The first time I tried to plan a backpacking trip while experimenting with a ketogenic diet, it was a real struggle to come up with enough low-carb backpacking food options. Backpacking is usually a total carb-fest! Rice, ramen, oatmeal, Snickers…
But once I started thinking about it, I realized there are a ton of great keto backpacking foods to work with, and a lot of benefits to eating them on the trail.
Even if you’re not normally on a ketogenic diet, incorporating keto-friendly and low carb foods into your backpacking menu makes a lot of sense. These foods aren’t just low in carbohydrates, they’re also high in fat. Of all the macronutrients, fat contains the most energy per unit weight: 9 calories per gram, versus only 4 for carbs and protein.
This translates directly to less weight in your pack (yay!) for the same amount of calories and energy on the trail. It can also offer us a more consistent energy source if we train our metabolism to take advantage of it. No more bonking!
So whether you’re eating a ketogenic diet in daily life and wondering if you can maintain it on the trail, are tired of the usual carb-heavy backpacking meals, or want a more efficient way to stuff calories into your backpack, low-carb and keto backpacking food will help.
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What’s This Keto Thing Again?
Really quick review: Keto is short for ketogenic, and refers to a diet so high in fat and low in carbohydrates that your metabolism switches over to burning mostly fat instead of mostly carbs. This is called being “in ketosis” and can be helpful for people trying to decrease body fat, and also for people doing lots of endurance exercise with limited food supply (sound familiar, backpackers?).
Keto vs. Low Carb
I’ll refer to both low carb and ketogenic diets in this post, but they’re not the same thing. Keto is much stricter. All keto-friendly foods are low carb, but not all low-carb foods are keto-friendly.
Your move toward lower-carb backpacking food doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can still get a lot of benefit from a low-carb diet that isn’t strictly ketogenic, both in terms of your metabolism and your backpack weight.
Low-Carb and Keto Hiking Snacks
Many yummy trail snacks are already keto-friendly or close to it. Here are some classics.
Nuts: A handful of cashews, almonds, or peanuts are salty and filling, a good source of protein, and naturally low in carbohydrates. Some trail mixes are reasonably low-carb (look for the ones with less sugar) but most have enough dried fruit or chocolate to make them not strictly keto-friendly.
Jerky or meat sticks: From traditional beef jerky to the more unusual (but surprisingly good) Epic meat bars, most meat-based snacks are keto-friendly. Personally I prefer the softer texture of meat sticks over dry jerky when I’m on the trail. I’ll even spend a little extra for those that are grass-fed and seem slightly less processed, and I like to mix in turkey and chicken in addition to beef. A few of my favorites:
Nut butter: Most nut butters are already very low carb, so no need to splurge on the “keto” branded versions in most cases. Single serve packets are popular with hikers, but I prefer larger 6oz squeeze pouches (this variety pack is really good!) because they create less packaging waste and are more flexible. My go-to’s are:
Cookies and candy (low-carb versions): Wait, what? Yes, cookies and candy can be keto-friendly if they use the right ingredients. Very dark chocolate, like over 85% cacoa, is also a good option (as long as the weather isn’t too hot…). These are my favorite keto-friendly backpacking snacks when I’m in the mood for something sweet:
Electrolytes: Some drink mixes can be quite sugary. I prefer the low-sugar Nuun tablets.
Bars: Most high-calorie energy and protein bars, even my favorites, aren’t low-carb and definitely aren’t keto-friendly. Many are just glorified candy bars! There are several brands of keto-specific bars, but most are too expensive and low-calorie to be worth carrying on the trail in my opinion. Here are the best compromises I’ve found:
- Perfect Keto Bars: My favorite keto-specific bar. I think Almond Butter Brownie flavor has the best texture for backpacking and also the most calories.
- Robert Irvine’s Fit Crunch: Not keto, but low-ish carb and definiintely low sugar while still being delicious.
- Pro tip: You can increase any bar’s ratio of fat to carbs by slathering nut butter all over it. Yummm.
Low-Carb and Keto Backpacking Breakfasts
The typical oatmeal backpacking breakfast definitely isn’t low-carb, but there are plenty of good alternatives.
Grain-free granola: Typically made from nuts, seeds, and some artificial sweetener, this stuff is energy-dense and tasty too. Combine with powdered milk, cream, or coconut cream and cold or hot water for an easy trail breakfast. I’m especially fond of Livlo Chocolate Hazelnut and NuTrail Cacao flavors.
Grain-free hot cereal: Essentially a low-carb oatmeal alternative, these hot cereals have a nice texture and are packed with protein and healthy fats. I love this Wildway variety pack. I also mix in my own treats like shredded coconut and pumpkin seeds to add even more nutrition and variety.
Freeze dried eggs: Eggs are a great source of protein and rehydrate fairly quickly in hot water. You can buy them plain and mix in your own goodies (I suggest bacon bits and freeze-dried peppers), or go for a pre-mixed but carb-ier version like these scrambled eggs from Mountain House.
Low carb tortillas with nut butter: Almond flour tortillas are lower carb but don’t hold up well under the rigors of trail life. I’ve found that these Carb Balance tortillas are a good compromise – slightly more carbs but don’t fall apart in my food bag. Pair with your favorite nut butter for a quick stove-free breakfast.
Extra fats: Whatever you’re having for breakfast (even if it’s regular old oatmeal), you can increase the fat-to-carb ratio by adding delicious powdered fats like cream, coconut cream, or butter. Add them to your coffee too!
Lunches and Dinners
There’s a lot of overlap between lunch and dinner food, especially when it comes to keto backpacking foods that aren’t the traditional pasta or rice. In this section I’ll list a bunch more ideas that could work well for lunch or dinner depending on your preference.
Hard cheese: Slice it into chunks and eat with a low-carb tortilla and maybe some salami. Generally hard aged cheeses hold up the best, but I also like smoked gouda because it doesn’t create as much oily liquid in hot weather. String cheese works too and can be less messy, but does create more plastic packaging waste.
Salami or meat sticks: Great on a tortilla with cheese. Choose hard salami if possible for better longevity, or individually wrapped meat sticks.
Bacon bits or pre-cooked bacon: Delicious and a great source of fat and protein. Add to, well, pretty much everything!
Packets of chicken, fish, or other protein: Though heavier than dehydrated food, packets or tins of pre-cooked meats usually come packed with oil and are a great way to add protein and fat to your backpacking food. Salmon, tuna, and chicken are common choices. Quality is important here, especially if you don’t find this kind of food very appetizing. Personally I think Starkist “Chicken Creations” taste like cat food.
Dehydrated or freeze dried meats are a lightweight way to add protein and fat, or a convenient ingredient for DIY backpacking meals. Options range from bulk containers of beef (I used that entire container making meals for the Arizona Trail!) to single-serving packets of dried pulled pork (perhaps more appetizing).
Dried veggies: While not specifically keto, if you’re making a just-add-water backpacking meal you may as well throw in some veggies for nutrition. I like this dehydrated spinach, tomatoes, mixed veggies, and pretty much everything else from that brand too.
Low carb tortillas: Almond flour tortillas are more low-carb but don’t hold up well under the rigors of trail life. I’ve found that these Carb Balance tortillas are a good compromise – slightly more carbs but don’t fall apart in my food bag. Pair with cheese, meat, etc. to round out many of the above low-carb backpacking foods.
Dried riced cauliflower: Riced cauliflower is a staple for many keto dieters, but does it work for backpacking? Personally I find it underwhelming, but sometimes you really want something rice-like to eat your protein with and a strict keto diet doesn’t allow for rice. Dried riced cauliflower can be rehydrated along with your freeze dried meat and veggies, or if you don’t mind extra weight the texture from a pouch (not dried) might be preferable.
Keto shake: This Sated Keto Shake (I prefer the Chocolate flavor) is a good way to get calories and nutrients without much food preparation, or if you’re not in the mood to eat solid food. I carry the oil in a lightweight flask (enclose in a ziplock bag – trust me). Just be sure you have something to shake it up in, because it turns out lumpy if only stirred.
Extra fats: As with breakfast, many of these meals can be made more filling by adding adding extra fats like cream powder, coconut cream powder, butter powder, ghee packets, or olive oil decanted into a lightweight flask (enclose in a ziplock bag – trust me).
Low(er)-Carb Backpacking Meals
If you’re not following a strict keto diet and just want to cut down on carbs while backpacking, try this formula:
- Start with a normal backpacking “base” food like noodles, instant potatoes, or oatmeal, but use LESS than you normally would.
- Add a whole lotta extra fat from your preferred source: cream powder, olive oil, nut butter, cheese, etc.
- Add a few low-carb high-protein “mix ins” like bacon bits, freeze dried meat, or nuts.
Example 1: Low(er) carb oatmeal breakfast.
- One packet of plain unsweetened instant oatmeal
- Big spoonful of peanut butter
- Spoonful of cream powder
- Handful of trail mix, almonds, and/or dried coconut
Example 2: Low(er) carb instant mashed potatoes
- Partial packet of instant mashed potatoes
- Spoonful of butter powder
- Big chunk of real cheese
- Handful of bacon bits and/or dried meat of your choice
Example 3: Low(er) carb Mountain House Beef Stew
- Small serving of dried Beef Stew (I buy the #10 cans for better value)
- Spoonful of butter powder
- Extra dried beef
- Extra dried veggies
Though these meals still have plenty of carbs, they have a higher fat-to-carb ratio than just doubling up on sweetened oatmeal packets or eating the whole potato packet as-is. This will make your meals lighter, satisfy that hiker hunger more fully, and perhaps keep your metabolism more flexible.
How to Save Money
Keto food can be expensive, both in regular life and on the trail. If you’re looking for keto backpacking food on a budget, good luck to you! Here are a few tips that might help:
- Avoid products that specifically say “keto” on them! They’re always more expensive. Instead, eat more foods that are naturally keto-friendly like nuts and nut butters, cheese, and meat.
- Buy in bulk if you’ll be doing a lot of backpacking.
- Consider making your own keto-friendly bars, granola, or other snacks.
- Make your favorite keto-friendly meals at home and use a food dehydrator to transform them into trail food.
Listen to Your Body
I’m not a nutritionist and am not giving nutrition advice here, just providing ideas to incorporate into your trail menu. But here are a few things you should be aware of.
Technically, the keto diet is low-protein as well as low-carb. For hikers on long-distance treks, it’s important to eat enough protein to repair and grow muscles. If you’re thru hiking on a true ketogenic diet, it’ll be important to get this balance right.
Also, I wouldn’t suggest starting a keto or very low carb diet for the first time while hiking. It usually takes days to weeks for our metabolisms to adjust to burning fat as fuel, and during the transition period many people feel very low on energy. If you’re not already eating a low-carb diet in daily life, I don’t think a backpacking trip is the best time to start.
So there you have it, plenty of low carb and keto friendly backpacking food ideas to sustain you on the trail. Not every backpacking trip needs to be an all-carbs-all-the-time walking buffet. I hope these alternative ideas will help you meet your nutrition goals, lighten your backpack, and enjoy more even energy levels on the trail.
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re interested in low-carb backpacking food, you might also like:
- What’s in My Lightweight Backpacking Toiletries Kit
- How to Pack for Backpacking to Avoid the Gear Explosion
- 12 Tent Stretches for Better Sleep and Stronger Hiking
Or, visit the backpacking resources center for more tips, stories, and gear reviews.
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