Keto & Ultralight Backpacking: A Perfect Combo

 
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Backpacking requires a decent amount of math: counting the miles, counting the calories, and counting the ounces. The Ultralight Backpacking community has figured out the latter, proving that backpacking trips are more enjoyable when you aren't carrying an entire spare bedroom in your pack. If you follow a keto diet, you've already stumbled upon an Ultralight strategy without needing to cut your toothbrush in half.

Why is a ketogenic diet great for backpacking? It's simple: you’ll carry less food weight (for the same caloric total) than the carb-heavy, ramen and candy bar-eating backpacker, and your energy level will be leaps and bounds above what you've probably experienced on other trips.

Twelve Days of Keto Backpacking

I did my first multi-day keto backpacking trip last summer. I joined Jessie on the Pacific Crest Trail for 10 days in July through the still-snowy Sierra Nevada. I was several weeks fat-adapted before I drove out to meet her, so I packed up a second set of her keto daily meals at home and set out for Mammoth Lakes.

Our plan was to start in Mammoth and end at Sonora Pass, hiking through Yosemite Valley, for a total of 114 miles. Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows Store is traditionally a required PCT mail drop to restock on food and provisions en route, but that’s only true under normal hiking conditions. Unfortunately, 2017 was a record snow year, and even in mid-July, Yosemite park staff were still digging out the building and planning its repairs.

Mailing a food drop to the general store was off the table, so we packed up the entire section's food as we set off. We added two extra days to account for the high snowpack and swollen, deadly rivers we were about to face: if we had to wait overnight or hike up-stream to make a safe river crossing, it could set back our pace by an entire day. This totaled up to 12 days of food. 12 days, and all of it had to fit in my backpack. 12 days of food each: no way to split it up and share the weight. This sounded dreadful.

As soon as we shouldered our bags in Mammoth, I noticed what a difference it made to be eating keto. Twelve days of food is an absolutely groan-worthy amount to carry, but I barely noticed the weight. I’d packed around 3000 calories of food for each day, but because my food was high in fats and low carb, I saved 6 pounds of food weight! How did that happen?

 
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Backpacking Math

Keto food—whether it's an afternoon snack or one of our camping and backpacking meals—weighs less than a carb-heavy meal with the same calories. Fats are more than twice as calorie-dense than carbs and protein, so eating a fat-fueled diet can reduce your overall food weight by a third!

To plan out my food, I started with Jessie’s daily keto breakfast, lunch, and dinner packs, and used her trailside knowledge and advice from the field to adjust its calories to fit my needs. We texted every day about her food as she hiked: we worked hard to figure out how to make keto backpacking enjoyable and nutritious, not just survivable. We tweaked the dinner recipes and added in snacks as her daily mileage grew and grew. Through the Sierra and before starting on our trip together, her meals were around 3500 calories. Keeping in mind that she was in full thru-hiker fat-burning mode (and I was still working my way through Westworld on the couch), I aimed for 3000 calories a day. I swapped out a couple things to make it my own: dropped the spam, added an avocado (or three), and packed it up.

Fueled by Candy?

On a carb-heavy diet, the typical macro ratios are 2:1:1 carbs:protein:fat. For a 3000 calorie day of backpacking, this is almost 1.5 lbs of food:

– 375 g Carbs (50%, 1500 kcal)

– 188 g Protein (25%, 752 kcal)

– 83 g Fat (25%, 748 kcal)

In total, this weighs 1.42 lb (22.75 ounces).

Fueled by Ketones

We worked all spring and summer to design and tune a day of keto food that was under 35 g of carbs and 75+% fat. We normally keep to fewer than 25 g net carbs a day in the front country, but with 114 miles of hard and treacherous terrain ahead of us, we had some more flexibility in our macros. My 3000 calorie meals worked out to:

– 32 g Carbs (4%, 128 kcal)

– 130 g Protein (17%, 520 kcal)

– 261 g Fat (79%, 2352 kcal)

In total, this weighed just 0.93 lb (14.9 ounces): I was saving about half a pound in food weight every day! My 12-day food carry was 5.9 lbs lighter on keto than if I ate a carb-heavy diet.

 
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No matter what trip you're planning—a weekend with a bag that's a pound or two lighter, or a week and a half that's missing several pounds—every ounce you save gets you closer to one magical moment: you're ready to go and pick up your backpack and it's shockingly light. You'll find yourself suddenly eager and excited to get out and explore instead of groaning as you dread another day carrying a heavy bag.

On every trip we’ve taken since I hiked that section of the PCT, we each pack a menu similar to Jessie’s PCT days. I love every part of the day’s food, whether it’s an almond butter tortilla or our hearty dinners. I always feel energetic and strong, and I always enjoy the lighter pack.

 
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Christopher Bowns