If you missed part 1 of this series on Healthy Lightweight Eating for Hikers, click here. That’s where I explain WHY I choose a high fat, moderate protein, and lower carbohydrate diet on trail. Some of those reasons include a lighter pack weight, sustained energy (i.e. no bonking), less illness and injury, and fewer digestive issues.
This post will dig into the more practical side of HOW I do this. You’ll learn what this eating strategy looks like in practice, including a sample 5-day resupply guide with nutrition information. I’ll also provide a few of my staple recipes.
As mentioned in Part 1, my aim when choosing food is not just to prioritize fat, but to emphasize nutrient density and anti-inflammatory properties as well.
An important note: this is not a keto diet. I’m not opposed to keto, but for me, I find my hormone balance, thyroid health, and overall performance is better with slightly higher carbs, especially on a thru-hike. My trail diet is usually about 60-65% fat, 20% protein, and 15-20% carbs. For comparison, the typical American diet is 35% fat, 15% protein, and 50% carbs. A ketogenic diet is usually 70-75% fat, 20% protein, and 5-10% carbs. Current dietary guidelines suggest 40-60% of calories from carbs.
Also, on a side note, if you’re considering this approach, it’s wise to eat either high fat OR high carb, but not high fat AND high carb. Diets high in fat AND sugar can be strong promoters of obesity and metabolic syndrome, at least in rat models.
There’s no official ‘low carb’ designation, but it’s often suggested that below 100-150 grams per day is low carb. On a 2000 calorie per day diet, that equates to about 20-25% of calories. Since I’ll be consuming more calories, I’ll probably be around 100-200 grams per day. As you can see, that’s a big window.
Sticking to strict numbers is not important to me. I’m already OCD enough, so I try not to obsess about perfecting ratios on a spreadsheet. Instead, I prefer to focus on energy levels, sleep quality, immune health (avoiding illness and injury), feeling strong while hiking up mountains, and keeping inflammation as low as possible. To accomplish this, I try to include a lot of healthy fat and not a lot of processed or sugary items.
If you want to go deeper, this article details what I call the Thru-hiker Calorie Myth and explains what most thru-hiker diets are missing in their diet. It also reveals how paying attention to food quality can help you experience better energy, endurance, and long-term health.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
What does Healthy High Fat look like in practice?
Again, it’s not nutritional ketosis and it’s not high fat junk foods, which are generally low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fats. Yes, it’s about the quantity of fat, but more importantly, it’s also about the quality of the fats (as well as the quality of the carbs and proteins).
In terms of quality of fat, my goal is to eat lots of ‘healthy’ fats and reduce or eliminate ‘unhealthy’ fats. I do my best to avoid all artificial trans fats, which are found most abundantly in junk foods and industrial seed oils. These are linked to chronic disease and other issues, such as cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer, shortening of pregnancy period, nervous system disorders, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergy. No, thank you.
Instead, I focus on saturated and monounsaturated fats, with moderate amounts of polyunsaturated fats. First, let’s cover why fats are essential. We need fat for cell membrane integrity, transporting cholesterol, brain health, eye health, skin health, cell signaling, hormone balance, blood sugar regulation, vitamin absorption, and much more!
According to functional medicine practitioner Dr. Chris Kresser, “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats. Overall, there is no reason to fear saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet that also includes monounsaturated fatty acids and whole-food sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids.” Check out this article to go deeper on this.
Tips for Improving Food Quality in Your Trail Diet
In general, I focus on foods that:
- are as close to their whole food form as possible.
- have either no ingredient label, (e.g. almonds, pecans, plums, kale) or as short of an ingredient list as possible. This eliminates a lot of the inflammatory preservatives, food dyes, fillers, and other unnecessary ingredients in many processed products. This also gives me a higher likelihood of eating foods that have a high nutrient density, including lots of anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
- have high antioxidant, and/or ‘medicinal’ value, such as anti-inflammatory spices (ginger, garlic, turmeric), superfood powders (e.g. cordyceps: a functional mushroom that supports endurance), and tea (like this organic instant premium tea-here’s a link for 15% off)
- are organic, when possible. This is to avoid the effects of glyphosate (e.g. Monsanto’s Roundup product) on both my body and on the environment, as it’s a probable carcinogen.
- are farm-raised, pastured, grass-fed, and in the most bioavailable form, when it comes to proteins.
I also reduce how inflammatory my diet is by avoiding gluten, and by highly limiting dairy, legumes, grains, and added sugars. Most people would likely benefit from eliminating gluten and dairy. Legumes and grains may apply on a more individual basis. Some foods tend to be more inflammatory than others for almost everyone, but it’s well established that how we react to any given food is highly individual.
If you’re curious about how different foods affect you, try an elimination diet so you can create a truly customized diet. I have a free guide for that here.
Examples of Foods I Eat on Trail
Here’s a smattering of foods you’ll commonly find in my resupply boxes:
- -olive oil
- -coconut oil
- -avocado oil
- -coconut milk powder
- -nut butters, such as almond butter
- -nuts, such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts
- -seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds
- -coconut flakes
- -homemade or fancy packaged trail mixes made from any of the above
- -grass-fed collagen powder, like this one
- -grass fed jerkies, such as this one and this one
- -tuna and salmon packets
- -freeze-dried meats, like chicken and beef
- -nuts and legumes (these add a bit of protein, but aren’t dense protein sources)
- -dried fruits, such as plums, dates, cranberries, raisins, etc.
- -bars with dried fruit as the first ingredient, such as this one and this one
- -clean ingredient granola, like this one
- -legumes, such as dehydrated refried beans and hummus powder
- -chips, such as sweet-potato chips or grain-free chips (read labels!)
- -dried veggies, such as kale, peppers, carrots, beets, spinach, broccoli
- -greens powders, such as this one
Sample Meals + How this all comes Together
I like to send a lot of resupply boxes because 1) I care about what I eat, and 2) I like the efficiency of walking into town, picking up my box, and walking out of town. But, though I like planning and prepping boxes, I don’t care for dehydrating my own food.
That being the case, my ‘recipes’ and food choices tend to be ridiculously easy to prepare and assemble. Many of my foods are repetitive. This helps me be efficient with my resources (time and money). I add variety by choosing different flavors and changing up specific ingredients (e.g. creating different types of trail mix from a few staple ingredients). Additionally, I don’t carry a stove, so my food choices are suitable for cold soak and/or require no on trail prep.
Skip the Sugar Crash Smoothie
Protein, fat, greens, superfoods, and anti-inflammatory spices. Find the full recipe here.
Lots of fat and a bit of protein to keep energy levels steady through the morning. This is a recipe I adapted from a few different sources including Alpine Science. Full recipe on the Resource page, linked below.
My Super Simple Dinners
- Chicken and Veggies
- Beans and Veggies
For detailed recipes and more resources on specific products as well as where I buy them, see the Healthy Lightweight Backpacking Meal Planning Resource Page here.
A Day in the Life: A few #protips
Here’s a look at how this plays out on trail, with some tips I use to make things easier. Each night, after finishing dinner, I rinse out my cold-soaking jar to prepare for the next day. I pour in a little water, add my smoothie mix, and then top it off with water and put on the lid. I shake vigorously and set it aside for morning. This helps keep the powder from sticking to the sides or bottom of the jar. It also gives the chia time to absorb the water overnight and I’m ready to leave camp as soon as I wake up. I can walk or drink as soon as I start to get hungry.
This is also when I have a little bit of caffeine, usually in the form of organic instant tea. Cusa Tea is the best I’ve found.
Mid-morning I usually have a snack. I try to stick with higher fat and protein options, like trail mix, for blood sugar stability. I like Gorilly Goods for healthy trail mixes or I make my own from nuts, seeds, and (occasionally) dried fruit from the bulk food aisle.
Around mid-day, I take a break for lunch, which is usually nut butter and chips or fish and chips or occasionally hummus powder and chips. For specifics on brands, grab this free Healthy Hiker Grocery Guide.
Mid-afternoon usually involves another snack or two (or sometimes three). This is likely to be a healthy bar (the fewer the ingredients the better) or a grass-fed jerky. A few of my favorites are Fourpoints Bars, Trail Nuggets, Supernola, Wild Zora, and Mighty Organic.
My mid-afternoon break is when I *try* to remember to soak my dinner. Dinner is often a freeze-dried meat or dehydrated beans soaked with freeze-dried veggies. I change up different anti-inflammatory spices to change the flavor and to up the nutrient density. The longer it soaks, the better. But if I forget, which is not uncommon, I just soak it when I get to camp or realize I’m getting hungry. I wait as long as I can and/or just eat a slightly crunchy dinner. I’m disgusting, I know.
Right before I eat, I’ll add some type of healthy fat, like olive oil or coconut oil, and mix it in thoroughly. I then eat my cold mush with a spoon, and chips or a grain-free tortilla. A note on oil storage: I buy individual packets when possible to reduce messiness and spillage. I also recommend double-bagging to keep your pack safe. Better safe than sorry on this one.
Post dinner is always dark chocolate (>75% cacao), but not so much that I can’t sleep (not that this has happened… multiple times).
A Note on Nutrient Timing
I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I tend to focus on fat and protein in the early part of the day. This is to avoid spiking insulin and getting on the energy rollercoaster of sugar spikes and crashes. My morning smoothie is mostly fat and protein which gives me steady energy through the morning. My mid-morning snack is a lower sugar bar with protein and fat, or a trail mix, or grass-fed jerky.
Lunch is usually high fat, with some protein and a bit of carbs. Around lunch or for my mid-afternoon snacks, I’ll start to have more carbs to keep my energy going through the day. This may be more chips or fruit-based bars.
Another way, I’ll use carbs strategically is for intense efforts, such as a steep and/or particularly long climb. I also wrote about this a bit in part 1.
Dinner is a mix of all macros, such as meat with veggies and a starch. The protein helps repair and rebuild muscle. The fat helps keep me warm and satiated through the night. The carbs help refuel muscle glycogen and helps me to produce serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin, so it helps me sleep more soundly.
Another part of my strategy to optimize my health on trail is supplementation. I include electrolytes in this category. More on that in a separate post in the near future.
As mentioned, this is another evolution from how I’ve fueled on trail in the past. Food is massively important in how I manage autoimmune symptoms, continue to get after it outdoors, and take care of my overall health in my everyday life, and my goal was to carry as much of that into my trail diet as possible. I’ll follow up afterwards with what worked and what didn’t.