Backcountry travel has a way of showing us how our daily lives are killing us with too much comfort. In the great outdoors, you carry your home on your back, each day you have to dress as Mother Nature tells you to, and showers become a luxury compared to “back home.”
And when it comes to backcountry nutrition, instead of eating proper meals with 2,000 low-fat, high fiver calories a day, we consume more than that, and we snack on all sorts of comfort foods we bought from home. In today’s nature enthusiasts’ diet, you can find anything from candy bars to potato chips and all sorts of food that we are taught to avoid.
Food for the soul?
While some of you may say that potato chips and mac and cheese are great foods when it comes to backcountry nutrition since they are shelf-stable, calorically dense, and have a great content of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, you’re missing out on the essential. These foods will be able to power your body for miles, but it all comes to how long you are planning to stay in the wilderness.
There is a reason you don’t feed your family daily with foods that are backcountry staples. They lack vitamins and minerals that their body need to stay healthy in the long run.
Now you may say that the low nutritional density and the reduced short life of leafy greens and fresh fruit aren’t a viable choice when it comes to backcountry nutrition. However, that doesn’t mean that what our bodies need to stay healthy can’t be provided with the help of other foods.
Eating only candy bars and whatnot will leave you weak and your health may deteriorate the longer your diet is nutritionally compromised. You may not be aware of it, but the first problems begin to appear after only a few days.
Backcountry nutrition week 1 to 4 – Vitamin deficiency
Exhaustion is your constant companion. Bruises on your shoulders make the weight of your pack unbearable. The nosebleeds start.
Vitamin deficiency is often the first sign of malnutrition in the backcountry. While your body can store the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) for a number of weeks, water-soluble vitamins (C and B-complex) flush out of your system in a matter of days.
Low-levels of these essential vitamins will quickly lead to serious health consequences, affecting everything from energy levels to immune system health. In the front country, we keep our vitamin levels up by eating a healthy and varied diet, and one of the best ways to keep our vitamin levels up in the backcountry is to do the same.
More on avitaminosis (vitamin deficiency) here:
Air-dried and freeze-dried fruits and vegetables not only provide the vitamins our bodies need but also provide a break from the monotony of oatmeal.
But just as our bodies can’t store water-soluble vitamins long-term, the lack of water in air-dried and freeze-dried vegetables also takes a toll on their nutritional content. This is further compounded over time by exposure to air and heat.
So even if you are eating as many fruits and vegetables in the backcountry as you would in the front country, you may still not be getting the nutrients you require. Taking a daily multivitamin, while not a substitute for a healthy diet, can help to ensure you’re getting enough of the water-soluble vitamins.
Backcountry nutrition months 1-3 – Digestive Distress
It’s your second bout of diarrhea today, and ifs not even noon. Your palms are sweating. Your stomach is in turmoil. Most food, and water, seems to pass straight through. Before you jump to a worst-case scenario that you’re suffering from food poisoning, or even worse, giardia-remember that backcountry travel is an extremely strenuous activity.
You may be consuming twice or even three times the calories that you would normally eat in your daily from country life. Exposure to the elements-the wind, rain, and cold-will further compound your caloric needs.
To keep up with this huge influx, your digestive system must go into overdrive, producing enzymes at a rapid rate to transform your food into the energy you need to survive.
To conserve energy, your body may simply stop producing enzymes for certain types of foods, particularly those that are difficult to digest or that you don’t eat on a regular basis. Then, when you eat something you lack the correct enzymes for, your digestive tract will have no choice but to flush it out of your system, along with any beneficial bacteria that was aiding your digestion.
To maximize the nutrients, your body is able to extract from your food, strive to eat a balanced, consistent diet. Simply put, your body is less likely to have a negative reaction to foods it is already producing digestive enzymes for.
Another step you can take is to reinforce the beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract with the addition of a probiotic. Look for a shelf-stable brand in pill form that you can add to your daily vitamin regimen.
Backcountry nutrition months 3 and up – Mineral Depletion
It’s only a matter of minutes after each break before you’re out of breath again. Between that and psoriasis covering your leg, you don’t know how much longer you’ll make it today. One more step and a muscle cramp leave you crumpled on the ground.
Unlike vitamins, your body is able to store enough minerals to last several months. Eating healthy today goes a long way toward ensuring your body has the mineral it needs to survive in the wilderness. But when your reserves run low, the consequences can be terrible. Women are particularly susceptible to the two most common mineral deficiencies: iron and calcium.
Iron is an essential component for carrying oxygen to muscles, and the stronger you become, the more oxygen your body requires and uses. Insufficient iron in the body most commonly results in anemia, with symptoms that can range from headaches to fatigue, and even worse, irregular heartbeats.
Once anemia sets in, it can take weeks until you can recover from it. You will have to eat iron-rich foods such as red meats and leafy greens to make sure your body has the iron content It needs when it needs it.
Calcium is the mineral that keeps our bones healthy and strong, and nowhere is that more important than in the wilderness. Not only are we pounding out miles across difficult terrain, but we also carry a loaded backpack that adds up to our total body weight.
Dried milk powder is a great way to make sure that you are increasing the calcium in your backcountry nutrition. Another tip I can give you is to remove fruit dried with sulfur from your backpack meals since these are known to leach calcium from your body.
Backcountry nutrition for women
Women are used to struggling more than men to maintain a slim figure and a balanced bodyweight. The fat deposits that evolved to help their body carry a fetus to term during a time in human history when resources were scarce can be a major disadvantage for their modern sedentary lifestyles.
However, should their need to travel long distances through the wilderness arise, the body’s ability to hold onto body fat turns into a major advantage.
Men whose testosterone-fueled bodies are designed to build muscle mass will have a difficult time trying to maintain a healthy body weight in the low-calorie and high-exertion environment of the wilderness.
Women more readily fall back on existing fat reserves to augment their energy levels and avoid muscle loss.
Not everything is lost
Today, there are hundreds of products at your disposal that can help improve your backcountry nutrition. Thanks to modern freeze-drying and air-drying technologies, you can purchase all sorts of fruits and vegetables, ready to eat straight from the bag.
Some people are making their own backcountry meals, and we advise reading the articles from our website, teaching you how to make proper wilderness meals.
And if you have money to spare, consider some MREs since these will provide a complete meal in the backcountry, and the prices of such foods are becoming more and more accessible. Check this article to learn out more: