Long Distance Fuel Strategies
How much food to take? What kinds? How to package it?
To one extent or another, these three questions have caused the failures of some of my (Ryan's) previous unsupported expeditions, especially early on, when I first started to experiment with long distance treks without resupply in the late 1980s.
I failed in my first attempt to circumnavigate the Olympic Mountains because I ran out of food, lost an excessive amount of weight, and exited 2/3 of the way to the end of my route travelling only 15 miles a day - on trails - because I was underfueled. I was not expecting my caloric intake to skyrocket at around Day 10 (that point in time where my burnable body fat virtually ran out). After that trek, I nearly suffered from renal (kidney) failure and ended up in the hospital on IV's shortly thereafter sporting a not-so-smart 4.9% body fat.
In an attempt to fastpack Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail in two days, I brought plenty of food, but it was the wrong stuff. I finished the route, exhausted and vomiting. I was not expecting my taste buds to crave certain foods and not others while hiking for 18 hours a day, but it's true. I picked out the Gummi bears and chocolate covered cherries but couldn't stand to eat another macadamia nut for another six years, and I arrived at my car at the end of the route with two pounds of nuts remaining.
Then, while hiking a 400 mile section (again, without support) of what is now the Pacific Northwest Trail, I experimented with lightweight packaging techniques: 1 mil poly bags. Half my food exploded into a mixture of unpalatable powders, incessant rains completely soaked 15,000 calories and rendered them unusable, and my whole lot became a rodent magnet.
And so, through the years, I've learned my lessons.
Now, back to the questions: how much to take, of what kinds, and how to package it?
How Much to Take?
Calories of Food Packed = Calories of Energy Expended - Calories of Body Fat Consumed
This is not such an easy energy balance to solve, although the variety of empirical formulas that do exist tend to predict energy expenditures that are more sensitive to variables such as terrain, mileage, and elevation gain rather than individual physiology. So when you hear someone say, "Oh, I need that much because of my physiology," you should probably raise your eyebrow, but all the same, recognize that caloric needs depend on hiking efficiency, which is influenced in part by physiology.
There is enough data about food consumption and weight loss among the long distance hiking, mountaineering, and adventure racing communities that we know this much for Arctic 1000:
We'll probably need "about 130,000 Calories" to finish the trek to Wiseman, or at the very least, reach our goal of the "longest unsupported wilderness crossing" between Point Hope and Anaktuvuk Pass. That figures in about 50,000+ feet of cumulative elevation gain, 500-600 miles, and trailless terrain across Arctic tundra, riverbeds, tussocks, and shale. For trail hiking, I usually figure on about 100-150 Cal / mile with a light pack; for the Arctic, expect to consume 200 or more Cal / mile). The formula we use goes like this: complete a trek of 200 miles in same terrain, calculate your caloric consumption, extrapolate to 600 miles, multiply by some arbitrary long distance fudge factor (typically, 1.1 to 1.5), then toss in a few extra bags of Oreos for good measure.
OK, so it's not quite that haphazard, but you get the idea: previous experience counts for a lot in predicting future caloric needs.
A well-planned backcountry diet should target a caloric density of about 130-140+ Calories per ounce. 130,000 Calories, then, equates to an astonishing quantity of food: about 60 pounds. We can't carry that much food, or we'll never make the mileage required early in the trek to proceed eastward at a reasonable pace without stress injuries.
And so, we have this beautiful thing called body fat, which stores about 3,500 Calories per pound and is burned with absolute efficiency. Thus, one might assume that carrying 15 pounds of extra body weight should equate to a surplus of 52,500 Calories.
You see, you don't simply "burn body" fat while leaving the rest of your body components alone (such as protein stored in muscles and water stored everywhere). So, for every pound of solid body weight lost (ignoring water loss) that you burn in an extreme endurance exercise, you typically burn up fat:protein in a ratio somewhere between 1.5:1 (for lean endurance athletes) to 2.5:1 (for chunkier folk). For a conditioned male trekker having a typical body fat percentage of 14-17%, a ratio of 2:1 is a good guide. This is important because fat stores about 7 Cal / gram while protein stores about 4 Cal / g (i.e., 2,000 Cal / lb). At a 2:1 fat:protein ratio, your burnable body weight does not burn 3,500 Cal / lb, but about 3,000 Cal / lb.
Now, we can take our body fat percentage down to around 6% (which is extremely lean, and below which, your body's core function is compromised). To be safe (and conservative), I'd like to end the trek at a body fat percentage of 8%. So if we start off at 17%, I have a 9% deficit to work with, which at a body fat:protein loss ratio of 2:1, equates to about 13.5% of body weight I can lose.
I will weigh 155 lbs and have a body fat percentage of 16% when I start trekking Sunday. 13.5% of that body weight equals 21 pounds. I will figure on losing about 9 pounds of that as water weight (again, based on previous experience) and the other 12 pounds as body fat and protein, which gives me about 36,000 Calories of body weight to work, with another 9,000 or so in reserve between 8% and 6% body fat composition.
So, if I expect to spend 130,000 Calories, and have 36,000 available in storage, then I need about 94,000 Calories in my pack. At a caloric density of 135 Cal / oz, that equates to a much more manageable number to carry: about 44 pounds.
I will be packing 95,200 Calories in 42.8 lbs.
Of What Kinds?
This question is far less simple, and far more important, to answer.
When your body is severely stressed, eating becomes a chore. My adage for long distance trekking without support suggests the complexity inherent here: <b>everything looks good to eat, but virtually everything tastes bad</b>.
So, the only way to figure out "what kinds of food" to eat on a long trek is to go on a long trek and see what tastes good. Then, increase the fractions of those food in your long distance diet.
On a trek like this, it's not about natural, organic, nutritious, or flavorful, and it's certainly not about what's worked (or hasn't) on your summer weeklong backpacking vacation in the Tetons.
It's about energy and your ability to fuel yourself with foods that are palatable even when you are puking your guts out.
If "chips, chocolate, nuts, and soft candy" (or some derivatives thereof) aren't your staple food source for extreme long distance fueling then you need to rethink you're strategy, because when you hit the wall, there simply isn't a whole lot of other things you can force down.
How to Package It?
Food packaging styles differ among even the most experienced long distance trekkers, so what follows is more suggestive than formulative.
My own personal approach for (a) severely wet conditions (b) on a physically demanding trek (c) in a remote environment where losing food is life-threatening is to (1) keep packaging simple and (2) keep packages protected from puncture, water entry, and animals.
Every meal is marked clearly with the week and day of the route (e.g., Week 2 - Day 12). In addition, each meal (separated into breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is marked with the weight of the package and the number of Calories of its contents. This way, food can be swapped between days, or otherwise shifted around, in response to unexpected changes in energy expenditure or physiology.
Finally, each meal is vacuum packaged for durable protection. Yes, there is a weight cost over packaging in 2 mil poly bags (about 10 oz for my food on this trek) but there is no need to pack food in separate bags. It just gets tossed in my pack, with no fear of puncture or moisture entry. The vacuum bags are odor proof and burn easily in even a mediocre wood fire if needed.
I keep unburned food packaging in a Watchful Eye Designs O.P. Sak. The beauty of this approach, in addition to be able to fill every nook and cranny of my pack with food packets to maximize usable volume of the packbag, is that I can lay all the food out and organize as needed without fear of getting it wet. Usually, this task is performed under my tarp, but it's nice to be able to lay it all out in the open as well, even if it's raining.
Ryan: Breakfast consists of cereal that can be eaten hot or cold (crushed wheat or a 7-grain blend) supplemented with dry whole milk, sunflower seeds, freeze dried strawberries, and clarified butter. Dinner is also a "one pot meal" that includes either mashed potatoes or ramen noodles with powdered cheese, TVP, whole dry milk, sour cream powder, clarified butter, and mild seasoning or gravy mix. I'll eat these meals every morning and night, except for the final three days, for which my entire caloric intake will consist of cold foods.
Lunches vary from week to week and are adjusted to meet increasing caloric demands. During Week 1, they consist of the basics: Green and Black's dark chocolate, Walker's butter shortbread, Balance bars, Sharkies fruit snacks, and Grandma's cookies.
For Week 2, I add Oreo cookies, a small bag of pistachio nuts (nuts get old real fast), and Pringles. For Week 3, I add to that, more of everything (except the nuts, which I'll be quite sick of by then), unsalted almond butter, and king sized Snickers bars. By the end of the trek, my lunch weighs three pounds and includes 7,000+ Calories of food.
Roman / Jason: Breakfast includes Pop Tarts and/or a cereal mixture containing wheat cereal, milk powder, brown sugar, granola, cocoa, dried cherries, and butter. Dinner is as straightforward: ramen, mashed potatoes, or freeze dried pre-packs with olive oil to boost calories.
Lunch is a mixture of "chips, nuts, chocolate, and candy": Pringles, corn chips, Doritos, potato chips, Cadbury bars, flavored almonds, almond butter, and Starburst.
Each expedition member will be carrying approximately 42 pounds of food.
Daily Caloric Intake Summary
From below, you will see that caloric intake is increased each week as mileage increases (Week 1: 20 miles/day; Week 2: 30 miles/day; Week 3: 45 miles/day), terrain difficulty increases (Week 1: average daily cumulative elevation gain 1,200 ft; Week 2: 2,700 ft; Week 3: 4,900), and sleep decreases (Week 1: long rests; Week 2: moderate rests; Week 3: short rests).
- Week 1: ~ 1.5 lb of food / 3,000 Calories
- Week 2: ~ 2.0 lb of food / 4,500 Calories
- Week 3: ~ 3.0 lb of food / 7,000 Calories
- Last 3 Days: ~ 3.2 lb of food / 7,300 Calories
Average caloric density: 138 Calories / Ounce
Two cooking styles will be used on the trek. Roman and Jason will cook over open fires using a 2L titanium pot (8 oz). Ryan will use a 1L titanium pot (3 oz) and nesting woodfire stove (4 oz) custom built by Fritz at Bushbuddy of Canada.
Our firestarting kits include Tinder-Quik firestarting tinder, Light My Fire magnesium firestarters, a very few sacred Esbit cubes, and a mini-bic lighter that resides untouched in a footcare kit.
Willows are plentiful in the Arctic west of Anaktuvuk Pass, but in June, will be a bit on the damp side, leaving you with two options: big open fires using plenty of fuel, and tiny woodfire stoves that burn as hot as possible. We'll be using both of these strategies.
Cooking over fires gives us the option to get warm as we cook, and have plenty of hot meals without having to worry about metering fuel consumption. Even Ryan's solo woodfire stove cook kit (10 oz with pot, stove, and firestarting kit) provides a far lighter option than Esbit, alcohol, canned gas, or white gas for a trip of 20 days in length.
When the rubber meets the road, you start these types of journeys with quite a lot of trepidation about food issues and expected caloric expenditures. To resolve these fears, you always toss in the "extra ration" that never appears on a published gear list - that extra plastic jar of peanut butter - which buys you another 5,000 Calories for only two additional pounds...(sic)
- Ryan Jordan