Lightweight backpack

Lightweight Fastpacking Nutrition Strategy – Colorado Trail

If you’re a backpacker/hiker who requires comfort food, it’s probably best to stop reading now. Today I’m going to introduce you to some of my weird Colorado Trail food decisions; all made so I can specifically cut the weight and volume of my pack. 

Let’s just say I was chewing on dried powder at some points. Sounds delicious, right? Keep reading. 🙂

If you want to drop some weight from your hiking setup, stop looking for expensive sleep solutions to reduce your pack weight by 20g and review your nutrition and food instead.

Disclaimer: By clicking through the links on this page and purchasing the products, you’ll be helping me out. This is done because I receive a kickback from the sellers at no extra cost to you! I thank you so much for helping me continue with the website!

By no means is the following a prescription, and by no means am I a doctor. When making any changes in your life and using new products, ensure you discuss them with your doctor.

During my latest Colorado Trail (CT) completion, I opted for zero cooking equipment and instead focused on prepared food or shakes to fuel me throughout the journey so I could save as much weight as possible. 

How much weight did that save? 

Knowing that the ever-popular Jetboil comes in at 368 grams + the required 100-gram gas canister, I’d estimate I saved nearly 500 grams! That’s half the weight of my tent, not to mention the space it takes up in your pack. 

So, what foods did I bring with me on the CT? Below you’ll find out what food I planned to take on the CT, the foods I did take with me, the foods I switched while on the CT, and the foods I’d do differently in the future. 

Background

The way I completed the Colorado Trail was a little different from many others on the trail.

I completed the trail in 16 days, averaging 30 miles a day, and I had plenty of restocks along the way.

That means it may not be your typical backpacking or even thruhiking experience. It was more like multiple fastpacking trips, one after the other.

Nevertheless, however you’re planning your next backpacking or thruhiking trip, I still think lessons can be learned from my approach to nutrition and packing food. 

What Foods did I “Plan” to use?

Before I started the trail, I put together a whole spreadsheet comparing food weights, calories, and prices to help decide what I should take on the trip. 

Want the spreadsheet? Here’s a link to the Google Sheet.

As I said, I’d already decided I wouldn’t be taking a stove, so traditional dehydrated options were off the menu, but does anyone like them anyway?

I found interesting options during my research, such as coconut butter. A semi-sweet and very fatty paste that offers 211 calories in just 32 grams and doesn’t take up a ton of space.

The issue is that it melts in the heat and is pretty hard to digest when moving fast due to the high-fat content. Items like this are a no-no, at least in my books.

Ultimately, I fell back to my trusty adventure fuel fallback, Huel. 

Huel

Huel is a powdered shake touted as a nutritionally complete food making it ideal for situations where good food sources are scarce. 

Predominantly made of pea protein, the taste isn’t awesome. But they have flavoured options if you’re into that artificial kinda taste. :p

I’ve used Huel for many other adventures, such as a 24-hour bike ride from London to Leeds in the UK, a 3-day hike in New Zealand, and another 3 dayer in Olympic National Park. 

The reason why Huel fits the bill is that its calorie-to-weight ratio is pretty good, and it covers most of my nutritional needs. 400 calories in just 90 grams. 

All that’s required to prepare Huel is water. And on the CT, water’s not too hard to come by. Ultimately, there were problems with using just Huel, which I’ll come to later, but first, let’s look at the other food items I took with me. 

Dried fruits and Nuts

While dried fruits and nuts can be a little heavier and bulkier to pack, they’re also high in calories and offer a nice balance of sugars and fats to keep me fueled on the move. 

I decided on using dates and raisins for the high sugar options and pecans and walnuts to provide fats. 

And as a bonus, I threw a good amount of coconut flakes in the mix because they offered a great mix of carbs and fat in a low-weight package. 

Because dried fruits and nuts preserve so well, there’s little worry of spoilage. And they’re also pretty easy to consume on the move. 

Snack bars

Epic Bars and Snack bars

Epic bars are meat jerky packaged in a fancy wrapper but with the bonus of being 100% grass-fed and knowing the company sources from farms that use regenerative farming techniques. 

I planned to use the jerky as a break from the monotony of Huel and the other options. It’s not super heavy and won’t go off and makes up for much of the downfalls of Huel. 

And lastly, the generic snack bar. For this, I went for gluten-free cereal bars with a little more sugar but also ensured that they were made from real “food” ingredients and didn’t contain any hidden harmful ingredients. 

Again, cereal bars are great to eat on the move but still fit the bill of being lightweight.

How many calories did I plan for each day?

Because I would be running some sections and generally moving for long periods of the day, I planned to try to eat 4211 calories a day. (Pretty exact…it’s just the way it calculated out)

That’s a lot of calories to eat when on the move. And I was a little too ambitious. But still, here’s a breakdown of each food. 

CaloriesWeight (g)Calorie/Weight RatioPriceCalorie/Price RatioCountTotal CaloriesTotal Weight (g)
Huel400904.44$1.75228.5752000450
Thunderbird Bar250653.84$2.25111.112500130
Epic Bar150433.48$2.0075.00230086
Date (100g) ~103141003.14$1.00314.001/215750
Walnuts (100g)7011007.01$1.25560.801701100
Raisins (100g)3301003.3$0.36916.671/216550
Coconut flakes388854.56$0.85456.47138885
Total Calories4211
Total Weight (g)951

As you can see, I planned to gain the bulk of the calories from Huel and supplement the rest of my nutrition with other foods on the move. 

Considering Huel is easy to make, quick to consume, a great price, and lightweight, it seemed like the obvious choice. 

But how did that turn out? 

What changed on the trail?

I had two big issues with Huel on the trail. And neither was a reflection on the product itself; it was more my body and my expectations. 

The downfall of Huel (for me)

To make Huel, you normally place some powder in a shaker and fill it with water. I had the great idea of mixing a small amount into a paste and chewing on that instead, thus not requiring as much water. 

Oh boy, was that a mistake. You’re likely laughing at me now…. 🙂 

That meant that the first 2 days, I went under-fueled because I just couldn’t bring myself to chew through enough Huel paste.

After that, I threw my shaker in my pack and used plenty of water. The issue then became the aspect of “plenty of water”. 

Filtering water while on the trail was a slow process with the Sawyer mini filter. The whole process of having 1 shake of Huel took 15-20 minutes each time.

I wanted to move fast! And consuming Huel 5 times a day was not a possibility. So again, I was going under-fueled for a few more days.

Lastly, I had an issue with my body. 

During the journey, I received some blood results confirming I had an issue with high blood iron levels. One of the side effects of high iron levels is the inability to hold food in the gut, especially when exercising and when the food is high in iron. Huel happens to have 40% of the RDA for iron per drink. So I’ll leave it to your imagination to work out what happened. TMI.

I searched for quick remedies to high iron levels, and suggestions to consume tea and wine came up! The tannins in these drinks reduce iron absorption, lessening the issue of gut distress. The problem is, tea and wine are hard to come by on the trail. 

A second option was digestive enzymes! A supplement that lends a helping hand when your gut is unable to digest food optimally.

I love digestive enzymes, but sadly I just forgot how effective these could be, mainly when my body was preoccupied with endurance feats. Once I utilized digestive enzymes, my gut calmed down a little, and I could take on more nutrition. 

Not Enough Sugar!

Usually, I’m not a huge fan of pure sugar. But when it comes to extensive efforts like the CT, sugar is a must. 

I thought I would consume enough sugar with the dried fruits and cereal bars I’d be eating, but that didn’t seem to be going well for me. I was often running low on energy. 

So halfway through the CT, I switched things up quite drastically.

  • I switched to CLIF bars for the higher sugar content. 
  • I started using higher sugar dried fruits like mango and sugared ginger
  • I refound my love for jam sandwiches! 

These all helped up my calorie intake and, at the time, tasted awesome. Sugar was what I needed. 

The jam sandwiches did something extraordinary – more than providing the sugar rush I needed. They became my treat after picking up my supplies from my wife, and they got me up and over some big mountains!

Things other than food

I did use a few supplements en route, and I believe one of these was a key contributor to my success. 

The electrolytes are self-explanatory; it would be hot, I’d be sweating a lot, and my food sources would not be offering a significant salt source. 

The Beef Organ supplements are one of the few animal products I consume, but I do so to ensure my B12 levels and a few other nutrients are topped up. Much like a multivitamin, but from a real source. 

Although, I did have to stop these after receiving the high iron level blood results. 

But in general, beef organs are a good source of highly absorbable heme-iron, precisely what I didn’t want then! And likely contributed to the blood results! 

The game changer – Essential Amino Acids. 

Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) are a supplement that is essentially predigested protein! It sounds a bit weird, but there’s a huge advantage. 

When you consume protein, you still have to rely on your digestive system to break it down (digesting) into individual amino acids for your body to utilize.

When your body is under high stress, like a massive undertaking like the CT, your digestive system is not 100% efficient. That can lead to poor amino acid absorption and even digestion issues. 

Because EAAs are predigested, they’re in a state where they can be absorbed as soon as they hit the gut, which means they skip the gut upset and optimally fuel your much-needed protein simply!

I believe this saved me on those days when I couldn’t intake enough calories. It would have reduced muscle wastage and helped me rebuild muscles with little calorie intake. 

At the end of each day, I took a high 15g dosage to stimulate muscle growth hormones and sometimes supplemented my food intake when I knew the protein level was a little low. 

If you’ve never tried EAAs before, I highly recommend switching out your protein shake for these; your gut will thank you!

Conclusion

Looking back now, it was apparent I was never going to hit 4000 calories a day. 

My digestive system is relatively poor at the best of times, and expecting to wolf down that much food while pushing for 10-14 hours a day was not going to work.

And that brings me to the final conclusion: I had to accept that I would lose weight during the CT. 

In the end, I believe I likely lost between 6-8 pounds due to a lack of calories, and for me, that’s a lot because I don’t carry much weight. But after around 4-5 weeks, I’m back to my normal weight. 

For some, all this may seem a little extreme just to cut a few grams from a pack. But for me, it was the only option to allow me to complete the CT in the way I wanted to!

And if you’ve got that mindset and access to a good water source, I’d suggest trying Huel as your primary nutrition for an extended journey. But don’t forget to supplement with other foods and don’t be scared of sugar like I was! 

Nick
Nick

Nick helps aspiring runners learn how to take a healthful approach to their training and races so they don’t crash and burn before they achieve their goals.

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