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Lighten Your (actual) Load

Lighten Your (actual) Load

I’ve heard of sheep hunters cutting the tags off their clothing to save weight.  That’s a bit extreme in my opinion, but there’s no doubt that being ounce-stingy when backpacking or mountain hunting pays dividends. 

Each year, more aerospace technology finds its way into the outdoor industry.  Carbon fiber and titanium are now common materials in backcountry gear.  It’s easy to get caught up in the trend, dropping some serious coin at REI or Cabelas in the name of shaving a few ounces.  But what about us, our bodies?

If I’m honest with myself, I never quite took my wilderness prep as seriously as I should have before this year.  Part of the reason was youth… I didn’t need to take it so seriously.  In years past, I just beat the ever-loving snot out of myself when I was in the woods; up one side of a mountain and down the next.  And that approach works, if you’re a 24-year-old masochist. 

Sheep shape

But, despite what I like to tell myself, I’m not that young anymore.  Plus, things shaped up to be a little more demanding this year. 

In February I got a call from a good friend who’s a Montana outfitter.  Cody drew a Dall sheep tag for the Brooks Range, and asked if I’d join him to film his hunt. (my wife and I own two small production companies:  commercial and wedding)

 The Brooks Range lies entirely within the arctic circle, and runs 700 miles from east to west.  Its western flank is within 200 miles of Russian soil, and the farthest reaches of it eastern slopes spill into Canada's Yukon Territory.

The Brooks Range lies entirely within the arctic circle, and runs 700 miles from east to west.  Its western flank is within 200 miles of Russian soil, and the farthest reaches of it eastern slopes spill into Canada's Yukon Territory.

I couldn’t resist, and said yes on the spot.  With Alaskan sheep being the most physically-demanding pursuit in the US, I had some work to do.  Winging it wasn’t going to do the trick this time.

In addition to lightening my film rig, I had to lighten myself.  I’ve always worked out, been in decent shape and eaten very clean, but I decided to dump 15 pounds in order to be in peak condition.

Sure, I did the standard: more cardio, higher reps in the gym, hiking with a heavy pack, blah, blah, blah.  But the one overwhelming factor that allowed me to lose substantial weight over the next three months was changing my diet.  I still eat roughly the same number of calories I always have, but now I eat a lot more fat. 

Slice of bacon?  I’ll take 8, please.

Cave men and carb manipulation

Now, before we go any further, let me preface this with a disclaimer:  I am not a nutritionist, dietician, or some other variety of professional who tells people what to put (or not put) in their mouths.  I can only share what has helped me ditch a few LBs before hunting season kicks off.

Carbohydrates are a very potent source of energy.  For the human body, carbs are like running NOS in your car.  Professional athletes, bodybuilders and generally everyone in the fitness industry achieve uncommon results and levels of performance because they understand – or are under the tutelage of someone who understands – the effects of manipulating carbohydrate intake.

The average American eats way, way more carbs than they need.  It’s one reason so many people who eat a reasonable amount of calories and exercise vigorously still have love handles and can’t see their abs.  The human body simply wasn’t designed to utilize carbohydrates as its primary fuel source.    

So Dan, are you telling me I should do the South Beach diet? 

No.  Not unless you’re gonna buy a Prius and start wearing skinny jeans.  What I’m telling you to do is cut your carbohydrate intake significantly and make the energy up in fat and protein.  I'm not trying to starve myself into skinniness, but rather supply it with a better fuel source.

Some would call it the Paleo diet, which I’ve read a little about.  I’ve taken what I liked from books like The Primal Blueprint and made my own adjustments, but the logic behind eating fat instead of carbs goes something like this:

We can debate how long the human race has been in existence, but whether it began 100,000 years ago or 15,000, one thing is for certain: they didn’t have beer, bread, refined sugar, processed foods, starchy snacks or large quantities of whole grain.  Our hunter- scavenger ancestors’ diets probably consisted of muscle tissue, animal fat, seeds, roots, nuts and fruit.

Modern agriculture has changed all that.  Grains are now a staple of the human diet, and maybe, just maybe, they shouldn’t be.

Nauseous, but ready to roll

I’ve always eaten a lot of carbs – to the tune of about 300 grams per day.  Now, that's good carbs: sweet potatoes, rolled oats, beans, etc.  So I thought that cutting my carbs way back was going to be torturous. 

Nonetheless, for one month, I reduced my carbohydrate intake to 50 grams per day.  I’ll admit, I haven’t measured my fat intake, but with the amount of meat, egg yolk, peanut butter, nuts, cheese and olive oil I now consume, it’s safe to say that I tripled my fat intake.  I also upped my protein intake – from about 100 grams per day to 150 – in order to minimize loss of muscle mass. 

I was down five pounds in the first week.  Hunger was almost constant, and I ate every few hours, sometimes even at midnight. I’d get mildly nauseous on occasion, but at no point was I lethargic.  In fact, I had as much energy as I’d ever remembered.  My workout intensity went up, and running wasn’t as laborious.

As two more weeks went by and my body adjusted to the change, the weight loss continued and the hunger greatly subsided.  My pants got loose and some of my belts needed a new hole.

By week eight, I had fallen from 194 pounds to 173.  It now takes vigorous amounts of cardio to become winded, and I can hike for days, even with an 80 pound pack. What came as a bit of a shock, though, was my performance in the gym.  I had expected my strength to drop off dramatically.

Instead, all of my core lifts are down between 5 and 10 percent.  The way I see it, that’s a small sacrifice for the gain in endurance and stamina.

Maintain it

My weight hung around 175 from May through early July.  The recent trip to Colorado was a good test.  Even at high elevation, hiking with a pack was pretty easy.  I came back from that trip at 173; the lightest I’ve been since high school.  Satisfied with the progress, I changed my carb intake slightly to maintain where I was at. 

Instead of 50 grams of carbs per day, I currently shoot for 75 grams, but never break 125.  My fat intake remains the same.  The scale has read about 179 for the past two weeks, and I feel completely normal. 

So what about diet in the backcountry?  It’s hard to maintain a low-carb, high-fat, high-protein diet when you’re living out of a backpack.  For extended trips in the bush, it’s almost inevitable that hikers and hunters operate at a calorie deficit.  So it matters less what you eat in that situation, so long as you’re as eating as much as possible.  And quite frankly, the high-octane boost that carbs provide is welcome in the mountains.  I’ll probably subsist on a steady diet of beef jerky, peanut butter, freeze-dried meals and protein bars. 

Here’s one good way to look at it:  The 15 pounds I lost allows me to carry 15 more pounds of food.  LOL.

Zero Your Turrets – T.O.

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