Saturday, February 01, 2020

Feeding a 30-day expedition

The start of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational is now less than a month away, which means anxiety is about to double down and my single-minded focus on this event will narrow even further. Gear and prep. Prep and gear. It makes for boring conversation and mundane writing. Of course, I think these subjects are boring, but the general public seems to disagree. Among the 2,000+ posts on this blog, one of the most enduringly popular is a post from 2009 titled "Bikepacking gear," which is so outdated it might as well be titled "Delightable accessories for your velocipede." It still receives thousands of hits each year.

Several folks have expressed interest in learning more about the technical aspects of a 30-day march across Alaska. Since I am not remotely a list-maker in my day-to-day life, an impetus to make checklists and justify my choices benefits me as well. This particular post is going to cover the most specifically individual yet universally debated aspect of such an endeavor — food.

Before I start, I wanted to report that I am no longer dying of the illness I wrote about in my last post. It took more than two weeks to recover even 80 percent of my energy following the onset of this most recent upper respiratory infection, but I hope the severity of it means it's my last for the season (fingers crossed.) I started running again this week, including a 17-miler yesterday where I felt 95 percent of normal — I'm still stuck with a phlegmy cough that rears its ugly head at night and during harder efforts.

On Monday I had my annual follow-up with my asthma doctor, where I failed my breathing test spectacularly. The results were significantly worse than this time last year, enough so that I couldn't fully convince my doctor that I don't have out-of-control asthma. He agreed that the virus was partly to blame, but wanted to try out a couple new medications this month. Since I'm still dealing with lingering chest congestion, I think these medications can only help.

Now, onto food planning. In choosing what food to bring for a month of strenuous exercise in subfreezing conditions, one must consider several important questions:

1. Is it shelf-stable? Some of this food will sit for nearly a month in heated buildings — either post offices or schools — but will likely be exposed to subfreezing temperatures during transport. So it needs to endure a freeze-thaw cycle.

2. Is it calorie-dense? Each resupply box will hold two to five days' worth of food, and everything must be carried until it's eaten. Maximizing the calorie-to-weight ratio is crucial. High-fat foods have the highest calorie density, but many of these are unpalatable (to me at least) during a hard effort. I prioritize carbs, but choose foods with low moisture content, which is also important because:

3. Is it edible when frozen? I won't have the luxury of thawing most of my food. It's nice to have foods that retain similar textures and tastes when frozen — nuts, for example, and chocolate. Dried meats are also good. Gummies need to be "gummed" for a few seconds before they can be chewed, but the flow of sugary goodness makes up for this extra effort. Peanut butter is even more delicious when frozen — it develops a fudge-like consistency. Semi-hard cheeses such as cheddar are terrible in my opinion — like gnawing on tasteless rubber. Hard cheeses such as Parmesan are okay, but a little too strong-tasting for my liking. I've also learned that the degree of freezing matters. An Oreo cookie at 0 degrees is just like any Oreo, but at -40 it becomes difficult to bite or chew until I thaw an entire cookie in my mouth for a few seconds.

4. Is it nutritious? A month is a long time, and bodies in motion have many requirements. I'm not going to pretend that most of my food isn't traditionally junk food, but it still carries important macros and some micronutrients. I plan to supplement with multivitamins and electrolyte tablets, which are probably placebos but don't weigh that much either.

5. Most importantly, will I eat it? During the 2018 ITI, I experimented with a trail diet that was about 80 percent fruit-and-nut trail mix, with limited candy and chips. This didn't work out so well for me — my energy levels were alarmingly low at times, and I think that food intake was part of the problem. My only options were too high in fat and protein, and too low-carb relative to what I am used to eating and what seems to work best for me while in motion. I also packed only about 5,000 calories per day, which turned out to be too few even with supplemental meals. This was probably the case because it got to the point where I could not stomach sunflower seeds, and tossed too many handfuls of trail mix to "the birds" when my stomach turned. Meanwhile, I craved sugar like crazy. It would be nice not to need sugar to this degree, but it's also amazing how well it works. In 2018, whenever I got my hands on something sugary such as hot Tang or another racer's left-behind brownies, it brought instant vitality and energy. I will be carrying candy this year.

Half of my 2018 supply of trail mix was a generous donation from a kind-hearted acquaintance in Iowa — Linda. We haven't yet met, but Linda has long followed the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, read my books some years ago, and has been an enthusiastic fan ever since — not just of mine, but of all of the folks in the human-powered race. She donated trail mix to my successful 2016 ride to Nome. It was such a welcome treat that she sent more in 2017 for a race that unfortunately I didn't end up starting (much of that trail mix went to Beat), and then again in 2018. My mistake in 2018 was doubling her generous contribution with a similar trail mix of my own. By the time I packed it all and realized I was already near the weight limit for each box, I just went with it ... and thus had only trail mix to eat.

This year I'm going for more variety, but I still think nuts and dried fruit are fantastic energy food and a preferred baseline for my trail diet. So I was thrilled when she offered to contribute to yet another extended Nome effort ... so many delicious nuts and fruits. And not a single sunflower seed to be found. She sourced much of it from Natural Grocers because she is so dedicated to healthy living. I have a feeling she won't love the rest of my list. But it's for the best, Linda, really. I believe this is the best balance to answer all of the above questions while combatting my low-energy issues from 2018.

The following is my plan for a typical day on the trail. It's just an approximate list; there will be a number of variations for each individual category and amounts for each day. The total amount will be reduced earlier in the race when there's much more supplemental food. For later boxes, I'll probably increase the amount of protein-rich foods while reducing some of the carby stuff that I'm sure to become sick of, based on my 2016 experience (granola bars are probably going to be gone for good after day 14, and I'll replace oatmeal with dehydrated egg scrambles.)

Breakfast foods:
Instant oatmeal, 3 ounces — 320 calories (4g fat, 66g carb, 8g protein)
Trader Joe’s instant coffee (3), 1 ounce — 150 calories (3g fat, 30g carb, 0 g protein)
Jif-to-go peanut butter (2), 3 ounces — 500 calories (42g fat, 22g carb, 18g protein)

Snacks on the go:
Linda’s wonderful and healthy trail mix, 8 ounces — 1,280 calories (96g fat, 88g carb, 32g protein*)
Jill’s less-healthy-but-includes-delicious-pb-cups trail mix — (dried bananas and cranberries, mini peanut butter cups, salted dark chocolate-covered almonds, pecans) 4 ounces — 630 calories (45g fat, 54g carb, 9g protein*)
Chips or crackers (Cheez-It, Pringles), 4 ounces — 550 calories (30g fat, 63g carb, 11g protein)
Nature Valley bars (2) 2.7 ounces — 380 calories (22g fat, 42g carb, 8g protein)
Candy bars (2), 4 ounces — 500 calories (24g fat, 66g carb, 8g protein)
Cookies (chocolate chip, Oreos, no-bake) 4.4 ounces — 560 calories (32g fat, 64g carb, 8g protein*)
Beef or bacon jerky, 4 ounces — 320-440 calories (8g fat, 1g carb, 11g protein*)
Gummy candies (Haribo varieties, jelly fruit slices or cinnamon bears) 5 ounces — 500 calories (0g fat, 126g carb, 0g protein)
*These calorie and macro numbers are an approximate guess for foods that will be compiled at home or dehydrated at home (oh yeah, Beat bought a food dehydrator! We're just doing jerky this year, but hopefully we'll become more creative in the future.)

Mountain House meal, 5 ounces, 550-800 calories (27g fat, 72g carb, 27g protein)
Tuna packet, 2.6 ounces — 110 calories (4g fat, 0g carb, 18g protein)
Hot chocolate (1-2), 2 ounces — 220 calories (1g fat, 48g carb, 4g protein)

Total: 6,590 calories
54.7 ounces (3.4 pounds)
338g fat, 741g carb, 162g protein
27% fat, 60% carb, 13% protein

Yes, I also feel slightly sick to my stomach when I read this list. Three and a half pounds is a lot of food to carry for each day, but it will be lower than this most days ... some, however, will be full-meal-deal sorts of days. I know I'll operate best if I have a good buffer of energy and don't need to ration food the way I did in 2018. (The rationing came about because we were only allowed to send five pounds of food to the checkpoint in Rohn, which needed to fuel 130 hard miles over three long days and diminished quickly amid my pouty bird-feeding.) There are enough resupply points that I can adjust the amounts as I go ... this isn't nearly as involved as planning for an unsupported Antarctic expedition.

Thirteen percent protein is also lower than I hoped, which is why I think I'll adjust toward more protein later in the race. In 2016, when I had plenty of sugar, the food that I craved like crazy was meat. But I also want to note that this list still includes 162 grams of protein, which is nearly three times the typical daily recommendation. I'm not adjusting my diet to simply eat three times as much as usual — I need ten times the energy. My hope is to be on the move between 12 to 18 hours a day, burning roughly 500-600 calories per hour. If I had 6,000 calories of pure carbs, my body would probably happily incinerate it all ... if it could. Unfortunately most human digestive systems aren't so efficient.

Based on past experience, ~6,500 calories of all three macros is probably the most I'll be able to process in a 24-hour period. But I should feel relatively energized at that level. I'll still probably run a calorie deficit, but it won't be huge. Once those calorie deficits cut too deep, the body starts consuming itself, both fats — of which I have much to spare — but also muscle proteins, which I don't have to spare. Aggressive fat-burning will, at best, cause one to feel downtrodden and tired. At worst, it can be dangerous — a faster route to hypothermia and frostbite, as well as organ failure in extreme cases (cases only become this extreme in unsupported Arctic expedition-type scenarios.) Still, I want to consume most of what I'm burning. I actually don't want to lose a bunch of weight out there, because I know how terrible this will cause me to feel, and how much it will slow me down. Given the limited amount of time I have to reach Nome, I can't afford a steep energy deficit.

So there it is ... my 2020 Iditarod food plan. If you have any questions on suggestions, please leave a comment below. I'll try to answer any questions. I've given this lots of thought and believe food consumption is a highly individual subject, so I'll probably be less receptive to suggestions ... but I never say never. Thanks for reading. 


  1. Nature Valley Bars? Gross. I carry those as my "Emergency food that I'll only eat if I'm desperate and dying"...and then after a year or so of carrying it around in my pack, I toss it and replace it with a fresh one.

    1. Haha. I'm mainly packing the nut butter-filled biscuits, not the "#@&! crumbs everywhere" 90s-style granola bars. But these are still one of my most used trail foods ... because they're cheap, good mix of macros and somehow still tasty to me after all of these years. Cliff Bars, on the other hand ... won't touch them.

  2. It’s funny but thinking about eating that much makes me feel sick - because I know I’m not good at keeping myself fueled during long tiring things. Clearly I’ll need your sage coaching...

    1. Give it a few days. Just about everyone develops the 'hiker hunger.' my super power is that I can eat this much pretty much any day of the week. Obviously not a good thing most of the time. :P

  3. This was really interesting! I should do a PCT food blog post! We eat a lot the same, although I try to carry about 1 pound of food per day. That doesn't work out too well as I lose about 5 pounds per 100 miles, and isn't advisable, but it is just so heavy...I totally run on carbs and sugar out on the trail, and it seems to work. Cheese nips for the win! (That is horrifying I know. I try to counteract it with tuna, cheese, and sometimes turkey pepperoni). Have you tried Food for the Sole? It's veggie heavy dinners made in Bend. I love the sweet potato one. But maybe not protein enough for your effort...

    1. You should write a backpacking food post! I've never been good at balancing the "I am not strong enough to carry this much crap" reality with a stronger desire to bring all of the things. I both envy and pity ultralight folks, because I've watched plenty of them shiver and suffer during races and other adventures, but also concede that they're universally faster and most have better odds of finishing the race than I do.

      I haven't tried those meals, but I'm quite sensitive to what I'm able to eat during an endurance effort. I have to keep things really bland. There are only about five different varieties of Mountain House that I can even stomach when I've been on the move all day long, my heart rate is still pegged, and I have a bit of gut rot from eating quite literally all day. There's not a single item on this list that I truly enjoy in the thick of a hard effort ... well, perhaps the Haribo ... but it's what I've found I can make work. I'm sure you can relate. For me, there's a reasonable difference between an endurance effort and one of my more recreational bikepacking or backpacking efforts, where I usually take a lot more down time and don't eat nearly so many calories, so I can enjoy my food more.

  4. Will you be spending anytime in the villages along the way? And if so, how long? A day, a day or two?
    How many mail drops will you have? Will you be posting about your gear and what you will be wearing?

    1. I will be stopping in villages along the way, but unless something is wrong, I won't spend any significant time at any of my stops. Perhaps 6-10 hours if it's an overnight stop. If I reach a village in the middle of the day, it might just be an hour — just long enough to pick up and organize my supplies. That's the goal at least. It's all part of the math equation. I have (one minute less) than 31 days to walk 980 miles within the race cutoff, which I intend to try to keep, to beat spring thaw if nothing else. That's 31.6 miles every single day. I tend to average 2.5 mph with my sled in moderate conditions — 3-4 mph if trails are very good, and 2 mph or less if they're poor, so I'm banking on an average of 2.5 mph. That requires a moving time of almost 13 hours a day. ... just moving time. If I took even just one rest day, that number would begin to become unmanageable.

      I'll have either 11 or 12 boxes along the way ... I'm still deciding how to divide up the Yukon River. They're not spaced out equally, but it does end up being one resupply every 90 miles or so. Most of my drops will have about three days of food in them, and I will include extra where I can.

      I am planning to make a gear post. Probably in about a week from now, as I finalize my list.

  5. 1 to 2g of protein per pound body weight is a good target. You can also supplement with BCCA recovery drink mix and even add some creatine to it for strength support. I use the Six Star triple chocolate gluten free protein powder, mixed with some water to form a pudding :) usually to hit my protein target. Found some recipes to make my own power bars...need to just do it one of these days, there are few good tasting GF bars out there.

    Research shows that as our diets change our gut bacteria biomm takes a few days to a week in adapting (especially under stress), so giving your gut some lead time might help or take some probiotics might help. Great list....might be a little thin on coffee IMO :).

    Jeff C

    I did take a cue from you on a meal in a baggie and have a trail breakfast in a bag that I add water and cold soak for a while then eat ( old fashioned oat meal, trail mix, protein powder, powdered milk 660cal). That meal also works as good end of day night time recovery for me.

    1. Yes, I am more seriously considering protein powder or a protein-rich recovery drink to add to coffee. I'll aim to try some out, but at the same time this is also the type of thing I can make myself gulp down, like medicine. I did that to some degree with my trail mix in 2018 when I felt bonked but the mere thought of it turned my stomach ... with varying degrees of success, I suppose.

      I will pack a little more coffee. But I'm better at relying on caffeine pills like No-Doz when I'm feeling sleepy. Coffee is labor-intensive.

    2. Yes coffee is a luxury on the trail for sure and a morning ritual for me to slow down and take in the moment with gratitude.
      MCT oil added to coffee will turn it into a "food" as well, 130cal/tbsp or 260cal/fl oz, little digestion and quick abbsorbtion in the small intestine.
      I use the Six Star casein triple chocolate protein powder, it's GF and the best tasting (even dry) but mixes easily and smooth. I'm alternating with plant based protein which have some probiotics included...still searching for a good one.
      Thanks for all the info on not just the "what" but also the why...good info comments as well!

      Jeff C

  6. I hope I can keep up for a bit and absorb some trail knowledge. Only going to McGrath but this foot thing is all new!

    1. Excited to see you're trying out the whole foot thing this year. I will be slooow and you will be far ahead, but look forward to possibly catching up with you at a few of the checkpoints.

  7. I've never attempted anything remotely as... uhh.. remote as your adventures, but I've experienced a tiny percentage of it on randonneuring rides. Two questions:

    1. Have you ever been completely turned off by one of your food choices? Fig Newtons used to be my on-the-bike food of choice, but after the 2014 Cascade 1200 I never want to see another Fig Newton again.

    2. How do you balance your food choices with hydration requirements? Does all that dried fruit, etc require increased water intake?

    As always, thanks for yet another super informative post!

    1. 1. Absolutely. To this day I still can't touch sunflower seeds, and I used to enjoy them. There are also several varieties of gummy candies that I've used too aggressively when I had a sour stomach, and now strongly don't like those even though I enjoy other gummies. Since this issue has happened to me in the Iditarod and I've had to eat the stuff anyway (i.e. sunflower seeds circa 2018), I feel some confidence that I can work with just about anything. I did toss some of my trail mix away when I was feeling particularly temper-tantrumy, but I ate most of it. That feeling of being low on energy is absolutely terrible for me out there — so much worse than any bonk I experience in my warm-weather endeavors. So I'm strongly motivated to carry calories and eat anything that's available, whatever it may be. But since the force-feeding also isn't fun, I'm aiming to stick to tried-and-true snacks, and also will probably weave in a bit more variety.

      2. My water requirements tend to range 3-4 liters each day between sleep stops. In winter endeavors you don't sweat nearly as much — the goal is not at all, but this is terrifically hard to achieve — so you don't need nearly as much water. Beat drinks far less than this, and I found when it was -20 to -50F during our Fairbanks Christmas trip, I also drank almost nothing out on the trail even though I was still eating a fair amount. When you're eating frozen food, you ingest it so slowly that the body's natural saliva reactions are more than enough to get it down. Dehydration is a concern when it's so cold, though, because this increases the likelihood of frostbite. I usually drink to thirst and find this to be sufficient, but I was concerned when I found myself drinking nothing when it was -30. In future subzero temperatures I will probably aim to remind myself to drink every so often.

  8. I love reading about your preparations (and the adventure too!) Jill! While I will NEVER EVER attempt a cold-weather event like you and Beat thrive on, I do hope to up my game in bike-packing and bike-touring, and desperatly need to figure out gear and food (I will be doing it on the cheap...hotel rooms rarely, tent and self-packed food as much as possible). I chuckle at your food list...everyone at work looks at my diet and hates me (I figure I was born part hummingbird...I live on rocket-fuel). Went to a dietician a few years ago and she was aghast at my daily high carb intake. But I have a superpower...eating whatever I want and not gaining weight. Tho I am pretty active overall (even sitting and reading a book something is moving...fidgeting as my wife calls it)...I was blessed with an insane metabolism, and apparently at 59yrs old its still burning hot. Good luck on your preps...and keep the posts coming when you have time. Also, thanks for posting Tims SPOT page on FB...guess I an just a born dot-watcher. Sitting here (on work-travel in my hotel) living a semi-normal life, trying to wonder what he is going thru right now...pretty much down to a survival mode trek Id imagine, as you and Beat know all too well.

  9. This is fascinating. I feel like I have my backpacking food dialed in, but it doesn't really apply to cold-weather adventures. My appetite seems to plummet and I just can't function in the cold to even think about something as simple as opening a granola bar package. I run the food/nutrition category for Backpacker, and I would love to send you some food to test. But it sounds like you probably wouldn't be interested, given your food sensitivities and the reliance & precision you need to have in planning. Let me know if you want to test some dinners (I can tell you what samples I have available & you can say yeah or nay).


Feedback is always appreciated!