Keto Backpacking for Beginners

Ultralight Backpacking Thru-Hiking Gear List

Keto & Ultralight Backpacking Gear & Technique

Low Carb / High Fat Diet: Why go Keto?

Make no mistake, food is the final frontier in the evolution of ultralight backpacking and hiking. While experienced ultralight backpackers struggle against diminishing returns to save ounces with gear and technique, a ketogenic diet will save many pounds in food weight (high fat foods are more calorie dense, requiring less overall food carried) while significantly improving on trail performance and eliminating sugar crashes. In my experience, keto hiking is nothing short of amazing. Ultralight Keto Backpacking (UL Keto / Keto UL / Keto Ultra ?) a new era for ultralight backpacking, the “hype” is real and the science is solid.

Ketogenic diets are uniquely suited for endurance sports like backpacking, hiking and thru-hiking! Increased and sustained energy, less crashes, better overall health, increased mental clarity and less food weight to carry (more calories per ounce in high fat foods) are only some of the benefits of a keto diet.

Ever hike all day fasted from the day prior, forget to eat on trail or come off trail into town after a backpacking trip and not have an appetite? Me neither until keto.

Keto Backpacking Fundamentals: What is a Ketogenic Diet?

A ketogenic diet is low carb, high fat way of eating, sometimes referred to as a LC/HF diet. After an initial period (4 to 8 weeks) of fat adaptation where carb intake is greatly reduced, your body will learn how to derive most of its energy from ketones (fat) in a state called ketosis, instead of from glucose that your body derives from carbs / sugar. The result is that you have access to your body’s fat reserves for energy, which results in more sustainable energy and performance, increased mental clarity, faster recovery times and less inflammation and soreness after big days. Ketogenic diets are also great for weight loss, enable easier intermittent fasting and are successfully reversing Type 2 Diabetes for many as we speak!

Seven Steps to Becoming a Keto Backpacker

1. Determine Your Body Fat % and Body Weight

The gold standard for finding your body fat % is via a DEXA scan, but you can also use this guide as an alternative or use the Navy Method. Do NOT use your scale to gauge body fat, my scale was telling me I was 10.5% when a DEXA scan showed I was actually at 24.5% body fat.

2. Determine Your Macros (Fat, Protein and Carbs)

Use the Ketogains Calculator to input your body weight and body fat % and choose your “Daily Calories” goal. Be sure to leave the “Activity Level” as sedentary per the Ketogains admins. You now have your daily macros of (x) grams of fat, (x) grams of protein and (x) grams of carbs.

Carbohydrates

Less than 25 gram of net carbs is a standard macro used in most ketogenic diets. For backpacking and other endurance sports, 50 grams of carbs once you are fat adapted is a widely used rule of thumb as you have more leeway when you are active. Net carbs equals carbs – fiber, so 10 grams of carbs with 5 grams of fiber would result in 5 net carbs.

Protein

Your protein macro is static and you need to hit it every day. Too little protein can lead to loss of lean body mass and too much protein can lead to production of glycogen via a process called gluconeogenesis which can kick you out of ketosis (this is a controversial topic). This is also why you should consume your protein evenly throughout the day as consuming more than 30 or 40 grams of protein (as little as a single chicken breast) in one sitting may kick some out of ketosis (everyone has different sensitivities to protein).

Keep in mind that being kicked out of ketosis isn’t necessarily a bad thing, some say you should chase results, not ketones, it just depends on what your goals are. I personally can’t tell any difference between when I’m in or out of ketosis anymore when I do occasionally break the rules and splurge in carbs or have a higher than usual protein intake in a single meal. You’ll also be able to move in and out of ketosis faster as your body’s overall adaptation increases over months and years.

Fat

Finally, fat is your lever. Eat more fat if you want to gain muscle if you’re lifting weights or putting in high mileage days on trail and eat less if you want to lose weight in a caloric deficit. If you’ve hit your protein macro when meal planning for a trip and you need more calories, you derive those calories from more fat. Remember, fat is good for you, and more or less fat is the lever that enables you to control your overall caloric intake up or down.

3. Track Your Macros

Now that you know your macros, it’s time to track them! Do not use percentages, use grams when tracking. Tracking is how you get to become intimately familiar with what you’re putting in your body. It is very easy once you get going and this is a critical part of the journey. Seriously, track your food! Bonus: You’ll quickly find that going keto has cut most processed foods out of your diet!

Cronometer is free and MyFitnessPal is $50 (to enable gram counting) but has a better food database. Be sure to use this script with MyFitnessPal to enable net carbs.

Ketogenic Food Macros for Backpacking and Thru Hiking

4. Keto Fat Adaptation

Primary / Initial Fat Adaptation

Your body has been using glucose as its primary fuel source and you’ve been sugar addicted for your entire life so it makes sense that there is going to be a small adaptation phase as it adjusts to using ketones as fuel. This is the hard part, but you’ve got this! Once your cut your carbs down to < 25 grams per day, your body is going to adjust and start deriving energy from ketones / fat.

Fatigue, headaches and sometimes even heart arrhythmia are common during the first days and weeks and is referred to as “The Keto Flu”. Supplementing electrolytes and rest can help but the reality is that this adaptation period sucks in varying degrees from person to person. Embrace the suck! Imagine your life and health in its current trajectory and the pain that may bring vs how good you’ll feel when you have less inflammation, more energy and less weight if losing weight is one of your goals.

The initial fat adaptation phase is generally complete after 4 to 8 weeks and can vary from person to person. Once this phase is over, your body will continue to adapt to athletic exertion over time as your body becomes more efficient using ketones as its new fuel source. It also goes without saying, if you want to be successful, rid your house of all carb laden foods or put them out of sight where there will be less temptation. Do whatever it takes, no excuses.

Secondary / Athletic Fat Adaptation

The second phase of fat adaptation is training once you have completed the initial fat adaptation outlined above. Your body has learned to use ketones as energy in your day to day life, but now it needs to learn how to meet your energy needs while exerting and exercising.

The goal when you begin to train in your first keto based athletic activities is to train as slow as possible at the lowest intensity possible. Low intensity equals low heart rate, which translates into aerobic activity where your body uses ketones / fat for fuel. The more practice your body has at accessing your fat reserves for energy, the more efficient it will become in doing so. Think slow hike at very very moderate pace, as slow as you can go. The process is explained well in this article where Adrian Ballinger discusses his training regiment for climbing Everest without oxygen.

What to avoid at first: High intensity training equals high heart rate, which translates into anaerobic activity where our body is no longer accessing fat reserves for energy but will be attempting to access glycogen reserves, of which you will have few when you’re fat adapted. Think sprinting or charging up a mountain. In time these activities will become easier, but work into them and allow your body to become fat adapted before charging hard. Expect to crash hard and fast if you go anaerobic too early.

First Training Hikes

Experiment by going on an AM hike fasted, but bring food “just in case”. You’ll quickly find that you no longer need food before, during or after exercise, something that wasn’t possible for many of us on a Standard American Diet (SAD). It’s really nice to have a lower appetite and not have hanger issues while having overall higher energy!

Fast Track Fat Adaptation With A Three Day Fast

1. Stop eating on Thursday night.

2. Walk for a few hours on Friday to help deplete glycogen stores while making sure to stay hydrated with electrolytes as detailed below. Take MCT Oil or Coconut Oil two or three times as necessary throughout the day.

3. Repeat step 2 on Saturday and Sunday and begin eating on Sunday night.

*Keep in mind that even with electrolytes and bed rest, this can be an intense and miserable period, you need to be committed and ready for some pain. I was basically in bed with a headache for most of day two and three, which is why timing this event into a three day weekend is ideal.

5. Electrolyte Supplementation is Necessary

Hydration and electrolyte supplementation (potassium, sodium and magnesium) is critical on a ketogenic diet as you will urinate more frequently once you reduce carb intake, even more when you’re hiking all day. If you are experiencing lethargy, headaches or heart arrythmia once you have completed the initial fat adaptation period, electrolytes are usually the culprit.

Electrolyte Requirements for Backpackers and Thru-Hikers

I suggest making ketorade using the recipe below to get your sodium and potassium and taking magnesium in a pill form. I drink a liter of ketorade daily off trail and two liters daily when backpacking.

Sodium (Na): 5000 – 7000 mg / day or 13 – 18 g of salt / day (there are 388 mg of Na in 1 gram of salt).

Potassium (K): 1000 – 3500 mg / day, available as No Salt.

Magnesium (Mg): 300 – 500 mg / day. Magnesium glycinate as a daily supplement is easy and affordable.

Electrolyte Tracking

Electrolytes need to be tracked, just like food, do not guess your intake or assume your “electrolyte supplement” will meet your needs, for example, Nuun Electrolyte tablets only have 172.5 mg of sodium (only 4% of need or 4800 mg short), 48.5 mg of potassium (only 5% or need or 950 mg short) and 12.5 mg of magnesium (only 4% of need or 290 mg short). Most electrolytes supplements follow this pattern of falling short of actual needs.

Ketorade / Ketoaid Recipe

Add 1 teaspoon of salt (sodium) + 1 teaspoon of No Salt (potassium) + 1 teaspoon of water flavoring to 1 liter of water.

6. Keto Backpacking Foods

Ideal keto friendly backpacking foods including breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks are meals that are stable without refrigeration while being high in fat, moderate in protein and low in carbs. It’s a good idea to create your daily meal plans in your food tracking app pre-trip so you can visualize your macros and make adjustments as necessary.

Your daily goal is to hit your protein macro requirement while staying below your daily carb limit. Fat is your lever, raise or lower your fat as necessary to hit your daily caloric goal.

 

Fat is the lever that will raise or lower your daily calorie intake, protein will help with maintaining muscle mass and repair processes and minimizing carbs is important to stay in ketosis.

  • Hard cheeses: Classic hard cheeses like asiago, romano and parmesan keep the best without refrigeration, but tend to be dry and salty, too much so for some. My preference leans towards aged alpine style cheeses and goudas with Rembrandt and Beemster being two favorites. Every time I shop I buy a new cheese I haven’t tried, lots of fun! Softer cheeses can be ok for a few days but end up a greasy mess on hot days.
  • Nut Butters: Peanut butter and almond butter are amazing, the recipe below helps lower carbs per serving.  
  • Meats & Cured meats: Spicy cured chorizo, summer sausage, pork rinds, pepperoni, salami, beef and salmon jerky and other hard, cured meats are keto friendly staples. Spam, chicken and tuna packets are also game.
  • Nuts: Macadamias, peanuts, pecans and almonds are favorites with lower amounts of carbs.
  • Powders: Powders are incredibly efficient at delivering calories due to their low weight, simply mix with water and go. MCT oil, coconut oil, heavy cream, butter and cream cheese and protein powders are my go tos as seen below in my breakfast shake.
  • Low carb tortillas: All are not created equal, experiment to see which ones taste best to you, bad ones tend to be cardboardy. Great for lunch wraps to mix things up.
  • Trail Mix: Traditional trail mixes are too high in sugar but you can make your own. One simple recipe: macadamia nuts, almonds, pecans, shaved coconut and sugar-free chocolate.
  • Electrolytes: Supplement electrolytes with ketorade daily.
  • Condiments: Spice and flavor variety is critical on longer trips with mayo, mustard, ranch and siracha being great options.

Fast and Easy Keto Backpacking Recipes

Breakfast Coffee Protein Shake

Before bed I fill my 1 liter smart water / coffee bottle with the following so I’m out of camp quick in the AM: protein powder + instant coffee + Quest powdered coconut oil + Anthony’s heavy cream powder + fill with water.

Fat Bombs

Fat bombs are a great way to take in calories with ease on the go. A simple bomb formula: One part cheese + one part meat + the condiment of your choice for a tasty and simple snack.

Nut Butter Supreme

You’re one spoonful away from quick and easy energy! Remove half the peanut butter or almond butter from a 16 oz jar and replace with two sticks of butter (a stick is 4 oz) and mix! The butter adds calories while diluting carbs. Bonus: the plastic jars like the ones Trader Joe’s uses for it’s peanut and almond butters are lightweight and perfect for backpacking.

7. Keto Backpacking Food Prep and Management on Trail

Pre Trail Food and Meal Prep

Preparation and management of potentially messy foods for efficient on trail consumption is where our keto food prep and food management and storage systems come into play. This part is especially important when dealing with oily foods that can spill or are hard to consume on trail in the backcountry without pre-hike prep. When thru-hiking, resources may be limited to what you can find in the parking lot of the store you just purchased your food in, so it’s important to have the tools you need on hand while keeping weight down and focusing on simplicity. Keto camping excursions and day hikes are more forgiving.

In addition to repackaging foods so we have less bulk and trash, we want to to cut large items like meats and cheese up into bite sizes before arriving on trail so we don’t have to stop stop and cut on trail, which is messy and time consuming. Pre-cutting and cleanup is also easier when you’re in town and have access to water and soap for clean up and solid surfaces like tables and counters to work on. Pre-measuring and organizing foods and powders by meal can also save time.

On Trail Food Consumption and Management

Solid Foods: I snack as I hike, some snacks are stored in my hip belt pocket, the food I need for the day is stored the back pocket of my pack in a dry bag to prevent spillage and the rest of my food is in a my main waterproof dry food bag inside my pack. The smaller dry bag in my back pocket prevents me from having to open my pack up to reach my main food bag throughout the day or when eating bigger meals like lunch or dinner.

The key is preventing oily spillage, if this happens, it’s game over. I strongly suggest using a waterproof food bag in addition to using screw top plastic containers and double bagging as necessary when dealing with meats, oils and condiments that can spill.

Powders: In addition to lots of yummy whole foods, I supplement with healthy fats and proteins by using powders. Using a smart water bottle in lieu of a traditional titanium mug is key. In addition to saving 3 ounces, a smart water bottle enables me to use the bottle as it’s own shaker instead of stirring powders in a mug, drink on the go since it has a screw top (mug requires slamming drinks quickly before resuming hiking) and unlike a mug, there is no clean up.

My Keto Food Prep and Management Gear List

 

Keto Food SystemGramsOuncesPoundsCost
Large Food Dry BagZpacks Dyneema Bag44.81.580.10$39.00
*Small Food Dry BagSea To Summit Evac 5 l55.71.930.12$19.90
Coffee / Shake BottleSmart Water 23 fl oz27.91.23.081$2.50
Container (for items below)Sistema54.91.940.12$6.62
SporkTitanium Spork19.30.680.04$12.89
KnifeHigonokami36.41.280.08$12.62
FunnelCollapsible Silicone14.30.500.03$5.99
TablespoonCheapo4.60.0160.01$5.00
Total254.38.970.56$126.90

*The small food bag goes in my pack’s back pocket for easy access. The goal is to prevent having to unbuckle and open my main pack compartment to access my main food bag when I need a snack that isn’t in my smallish hip belt pocket. Time will tell if carrying a second food bag makes sense or not.

Full Gear List

Core Food Prep Kit + Water Storage & Filtration + Miscellaneous Food Containers

 

Final Note: Go Keto, Tell Nobody

Going keto is exciting, the health benefits are amazing and you have reason to be excited about the changes you see in your performance and body. That being said, most people aren’t going to care about your “special diet” and you’re just going to annoy them by telling them about it ….. so unless they ask, don’t! Since the general public is greatly misinformed about fats and the critical role they play in our health, it’s easy for keto conversations to devolve into debates, so like with politics and religion, the best bet is to avoid the conversation altogether.

Even in online keto communities you will see conflicting ideas, people parroting ideas and concepts they don’t understand and naysayers that will tell you are “ketoing wrong”. Fuck those people and don’t be one of them. Do your due diligence, read up, think critically, form your own opinions and crush that shit!