Actual Protein Recommendation for Ultralight Backcountry Meals
Ideally, you’d eat 20-25 grams of protein, five or six times a day, with three hours in-between. A “meal” doesn’t necessarily mean a mixed meal—it could be just protein while you save larger meals for other times. There’s no need for math, timing simply matters more with protein than with carbs or fat, so eating it more frequently is recommended regardless of whatever else you do with your diet.
This is what the science tells us is most likely to be true for all athletes, and most backpackers—especially thru hikers–work as hard as any other athlete. However, if you don’t consider yourself an athlete, odds are you don’t eat like one—and maybe even believe that you shouldn’t or can’t eat like one.
Why? Well… weight. Anyone can and arguably should adopt these guidelines in the lead up to a big trip, thru hike, climb, ride, etc. But 100-125 grams of protein alone adds up quickly when you’re talking about a self-supported week or 10 days in the backcountry. Good sources tend to be perceived as being dense and/or bulky (nuts, anyone?), so the average ultralight backpacking meal tends to skimp specifically where it will hurt you the most.
To the average Honey Bun scarfing gram-obsessive, protein may seem like the first thing to cut to save weight. But cut it out and your days will be longer, your steps harder, and your recovery poorer. You might say that protein carries more than its own weight, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
So if the general recommendation of 100-125 grams/day makes your feet hurt, think about that as a goal, not a requirement. If it’s not practical for your trip, aim for at least 80 grams. Overall, during periods of extreme exertion, do not consume less than 60 grams per day.
Protein might not provide energy in the same way as carbohydrates or fat, but it serves an important purpose all its own: keeping our body in tip-top shape. We need protein to build and repair not only muscle, but every protein-based cell in the body—which is all of them. Protein keeps our blood healthy, our muscles robust, and our mitochondria numerous.
To get the most out of your trip, make sure to prepare adequately and bring adequate protein with you. You’ll come out healthier for it and have a much better experience—and that’s worth whatever small cost carrying it with you entails.
Interest piqued? Check out Brian’s exceptionally thorough blog Climbing Nutrition for more science-based background analysis and context.
If eating 80-100 grams of protein sounds impossible, we thought we’d put together a chart of the protein densities of common whole foods. Obviously, not everyone packs all of their own food for every trip, but if you’re investing in the “food as fuel” ethos, this should help you make sense of your targeted protein load.
- Focus on more than just your total calories if you want to maximize your fun and feel good while doing it
- Very few foods will give you a full dose of the recommended 20 grams of protein per meal in a reasonable, packable quantity–beef jerky being the exception
- Sneak protein into everything with a few key supplemental super foods: protein mix, diy dehydrated Greek yogurt, most hard cheeses, flax seeds
- Worst case, they can be undetectable–even in breakfasts. Best case, they’re hearty flavor enhancers with a long shelf-life
- Think of this as a best practice guide: If you’re going to eat grains, eat oats. If you’re going to eat nuts, eat pumpkin seeds or peanuts. If you’re going to eat pasta, eat protein-fortified pasta. If you’re going to put the effort into eating veggies, eat broccoli or brussel sprouts
- Hauling (and eating) four-and-a-half pounds of beef jerky, in addition to all your carbs and fat, will make you want to die. But you’re only hauling that for one day, as the total weight tapers over the course of a week in the field (see second table). If you’re on a longer, totally self-supported trip, that’s obviously a bigger consideration.
- You could literally survive on a pound of lentils per day, but they take forever to cook, so you’re going to need to pack way more fuel