Backcountry Food: Meal Planning and Preparation is Essential

Never underestimate the power of backcountry food to push you to the next level! Use your food for fuel. 

Maybe you are gearing up to bag that peak you have been craving to summit. Or a multi-pitch climbing session. Or, if you are a backcountry skier or snowboarder, its that line you have been drooling over since summer! 

Bags are packed. Routes are planned. Weather and other conditions indicate today will be perfect. Everything is ready to go, but have you considered what backcountry food will fuel this journey most effectively? Read on before doing so. 

man hiking mountain, food for fuel, vibrant nutrition RD

Using Backcountry Food for Fuel

Those who seek the exhilaration of outdoor pursuits tend to push their bodies to the limits. The thrill and elation of reaching that objective may inhibit you from realizing how dehydrated and tired you actually are. High altitudes can suppress appetite and thirst, so even with out realizing your body can become depleted of fluids and essential nutrients. Low blood sugar can cause slower reaction time, irritability and hinder your ability to respond accurately in the event of an accident. Thus, having the fuel for that final push could be the difference as to whether you make it to that mountain top and back to the trail head safely.

Macronutrient Guidelines for Athletes

When considering foods for fuel on your adventure, carbs should dominate trail food choices. Hydration, as discussed in a previous post, is also a primary necessity. In fact, when carbs, fluids and electrolytes are consumed together, it maximizes the absorption of all three. Carbs should represent 55-60% of calories, while protein and fat provides the rest. 

food for fuel, backpackers in a canyon Vibrant Nutrition RD


Carbohydrates have been labeled the best ergogenic aids, known to enhance and prolong exercise. Without enough of it, we ‘bonk’ or ‘hit the wall’, as it is sometimes called. This is when our bodies completely run out of energy, thinking becomes cloudy and movements are slow and heavy. When exercising at moderate to high intensity in excess of 3 hours, the body burns on average 60-90 grams of carbs per hour

Generally, avoid too much fiber, complex carbs or fat. These slow digestion and increase the time it take for glucose to enter the blood stream. Simple carbs from tortillas, dried fruit, gels or white bread are great backcountry food options. 

Glucose is also stored in the liver and muscles. This is called glycogen and is utilized when dietary carbs sources are scant. In fact, the human body has an average of 400-500 grams of glucose stored in this way. 

Interestingly, when hiking at intense pace for more than 2-3 hours, the body may run out of glycogen. It will then attack lean muscle tissue to obtain energy. This is why protein is also a crucial component of backcountry food and nutrition. 


All protein is made of amino acids, but branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are are easily converted to glucose and used for energy. This is why the body canabalizes lean muscle tissue when nutrient stores are inadequate during prolonged exercise. While there are several BCAA drinks on the market, whole foods can suffice all the body needs. Shoot for 15-20% total calories from protein. This could be 20-40 grams for a shorter hike, or up to 100 grams for hikes lasting 6-8 hours. This can be achieved by consuming whole protein sources. However, some may prefer to add BCAA powder supplements to beverages, which works great when we aren’t feeling our hunger cues (as can happen with mountain anorexia). 

Different protein sources also have varying levels of bio-availability, the body’s ability to digest, absorb and make use of the protein we consume. Some of the highest bio-available protein sources are eggs, whey protein and soy. These will provide lots of BCAA’s and are complete proteins. Beans and rice, on the other hand, are better options for recovery meals. Protein-rich foods after your hike will stimulate muscle growth when we are at rest and may reduce delayed onset muscle soreness


With the best calories-per-weight ratio, plus long lasting satiety, it is no wonder foods such as trail mix, beef jerky and peanut butter sandwiches are common trail snacks. While fatty foods offer a light-weight solution to maximizing calories, they also take much longer to absorb. This causes bloating, lethargy and slower performance.  

Fat burning occurs when we are at rest, walking at a slow speed or when we have consciously trained our bodies to run off fat for fuel instead of carbs (i.e. the fat-fueled athlete). After you get done exercising, the ‘after-burn’ begins and this fat burning phase can last up to 24-hours. Of course, not all fats are created equal either. Medium chain triglycerides are easier to convert to energy than things like poly-unsaturated fats found in most nuts. Good MCT sources include butter, animal fat or coconut oil. Consuming modest servings of cheese, jerky or sausage will provide both MCT fats, and protein. Shoot for no more 50-75 grams of fat for a longer day of moderate day of hiking. 

Try these Snacks:

  • Chocolate banana bread with coffee flour
  • DIY trail mix: banana chips, dried fruit, macadamia nuts, almonds, chocolate chips and coconut flakes
  • Peanut butter, honey, banana sandwich with sourdough or white bread
  • Energy bars with at least 50% of calories from carbs(Try Kate’s Real Food bar, clif/clif builders, or pro-bars)
  • Honey Sticks + a small stock of your favorite candy bar
  • Turkey roll up with spinach, avocado, shredded carrots and mayo on your favorite tortilla
  • Sports drinks (Provides electrolytes, carbs and fluids all in one!)
  • ‘Beets and Sweets’ chips
  • Breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs and white flour tortilla
  • For more incredible backcountry meal ideas, visit
Standing on the top of a snowy mountain

Final Pro-Tip: Remember you ABC's

Always Be Chewing! Put some snacks in an area that you can easily reach. That way you won’t have to stop, take off your pack, search for food etc. Stopping frequently to munch just doesn’t happen as often as you body needs, and understandably so. Taking a lot of breaks always gets me out of the ‘flow’ and seems to slow down my momentum. Also, your sense of thirst and hunger get skewed when you are exerting yourself for long periods of time. By the time you and hungry or thirsty, nutrient stores have already decreased significantly. So just make sure you’ve got snacks on hand and are drinking and eating often through out the day. 

Thanks for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 


Topics #athlete fuel #backcountry food #food for fuel #sports fuel