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.
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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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.
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.
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?
i have made the pemmican. i prefer the ground beef and butter. my weight has plateaued. I Still have a bit to lose.
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.
You can buy any protein freeze dried in #10 cans so you can make up your own freeze dried meal packets: freeze dried eggs and sausage, onions peppers, bacon; freeze dried bone broth w/ meat and veg, Keto gravy, meat, w/LC veg, etc. Carry plastic bottles olive oil, coconut oil. Make your own fat bomb bars using coconut oil, whey,, collagen, stevia, cocoa powders, flavorings, ground nuts, freeze dried berries 300-600 calories each. Use Indian spices or dehydrated cream base for dehydrated spinach, green beans, sausage gravy, etc. Make your own green drink protein powder concoctions w/spinach powder, spirilina, kale, whey, peanut butter powder. Get squeezable natural peanut or nut butter packets. Dehydrated bone broths. Pick up fresh veg, fruit or berries in town, make sure they have hard exteriors, cucumber, unripe tomato, apples, oranges etc, or pack in sealed rigid plastic containers or bubble wrap. Dried meats, salami, jerky, meat sticks, or packets, such as tuna, or salmon, or any nuts you like, hard cheeses or cheese sticks. Some people eat the same thing every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner on the trail, but eat like crazy on town stops. There’s no reason why you couldn’t order a pizza or a sandwich or taco and pile everything but the bread/tortilla onto a salad with a fat or dairy based dressing. Also, ask for extra cheese often, and order sandwiches protein style with a lettuce wrap instead of bread, buns, or tortilla (very common to do this these days). Many proprietors will accommodate that kind of request. Thru hikers often eat all the butter pats or oil dressings they can get when they eat in towns, and then ask for extra, & order extra side dishes of veggies/salads. You can also find coconut based wraps and carry those with you.
Thank you so much! This is exactly the information I was looking for. I’ll check for the dehydrated things, especially, right away.
The suggestion of a drink powder got me thinking — I know this is something even non-keto hikers try to pay attention to, but are you certain you’re getting enough electrolytes, especially on the trail? I mention this because 1) I’ve found electrolyte imbalances really kill my appetite and make the thought of food nauseating, as you described, and 2) I recently started keto and found “ketoade” (an electrolyte drink) to be life-changing. I figured I was fine, because I was eating so many salty foods, but the before/after of that first 16oz of electrolytes was like night and day. It’s not just about getting sodium, but also potassium & magnesium. If you haven’t looked into it, you might want to try a ketoade and see if that helps a little with the appetite.
Though of course, eating the same foods every day sucks no matter what!
Oh, and I forgot to add, fats will not take you out of ketosis, but if you’re practicing Intermittent Fasting, and consume meats, the protein stops curative autophagy that would kick in after about 24-48 hours of fasting in most people, although it sometimes takes longer than 2 days to kick in. You would still get IF blood sugar results by not eating for a shorter period of time though. The key would be to consume as much fats as possible so your body doesn’t cannibalizes its own fat stores, and then you’d end up not losing so much weight. Dr Mercola makes Ketogenic diet enzymes, named Ketozyme, to help the body assimilate fats and nutrients, especially good for those of us in the 50+ range doing LCHF.
Right, the protein would convert to glucose, correct? So far I’ve only done the 16/8 type intermittent fasting, but never while hiking.
Protein is only converted to glucose on an as-needed basis. Excess protein will not create excess glucose. It’s a demand driven process, not a supply driven one.
I’ve been on a paleolithic ketogenic diet (carnivore diet) since around October 2018 to treat my auto-immune disease, and I too am worried about my diet while attempting a thru-hike. I’ve been happily eating almost exclusively beef since I began the diet. I plan on taking advantage of mail drops as much as possible, but I’m a bit worried about the resupply options. I plan to rely mostly on canned tuna in EVOO, salmon, and spinach. I also plan to take 16oz containers of both EV Coconut and Olive Oil. A great way I’ve found to consume large amounts of coconut oil is by combining it with green tea. Very similar to Bulletproof coffee. I use a Stanley french-press to make my tea with Matcha powder, and then just add as much coconut oil as I can tolerate. I actually really enjoy it. It makes the tea thick and milky and is perfect for a ketogenic breakfast. I would definitely recommend a camping French Press, as they make it much easier to get the coconut oil to merge with the hot water. Just give it a violent shake for about 15 seconds. If not, the oil will sit on the top and it’s less than ideal. Other than that I just plan to take chugs of olive oil throughout the hike and get my protein and vitamins from canned foods. I’m also taking Flaxseed Oil capsules to balance out my Omega 6 intake. I’m sure it will get pretty monotonous over time, but it will actually be more variety than I’ve had in months.
I have recently discovered Next Mile Meals. They are keto dehydrated meals. I haven’t tried them, but the ingredients are good, and a hot meal on the trail would be welcomed I’m sure. I am looking forward to ordering a few before our next trip to try them out.
Will be doing our annual section hike Oct/Nov 2019, miles 368 – 502 on the aT. This time what’s new other than rain gear is a keto diet.
Breakfast – trying out ‘Next Mile Meals’ sausage scramblers, instant coffee (ok, Starbucks instant) with heavy cream powder.
Lunch – Trader Joe’s (3) crispbreads (gf), topped with either Trader Joe’s Valencia peanut butter, or avocado and tuna.
Snacks – perfectketo bars (2/day) and 4oz seeds and nuts allowed.
Dinner – ‘hamburger helper’ stroganoff or lasagna both of these I pitch out the pasta and substitute with ‘low carb bread co.’pasta 2oz/meal, and each fortified with dehydrated spinach, mushrooms, heavy cream powder, and (sour cream powder for stroganoff), then add about 3/4c. Mtn house freeze dried ground beef.
Also third option my wife’s pork sausage kale stew, then add can of diced tomatoes with green chillies and put in bone broth powder, all of which I dehydrate and vacuum seal.
Use only Esbit stove to boil needed water to add to vacuum sealed meals in pot with pot cozy.