Keto on the Trail: What to Pack for Primal and Keto Camping, Hiking, and Backpacking

Photo of a smiling young couple, packing up camping equipment in the trunk of a car, ready for walking.One of the upsides of indoor venues being closed this past year is that a lot of people have (re)discovered a love of the great outdoors. More people than ever seem to be venturing out on the trails, camping with their families, and generally taking advantage of nature. Although avid hikers and campers might lament the busyness of their once-isolated outdoor spaces, I think we can all agree that this is a good thing for society as a whole.

The food situation can be a barrier to entry, though. Traditional camping and hiking foods tend to be high-carb and grain-based, so Primal and keto outdoors enthusiasts may find themselves at a loss for what to eat. Portable, shelf-stable items like oatmeal, granola bars, sandwiches, pasta, and s’mores probably aren’t on your Primal menu. (You can make better-for-you s’mores that are pretty darn amazing!) Never fear. Plenty of Primal- and keto-friendly foods work just as well in these scenarios.

Conventional backpacking wisdom also suggests that hikers need to keep carb intake high to maintain energy and stamina. Not so! Primal and keto diets are ideal for camping and especially for hiking and backpacking. These sustained submaximal efforts rely largely on fat-burning for energy, at least for the metabolically flexible among us. A growing contingent of Primal, paleo, and keto backpackers are demonstrating in real time that it’s not only possible to fuel your outdoor adventures on a low-carb diet, it may actually be ideal.

Primal and Keto Camping Food

If you’re packing a cooler, you can eat literally anything you would eat at home, provided it can be prepared or reheated on a camp stove or over a fire.

Your camping shopping list can look pretty much like your typical shopping list:

  • Eggs
  • Meat, poultry, seafood
  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Coffee or tea
  • Cream, coconut milk, or nut milk
  • Cheese and yogurt if you eat dairy

Don’t forget avocado oil, salt and pepper, other spices, and condiments to make your food taste delicious!

Personally, I prefer to do as much work as possible at home. Save time by pre-cooking bacon, chili, shredded chicken, taco meat, and hard-boiled eggs. Assemble kabobs to cook over the fire. Make low-carb muffins or pancakes if they’re on the menu. Once at the campsite, cook scrambled eggs, grill burgers and sausages, toss together salads, and so on.

However, if you won’t have a cooler, or if you’ll be backpacking, that’s another story altogether.

 

Primal and Keto Backpacking Food

How Much Food To Bring

Backpacking food takes a lot more forethought than regular ol’ camping. Note that I include backcountry camping, where you have to pack in food, under the “backpacking” umbrella. Whenever you have to carry your food any significant distance, weight and space efficiency really matter. You don’t want to carry unnecessary food, nor do you want to be hungry and undernourished.

You should carefully consider how many calories you need each day, factoring in your activity level, how long you’ll be out in the wilderness, and if and when you’ll be able to resupply. Figuring out exactly how much to bring can be tricky, especially for Primal and keto folks. Usual recommendations are around 25 calories per pound of body weight per day, plus or minus 5 calories for easier or harder outings. However, one of the purported benefits of metabolic flexibility and efficiency is that you become less dependent on regular meals and possibly get away with fewer calories. Indeed, some low-carb hikers (and other endurance athletes) enjoy pushing the limits and seeing how little food they actually need. That can be a risky strategy, though.

Ultimately, you’ll need to figure out for yourself through trial and error exactly how many calories you need per day. Likewise, experiment to find your preferred macronutrient consumption on the trail. The Ketogenic Backpackers group on Facebook is a fantastic resource for seeing what other low-carbers are doing.

Primal and Keto Backpacking Meal and Snack Ideas

The main priorities when selecting backpacking food are weight and temperature stability. You can afford to bring a few perishable items to eat in the first day or two, but for longer treks, you don’t want to mess with possible food-borne illness.

Here are some options that fit the bill, require no cooking, and are also low-carb:

  • Grain-free granola
  • Jerky, biltong, pemmican
  • Olives or dried olives
  • Nuts and nut butter (available in single-serve packets)
  • Trail mix, spiced roasted nuts
  • Hard salami, summer sausage
  • Hard cheese, freeze-dried cheese
  • Tuna packets or other tinned fish
  • Whole avocados
  • Low-carb protein bars
  • Low-carb tortillas

Powders Galore!

You might be surprised how many food items you can get in powdered form, making for easy, lightweight packing. Many hikers take advantage of powdered vegetables, including single vegetables, vegetable blends, and green powders, to cover some of their nutrient bases.

Dairy products like heavy cream, various cheeses, sour cream, and butter come in powdered form. Can’t do dairy? Look for coconut milk powder. These can all add welcome flavor and much-needed fat and calories to your trail meals.

Coffee lovers can still have their morning brew thanks to instant coffee. We all know that Mark isn’t the biggest fan of fatty coffee in general, but in this case, it can be a delicious way. Some hikers even bring small battery-powered whisks so they can whip up instant “trail coffee” with powdered MCT oil (which can boost ketone production), heavy cream, butter, and/or coconut milk. Substitute instant tea if coffee isn’t your thing.

Lastly, don’t forget about protein powders and collagen peptides for valuable amino acids!

Hot Food Options for Hiking

If you’re bringing a stove and heating water on the trail, the world is your (dehydrated) oyster! Most meats can be dehydrated unless they have a high fat content, as can eggs, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Serious hikers probably want to invest in a dehydrator, which gives you almost endless possibilities for creating your own dehydrated meals to reconstitute on the trail. Make sure you take the time to learn the ins and outs of proper dehydrating so you don’t end up with spoiled food. Dehydrated ingredients are also readily available online.

When putting together meals, don’t forget to add herbs and spices for flavor, and bring fats to add during cooking (see below). Here are just a few ideas:

  • Soups made with powdered bone broth and any combo of meat and vegetables you want
  • Beef stew
  • Curried cashew chicken
  • “Hamburger helper” made with ground beef, powdered cheese, and grain-free noodles or dehydrated zucchini noodles, topped with dehydrated pickles (yes, that’s a thing)
  • Cauliflower rice risotto with shrimp and mushrooms
  • Egg scrambles

How about instant n’oatmeal? (That’s not-oatmeal, if you didn’t know.) Play around with different combinations of powdered cream or coconut milk, flax seeds, chia seeds, ground nuts or almond meal, dried coconut, freeze-dried berries, protein powder, salt, and spices like cinnamon or nutmeg to get the perfect flavor combination and macros for you.

If DIY isn’t your thing, a few brands already offer Primal-friendly and keto-friendly meals, with more options on the horizon, I’m guessing. Many traditional brands have at least a couple meals with appealing ingredients and macros, too.

Getting Enough Fat on the Trail

As I said, getting enough calories can be a challenge for any long-distance hikers, but especially those who are also practicing low-carb eating or intermittent fasting. Fat provides nine calories per gram, versus the four calories in protein and fat. Getting enough fat is essential, and it will make your trail food more appealing.

In addition to the powdered dairy and coconut products mentioned above, you can carry olive or avocado oil in food-safe silicone containers. Just make sure you double-bag them to prevent spillage in your backpack, and don’t mix fats into your dehydrated food until it’s time to cook them.

Coconut oil is another great option, and it comes in single-serving packets. For heat stability, you can’t beat cacao butter, but it does taste mildly like chocolate. That’s nice for your trail coffee, and it’s fantastic in chili, but it doesn’t work as a neutral oil.

Some hikers carry butter, but the USDA recommends not keeping butter at room temperature for more than two days.1 It’s okay for short hikes, but for longer hikes, especially in the heat… you do you.

Don’t Forget Your Electrolytes!

Hopefully, keto folks are already well aware of the importance of electrolyte supplementation. That goes double during hiking. Hikers and backpackers are endurance athletes. All athletes need to make sure their electrolyte intake is sufficient, especially when they’re losing electrolytes through sweating.

Check out my recent post Ways to Get Your Electrolytes (That Aren’t Sports Drinks) for options.

Use Carbs Strategically If You Want

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to your usual low-carb macros on the trail. Hiking is a perfect opportunity to take advantage of that fat- and ketone-burning prowess you’ve worked so hard to build.

That said, adding a bit of dried fruit to your trail mix, noshing on a foraged piece of fresh fruit, or enjoying some dark chocolate at the end of the day is also a perfectly valid choice. Remember, metabolic flexibility means burning fat, ketones, and glucose when it’s available. Within reason, additional carbs probably won’t even kick you out of ketosisnot in the context of long, active days. It’s not necessary to up your carbs, but you shouldn’t worry that the keto police will come after you on the trail.

There are so many delicious low-carb meals that are well-suited to hiking and camping! Seasoned campers and hikers, please share your favorite Primal and keto meals and snacks in the comments!

TAGS:  Keto

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.

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9 thoughts on “Keto on the Trail: What to Pack for Primal and Keto Camping, Hiking, and Backpacking”

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  1. All good ideas.

    Folks might want to also check out Next Mile Meals – dehydrated keto backpacking meals. They are excellent – even my son, who isn’t keto, prefers them over the mainstream packaged backpack meals.

    (No – I have no affiliation with Next Mile Meals, except that which I consume with gusto!)

    1. I’ve been backpacking low-carb for several years (and backpacking all over the world for 35 years…) and was thrilled to learn of Next Mile Meals. Great freeze-dried meals for everyone, even your carb-eating trail companions! I even eat them for breakfast, when I eat breakfast! Often I just have FatCoffee and a bar and am ready to hit the trail! No affiliation with Next Mile Meals – although I love it that it is a women-created and owned business!

      1. I started eating Next Mile Meals last summer. Delicious! Love the tacos and steak breakfast. I backpack year round in southern Colorado.

        I usually do a couple days with homemade pemmican and pre-cooked bacon, grass-fed hamburger patties, boiled eggs, coffee and salt. I’ve had no problems with the food staying good in my pack. The nights get cold and that helps. A little coagulated fat, sure, but no problem!

        Then I switch to Next Mile Meals if I’m going to be out longer.

        Last weekend I went backpacking and turkey hunting in the Piedra Roadless Area and ate nothing but pemmican bars, pre-cooked bacon, salt, and Starbucks VIA coffee. Felt great.

        The only downside – if you look at it that way – is the amount of time needed to whip up large batches of pemmican! But honestly, I’ve come to enjoy the process of killing and processing my own food.

  2. A lot of dehydrated backpacker meals that you can buy at any camping store are just fine. Egg-based, or meat-based meals are all over the place. We used to bring tuna and cheese to put over boiled pasta, which could easily be done with almond pasta, or legume pasta, etc. And dried nuts with dried tomatoes, dried sweet peppers, and crisped bacon bits make heavenly snacking… Of course, carrying dehydrated food means you had better plan your backpack to hit water near your nightly camp spot.

  3. Good post! We’ve done backpacking trips as long as 10 days, carrying all meals. We focus on high protein, moderate fat, and low carb. We dehydrate meats (steak, hamburger, even bacon) and mix them with dehydrated cheddar cheese, dehydrated whole eggs, and dehydrated vegetables. We pack each meal in a FoodSaver bag (two cooked meals/day; breakfast and dinner). Each bag weighs 6-8 oz and feeds two adults. We add hard-boiled eggs, homemade beef jerky, string cheese, 90% dark chocolate, and dried fruit. Food weight is about 2 lbs/day for two people. We have steady energy and never get the “hiker hunger” we used to get as carb-driven hikers. This takes planning and preparation, but it works wonderfully!

  4. Good suggestions. Agreed that extra carbs within reason don’t kick you out of ketosis on a hike, as it’s so rigorous. Whatever extra glucose you take in burns quickly.

    I hike, backpack and camp staying keto, though am not as rigid as at home. Generally no more than three or four days at a time. I carry bars, all of the Primal bars and others. I found some Hoody’s Keto Trail Mix that I like, but it’s 6 net carbs per quarter cup. It’s easy to eat a cup of the stuff. Easy to overdo. Also, probably too many nuts and dark chocolate. Sometimes I bring some homemade jerky.

    I also pack NextMileMeals, which is very high quality keto meal-in-a-bag. I agree with another poster that it’s very good, but under seasoned for my taste, so I pack some spice mix in addition to salt and pepper.

    I don’t bring any fresh meat backpacking, and cans or bottles are too heavy. I go ultralight, under 20 pounds all in, with Dyneema backpack and tent, high-end down bag. I backpack in the Colorado Rockies, and every extra pound takes a toll.

    I have noticed that people who don’t eat keto stop and eat a lot more often, and more quantity, than I do. The fat burn pays off.

    Car camping is a whole different deal. Then it’s steaks, veggies, everything I can haul.

    Glad summer is on the way!

  5. This is timely and so helpful! Planning two weeks on the JMT in Aug. Just starting to think about meal planning (and pack weight and bear can volume) and was wondering how to stay on my Paleo diet. Mahalo!

  6. Perfect timing with i this article, as we are going camping next weekend! I’m breastfeeding my 7 month old though, so won’t necessarily shy away from the healthy primal carbs!

    Also had to laugh at the ‘USDA not recommending keeping butter at room temperature for more than 2 days. We keep our butter in a butter dish for a week or more…though maybe in Europe our butter has a higher fat content so doesn’t spoil as easily..

  7. I noticed you didn’t include dried fruit or chips (such as plantain or potato cooked in healthy oils) on your list of things you can take that don’t require cooking. These are additional things besides what’s on your list that my family takes on outings where we’re far from stores, such as to a national park or somewhere in nature here in Utah.