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:
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:
You might be surprised how many food items you can get in powdered form, making for easy, lightweight packing. Take advantage of powdered vegetables, including single vegetables, vegetable blends, and green powders, to cover some of your nutrient bases.
Dairy products like heavy cream, various cheeses, sour cream, and butter come in powdered form, too. 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
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
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.
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 ketosis—not 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!
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.