Recently, I sat down with Chris Denham and Kevin Guillen from Wilderness Athlete to discuss their tips and tricks on staying energized in the field. Not only do they have a ton of experience hunting the backcountry, but Chris and Kevin are experts in the rim-to-rim-to-rim: a fifty-mile hike with a 12,000-elevation gain. Likely, you’ll never have to go to such extremes to fill your elk tag, but their lessons learned can help you when planning your next backcountry hunt.
Currently, many sources hold a one-size-fits-all philosophy when it comes to nutrition. However, the single most important thing that came out of my discussion with Chris and Kevin is to know yourself— know how your body responds to certain foods and supplements. More importantly, understand how you respond under challenging conditions, such as a backcountry hunt.
One of the biggest mistakes hunters make during long backcountry hunts is that their nutrition is completely different than what they are used to at home. Obviously, some of this is inevitable—nobody expects you to eat freeze-dried meals at home. But your macronutrients in the field should be consistent with your regular diet. For instance, if you rely on carbs and protein at home but avoid fat, then you should aim to carry that same structure in the field. If you think about its intuitive, simple and it costs nothing but a little bit of attention. It’s probably the reason why it’s the most overlooked step when planning a hunt. Even the top endurance athletes don’t switch up their diet during their competition. So, why would you?
During the offseason, it is important to test your food and supplements before the hunt itself. The best time to experiment with the different types of dehydrated meals, snacks, drinks, and supplements, is during offseason scouting. For instance, when you are going for a quick weekend trip to scout, try that new energy bar and hydration powder. Then see how you responded. Did you feel good? Then keep it. If not, then lose it. It’s simple—it’s all about how you specifically respond to food. I know plenty of hunters that respond differently to the same dehydrated meals. One person may easily digest the freeze-dried biscuits and gravy, while the other feels like they ate a brick.
I have a terrible habit of finding something new that I love, and then overusing it to the point I don’t want it anymore. But the point still stands. I would never find these supplements or meals if I never tried them in the offseason. Experimenting with food during a backcountry hunt is essential to understand how your body and nutrition will affect the success of the trip. Knowing what works best and your response to certain foods can make or break a hunt. In terms of planning, experiment with various meals, snacks, and drinks so that you’re not caught off guard by your body's response during the hunt.
If you make the common mistake of assuming all calories are equal, then take some time to understand calories. It’s straightforward but it’s something you need to know when you are experimenting with how your body responds to certain foods.
Carbohydrates are a quick source of energy. They rapidly metabolize which means it can have an instant impact on your energy. When you are feeling that mid-day fatigue, consuming carbs will immediately give you a boost because your body metabolizes carbs into glucose. Glucose is your body’s fuel. Low glucose means low energy.
If you understand the relationship glucose levels have on your energy, then you should know the importance of glycogen. Glycogen stores glucose to be used later. If you are feeling exhausted on day three or four of your hunt, the culprit may be that your glycogen levels are depleted. Glycogen gets replenished when the body metabolizes complex carbs. Complex carbs come from foods like pasta and granola. Keep this in mind when you eat dinner and need to recover. Loading up on complex carbs before you sleep is a great way to recover in the field and come back stronger the next day.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Your body takes the amino acids from protein and uses them to build new protein—it’s called protein turnover. This process is directly responsible for repairing all the damage your body took from the backcountry. It is an essential process that helps build muscle, repair tissue, and provide energy for the next day. The physical demands of hunting can be quite strenuous. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet to repair the body.
If you find yourself feeling sore or not fully recovered on day two or three of your hunt, it may be because of your protein intake. The rule of thumb is one gram of protein per pound of body weight. Again, experiment during the offseason and take note of how your body responds to certain nutrition. But if you are consuming half your body weight in protein, then there is a good chance you probably aren’t getting enough protein in the field.
Out of the three macronutrients, fat has the most caloric value with nine calories per gram whereas carbohydrates and protein carry four calories per gram. For backcountry hunters, fat can prove valuable as it is a source of energy for less weight. But the main function of fat in your diet is that it assimilates the carbohydrates and protein to be digestible. If you didn’t have fat, your body couldn’t absorb the nutrients. If you find your body responds well to fat and you tend to lean on fat as your primary macronutrient, then remember that fat is harder to breakdown at a rate of five times slower than protein and carbs, which means you want to get ahead of the calorie deficiency. So, you’d rather consume fat early in the day and give your body time to process it rather than treat it like carbs when you need a quick pick-me-up.
When you think of hydration, think of electrolytes. Drinking water and staying hydrated is a central part of performing at your peak during the hunt. Supplementing sodium, potassium, and magnesium will help accelerate your hydration and keep you at your best. Electrolytes are minerals found in food and drink that our bodies rely on to function properly. Without them, your muscles and the nervous system won’t work. Dehydration is directly responsible for headaches, cramps, and heat exhaustion. When electrolytes are consumed correctly, they help the body perform better during your hunt.
Amongst the electrolytes that the body needs to function optimally and stay hydrated, sodium plays an especially important role. Sodium helps balance fluid levels in the body and encourages thirst, allowing us to recognize when we need to drink more water. It also helps retain fluids in your body which prevents dehydration and fatigue.
Often, backcountry hunts can require you to put in long hours. To prevent dehydration, it’s important to eat food that contains electrolytes like sodium. Supplementing with a hydration powder is a sure way to ensure that you keep your sodium levels stable. Also, keep an eye on how much sodium you take in as too much dilutes the salt in your body which causes nausea because your body is trying to get rid of the food that it can’t handle. By taking these precautions during your hunt and familiarizing yourself with proper hydration techniques, you can ensure that you make the most of your hunt.
Just as sodium is an important electrolyte for proper hydration, potassium also plays a critical role in keeping your body well-hydrated throughout your hunt. Potassium helps regulate fluid balance and releases energy to the muscles. If you have battled headaches or cramping during your previous hunts, you likely have inadequate amounts of potassium.
To make sure you’re getting enough of this essential electrolyte during your hunt, be sure to grab dehydrated meals with sufficient potassium. You can also sneak in potassium with hydration packets and energy bars, which is a great option when you are on the move. By making sure you’re properly hydrated throughout the day, your hunt won’t be hindered by dehydration or fatigue.
As Kevin mentioned in the podcast, most people are deficient in magnesium because of the mineral deficiency in the soil that produces our fruits and vegetables. Unless you grow your own food or are currently supplementing with magnesium, you may want to consider taking a multivitamin in the offseason. It's something that you want to get ahead of before you go into the field. Maintaining adequate magnesium levels is essential for energy metabolism. Magnesium helps activate ATPases—the enzymes that are needed to produce ATP (energy) for your muscles to use.
When you have a high energy output—like backpacking into camp or packing out— the turnover rate for ATP metabolism increases, which means that your body needs to be producing more energy than it normally would. If you don’t have enough magnesium in your system, however, your body won’t be able to produce enough energy to sustain itself. As result, you become lethargic, muscles cramp, and you get headaches.
Many people have trouble sleeping in the backcountry. Some stay awake all night thinking about the hunt and others fight the unfamiliar sounds of the woods. However, sleep is the main attributer to recovery. If you can get a good night's sleep, then you can come back stronger the next day. Again, this is one of those things that requires a little experimentation. When you are scouting in the offseason try different strategies or experiment with a sleep aid at home.
Keep Making Adjustments
Everyone's body is unique and will respond in different ways to different types of food and supplementation. Knowing what works for your body and what doesn't is the single most important step when it comes to nutrition, especially for a long backcountry hunt.
Therefore, it's important to stick with the same macronutrient structure that you are used to consuming at home—don't switch up your diet too drastically when you’re out in the field as there are too many variables that could negatively affect your energy. The best way to ensure that certain foods work for you is to test them out during the offseason. Try to carry the same snacks and supplements that you think might work, then monitor how they make you feel afterward. If they do not sit well with your system, then let them go! It's all about listening to your body and knowing how it responds under challenging conditions such as a backcountry hunt so that you can stay energized and perform at your peak.
If you're interested in what I use in the backcountry, head over to Wilderness Athlete and check out the Live Wild package. If you end up finding something you like, use code LIVEWILD at checkout and get 20% off.