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Backpacking in Ketosis

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  • Backpacking in Ketosis

    Before doing a backpacking trip in ketosis last week I searched for reports from people who have done this before, and didn't find much, though I did see several other people on the MDA forum asking questions before backpacking trips about nutrition and ketosis, so I thought I should post a report about my experience.

    Some background. I have been primal for a year and eight months now. I used to be a vegetarian (for over 22 years) but started eating fish again two months after going primal, and have been a pescetarian since.

    Four weeks ago a friend who is also primal started talking about going on a very low carb ketogenic diet to be able to run a marathon without having to consume ridiculous amounts of carbs. After spending three days trying to talk him out of it and reading about it online and in Volek/Phinney's book "The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance", I realized that it actually made a lot more sense for me than him, because unlike him I was addicted to eating fruit at frequent intervals, trying to keep my blood glucose levels stable and my brain supplied with fuel. I was constantly feeling bloated as a result, and it seems obvious in retrospect that those quantities of fruit were not in fact good for me in many other ways either.

    In addition, I had a high elevation backpacking trip (starting at 9000ft, highest pass 13000ft) planned two weeks later. The elevation has always affected me enough during previous backpacking trips to suppress my appetite so much that I don't consume nearly enough calories, and it seemed to be a good idea to get my body into 'fat burning mode' before rather than during the trip, so I figured I would give the ketogenic diet a try, and started eating fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. I never calculated the exact amounts, but stayed away from almost all obvious sources of carbs, leaving mostly those few found in veggies, nuts, etc, with some minor exceptions for small amounts of berries and some small pieces of dark chocolate in the first few days.

    I'm not sure when exactly I started being in ketosis - the first measurement I took (with a Nova Max Plus) was after 4 days, and it was 1.1, so I was already producing sufficient ketones to help fuel the brain. It was quite a struggle to eat enough fat to avoid losing weight, and I did start the backpacking trip four pounds lighter, though much of that was probably due to differences in water weight. I also experienced a few days of feeling light-headed, which was easily fixed by consuming more sodium. I bought bouillon cubes as recommended, but found that just a little extra salt on my eggs and salad was enough for me.

    Less than one week after starting the ketogenic diet I walked the SF Second Half Marathon in under 3 hours, at a 13:44 pace (walking instead of running because of an achilles issue), and had no trouble sustaining that effort. I didn't measure my heart rate, but during training walks at that pace it was about 75%.

    The backpacking trip was less than 2 weeks after starting on the ketogenic diet, which isn't quite long enough for full adaptation for most people. It was supposed to be a 6-day trip covering about 40 miles and about 10000ft elevation gain, with two days of cross-country hiking and crossing boulder fields, and I was quite worried about what foods to take, since I couldn't carry both enough low-carb foods and also enough high-carb foods in case I would need them, because my pack was already 44lbs, which is 31% of my weight. (You can see what that ratio looks like in the attached photo.) I ordered some SuperStarch, but it didn't arrive in time, so I decided to pack some hazelnut chocolate and some Vitalyte "just in case", mostly for psychological reasons, but didn't end up touching either of them.

    On the first day I hiked uphill for a total of about 4 1/2 hours, covering ~6 miles and ~3500ft elevation gain (according to GPS), with an average heart rate of ~75%, and felt fine and had no trouble keeping up with my companions, one of whom ran out of muscle glycogen and had to re-fuel at some point. The second day I hiked cross-country, with a lot of bouldery stretches, for over 5 hours, covering ~4.5 miles and 3000ft elevation gain, and was actually faster than the others, though that may have been due to more cross-country experience. I forgot to put on my HR monitor but it was definitely more intense than the previous day, probably ~80%. In any case, I was definitely feeling fine except for the elevation effects, which were about the same as in previous years.

    At that point the sole came off one of the heavy-duty Merrell hiking boots that one of my hiking buddies was wearing, forcing us to change our route and head back in the direction of civilization. As a result of this, the trip as a whole was much shorter and easier than planned, and the last two days in particular were quite easy - one cross-country day hike and one day of hiking out, which was mostly downhill. Here are the GPS tracks & photos from the trip as it actually happened.

    As some people on this forum have asked about backpacking in minimal shoes, I thought it might be interesting to some of you that in order to let my friend use my boots, I did 3 out of 4 days of the backpacking trip in Merrell Trail Gloves (the cross-country boulder-hopping day was INOV-8 Roclite 288 GTX boots). This turned out to be no problem at all in spite of the heavy pack and the seriously rocky trail, presumably because my feet and ankles were well adapted from doing ~700 miles of trail running in Vivo Neos in 2011 and ~400 miles of mostly trail walking in other minimal shoes in 2012 so far. Somewhat unexpectedly, given some problems during practice hikes, it didn't even hurt my achilles at all, at least when I took brief rests about every hour.

    I ate only ~1400 calories a day, including 55 grams of protein and 18 grams of carbs, mostly from macadamia nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cheese, chia seeds, and tuna jerky. I don't normally consume that many nuts, but omega-6s weren't my main concern while backpacking, and didn't know what to do with my usual staples of butter and coconut oil out in the backcountry without eggs and veggies to fry in them.

    I obviously burned far more calories than that, but as on all previous backpacking trips, including several 6-day and 7-day trips during which I ate < ~1800 calories a day, I did not in fact lose weight during the trip. Unlike on previous trips my weight has been stable in the week since the trip too, and I didn't experience the usual carb refueling frenzy that was always necessary in the past to compensate for the calorie deficit from the trip.

    In any case, given that I consumed only 18 grams of carbs per day during the backpacking trip, and had already been eating a very low carb diet for two weeks before, it's pretty clear that my body must have been operating on fatty acids and ketones to a large extent.

    I also had almost no muscle soreness either after the half marathon or the backpacking trip, which is probably partly due to the fact that recovery is much improved on a ketogenic diet.

    I am feeling far more adapted now than I did before the Half Marathon and the backpacking trip and can't wait to see what else can be done in this state. In a typical week I do two sessions of Primal Blueprint Fitness exercises (handstands, pullups, planks, etc), a session with ~9 indoor climbs, 1h biking, 1/2h swimming, and one long (~15 mile) trail run in minimal shoes. I've already done all of the above in ketosis other than a trail run, which I can't do right now because of my achilles issues, so I'm planning to try a long hard bike ride instead to see what happens at higher heart rates. My friend's marathon experience is definitely very encouraging in this regard And I'm definitely planning to stay in ketosis long enough to see what the effects are after a full 6 weeks of adaptation! It's already amazing now - my brain definitely feels happier and I no longer get any negative effects when I go longer than normal between meals other than an "empty stomach feeling" which is neither very bad nor very long lasting.

    If anyone else has done longer backpacking trips or trips with longer distances and more elevation gain per day on a ketogenic diet, I would like to know what their experiences were!


  • #2
    I heard Ketosis is very nice this time of year, I hope to one day backpack there too.


    • #3
      You're adorable, Dado.

      I pretty much live in ketosis and climbed Mt. Kilimangaro that way in VFFs.

      Where in California are you sriehemann? Let's go hiking sometime. There is another poster here named sbhikes who lives in Santa Barbara and who has done the whole PCT and who practices ketosis. This could be a Primal event.


      • #4
        I didn't do the PCT as low carb. The PCT is what sort of got me here!

        I've done lots of backpacking trips since I went low carb, the first one in November I think.
        Here's a thread I started after my first low carb on the backpacking light site.

        There's a number of threads on backpacking light about paleo. Here's a low carb trip report. Here's one titled My Paleo. Here's one about pemmican. Here's one I started with a description of what I brought for food to the Winds. I guess I wasn't that low carb if I ate all that bridge mix. Anyway, lots there on BP Light, more than even this list.
        Female, 5'3", 50, Max squat: 202.5lbs. Max deadlift: 225 x 3.


        • #5
          I am doing more and more in my merrell gloves including hiking and scrambling. On the plus side they were great for scrambling with good grip and feel of the scree on the downside no ankle protection if some of the scree slid...ouch.

          PS love the pics
          Last edited by Dirlot; 08-16-2012, 05:32 PM.
          Eating primal is not a diet, it is a way of life.
          Don't forget to play!


          • #6
            So good to hear others can do harder things while in ketosis! I am quite sure I will do this again before the next backpacking trip, and take more time to adapt, if I'm not still doing it then anyway, it's hard to predict right now... But for backpacking it just makes so much sense because I always end up switching to fat burning mode during the trip anyway, and it's much less weight to carry too because fat calories weigh less

            I live in the Bay Area btw, and am probably too slow for most people, but do let me know if you're in the area!


            • #7
              Originally posted by sriehemann View Post
              So good to hear others can do harder things while in ketosis! I am quite sure I will do this again before the next backpacking trip, and take more time to adapt, if I'm not still doing it then anyway, it's hard to predict right now... But for backpacking it just makes so much sense because I always end up switching to fat burning mode during the trip anyway, and it's much less weight to carry too because fat calories weigh less

              I live in the Bay Area btw, and am probably too slow for most people, but do let me know if you're in the area!
              I'm 50 so I'm not sprinting to the top of any mountains either. My sister lives on the east side of SF bay so I am up there now and then. I went to school at Stanford and lived on the peninsula for about ten years before moving home to SD. I did a lot of Sierra hiking back then.

              Did you read the thread about Fat Bread? It was something Richard over at the Free the Animal site invented. I made some last night and it would be one heck of a great backpacking food. Incredibly dense nutrition. Details on my journal if you are interested.
              Pemmican would also be a great trail food.


              • #8
                If you ever have the chance, the Winds are the most beautiful place I've ever been. I recommend backpacking here.

                Did you read Mark's post today about being outdoors? This is why I go backpacking.
                Female, 5'3", 50, Max squat: 202.5lbs. Max deadlift: 225 x 3.


                • #9
                  That was an awesome post of Mark's. Thanks for pointing it out.
                  This is why I hike:

                  Kili glacier remnats.jpg
                  That's where the glacier at the top of Kilimangaro is receding. If you want to see it ever, sooner rather than later would be good.

                  Kili Summit.jpg
                  This was the greatest feeling of accomplishment. I will never forget this moment. Exhausted and on top of the world all at once.
                  Last edited by Paleobird; 08-16-2012, 08:58 PM.


                  • #10
                    OK, let's do a hike in the Bay Area next time you're around! Got a favorite place? I've been to a lot of the parks All - trip | EveryTrail but still missing a quite few in the East Bay, actually ;-)

                    Hadn't seen the Fat Bread post, awesome, thanks I'll definitely have to try that! And I need to see if I can find a fish-based-pemmican recipe...

                    Your Kilimanjaro pics aren't showing up for me yet while sbhikes' beautiful Winds pictures are, and my own isn't inline. Apparently I still have much to learn about the more esoteric features of this forum ;-)


                    • #11
                      Your picture is showing just fine. That's the High Sierra, right?

                      Paleobird's aren't displaying though.
                      Female, 5'3", 50, Max squat: 202.5lbs. Max deadlift: 225 x 3.