried meal, you’ll notice that there aren’t that many calories within the pack. Especially when each pack has 2.5 servings, then that isn’t very many calories to spread around! Sarah herself can eat 2 full freeze-dried meals in one sitting and still be hungry.
This is because most of these meals are packed full of carbohydrates that burn very quickly in the body. On top of that, these foods usually have little nutritional value, and that hunger you feel is your body searching for nutrients.
Keto backpacking food uses denser fat macronutrients to:
- Fill up the caloric needs
- Provide fat-soluble vitamins
- Consistent and sustained energy
- Even helps to regulate the hormones in your body so you function optimally.
This all is true as long as these foods come from high quality sources, which we will talk about later.
What Is Keto?
If you don’t know what keto is, then I probably have confused you up until this point. Let me clarify for you:
The Ketogenic Diet is a high fat, low carbohydrate diet that re-teaches the body to utilize fat stores for energy. It is used in cases of elevated blood sugar, hormone dysregulation, cognitive decline, and weight normalization.
You see, we have been told to eat low-fat and high carb for a long time now (since the 1950’s) and we can easily see that the health of our country has not benefited from this.
Instead, eating higher carb, especially highly refined carbohydrates, provides very little nutrients to the body, and the body uses this energy source very quickly. This is why you can eat a whole box of cookies, and be “starving” 20 minutes later. You are starving, but not for more food, you are starving for nutrients.
Other Benefits of Keto
There are many benefits of keto, and as we see with a huge influx of people who are currently trying this diet out, it has been used to help with more than just the standard benefits of:
- Blood Sugar Control
- Weight Loss
- Mental Clarity and Focus
- Increased Energy
- Skin Health
If you want to learn more about the keto diet itself, then check out this post we did a while back called What is the Keto Diet and Does it Work?
Benefits for keto backpacking plays along some of these same benefits. Obviously when you lose weight, that helps to lighten the load going through the mountains, but the biggest benefits are blood sugar control and increased energy.
Adrian Ballinger, who reached the summit of Everest without supplemental oxygen, used the ketogenic diet to improve his ability to burn fat instead of carbohydrates on his climb. He knew that after 25,000 feet, the body starts to shut down and it becomes tough to eat. If he burned up his carbohydrate stores and wasn't properly fat-adapted, then that would cause trouble. That is where the keto diet comes into play.
How Can High Fat/Low Carb be Beneficial for Backpacking
The body is designed to burn fat when it is in a slower state of moving. This means anything from sitting at your desk and working, to walking up a mountain. As the heart rate increases, then the amount of fat to carbohydrates being used by the body starts to shift.
For the majority of people who are hiking and backpacking, they will be burning primarily fat stores while on the trails. This is excellent, as long as your body knows how to burn fat…
Because we are so accustomed to carb-loading and eating 6 meals a day (thank you personal trainers…) our bodies have become “sugar-adapted” meaning they are more accustomed to burning sugar than fat. With a high carb diet, the bile (which breaks down fat) starts to become sludgy and doesn't function properly.
Think of a car that has been sitting in the garage for 30 years with no oil change. That oil is similar to most people's sludgy bile.
This means we need to go through a process to clear out the liver and gallbladder, and re-teach the body to burn fat properly. You can look up ways to do a gallbladder cleanse, or you can follow the safe guidelines in our Keto Restore Program.
Less Food on the Trails Means Less Weight in Your Pack
When you shift into ketosis, your body will naturally want to eat less often because it takes awhile to digest the fat.
You may have heard about people who use intermittent fasting while on keto. This is where you don't eat for an extended period of time (usually 12-20 hours) and only eat in those extra hours.
How does this help with backpacking? Well, imagine not being hungry when you wake up, so you pack up your campsite and head out early morning. Lunch time comes around, and you start to get a little hungry, but not enough to make a meal. Finally dinner comes around, and you get your fill of food at only 1 meal of the day.
No breakfast, way less snacks throughout the day, and you are looking at way less food in your pack! This is the true beauty of keto backpacking!
Transitioning Into Ketosis
Once you re-train your liver and gallbladder to function properly and break down fats, then it is time to start adding in those tasty fats into your diet.
This does not mean you should start shoving avocados and butter into your mouth! Some fats are easier to digest than others, therefore start with the easy fats to break down first.
The easy fats I like to start with are:
- Coconut products (milk, flakes, oil)
- MCT Oil or Powder
All these fats contain medium chain triglycerides, which are the easiest form of fat to convert into ketones (hence the name keto diet!). You can learn more about MCT Oil here.
I use MCT Oil nearly every day. You can find it in oil form, but for backpacking I like to bring the powdered form from Perfect Keto because it is so much lighter than oil! Powdered MCT Oil is one of my favorite keto backpacking foods of all time.
Once you start transitioning into ketosis, then you can add in other fats as needed. Take note of how your body is doing with different fats because sometimes it can be too much work for the body to break down heavy fats.
Determining Your Keto Macronutrients
The standard keto diet consists of 70% fats, 25% proteins, and 5% carbs. Most people try to stay around 20g net carbs each day.
Net Carbs= Total Carbs – Fiber
These are the dietary restrictions that were used for those with cognitive decline or epilepsy.
The majority of men do well with this strict of a diet at first and then will transition into a little more carbohydrates depending on activity level.
Women in general tend to struggle a lot with these dietary restrictions and do better with more carbohydrates. Women can be as high as 50g net carbs.
To find out the exact grams of fat, protein, and carbs to shoot for each day, use a keto calculator.
Critical Nutrients for Keto Backpacking
There are two main areas we need to make sure we address while switching to a keto diet:
- Electrolyte depletion
Each of these are critical nutrients that we will dive deeper into.
Electrolytes are minerals in the body that help to regulate the way fluids pass in and out of our cells. It sounds very basic, however, the majority of the body is made of fluids.
Improper electrolyte balance has been associated with heart palpitations, muscle cramps, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and more! The keto flu is believed to be connected with the loss of electrolytes while transitioning into keto.
When you come off of processed foods, the amount of sodium in your diet will drop dramatically. That, coupled with the fact most people don't get enough potassium in their diet anyways, can lead to major issues while on the trails. The last thing you want is to start cramping up to the point where you need to use your Inreach device.
While I highly recommend adding potassium into your diet via the food you eat, I know that can be difficult to do. We have a list of potassium rich foods, but as you can see a lot of those foods can be starchy.
You can supplement with potassium or use a keto-compliant electrolyte tablet to help with this issue. I always make sure to have extra electrolytes with me while keto backpacking.
Electrolyte Requirements for Backpackers and Hikers
You will want to track your electrolytes using an app like MyFitnessPal so you can see how much you are actually consuming daily. For very active or hot days, your requirements will increase.
Sodium- 3,500-6000mg per day
Potassium- 3,500+mg per day. Most people on a regular day get less than 2,300mg; make me proud by reaching the daily recommendation.
Magnesium- 300-800mg per day, taken in the evening.
Trail-Made Electrolyte Drink
1 tsp Himalayan Salt + 1/2 tsp Potassium Chloride + a couple pieces of freeze-dried fruit (or berries found along the trail) for flavoring + 1 liter of water.
If you notice that you are extremely thirsty on your trip, have a couple of these drinks.
Electrolyte depletion and hydration really go hand in hand, but I want to make sure we dive deeper into why hydration is so important.
First off, the body is roughly 70% water, so any form of dehydration is going to change the overall function of the body. But what isn't talked about very often is how fluids transfer nutrients throughout the body.
If we don't have any fluids in the body, nutrients won't be able to get to where they need to go in the system. In simple terms, if we had no blood, then we would have no way to bring oxygen into the cells. There are many more nutrients in the body than just oxygen though.
So when there is a reduction in overall fluid content in the body, then it takes longer to get the needed nutrients into the cells. When you are dehydrated by 2%, this can reduce muscle power by around 15%. Imagine how much endurance and muscle strength you lose while trying to reach a summit of a mountain when you are dehydrated!
Why would Hydration Be an Issue on Keto
When eating a lot of carbs, carbs will actually retain fluids in the body. This is due to either the salt content, or the type of carb itself. So when reducing carbs so significantly, all of a sudden your body releases all that water and nothing is holding on to it.
This is where the electrolytes come in. You need to have a good balance of electrolytes in order to retain your fluids and for these fluids to enter the cells properly.
Long story short, make sure you drink plenty of water, and also add in the trail-made electrolyte drink.
Bonus Section: Micronutrients Needed While on Keto
Since there are so many different ways of doing Keto, some healthy and some not so healthy, it is important that we address some of the other nutrients needed in our body.
It is common to be lacking in overall micronutrient levels. Micronutrients are the nutrients that are smaller in size than carbs, fats, and proteins. These are used to produce enzymes, hormones, and other essential substances.
We typically think of these as vitamins and minerals. While on Keto (or pretty much any diet), we can still be lacking in the vitamin and mineral compartment.
This is why it is important to have a variety of different foods, so that you can get these micronutrients from different food types.
But since it can be difficult to have a huge variety of foods while in the backcountry, we prefer to bring a greens powder with us.
We have tried a lot of different powders to see which blend the best, and provide the most “bang for your buck”. Currently, our favorite is Athletic Greens.
It contains 75 ingredients that covers the whole range of micronutrients! Plus it is easy to carry and blend while backpacking.
Options for Keto Backpacking Food
When it comes to preparing food for your trips, you obviously want foods that won't spoil very quickly. This means we want to look at foods that are completely stable without refrigeration.
Since you will be very active, the most important macronutrient for you to get enough of each day will be protein. This will help with the rebuilding process of your muscles while on the trail.
That being said, as long as you aren't stuffing your face full of standard processed food or freeze dried meals, the carbs should be relatively low. This leaves you with your fat macros to increase or decrease as necessary to make sure you are getting enough calories each day.
The following food options are keto-friendly. You will have to decide if your body tolerates certain foods. For me, dairy products don't sit well, but are fine for others.
Keto Backpacking Food
Any kind of nut butter (such as almond, cashew, macadamia, and peanut) can be great options for quick snacks. Nuts themselves can be very difficult to digest, so nut butters actually help to break them down in a more usable form. Be cautious though, many nuts contain hidden carbs, so watch your carb count!
I remember coming across a PCT Thru Hiker 2 years ago who was less than 200 miles away from the end. He got turned around in a storm, and lost a couple days on the trail because of it. This caused him to run out of food, so obviously he was hungry.
When given a bag of goodies, the only thing he cared about was all the cheese. I will never forget that look of joy on his face when he saw cheese!
Head out to your local store to test out some of the hard cheeses. Cheese is a great way to get fats into your system, but again, only if you tolerate dairy. I would recommend to stay away from softer cheeses because they can melt or mold in your pack.
Powders and Oils:
As mentioned before, I love to use MCT Oil Powder while backpacking. It converts very easily to ketones, and for a lot of people it doesn't cause any digestive issues, which makes it great for keto backpacking.
If you don't mind carrying the extra weight, you can use MCT Oil or coconut oil instead. I try to stay away from heavy creams because of the dairy content, but some like to bring it with them.
Some people also bring different oils like olive oil or almond oil with them as well. These can be good options if you want to mix things up. Just make sure you package them well, otherwise you'll have a giant mess in your pack (been there, done that).
I also like to carry protein powder with me in case my protein consumption is low.
Meats can help you reach your protein levels and many meats contain good amount of fats. Beef and salmon jerky are great options, along with some other cured meats. Freeze dried meats would be a great option for meats to cook.
Canned fish and seafood can be good options as well, like tuna and sardines.
Another best kept secret is pemmican, which is animal fat mixed with meat and dried fruits. The Native Americans used this combo a lot for hunting expeditions.
Let's be honest, most of the time when eating trail mixes you probably go after the chocolate. This means most trail mixes are high in sugar and you should stay away.
That being said, you can make your own trail mix packed full of nuts, and can throw in some Lily's chocolate into the mix to take care of the chocolate cravings.
These are everyone's go-to on the keto diet. However, they melt very quickly in the heat and can cause a huge mess. I'm still trying to find a good way to keep this from melting, so if you have any ideas, comment below!
When to Stop Being on Keto
For some people, they want to follow diets so strongly that they don't recognize when their body is telling them enough is enough. For the majority of people, you will have to tailor the keto diet to your needs.
This means that if you have any symptoms starting to arise, such as excessive fatigue, hair falling out, or even hormone dysregulation, then you will want to start adjusting your macronutrients. A lot of times these are signs that you need to add a little more carbs to your diet.
These signs don't necessarily mean you need to give up. Start to slowly increase your carbohydrates until you find the sweet spot that works well with your body.
*Remember, our life circumstances are constantly changing, which means the demands for nutrients will fluctuate as well. Some days you may be able to handle strict keto very well, while others you will need more carbs.*
A ketogenic type diet has been used for thousands of years by different cultures around the world. Even though keto is pretty restrictive, there are still ways to follow keto while on the trail.
If you are planning to try out keto backpacking this summer, make sure to properly prepare your liver and gallbladder to be able to digest all of that fat. This will make the transition into keto backpacking so much easier!
As for sharing food on the trail, you may be tempted by gummy bears and chocolate bars and that's okay. Just know that this will likely kick you out of ketosis if you go overboard.
And if you are sharing your own loot with other trailites, hard cheeses and meat are great options to share.
Training For Keto Backpacking
If you are transitioning into keto for the first time, then please take it slow on the trail. Do not expect to start keto tonight and be a marathon runner tomorrow.
I have seen too many people expect immediate results with any kind of dietary change. Change takes time, allow your body to adjust while your food consumption adjusts.
That being said, when you first transition into keto, do some light exercise or hikes to allow your body to use fat as the primary fuel source. As mentioned previously, the more elevated your heart rate is, the more carbs you will burn.
Once you spend a few weeks transitioning and doing slow and steady hikes, then test the waters with harder summit pushes or longer mileage days. After about a month or so, you should be ready to hit the trails hard.