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I need some help designing a diet for extended multi-day treks which is sustainable, provides high-energy but still remains somehow portable. For some reason my efforts so far were not very successful.

Example: I recently did a part of the GR-20 in Corsica. Admittedly, it is a rather hard alpine trek including a lot of ascends and descends (easily 1600m a day) - and we did our route completely independent of resupplies, meaning 20kg packs. But in just 5 days me and my friend lost 2kg weight each, even with a diet of more than 4000 calories a day! This is clearly not very sustainable (however great it might be to lose weight in some situations).

We brought:

  • porridge with lots of sugar for breakfast,
  • pastas with pesto/olive oil/mayonnaise for lunch,
  • pasta for dinner (various sauces)
  • chocolate, peanuts and sunflower seeds as snacks

The obvious thing to do seems to be to just cram in even more calories per day. But there is really a limit on how much you can eat and still be able to do a fairly exhausting activity afterwards...

  • Even eating 'just' 4000 calories a day requires you to stuff your face with sugar, starch and fat at almost every possible moment. (Ever tried eating 1kg of pasta in one day? :P)
  • Food makes for the largest share of the pack weight by far. Unless one starts living of fat alone 4000 calories mean 1kg of pasta per day.

I'd appreciate your advice as to how I can design a diet which allows for a sustainable trek over longer periods of time.


Related to:

  • 3
    no peanut butter? – njzk2 Sep 19 '16 at 14:14
  • I don't have experience on this but I would assume it's nothing to worry about to lose some weight in the beginning of extensive activity/sports. Your body has to get used to the load. That being said you should maybe decrease your load (that means hiking time/altitude difference) at the beginning. So I assume it's not only about that 4000 calories a day. Just my thoughts while reading the question. – Wills Sep 19 '16 at 14:16
  • 4000 is not close. Pro on a long bicycle ride can burn 12,000 calories. – paparazzo Sep 19 '16 at 14:38
  • 2
    It sounds from your meal description that other than the lunch pasta and snacks you had very little fat, and I see almost no protein. What were your macronutrient ratios? – requiem Sep 19 '16 at 15:05
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    "Food makes for the largest share of the pack weight by far. " -- unless you're carrying water – Russell Steen Sep 19 '16 at 20:09
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Andrew Skurka has a lot of advice on his blog about a backpacking diet. He is a world class hiker and does serious mileage over serious terrain. For an Alaska backpacking trip, he packed 4,750-5,000 calories a day and aimed to supplement that to 5,500 calories a day by eating in trail towns. His diet comes in at 140 calories/ounce (4.94 cal/g) and he packs about 2.25 pounds (1020g) per day. When he is guiding he packs 1.5 pounds (680g) per person per day at 125 calories/ounce (4.4 cal/g)

These numbers fall into the range recommended by REI: 1.5 to 2.5 lbs. (680-1134g) of food (or 2,500 to 4,500 calories) per person per day .

Protein and sugar have about 115 calories per ounce (4 cal/g) while fat has 255 calories per ounce (9 cal/g). To get to a 140 calorie/ounce diet you need to carry food with little water and about 20% fat.

  • porridge with lots of sugar for breakfast: This has essentially no fat. Substitute butter/olive oil for the sugar.

  • pastas with pesto/olive oil/mayonnaise for lunch: As long as it is oily, this is a good choice

  • pasta for dinner (various sauces): Again, the pasta has limited fat. Tomato sauce would do little to help on that front. Oil or cheese is the way to go

  • chocolate, peanuts and sunflower seeds as snacks: Seeds and nuts can be fatty, chocolate has limited fat.

  • When he is guiding he packs 1.5 pounds per person per day Yes, this is pretty normal for people of average size doing normal backpacking. These numbers fall into the range recommended by REI: 1.5 to 2.5 lbs. of food This is much too high for people of average size doing normal backpacking. – Ben Crowell Sep 20 '16 at 0:31
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I would begin with making sure the food plan is nutritionally well-balanced. For shorter trips you can survive on almost anything, and most people in developed countries are already carrying more than enough calories on their bodies to sustain them for extended periods of time. (The average fit athlete carries in their body about 2,000 calories in carbs, and 100,000 calories in fat stores.) Aside from that, I'd also look at your fitness level and how hard you will be pushing yourself.

Fitness and Effort: Your aerobic fitness level will determine to what extent your body is less able to fuel itself using mostly fats, and has to dig into the "afterburners" of carb metabolism. Your body always uses a bit of both, but for normal activity fat provides the bulk of the energy input. As your activity ramps up, a greater percentage must come from burning carbs. A higher fitness level keeps that percentage from rising as quickly. E.g. an untrained person might be getting 60% of their energy from burning carbs while exercising while a fit person might only need to get 35% supplied from carbs for the same activity level.

For high intensity effort you can burn through your body's glycogen reserves in a number of hours. Energy gels can help with this; aim to replenish at least 100 calories per hour. On the other hand, for lower intensity effort eating good meals when you are less active should be sufficient.

Macronutrient Balance: Between carbs, fat, and protein, protein generally will be the smallest portion. I suggest aiming for 1.2-1.5g per kg of body weight per day, as the amino acids are used to metabolize the carbs and fat as well as to maintain and rebuild muscle. At least some of that should be eaten just after exercise.

As you know, carbs will provide about 4 calories per gram, and fat 9 calories per gram. This makes olive oil or other fats a good way to bump up the calories you get for a given weight. My suggestion would be plan for 30% fat in your diet. There are those people who are keto-adapted and would run on almost no carbs at all, but that's a tale for a different place and attempting to switch directly into that will likely leave you feeling unwell during the transition. Finally, be particularly cautious of simple sugars, which will burn fast, spike your blood sugar, and then leave you feeling weak after the low.

Until or unless you've gained more experience and have played with what works and doesn't work for you individually, the traditional advice of a good breakfast and balanced meals will likely work best for such moderate-intensity, long duration efforts. Once you have done more extreme stuff you can experiment with things like pemmican or the classic Iditarod stick of butter.

  • And protein is 4 calories per gram – paparazzo Sep 22 '16 at 18:42
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Don't try and cram it all day long. Allocate more time for dinner. Start a big dinner as soon has you make camp. Eat the bulk at dinner when your body can relax and digest fully. Start your day with a small meal. Unless you have a lot of nuts or meaty sauce then you may be low on protein. A cheese stick is also a source of protein without a lot of weight.

7,700 cals to lose 1 kg so you were in a deficit of 15,400. So over a 5 day trip about 3000 / day. That is believable.

  • Don't want to edit and bring this to the top. There is no absolute but 3500 calorie deficit a day is kind of considered a healthy limit so no wonder you were starving. – paparazzo Sep 20 '16 at 15:56

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