Backcountry is home to long hikes, sweat soaked backpacks, and massive caloric expenditure. The nutritional needs of a backcountry bowhunter are daunting to fulfill, but a conscious effort must be made to promote your best hunting performance. It’s probably not realistic to consume enough calories to keep up with the demand of an extended backcountry hunt, but this is not the time to try to lose weight – that will probably be unavoidable. If your objective is to hunt as hard as you can, start to finish, you need to know how to eat for performance.
In order to traverse the back country a bowhunter must be in top physical condition. This begins and ends with proper nutrition.
Breakfast comes fast and remembering to snack is hard to do when you’re hunting your ass off in the backcountry. I don’t spend much time in the morning worrying about breakfast; besides mornings are the best time to find your target. I bring 8-10 cups of old fashioned rolled oats oatmeal. I simply boil water before first light, cook my oatmeal and have instant Starbucks coffee. In a separate bag, I drop a scoop of Wilderness Athlete Meal Replacement (vanilla) into the cooked oatmeal. This adds another 230 calories and 18 more grams of protein to my morning meal. Add a quarter cup of walnuts/dried fruit to the oatmeal and you’re set with jet rocket fuel for the mountains. Just remember….do not skip breakfast.
Mountain House makes a variety of great tasting, nutrient rich meals that are easy to prepare in the backcountry.
I don’t 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. Protein bars are 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. Find a protein bar that actually tastes good to you. Look for at least 15 grams of protein, and get a variety going so you actually look forward to eating.
For dinner, I almost always cook myself a hot meal after chasing backcountry bulls, bucks, or bears. The term “cooking” I use very loosely because this entails foods that require 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 tuckered out and any conservation of precious energy is important, plus I don’t have to pack as much cooking fuel around. These freeze-dried meals are Mountain House and the following is my top five for taste and ideal macronutrient ratios.
1. Grilled Chicken Breasts with Mashed Potatoes / 200 calories per serving
2. Beef Stew / 250 calories per serving
3. Turkey Tetrazzini / 270 calories per serving
4. Spaghetti & Meat Sauce / 280 calories per serving
5. Precooked Scrambled Eggs / 330 calories per pouch
My days usually start with a 500-calorie breakfast previously mentioned, 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 levels, minimizes the length of a hunger pang, and prevent big ticket meals that sit heavy in your stomach and promote nap time.
Staying “fueled” will help you close the deal when that big buck or bull steps into range. This can be accomplished by grazing throughout the day.
Proper Caloric Intake
The key is finding your individual caloric need for the backcountry based upon your bodyweight, type of terrain, pack weight, miles hiked, and fitness level. I don’t have as much experience in the backcountry as some, but I will tell you that in order to maintain my body weight on the trail requires about four 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 are out West, it is not uncommon to expend over 4,000 calories per 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 further than I could if I carried 8,000 calories worth of food. The choice is really up to the individual.
Example Caloric Calculation:
20 – 25 calories / 1 pound of body weight
Body Weight Cal / LBS Daily Caloric Minimum
125lbs 20 / 1 2,500 calories
150lbs 21 / 1 3150 calories
175lbs 22 / 1 3,850 calories
200lbs 23 / 1 4,600 calories
225lbs 24 / 1 5,400 calories
250+ lbs 25 / 1 6,250 calories
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.
Understanding your body and the specific terrain you are hunting will go a long way toward establishing a maintenance program for daily caloric requirements.
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). These bars are currently discontinued, but I am hammering the guys at Wilderness Athlete to bring them back to the market, this is my way of elbowing them to get on it! 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.
Zone eating is centered around the concept that food is a drug, and should be consumed in exact dosages to prevent insulin spikes. Zone eating promotes slow and steady energy release throughout the day. This balanced eating approach fights off the ravages of Diabetes and fat storage. I think this is a great read before hunting season officially kicks off. The other protein bar that gets the nod, is “Think Thin,” found in most grocers, it has around 20 grams of protein and is gluten free. They also taste pretty good as well.
The 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% of your meal’s calories from carbohydrates, 30% from protein, and 30% fat. Both bars are similar in these macronutrient profiles so they digest steadily and keep you in the game full of predacious energy.
Food To Avoid
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. Candy bars are convenient, cheap, and taste pretty good, however, they almost always have minimal protein, and maximal sugar content.
Vitamins, Minerals & Supplements
1. 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.
2. If you you’re interested in maintaining healthy joint tissue then you might utilize glucosamine as a precursor to connective tissue lubrication and repair.
3. BCAA’s = Branched chain amino acids which are critical for muscle repair and often get used as energy when your body catabolizes 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.
Supplements are great for filling in the gaps that food intake doesn’t cover.
Proper hydration is at the forefront of bowhunting in the mountains. In fact, water comprises 60-70% of our body mass, 90% of our brain mass is water, and up to 75% of muscle tissue is water. Water is also the main component of blood serum – the important transporter of oxygen 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 + fl oz. 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 serous stomach distress and/or immediate illness. To avoid these potentially life-threatening aliments, always treat your water.
Water is vital in the backcountry. However, take the necessary precautions to ensure your water “healthy”.
You should carry some type of hydration system 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.
To make your water a little more sexy, I strongly recommend adding Wilderness Athletes’ Hydrate and Recover to it. I generally treat all my water with Iodine and then cover the taste with WA Hydrate and Recover, 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! It makes the water taste better and that makes me more likely to stay hydrated.
A healthy bowhunter is a successful bowhunter….period.
To briefly recap, staying properly hydrated throughout the day is crucial to your in the field 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 then eating less frequently. Check out Wildernss Athlete’s website for more information. Research the Zone approach for a sound nutritional way of life and never leave home without your Mountain House!
Geek Out Session
If you want to put even more effort into your next backcountry menu, here’s some more info dedicated to you performance geeks…
Breakfast – Oatmeal with dried fruit, nuts, protein powder, and brown sugar is a perfect way to start the day. Remember, high-fiber, complex carbs will help you plod along for long hours on the trail. They provide more sustained energy because they’re digested (broken down) more slowly than simple sugars. Other complex carbohydrates are brown rice, quinoa, teff, granola, and buckwheat.
You’ve been hiking along at a moderate intensity for the last three hours and you spot a bedded buck. You are sixty minutes and 500 vertical feet away from making your stalk. You need a quick fix and that comes in the form of fast burning, simple carbs like dried fruit, honey, or chocolate chips. They’re easy to digest and the simple sugar goes immediately to your working muscles and nervous system.
High-quality, slow-burning fats are essential for backpack bowhunting. They provide more calories (energy) per gram, which you need when you’re physically active all day. Fats give you staying power, thinking power, and killing power. Mix them with complex carbs for long-lasting fuel. Nuts, seeds, coconut, and jerky from beef or salmon – don’t forget cheese and sausage are perfect choices for backcountry bowhunters.
Many of the complex carbs (teff, quinoa, oats) and fats (jerky, nuts, seeds) all provide a good dose of protein as well. Protein helps repair the muscles and connective tissue you break down during long hikes. Protein is essential for recovery. I always dump a full tub of protein powder into a Ziploc bag to add to many of my meals.