Nutrition Planning for Extended Backcountry Hunts

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Two years ago, I planned my first ever week long DIY backcountry hunt on our great public lands in the Rocky Mountains. Fast forward to this year and I decided to embark on a 14 day hunt returning to the wonderful state of Colorado. I love the planning phase of the hunt, just as much as the actual hunt and when you start doing these adventure style hunts, it becomes a part of you in a sense. I’ve said it many times before, but the experiences that you have will be forever life changing and help you in all aspects of your life. These hunts can put you in some of the toughest physical and mental circumstances that our relatively cushioned lives usually don’t challenge us with. There are many ways that you can prepare yourself to lessen the severity of these struggles, and I think nutrition is near the top of that list.

Elk Hunting

Meal Planning

I am an analytical guy when it comes to my gear and nutrition planning for hunts. I utilize a spreadsheet that my brother, Kurt Martonik, created to track the calories, fat calories, protein, carbohydrates and etc. for each day of the hunt. For me, using this method keeps me organized and makes planning what I need to fuel my body that much easier. Everyone’s body reacts differently to what nutrients they consume, but I’ve found a high protein and fat diet seems to be the ideal setup for my body. Understand that I incorporate fats and proteins into my every day diet to help fuel my training as well as ensure that my body doesn’t get “shocked” by switching to that for the hunt. Your digestive tract will not be happy with you if you decide to switch up your diet all at once; I promise…

Below is the chart of what my daily meal plan looked like for this recent 14 day hunt:

Meal Planning for 14 Day Hunt

How Many Calories Am I Actually Burning?

There was something that I didn’t consider when essentially doubling the amount of days that I normally do these types of hunts. I was looking at how many calories I normally consumed on other mountain hunts and applying it to all of the trips, which I found out isn’t necessarily the most effective way. I needed to figure out how many calories I was actually burning (or have the potential to burn) and work backwards from there. The problem was I had no way to figure out how to do this. Recently, MTNTOUGH Fitness Lab out of Bozeman, Montana developed a Backcountry Calorie Counter interactive tool to help you figure out approximately how many calories you will burn on a trip based on your body weight, pack weight, distance, elevation gain and average hiking speed. This tool was built to help you make your backcountry nutrition plan so that you don’t experience the “bonking” effect over a long period of time.

What is the “bonking” effect? Let me tell you what it felt like to me. I actually think I almost hit that point twice, but once was extremely obvious. When you are running a calorie deficient over time, while putting stress and miles on your body, eventually your body starts to shut down. At first it felt like muscle fatigue along with brain fog, and I just felt like I couldn’t recover. I was hitting the point where my body was finally acclimated to the high elevations feeling like I could run a marathon, and then it hit me… I just felt weak and eventually woke up with a sore throat. My immune system was hanging on by a thread until I crashed. My throat was swollen to the point where I could barely swallow, and I am almost certain I had a fever. Every step felt like I was going to collapse. It was Day 12 of the trip and I felt like there was nothing I could do. I got back to camp and cooked up a Heather’s Choice Smoked Sockeye Salmon Chowder meal, added in some olive oil and went to bed hoping to recover after another long 16 hour day in the mountains. The next morning I still felt beat up and battered, but luckily it was the day we were packing out to the trucks. I struggled on the 7 mile pack out back to the trucks and felt disgusted with trying to figure out how I got so run down. With over 120 miles hiked being calorie deficient, it was only a matter of time before I hit that breaking point. Luckily the food that I was eating was dense in nutrients and kept me fueled for that long, but I will not make that mistake again.

Backcountry Elk Hunt

When I plugged in my information into the Backcountry Calorie Counter when I got back, I couldn’t believe how many calories I was actually burning! On Day 2, I hiked just over 12 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain carrying a 30 pound pack. With an average hiking speed of 1.5 miles per hour, I would’ve burned an excess of 6,400 calories, with only consuming 2,900 calories that day. Are you kidding me?! No wonder that wasn’t sustainable. I didn’t hike 12 miles every single day, but my daily calorie burning fluctuated between 4,600 and 6,400 calories with only replacing 40-60% of those calories.

Backcountry Calorie Counter

Lessons Learned

From this point going forward, I will always try to estimate the amount of calories I am going to burn and build my nutrition plan accordingly. I will continue to use the same food list that I have been using, but adding additional items to reduce the gap in the calories I’m burning vs. taking in. To say that I will be packing in 6,000 calories each day is unrealistic, but the more I can reduce that gap without adding a ton of weight, the better. Continuing to use the Heather’s Choice Buckwheat breakfasts, Packaroons, and Dinners help give me the nutrients I need in a lightweight package, but adding some jerky, dark chocolate and almonds may be the boost that I need for a hunt of that caliber. Everyone’s body and nutrition plan will be slightly different, but putting good fuel and enough fuel in your body is imperative to being able to grind it out until the last day of the hunt.

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