3 Reasons To Rethink Your Backpacking Food

By Ryan Munsey & Mike Lum

Mountain Wellness: Fuel The Pursuit Nutrition Article

Whether you’re planning your first backcountry hunt or you’ve spent more nights in the wilderness than Randy Newberg, fueling our pursuits is often an often overlooked element that is inextricably linked to our experience and enjoyment of the great outdoors.

While backpacking food is frequently discussed – but usually never beyond the context of calories per ounce and total pack in weight – it’s impact on our minds, bodies, and ultimately, our hunting abilities is rarely considered. 

As passionate backcountry hunters who work as performance coaches to elite performers in the worlds of military, law enforcement, sports, and business, we want to bring the performance optimizing strategies used by these tip of the spear humans to our spear-toting brethren in the mountains.

Before you get defensive about ditching your Snickers bars and bagels, let’s get a few things out of the way from the start:

  1. We called this project called Fuel The Pursuit for a reason. We want to help you move, think, and perform like an Apex predator in the mountains – this year, and for years to come.
  2. We’re passionate about health, human optimization, and human performance. We don’t care how you look, how much you weigh or how pretty your meal looks on Instagram. 
  3. This isn’t about diet or weight loss. Fuel The Pursuit is about more than “calories in vs. calories out”.
  4. We’ll draw from the latest in nutritional and performance research, not some long outdated dietary paradigm.

Yes, food is fuel, but it’s also much more than that. Food is chemical information for your cells and everything we put into our bodies has both short and long term effects on our physiology, psychology, and performance.

The wrong foods can impair brain function, cloud decision making, trigger inflammation, disrupt hormone function, accelerate aging and can signal the body to store fat.

The right foods can enhance cognitive function, improve metabolism, balance hormones and help us think, feel, and perform at our best. Elite athletes, military operators, and other high performers are leveraging these strategies every single day.

But you already knew food quality was important – it’s likely part of the reason you venture into wild places to procure high quality meat for you and your family. If you’re truly interested in optimal human performance, we want to help you extend those standards to the foods you eat while procuring said wild game so you can hunt harder, better, and longer, ultimately deriving more enjoyment from your experiences in nature.

Typical Backpacking Food Is Wrecking Your Hunt

Motives established, let’s dive into the physiological impacts of food.

As we stated, everything we eat delivers chemical information to the cells in our bodies, signaling everything from hormonal function to gene expression or suppression.

You don’t need a degree in Food Science to understand that fast food combo meals and gas station snacks contain different chemical information than fresh elk backstraps. 

From a micro to macro perspective, these food choices influence cellular function, energy production, mood swings, decision making, performance (enjoyment of our experiences) and long-term health (our ability to hunt in the mountains at a high level for decades to come).

Let’s look at the negative impacts of three ingredients commonly found in backcountry hunter’s meals: sugar, vegetable oils, and chemicals/preservatives.


Sugar is so impactful on our body that we actually have a built in hormone to regulate its presence in our blood stream – insulin.

Sugar is sticky and leads to glycation, a form of oxidative reaction (rusting iron is a familiar oxidative process). Ever tried to open a jar of honey or jelly after a few months? That stickiness is glycation and it can happen inside our bodies after chronic overconsumption of carbohydrates, causing our cells and tissues to lose viscosity and have trouble sliding over each and moving as freely as they should, just like your jar of honey.

Glycation also leads to Advanced Glycation Endproducts, or AGE’s for short. These AGE’s are naturally occurring metabolic byproducts of sugar metabolism (all carbohydrates must be broken down into sugar for use by the body) and their buildup can lead to “protein damage, aberrant cell signaling, increased stress responses, and decreased genetic fidelity” and are considered carcinogenic (cancer causing)  [1]

On a more immediately noticeable level, sugar consumption can lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes, causing mood and energy swings and creating a reliance on a steady source of snacking.

Most people eat more sugar than they realize: as sugar is hidden in most processed foods, including many so-called health foods like yogurt, soups, jerky, protein bars, and green drinks.

Your best bet is to learn to read labels, and not the front of the package. The front of the package is designed to do one thing: sell the product. The Nutrition Facts and ingredients list will tell you what you need to know. How much sugar you deem acceptable is up to you, but we’ll advise that little to none is best from a performance, health and longevity perspective.

And before you think, “I can get away with it” because you’re young, active, or both – you can’t. Sure you might “burn through” the sugar from a purely caloric standpoint, but that doesn’t change any of the chemical reactions that we’ve outlined here – they’re still happening. Just because you’re not gaining weight or storing body fat doesn’t mean DNA and cellular damage, accelerated aging, impaired neurological function, and hormonal imbalance aren’t hindering your performance. 

Oh, and we haven’t even gotten to the part about how junk food high in sugar and vegetable oils destroys collagen – the protein responsible for joint integrity, leads to trunk obesity (disproportionate belly fat/ apple shaped), is a precursor to insulin resistance and an overworked pancreas which leads to Type 2 Diabetes, and is linked to Alzheimer’s.

Let’s be clear. We’re not ANTI-CARB: just the RIGHT CARBS, at the right time, and in the right amount. (We like rice, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, squash, and oats.)

Vegetable Oils

After sugar, the next biggest performance-robbing culprit is vegetable oils. You may see these as canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil and several others. 

Think of them as “liquid age” as they negatively impact a laundry list of bodily functions. Here’s a quick list:

  • Arteries (disrupt regulation of blood flow through the brain), 
  • Immune System (cause white blood cells to attack body – auto immune response) 
  • Heartburn and Gut Health (inflammation in the gut disrupts digestion, assimilation of nutrients, and can lead to leaky gut), 
  • Intercept antioxidant delivery to brain (accelerating oxidation, you’re familiar with oxidation as rust)
  • Intracellular trash accumulates in nerve cells – interfering with signaling & communication:
    • In white matter, this causes a loss of mobility
    • In grey matter, this causes a loss of personality & connection to world (dementia & Alzheimer’s)
  • Gene replication is impaired: impairs brain development through direct mutations of DNA and epigenetic expression [2]

These oils show up in soups, broths, dehydrated meals, candy, snacks, and many foods that falsely promote themselves as “healthy”. Again, go straight to the ingredients list for the truth. 

Chemicals & Preservatives

We know you’re ready to get to the “eat this” list, so we’ll make this section quick.

Chemicals and preservatives will be a catch-all term for all the ingredients you cannot pronounce. If we can’t pronounce it (or have no idea what it is), maybe we shouldn’t be feeding it to our cells.

These artificial dyes, preservatives, and chemicals, disrupt hormone function, impair nerve signaling (brain function), trigger immune responses, and accelerate aging.

Chasing wild game through the mountains is tough enough. Why add self-inflicted brain fog, joint pain, mood swings and energy crashes to the experience?

Let’s get to the good stuff. Here are the governing dynamics of what we want to emphasize. We’re looking for fuel to perform as well as promote recovery, protect cognition, mental energy and decision making, and reduce fatigue/Inflammation. We want to show you how to come out of the mountains in as good as – or BETTER – shape than when you went in. This is very possible and, we argue, an infinitely better proposition than coming out exhausted mentally and physically, having endured greater pain than necessary.

It starts with Metabolic Flexibility.

Metabolic flexibility is your friend

Scientific literature defines metabolic flexibility as the ability to respond or adapt to conditional changes in metabolic demand. In layman’s terms, metabolic flexibility refers to the body’s ability to seamlessly and efficiently toggle between carbs and fat as fuel sources. [3,4,5]

“Having” metabolic flexibility or “being” metabolically flexible means we can match our fuel usage (oxidation) to the fuel(s) that are available to us as well as the present physical and mental demands. It means we can thrive on those oats AND the peanut butter we ate. It also means we can efficiently tap into the thousands of stored calories in our fuel reserves we call adipose tissue (body fat) when we’re not eating (or able to eat) exogenous calories. 

And by stored energy, we’re talking about those extra 80,000 -100,000 calories we’re all carrying around the mountains in the form of stored body fat.

Humans are biologically designed to store energy for later use, and hunting game in the wilderness is the origin of this biological adaptation. We want your body to function to the way it was designed to. Check this out:

When we carb-load, we store carbohydrates as glycogen in our liver and muscles. Depending on our our muscle mass, our individual glycogen capacity is about 200-400 grams of carbohydrates. At most 400 grams x 4 calories per gram is 1600 calories. We’ll burn through that in the first half of a marathon, which is why there is an entire gel/goo/sports drink industry built on preventing the bonk.

The very fact that we get hangry, or bonk when these glycogen stores hit empty is a dead giveaway that our body isn’t switching from carbs to stored body fat as a fuel source. In other words, the “bonk” is an indicator of sugar dependency, or metabolic inflexibility.

In addition to glycogen, we also lug around 20-50 (or more) pounds of reserve fuel in the form of body fat.

Even a very lean man, let’s say 10% body fat at a total body weight of 200 pounds, has 20 pounds of body fat on his frame. 20 pounds x 454 g/pound = 9,080 grams of fat x 9 calories per gram = 81,720 calories of stored energy on this lean man’s frame. Most people will have more. BUT, the real question is, can they tap into it?

In a backcountry setting where we admit going in that calorie expenditure will exceed calorie carrying and consumption, it’s nice to know our machinery is functioning properly and can tap into the energy stored on our bodies as nature intended – for these exact scenarios. 

We’re born as fat-adapted machines, meaning we can efficiently utilize fat for fuel. 

Unless we’re one of the lucky few (if you have to ask, you’re not) or we’ve eaten in an intentional manner to reclaim our fat-adapted states (metabolic flexibility), we’re carbohydrate dependent due to years of the Standard American Diet and archaic nutrition advice.

So how can we improve metabolic flexibility? The same way we prepare our marksmanship and fitness for hunting season – training.

Keto is not a 4-letter word

Those extra 80,000-100,000 calories that we all carry are great, but not if we can’t access them. 

Those who are not fat-adapted, or metabolically flexible, will struggle to effectively and efficiently tap into those stored calories. Read: you’re going to bonk and feel hangry until you grab another Snickers.

Two tools to train our bodies to reduce our dependence on constant carbohydrate infusions and to reclaim our innate metabolic flexibility are the ketogenic diet and fasting.

A well-designed ketogenic diet can boost mental acuity, improve metabolic function, and boost physical performance in specific applications. 

The term ketogenic diet is often an umbrella term for all low carb, high fat diets. To follow a ketogenic diet one needs to limit carbohydrates to about 5% of total calories, keep protein around 25% of caloric intake, and get the rest from fats (about 70%).

When we say well-designed, we’re referring to a continued emphasis on quality, real food, mostly whole foods that positively support the body’s functions. We’re not advocating a diet of bacon, pork rinds, cream and Velveeta cheeses.

Instead, we’re talking more about an ancestral diet that resembles what our hunter-gather predecessors might have eaten – nuts, seeds, a few berries, some greens, and fattier cuts of animal protein (extra points for consuming organ meats…some of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet). .

In addition to helping us restore metabolic flexibility in the off-season, higher fat plans have two distinct advantages in the backcountry: a higher calorie to weight ratio and decreased oxygen consumption.

The gold standard for backpacking food is to aim for 100 calories per ounce. This is MUCH easier to achieve with higher fat foods, because fat contains 2.25 TIMES more calories per gram than carbohydrates. (9 calories per gram of fat compared to 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates.)

So the next time you’re weighing 7-10 days worth of food, keep in mind this rule of 2.25X. Also be sure to check out our keto, stoveless food list that comes in at under 8 pounds for 5 days of food, packing a massive 4,000 calories per day. [LINK AT END]

Now, let’s talk fasting… Note: fasting does not have to mean following a low carb diet. We can utilize fasting protocols and follow higher carb approaches. 

The most common fasting approach is what’s known as 16/8 – fasting for 16 hours and compressing the day’s meals into an 8-hour feeding window. Since fasting is the default, a more appropriate name might be intermittent feeding. These compressed feeding windows may hold more of the key to long term health than anything. 

Simply put, humans have not had the food availability that we enjoy today for more than a fraction of the time we’ve been on this planet. We’re biologically designed for times of feast and famine, but our current civilizations afford us the opportunity to feast whenever we desire. Our biology hasn’t – and can’t – change quickly enough to match our current reality. For this reason, having the mental fortitude to practice a little restraint or discretion can go a long way to optimizing our bodies and minds. 

We don’t have to fast all day, or even every day to reap the metabolic benefits. The 16/8 (eat only between Noon – 8pm for example) or 18/6 approach can be used every other day, on weekends only, or any 1-2 days per week. 

Experiment with a few setups and see what works best for you. Some training is better than none and for many, too much is just as harmful as none – the dose makes the toxin. 

Understand that fasting and keto can be used as tools during your off-season to make you more fat-adapted (more metabolically flexible) during your hunts this fall. You don’t necessarily have to be #keto in the mountains to reap the benefits of metabolic flexibility.

But, if you’re looking for an argument for taking the keto approach into the mountains, look no further than oxygen efficiency. We hunt at elevations where oxygen is reduced and physical performance can be impacted by oxygen availability.

Dr. David Ludwig is a nutrition professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health and he’s working with Navy SEALs who spend time in submarines and diving underwater – two environments where oxygen utilization is crucial.

Dr. Ludwig and his team have found success employing the ketogenic diet for these elite performers because “ketosis reduces the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the body in relation to the amount of oxygen it consumes. The buildup of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream is what triggers the need to breathe, he said, so being on the keto diet could enable someone to breathe less often.” [6] 

If we can reduce our oxygen demands, we can also mitigate the performance-robbing effects of lower levels of oxygen at higher altitudes where our favorite wild game lives. 

It has also been shown that the presence of beta-hydroxybutyrate, the ketone molecule we use for fuel, when present in the bloodstream, decreases markers of inflammation. Think: less soreness from prolonged physical activity! [7]

(Personally, Ryan follows a daily intermittent fasting plan with moderately low-carb levels – not keto – year round, but does use targeted, short stints of ketosis, including backcountry hunts for the reasons outlined here. Mike follows a more “cyclical” ketogenic diet; generally maintaining a light state of ketosis for several days a week followed by a day or two of carb “refeeding” utilizing intermittent fasting schedules on most days. Mike also uses deeper states of ketosis for more targeted uses…like backcountry hunting!)

Yes, carbohydrates can promote recovery and are a superior fuel for “top-gear”, or high intensity efforts like those you’d see in the CrossFit Games, but how closely does that reflect the physical demands of an elk or sheep hunt? 

The truth is, backcountry hunting is an endurance event for both mind and body, and this aerobic work relies on fat oxidation for fuel. Training our bodies to be more efficient with this fuel source is to our advantage. For folks who study Google Earth, spend hours planning hunts with OnX and obsess over rifle calibers and releases for bows, why leave this crucial stone unturned. It’s literally the thing that enables you to go, keep going, and enjoy doing it.

For more on how to leverage these points and plan your next backcountry food lists:

  1. LISTEN to the podcast (EP. 31 | Fuel The Pursuit)
  2. DOWNLOAD the resources below by click the link and then SAVING a COPY (link to google sheet)
  3. CONTACT Mike or Ryan for more help (@you3_coaching or @ryanmunsey_ on IG or at ryanmunsey.com)


Ryan Munsey has a Dietetics degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition from Clemson University. He’s the former owner of House Of Strength performance training facility, author of F*ck Your Feelings and co-founder of the Better Human Project. Ryan works as a speaker and consultant for performance-focused teams around the world, including elite military and law enforcement groups, Olympic and professional athletes, Entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Mike Lum is a certified performance specialist who runs You 3 Wellness in Bozeman, Montana. He’s also veteran fishing guide, with three decades of experience as a guide on the world famous Madison River. 


  1. Turner DP. Advanced glycation end-products: a biological consequence of lifestyle contributing to cancer disparity. Cancer Res. 2015;75(10):1925–1929. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-15-0169
  2. Shanahan, Dr. Catherine. Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. 
  3. Goodpaster BH, Sparks LM. Metabolic Flexibility in Health and Disease. Cell Metab. 2017;25(5):1027–1036. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2017.04.015
  4. Galgani JE, Moro C, Ravussin E. Metabolic flexibility and insulin resistance. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2008;295(5):E1009–E1017. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.90558.2008
  5. Sisson, Mark. The Definitive Guide to Metabolic Flexibility. Mark’s Daily Apple. https://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-to-metabolic-flexibility/
  6. David Ludwig, professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/keto-diet-navy-seals/
  7. Park MH, Kim DH, et al. Anti-Inflammatory action of beta-hydroxybutyrate via modulation of PGC-1A and FoxO1, mimicking calorie restriction. Aging. February 27, 2019.

See Google sheet for:

make sure to save a COPY to edit

Food Pack List with Weights (Stoveless & Keto Option plus recipes for make-ahead burritos and bars with carbs)

** For those who prefer meals at camps in the evenings, simply add 1 backpacking meal per day of hunting in place of other meals/foods on the list

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