It cannot be argued that wild elk meat is one of the most delicious and nutritious meats available to Americans. But, it can come at a cost. I’m not talking about the financial cost (hunting tags, equipment, travel, lost wages from bailing from work for a week, divorce settlements, etc.), I’m referring to cost in the form of calorie burden. Elk meat is chock full of nutrition, but we put forth a lot of energy trying to harvest it. But, before I dive into the calorie economics of hunting, let me just throw out this obvious disclaimer: I am not trying to say that any hunter looks to harvest animals with any one single goal in mind. We hunters are all complex creatures, and the reasons we hunt are abundant and diverse. But regardless of individual motives, if you’ve ever partaken in a multiday backcountry elk hunt without spotting game or hearing a single bugle, you may have found yourself questioning many of the reasons you choose hunting as a recreation and lifestyle. It’s also important to consider our motivations compared to those of our ancestral hunters. To them, calorie burden was their primary concern. They were obviously not able to comprehend or quantify energy to units of such as calories (Quick high school chemistry review: One calorie represents the energy required to raise one liter of water by one degree Celsius, and one degree Celsius is equal to blah, blah, blah, blah…). They really only understood that they needed meat to keep themselves and their families alive, and that the more effort they put into an activity, the more nourishment they would need to survive another day.
So let’s get into it: How much energy do you expend while on a backcountry elk hunting trip? Now, I’m admittedly trying to put a pin in a very broad question, so some assumptions must be made first. Size of person, difficulty of terrain, load carried, fitness (or fatness) level, environmental conditions, and level of effort (intensity) all play into the calorie burning rate equation. For this broad stroke, non-scientific article, I am making the assumption that (1) our hunter is 180 lbs, (2) he hikes in five miles into the mountains to camp, (3) he hikes several miles each day hunting, (4) he spends the majority of the day glassing or still-hunting, (5) he harvests a bull elk on the fourth day, and (6) he makes three strenuous trips packing gear and meat out of the woods by the end of the fifth day.
I have interpolated some calorie burning rates for a 180 lb hunter based upon information I have gathered from Nutristrategy.com and the Mayo Clinic. Here are my estimates for calorie burn rates in calories/hour.
|Climbing hills, carry over 42lb||735|
|Climbing hills, carrying daypack||600|
|Packing meat out downhill||620|
Below is an estimation in time spent at each activity on a hunt. The “Calories Over Baseline” estimates below are representative of the net, or additional calories that would be expended on an elk hunt, as opposed to calculating the total calories burned on the hunt. This is based on premise that you would be doing some calorie-burning activities while hunting that are similar to your daily routine, such as preparing food, organizing sundries, and sleeping. So, the calculations below subtract out the calories that would be spent if you lived out your normal day (about 120 calories/hour) and acquired meat from a more convenient and mundane source such as a grocery store.
|5 Day Hunt||Hours|
|Activity||Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5||Total|
|Climbing hills, carrying over 42 lb||3||3|
|Climbing hill, carrying daypack||5||5||5||3||7||25|
|Calories Over Baseline||4410||2785||2785||5130||6860||21970|
By these calculations, you would be expending approximately 22,000 additional calories in order to harvest a mature elk over a five-day hunt. My first impression is that this is a lot. Way more than I expected. But, I feel it is representative of the strenuous aspects of elk hunting. Elk live in tough country, and a single person has to carry a serious payload of gear in order to get into elk country and live with them for a week. You may take an established trail in and out of the woods, but much of your hunt is likely going to be cross-country. There is a reason why hunting boots are built differently than hiking boots.
Given that elk roaming public land are naturally grass-fed, their muscle is generally much leaner that beef, and therefore has much fewer calories per pound. Yet it somehow remains equally, nay, superiorly delicious. If lean elk muscle contains about 33 calories per ounce, and you are able to retrieve 200 pounds of boned-out meat from your hunt, you are harvesting 105,600 calorie units of energy. So, in our 5-day solo backcountry mountain hunt scenario, if our hunter burned 22,000 additional calories on his trip and harvested 105,600 calories worth of elk meat, he was still able to return with his meat payload at 80% efficiency. For our ancestral hunter, that 200 pounds of meat would equate to over 50 total person-days of sustenance. Plus, it would be a welcome change from the roots and possum and snow or weird mushrooms or whatever else they had found lying around. In order to equate the total energy stored in that elk meat to something to which a more modern human can relate, 105,600 calories are about equivalent to each of the following: 2,300 strips of bacon, 320 avocados, 324 ground beef tacos, 51 gallons of Rockstar® energy drink, or 66 gallons of Coors Banquet® beer. Although calorically equal, by no means am I suggesting that any of these items are nutritionally equal.
Now you may ask yourself, “What am I going to do with all these calories now that I’ve got them?”. The Mayo Clinic offers energy burning options such as ballroom dancing or bowling (About 431 hours for either based on my conversions from their website). But that’s a lot of time indoors, plus you’re probably going to take in a lot more calories from that Coors Banquet in order to participate in either of those. My recommendation? Use those calories to Hunt Harder.