Keto on the Trail: Hiking Through High-Carb Territory

I never expected our hike to turn into an endless search for avocados. I thought that resupplying would be a breeze, that local diners and grocery stores would have plenty of keto-friendly foods we could eat as we worked our way down the trail. Man, was I ever wrong.

Our typical dinner.

My husband and I came to the low-carb way of eating fairly recently. After our attempted thru-hike last year, we predictably regained the weight we’d lost.  The cause wasn’t anything mysterious, just our suddenly sedentary lifestyle combined with a reluctance to restrict our appetites (being able to eat whatever you want on the trail is fun). But along with the unwanted weight, we both developed serious medical issues we needed to address.  So, taking our doctor’s advice, we decided to go low-carb.

The theory behind low-carb eating makes sense if you’re a hiker. By restricting your carbohydrate intake, you force your body into ketosis, i.e., fat-burning mode.  This is exactly what happens on a thru-hike when your body can’t keep up with the energy demands; it uses your fat for fuel.  So by following a low-carb diet we’d be replicating our experience on the trail — but without the grueling hike.

It sounded great and worked even better.  We instantly dropped the weight.  Our health immediately improved.  (My painful bursitis disappeared, and my husband got off his blood pressure and cholesterol meds.) We were sold. The Standard American Diet (SAD) became history in our house.  We were committed to following the low-carb way of eating long-term.

But as we prepared to return to the trail, we had a couple of questions.  First, did we need more carbohydrates for energy while hiking? And secondly, exactly what were we going to eat?

The answer to the first question turned out to be no. Studies show that once an athlete’s body is fully keto-adapted, fat works as well or better than carbs for fuel.  There is no need to carbo-load.  You don’t need those raisins and M&Ms. (And our experience bore this out. We had no problems with hunger or fatigue during our hike despite our limited carbs.)

The second question was more difficult, but since we were doing this section with car support, we didn’t need to worry about weight.  We just needed quick, easy, non-cook food we could store in our coolers and stay within the 20-50 carbs per day range. We settled on the following foods:

Breakfast: deli meat and cheese, avocado, precooked bacon, tomatoes, coffee or tea.

Snacks on the trail: assorted nuts (with coconut thrown in to add interest), Manchego cheese, hard sausage, low-carb protein bars, electrolyte drinks.

Dinner: canned tuna or chicken, healthy mayonnaise, more avocados, olives, tomatoes, flax and chia seeds, blueberries and cream.

Since we had cars, we expected to eat dinners out whenever possible to break the monotony of our diet and fill in the missing gaps.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  It seems there’s an appalling lack of low-carb options in rural America, which is ironic.  Back in my grandparents’ day, high-fat eating was the norm, especially in little towns.  Meals consisted of fresh vegetables (usually homegrown), free-range, grass-fed everything, all slathered with plenty of fat.  But in the last two generations American food has changed drastically. Everything is now processed, devoid of healthy fat, and filled with sugar and starch.

And every place was the same – local diners, chain restaurants, it didn’t matter.  Everything came breaded and served with potatoes.  We couldn’t find a dish without carbs. Organic beef? Spinach salad? There wasn’t a chance.  (And there are only so many hamburgers I can eat without a bun.)

Which is how we found ourselves on an endless quest for avocados, searching in vain through piles of overripe fruit in every small-town market we could find. It wasn’t just daunting. It was darned near impossible.  There didn’t seem to be anything we could eat.

And after several weeks without variety, we became thoroughly sick of our food.  I began regarding my cheese with loathing. The sight of my sausage made my stomach turn. And I could barely choke down those avocados, a food I have always loved. We were more than bored, we were losing our appetites — which we definitely couldn’t afford.

So now we’re back home, gearing up for the next phase of our hike — and I need ideas.  If you follow a keto/Atkins/low-carb diet, I’d love your input.  Any suggestions about what we might take on the trail?  Because pizza and subs aren’t an option, even if we are hiking through a low-carb wasteland.  Keto works.  We aren’t abandoning our diets.  But we desperately need to vary our meals.



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Comments 9

  • Shirley : Jul 11th

    Hi Gail,

    As a newbie to Keto life and a 2019 AT thru-hiker, I too am worried about food on the trail.
    Since you have access to coolers can you use prepared guacamole instead of whole avocados? Boiled eggs, turkey jerky?

    I’m sketching out my menu and trying different options while in the land of a/c and grocery stores. I plan to heat water, so that adds dehydrated and powdered foods to my options.
    Would love to keep in contact so we can bounce ideas back and forth.

    • Gail Barrett : Jul 11th

      Hi Shirley. Guacamole is a great idea, and I’ll add that to my list. Part of the problem, though, is that even with car support, refrigerated food only lasts so long. Then I’m back to resupplying from stores in little towns, which has proven to be hard. I didn’t worry about eggs this trip because I assumed (wrongly) that we’d be able to find omelettes easily enough. Unfortunately, we were always on the trail by breakfast time, and we couldn’t find many restaurants that would serve omelettes for dinner (Mojos in Damascus did, but it was an exception). There weren’t any IHOPS where we were. I’ve been looking at jerky but haven’t found any that is sugar-free. And I just found out that sausage contains gluten, so we probably need to limit that… This is frustrating, but I’m determined to find a way through. I’d love to keep in touch, so if you discover anything, let me know!!!!

      • Melinda : Jul 12th

        We make a delicious dried sausage called jagerwurst that is gluten-free. It does contain a little sugar . It is delicious! Working on a sugar free formulation. And we do ship

        • Gail Barrett : Jul 12th

          I’ve been looking for gluten free sausage. How does it hold up in the heat?

    • Gail Barrett : Jul 11th

      Oh, I should add that a couple of the hotels we stayed in included breakfast, and if our hike wasn’t too long that day we waited for that. But I doubt the eggs they served are real. I’m sure they are reconstituted, so who knows what else they contain.

  • Bill : Aug 21st

    I have been keto for 2+ years. These are what I take. Cured meats such as bacon, country ham, salami pepperoni. Fresh eggs (in shell). Pemmican or you can brown ground beef and incase in butter, won’t be as stable long term as pemmican but I have kept it for a week. Canned or pouch meats and mayo packets. Trail side ham salad is great. Olive oil. Jerky. The best option is intermittent and extended fasting. People will think you are crazy but your food bag will be lighter than everyone else’s.

    • Gail Barrett : Aug 22nd

      Thanks for the suggestions, Bill. Where do you get your pemmican? I love the idea of intermittent fasting because of the benefits to the brain. I’ve been trying it at home (6-18), but I have trouble getting enough calories and protein in just six hours and find that I lose too much weight. Has your weight stabilized?

      • bill : Aug 24th

        i have made the pemmican. i prefer the ground beef and butter. my weight has plateaued. I Still have a bit to lose.

        • Gail Barrett : Aug 24th

          Thanks, Bill. I’ll look up some recipes. One thing I love about keto is that I don’t get as hungry while hiking. My blood sugar remains stable throughout the day, so it seems I don’t need to eat as much, and I still have energy. Unfortunately, I do have to be careful not to lose too much weight. I don’t mind being skinny, but I don’t want to look skeletal. But that’s a problem regardless of diet. Last year on our attempted thru-hike I got very thin while eating carbs, so that’s not the cause. I just have to be careful that I don’t get bored with my food and eat even less when my energy expenditure is so great. I appreciate the suggestions so I can mix things up.


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