Letter Re: One Strategy for Bugout Bag Foods

I would like to follow up on my recent article, Some Thoughts of How to Live in Times of Hunger, with a few actionable implications that might make a difference to my fellow preppers. As always, I eagerly look forward to the contributions of the worldwide prepper community to add to or correct my conclusions.
If I ever have to bug-out on foot it will be under dangerous circumstances, and I will need to move quickly and cover at least several miles. This on-foot bugout is my truly worst-case scenario: minimum supplies, emergency escape. If I can plan for this scenario then all other scenarios should be simpler. It is my fail-safe.

However, right now I’m having a terrible time keeping my Bug Out Bag weight low. I can carry it out to my truck. I might even be able to wear my pack and hike a mile. But I sure won’t be moving fast and I won’t get much beyond a mile, if that, in rough terrain. I’m not particularly young, I’m not athletic, I have a sedentary job – I might even represent the “average” American prepper.

Some of the weight in my pack is food, several pounds worth. I’ve researched ideal foods that combine calories, nutrients, and protein in a robust ready-to-eat package for meals on the move. But I’ve been thinking about the whole hunger thing in a different light.

If I escape by the “skin of my teeth” into the wilderness and have enough food to sustain me for two or three days it will only prolong my death if I do not also have the equipment to obtain food once I am in the field. Just as I cannot carry enough water to last me through even two days, I may not be able to both carry enough food and have the equipment to obtain enough food long term by hunting, trapping, or fishing

Based on my hunger research, I know I can perform at near-peak levels for a couple of days with a minimum of food, after which point my performance will begin to taper off as hunger sets in. I won’t be happy about it, but I will survive the experience of “going hungry.”

If I’m not mistaken, the name of the food game, at least for the first several days of a bugout, is sheer calories. But what if I only carry (1) quick-energy carbohydrates to fire my muscles during hunts and escape, and (2) slow-energy calorie-dense foods like fat (or mostly-fat foods) for the sheer caloric-content of it?

Here’s my logic:

Glucose is my body’s primary energy source that it stores in my liver for emergency energy. Sports gels contain mostly glucose/dextrose (or maltodextrose) because it hits the bloodstream quickly and doesn’t require much digestion. These might very well be the best quick-energy option because some gels also contain electrolytes (mentioned in the Hunger article) and caffeine. What’s not to like?

The caloric content of gels is around three calories per gram, while solid glucose/dextrose candy should come in closer to four. Candy made from sucrose (table sugar) has the same caloric content. Werther’s Original Creamy Caramel Filled hard candies candy (which I happen to have on hand), for example, is mostly glucose (and you really have to love that caramel filling!). If you can’t afford the more than $1 per pack for the energy gels you could still do pretty well with hard candy for a shot of energy once it dissolved in your mouth.

Yes, there is an energy crash following the “sugar high” (less with sports gels) but the important thing to note is that the sugar (or sugar and caffeine) does indeed provide the energy burst to hunt or escape, and do it with an effectiveness and with a speed unmatched by any other food source. That’s important.

High-sugar foods like hard candies and energy gels aren’t the highest calorie content foods, though. The highest concentrated calories come from fat. Pure, solid glucose is something like four calories per gram (the same as protein). Fat contains around nine calories [per gram], that’s 225% more energy per gram! However, fat takes longer to metabolize. For a quick burst of energy during a hunt or escape you certainly would not eat fats. It’s no substitute for sugar.

Imagine that you can barely carry your BOB even with NO food in it. You have the equipment you must have to hunt/fish/trap, but NO food. Zero food.

You work out at the gym and finally have the additional strength to add a bit of food to your pack. What do you add? Sugar. Why? Because it will at least give you the short-term bursts of energy to do the two most essential things you must do: hunt/fish/trap and escape should that be an issue. It won’t fill you up, it won’t stop you from feeling hunger, but it will work for what you need it for.
Back at the gym you’ve been hard at work and you finally can add a little more weight to your BOB, in addition to the sugars you figure you’ll need.

You know your body isn’t going to need a lot of vitamin and protein replacement right away (electrolytes maybe, yes). You know you won’t starve for nearly a month. You know that you can function on “empty,” if you have to. You know if you leave on foot you could end up in an unfamiliar location and it could take you days, or even weeks, to begin hunting/fishing/trapping well enough to begin meeting your daily caloric needs [and then transition to gardening and raising livestock once your reach your retreat, where you presumably will have a deep larder]. You may not be able to carry all of the calories you would like, but you would like to minimize the depletion of your body’s energy reserves (fat, sugar, muscles).

If you packed sesame snaps (one of my personal favorites with sugar, fat, protein, and fiber, 186 calories/35 gr package) you’d need 21.5 packages (1.7 pounds) of snaps per day for 4,000 calories. In two week’s time you would need nearly 24 pounds of snaps!

But what food has more caloric energy than any other food on earth? Fat. What food, coincidentally, burns reasonably slowly? Pure fat. Nine calories per gram. It doesn’t get any better than that. You need calories, it has calories. (Hey, it’s good enough for the Inuit! Can you say muktuk!)

If you packed fat instead of sesame snacks you would only need to carry 14 pounds, SEVEN fewer pounds than sesame snaps. Or, to look at it another way, if you were able to add an extra 24 pounds of weight, the snaps would last two weeks (@4K cal/day), but the fat (453.6gr/lb x 9 cal/gr x 24 / 4000) would last ten more days. (Turkey chili, one of my favorite all-around-nutritional foods, contains 460 calories in a 15 ounce (420 gram) can, works out to 1.1 calories per gram – 800% fewer calories-per-gram than fat. Bad choice as your second tier food!)
Your stomach does flips at the thought of just eating Crisco plain but you realize that coconut oil has a lot of other benefits besides its incredible caloric density. It’s solid at room temperature (liquid in desert temps!), doesn’t burn at high temperatures (like cooking over a campfire), and is very easily digested by the body. And if you get the really good virgin coconut oil from a health food/supplements store it will even smell great!

Coconut oil has antimicrobial, antioxidant, antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties – all things we’d like to have in an emergency situation. And its medium-chain triglycerides require less work from your liver to convert it into usable energy (which is why it’s used in sports nutrition, hospital feeding formulas, and foods for people with digestive disorders). Have a look at the amazing properties of coconut oil and its digestibility.

With the weight savings of not having to carry as much food weight (only energy gel for quick bursts) and carrying food with the maximum energy density (fat), I can afford to carry more of what I will need in the long run: equipment to help me hunt, fish, and trap. (Equipment first!)

It does me no good to have a lot of food if my BOB is too heavy to make a quick getaway – the getaway is the thing. And it also does me no good to have a lot of food in my pack if I can’t subsequently secure an adequate supply once in the field. The most important reason for carrying the BOB is to get out with the tools and supplies I need to survive long-term.

Eating just sugar and fat while you orient yourself to your surroundings and start to put wild foods on the table is not the final word! There are a lot of variables. You will be able to add the occasional fish, handful of berries, bird, or edible tuber and give yourself some variety while extending your food reserves. You may want to add to your BOB a little of the tastier foods (MREs, freeze-dried meal, canned turkey chili, or sesame snaps) just to keep your sanity…

But do it with the realization that any food that is not pure fat is trading off taste for calories (i.e., raw “body fuel”). You can stretch your body’s energy reserves further with foods that have a high caloric density, and the very highest of these is fat.  Then make an educated choice about the foods you pack!

And if you can’t carry as much food as you’d like, at least be sure you have the equipment you need to obtain food once you’re in the wild! You don’t need to be full of food each and every day – you know that can safely survive on “empty” for quite a while!

I’m going to continue to work on my walking and climbing fitness so that I can carry the maximum amount of gear during a critical escape situation. But in the mean time, this weight tradeoff based on an understanding of how hunger actually works might help make my long-term survival a more sure thing. And that’s what it’s all about.

Be Prepared. Trust God. We can do both. – ShepherdFarmerGeek, in Spokane

JWR Replies: My general advice for anyone that cannot live at their intended retreat year-round is to cache nutritious food at several places along your intended route, in buried plastic cache containers. (Like the four liter containers made by Nalgene, triple-bagged in heavy plastic bags.) It is best to cache in rocky soil, to reduce the chance of burrowing rodents finding it. Check your caches annually.

Hiking long distances at a deep caloric deficit is dangerous. If nothing else, hunger is distracting, so your personal security awareness and sleep will both suffer. Hunger can also encourage you to make bad decisions. Longer-term hunger can also degrade your night vision. (See Nick Rowe’s POW narrative, Five Years to Freedom.) Further, dependence on refined sugars for your primary source of energy is inadvisable. First, it causes sugar rush-then-crash cycles that are debilitating. Second, depending on your particular physiology, sugar crashes might even cause fainting. Lastly, overloading on sweets can even trigger a diabetic reaction. (Wouldn’t that be ironic, to survive on mostly sugar for a week and make it to your retreat, only discover that you’ve become an insulin-dependent diabetic?)

For ultra-compact food for a lightweight bugout bag, I would advise making powdered blue-green algae (also known as Spirulina) your core food. Ounce-for-ounce it is the ultimate trekking food for humans. The freeze-dried algae powder could be supplemented by whey-based protein powder (like those used by bodybuilders), powdered milk, jerky, peanut butter, ghee (storable clarified butter), coconut oil and perhaps a few sweets like Clif bars and Larabars. This approach has been discussed at length in backpacking magazines, backpacking discussion forums, and blogs. By the way, I’ve read that you can even make your own energy bars with blue-green algae. (Although I haven’t tried this myself, so no guarantees.)

Be advised that for anything more than a four day trek, constipation might become an issue with a protein dense diet like I’ve described. The importance of storing gentle bulk laxatives (such as Metamucil) has been discussed previously in the blog. Even after you have arrived at your retreat, keeping regular will become very important if you have a diet with a preponderance of meat from wild game. So don’t overlook getting a supply of bulk laxatives. Even if you don’t end up needing them personally, they will be useful for barter or charity.

Lastly, be cautious about packing too much caffeine (as found in coffee, tea, and sports gels) or other stimulants like chocolate in your bugout bag. Odds are that you will already be feeling very tense in a true Get Out of Dodge situation, so don’t add the risk of a panic attack.