Perfection. 10 out of 10. 100.%. It’s a tough mark to hit, yet we all seem to aim for it in about every endeavor we pursue dating as far back as to our first tests in school.
Backcountry nutrition is no different. We strive to hit the perfect balance of calories, perfect protein numbers, and even subjective things like food quality are now being measured to their degree of perfection.
It’s no surprise then that folks are starting to ask “what’s the perfect balance between carbohydrate and protein in the pursuit of reaching our backcountry goals?”
The Perfect Ratio
Believe it or not, nutritionists have actually studied this and have an answer. In all of our research on the topic of performance nutrition, we’ve identified one of the best carbohydrate-to-protein ratios for adequate recovery to be 4:1; that is 1 gram of protein to every 4 grams of carbohydrate.
Picture this: you’ve just finished up a tough day hike or even a heavy push to a peak in the distance. You reach into your pack of choice (be it day bag or 70-liter long-hauler), and pull out a Pro Bar or bag of Off Grid Trail Mix. You check out the carbohydrates label, quickly shrug off the modern-day phobia of the nutrient and notice there are 40-grams per serving. Next, you remember this article and how “some nutrition guy said you should aim for a 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio”. You glance down at the protein content in the package and see 10-grams listed. Presto! Your packaged goodies have hit the magic 4:1 ratio.
Now with that said; does that mean you’ll be in a state of nutrient-deficit to where you’re bonking and have no gas in the tank to continue should your packaged goodies not have that magic 4:1 ratio? No. This is considered a goal to aim for and there are a number of reasons why it’s nearly impossible to nail this metric every single time.
Giving Up The Pursuit of Perfection
A lot of us take packaged foods into the backcountry. They’re incredibly convenient and few of us have the time or patience it takes to plan, prepare, and dehydrate our own goodies. Sure, the later allows you to manipulate the numbers, but I recognize how impractical it is to advise people to pursue that route. The Backcountry Fuel Box does an exceptional job at including a variety of different products in each box. Very few of these, if any, meet this magic 4:1 ratio, but they’re all still an incredible source of fuel. In fact, this 4:1 ratio is darn tough to meet in the backcountry even when you make your own meals. Here are a few ideas on why you should give up the pursuit of perfection and what to aim for instead.
Aim for adequate carbohydrate intake. Carbs are the nutrient everyone loves to hate, which is quite ironic given it’s the very substrate the body craves in any high output activity. Adequate carbohydrate intake will give you exactly what you need to hit that peak in the distance.
A good rule of thumb to aim for in your planning for adequate intake is between 1.4 grams and 4 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. This can be met in a variety of different ways. The spaghetti and tomato sauce meal from Backpacker’s Pantry is a great example of how to meet a fraction of your personal needs.
Do your best not to include a lot of fat, fiber, and/or protein
“WHAT?! In a world where fat and protein seem to be king; why on earth would you tell us not to have these?” These inhibit how fast your body gets carbohydrates into the bloodstream, which is something you should really care about because that ultimately delays your efforts in reaching your goals in the backcountry. Fiber is included in this same category.
In a big hiking endeavor, blood is shunted (moved and carried somewhere else) from your stomach to your legs. Without that diversion to the legs, you’d have a tough time making it very far. The trouble with this is it means you’re not going to digest food eaten the same way you might when you’re not making a big push in the backcountry.
This explanation is largely why many folks have a tough time handling and digesting heavy bars in the backcountry. Not only is there inadequate blood flow to the gut preventing proper digestion, but when coupled with bars that are traditionally high in fat, fiber, and protein, you’ve created the perfect scenario to be in a world of hurt.
Don't Overcomplicate Your Nutrition
I would guess if I had the privilege of sitting down to lunch with each of you and asked the question “why do you go into the backcountry?” It’s doubtful any of us would reply with “because I love ruminating over and worrying about getting adequate nutrition!”
Instead, we’d share commonalities in answers like “because it gives me space to think” and “I’m humbled by being in God’s gorgeous creation”.
I’ve met far too many people who spoil their experience with worry about hitting precision numbers. Keep the 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate-to-protein in mind, but don’t worry if the numbers aren’t spot on the money. Avoid bars with too much fat, fiber, and protein and aim to hit your calculated carbohydrate goals. Take options from a variety of food sources you enjoy.
Kyle Kamp is a registered, licensed dietitian, and owner/operator of Valley 2 Peak Nutrition. Planning nutrition can be quite overwhelming and confusing, so feel free to reach Kyle via email firstname.lastname@example.org or via his Instagram @v2pnutrition. Kyle also joined The Rich Outdoors for a deep dive into backcountry nutrition on episode 336. Check it out for a broader conversation about proper nutrition in the backcountry.