"How close do I need to come to hitting calorie goals in the backcountry?" It's not an uncommon question in the world of nutrition, but I was caught off guard with it coming off the lips of a long-time athlete preparing for his first elk hunt in the infamously steep and rugged backcountry of Idaho. I suppose the part that threw me off the most was that he'd had experience in this arena; finagling numbers to match his needs for the best performance possible. He wasn't a stranger to food being fuel but was taken back by a caloric number that seemed like it would align more with the needs of a defensive line at a division 1 college football program than numbers that reflect his daily needs on the hunt.
Like my friend, it's probably no secret to you that food in the backcountry is the most essential ingredient in propelling you towards whatever lake, peak, or new drainage you're aiming for. Also like my friend, you've probably wondered "how important is it that I hit the numbers those fancy calculators spit out for my caloric intake?"
Here's the good news: it's not; at least not important that you hit a single digit.
Whoa, whoa, John Muir; let me finish before you start out on the trailhead with only a granola bar and a package of dry Ramen. A single digit doesn’t matter, but a realistic caloric range does. I'd even go a step further and suggest what matters more than overall calorie goals is where those calories come from and matching the calorie range to the type of activity you're doing. As a result, you're going to want a wide variety of snacks and food to give you energy when you need it the most.
Up until the introduction of a subscription-style, outdoor-focused, nutrition box, you'd probably exhausted every flavor of Clif bar and every combination of nut butters and Nabisco snacks. As good as it felt to retire a lot of those monotonous treats in favor of the new shiny offerings in the Backcountry Fuel box; I'd challenge you to see the box as more than just convenience. Here's how to make the most out of your Backcountry Fuel Box.
Create a Base
I just told you the game of numbers in nutrition isn't important. Here's where I do the normal "health expert back-peddling on their previous statement" thing we seem to be so good at (remember how eggs went from being bad to good for you 20 times over…?). The numbers in your set range do matter to some degree; particularly if you want to perform well, make it to your goal, and still have enough gas in the tank to enjoy the view.
Your true energy needs in the mountains would probably blow your mind if you knew the actual range of calories needed during the day to break even. The Backcountry Fuel Box is a great way for you to take a lot of the guesswork out of the "how" part of making the math match.
Take the September box for instance. There was a nice breakfast option in the box from BaseKamp (no relation to me, although I have to admit I'm jealous I didn't come up with the name …) meals. Their offerings? A breakfast muesli with more than 400kcal, 6g of fat, 77g of carbohydrates, and 13g of muscle-repairing protein. Not a shabby start, but definitely not the "powerhouse" you'd need to make a big summit bid or chase elk in the backcountry when daylight can last for 14+ hours in early September.
Don’t get me wrong, this meets most of your needs as a base, but there you can easily inch yourself closer to your full needs by adding some dry fruit, a spoonful of nut butter, coconut flakes, and added protein powder to bolster what your true caloric needs are.
Fill In the Gaps
Let's not give all the love to the September box. March's box was a doozy! Meals from Heather's Choice, Raspberry oatmeal options from Off-Grid, and Re-bars?! Who wouldn't eat that puppy on the front porch the day it's delivered? If you were able to practice restraint and hold out for the backcountry, you probably found the Honey Stinger's to be just the touch you needed when you weren't quite ready for a full-blown meal.
The Backcountry Fuel Box nestles little morsels like this in each of their boxes. It's easy to see it as a trivial treat because it doesn't require two cups of boiled water and 20 minutes to reheat, but guys like me that build nutrition plans for a living see it and think "what a great thing to throw in a meal plan for someone who sees the big peak ahead, but doesn't quite want to bust out the Mountain House yet". Keep an eye out in future boxes for little nuggets of energy like that. There's one in nearly every box.
(Side note: March also threw in some Colombian Coffee from Dark Timber. Caffeine is one of the only pre-workout "supplements" to show any beneficial effect before exercise in correct doses.)
Find New Options
Is there anything worse than digging your least favorite granola bar out of the bottom of your pack? If finally reaching your destination is the apex of a morale-boosting event on a trip, finding a half-broken and partially-expired granola bar is the bottom of the emotional barrel in my mind.
Arguably, the biggest advantage of the Backcountry Box is the door it opens to explore a litany of options for potential future backcountry go-to. I'm forever blown away by what Cody and his gang puts in these boxes: new meals from companies that I'd never known had existed, quick granola bars that don't instantly spiral me into a state of disappointment when I pull it out, and other goodies that can serve as a way to bolster the calorie content of an evening meal in preparation for a tough day once the sun rises.
A large part of why many of us fell in love with the backcountry was the escape from the worry and busy-paced lives we lead day-in and day-out. The last thing you want to cloud that escape is worrying about if you've packed enough or if you've packed enough of the right stuff. Let Cody and his gang do the work for you; explore new options, bolster your normal routine meals, enjoy the experience, and you'll find the numbers will take care of themselves.
This article was written by Kyle Kamp, registered and licensed dietitian, as well as the owner of Valley 2 Peak Nutrition. He specializes in nutrition planning for backcountry adventures. You can find more about him at v2pnutrition.com