PLANNING YOUR FOOD FOR HIKING MOUNTAINS
Food is your fuel for any high-output activity, and mountaineering is certainly the kind of activity where what you eat will have a direct effect on your performance and endurance. Especially if it involves long approaches and descents and big multi-pitch routes.
So, it’s important that you develop a fuelling strategy that suits both you and the project you have in mind. The food you eat needs to be high in calories and high in carbohydrates. However, eating something that is difficult to digest and heavy on your stomach will end up stopping your muscles from performing as effectively. It’s a bit like the clothing you wear when alpine climbing or backcountry: It needs to be strong (high calorie content) and light, and it also has to be durable to withstand harsh treatment inside your pack or in cold/hot temperatures.
We’ve put together some top tips for you on what to think about when you’re prepping for your next big adventure. The advice here applies to single-day mountaineering and short trips. Long, expedition-style mountaineering trips involve greater quantities of food and cooked meals etc. They require a great deal of organisation to ensure there is sufficient food and that expedition members are getting all the nutrients they need and in the right quantities. The logistics are much more involved, and we will not be covering this topic here.
So, we’re talking about alpine activities in the Alps or Dolomites (our home turf). The kind of food you need could be called ‘alpine-style food’ or ‘sprint food’ (as opposed to ‘marathon food’). Your personal tastes, the environment you are in and the kind of climbing or skiing involved are all factors that will affect what food you take with you.
Nutrition is different for each individual, but following these guidelines will put you the right path. Try to choose calorie-dense items with plenty of protein and healthy fats (less sugar), but don’t forget your favourite sweets, chocolate bars and energy foods.
In general, the food you eat on the mountain should be rich in carbohydrates and easy to digest so that they are absorbed directly into the bloodstream to keep your muscles moving.
Climbing and skiing are high-intensity sports and your body won’t be able to access fat quickly enough from your body to use as a fuel source during activity. However healthy fats are important in a balanced diet. On long approaches, you will also start to you burn fat after a while.
- Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates (both complex or simple) ingested into the stomach become glucose which is carried in the bloodstream. The type of carbohydrates may vary depending on the type of climbing/ route. If you need a ‘hit’ of energy for a final push, then simple, fast-acting (simple) carbohydrates like gels or jelly sweets might be best; or for a longer route/ endurance climb, slower-burning (complex) carbs like bananas, oat bars etc. are best.
- Protein: Protein content is an important element for muscle recovery, i.e. it aids in the growth and maintenance of muscle tissue. The latest research also shows that it is important to ingest a little protein with your carbohydrates to help your body get the most out of them.
In summary, alpine climbing food should be:
- High energy - i.e. calorie-rich (check the packaging)
- Balanced: Salt /protein / fat /potassium and sodium/ iron, calcium and zinc
- Easy to digest
Keeping hydrated is essential during any mountaineering trip. Our bodies lose a lot of fluids (and minerals etc.) as we sweat and exhale, so they need to be replenished at regular intervals along the way. Even a small drop in body hydration will result in a big drop in mental and physical performance.
“A muscle dehydrated by 3%, for example, loses 10% of its strength”
The amount of water you can carry may not be enough for the route you are undertaking. Recommended levels might be as much as 4 or 5 litres for a 12-hour climb but in most cases, it won’t be possible to carry more than 2 or 3 litres. Some routes will offer opportunities to refill water bottles and hydration reservoirs from mountain streams high up. But always bear in mind what lies upstream from the water you source – any human settlements or farms will potentially mean the water is less clean.
To be on the safe side it might be worth investing in a portable water filter (especially if you plan to visit regions further away from home, where you have few natural antibodies). If climbing in snow (or up to snow), then melting snow using a small stove and pot can be a great way of sourcing more water along the way.
Do not, however, eat snow as a source of hydration. The body will burn more calories getting the snow up to body temperature. However, remember snow or ice are just water and your body needs a mineral water balance to work... Think isotonic drinks!
‘Tanking’ up on water beforehand is also advisable, and it’s always good to leave more water in the car for when you get back down. We probably don’t need to tell you that alcoholic drinks cause dehydration.
Fuelling at regular intervals throughout the day will enable you to keep moving uphill and stay focused over the course of a long approach or summit day. Having a selection of handy, tasty snacks with you is a great way to do this. When selecting the food to take, also consider how well it will travel.
These might include snacks like:
- granola bars
- energy/protein bars
- trail mix (nuts/seeds/dried fruit)
- oat cakes + nut butter
- wholegrain sandwiches
- rice/pasta/quinoa salads (more substantial for lunch perhaps)
- homemade banana bread
- homemade energy balls
- locally cured South Tirolean Speck or salami, or beef jerky (takes longer to digest though…)
- wholemeal tortilla wraps
- hard cheese (try locally made)
- fresh fruit (this has the added bonus of water content but can be heavy or easily damaged)
- chocolate (especially with nuts)
- wholegrain fruit and nut muffins
- pretzels (these have the added benefit of replenishing salt lost in sweat)
6. Everyone has their own secret recipe or favourite food to fuelling up on the mountain. We asked a few pros to share their advice:
“Sometimes on long trips, I carry a piece of parmesan cheese. It contains a lot of energy for its weight and tastes good in small pieces on its own, or with bread or pasta. When I’m in the mountains, I try to drink and eat little and often. Eating large amounts in one go takes up too much time and requires too much energy to digest.”
“I use Red Bull a lot during sports. I mix it 50:50 with water. It tastes great and basically comes with all I need: hydration, caffeine and sugar. I if I am out for longer, I bring more liquids, including isotonic ones to have the electrolytes.”
“My favourite snacks while climbing are: oat bars, energy balls (made with dates, coconut and figs by my sister), “Gummibärchen” fruit candy bears and chocolate. My personal recommendation: eat whatever tastes good to you. It’s important to have enough power for your project. Carrots alone won’t get you to the top.”
“I normally carry energy bars with me and maybe take an apple or a banana – and/or to be super safe a gel. In longer hike & fly events, when I have a supporter with me I eat rice or pasta. For drinks, I use just water when I’m training and have isotonic drinks or water and red bull for races.”
Professional climbers will attest to the fact that weight must be balanced against the calorie content of the food. Too few calories and you risk low blood sugar levels and fatigue (mental and physical), which can severely cramp your performance and will make you feel weak and tired.
Too much food and you will be carrying more weight than necessary, and this can sap your strength. Finding the right balance, and the food that works best for you is key. On shorter climbing trips or skimo days we tend to rely on our body’s own stores to a certain extent, in order to keep the weight down. On longer trips this approach is not sustainable though.
Top tip: Repackage any bought food supplies into lighter weight, secure packaging. This also means you have less rubbish to take back down the mountain with you.
Eating during or after any kind of strenuous exercise can be challenging at times, but at higher altitudes this is doubly the case. Our bodies are having to cope with depleted oxygen and so are more focused on the essential functions than on instincts like hunger and regenerating energy levels. But you can easily alleviate some of these challenges by choosing foods that you would normally enjoy eating. When climbing in cold conditions, consider how the temperature will affect the food. There’s nothing worse than trying to gnaw at frozen energy bars when you’re hungry! One useful tip is to keep them close to your body (in a chest pocket) instead of inside your pack. And likewise, on hot days, those chocolate bars might not be such a great idea.
The food we eat, leading up to the climb or route, is just as important as what we eat during the day. Having a big, nutritious breakfast, for example, will set you up for a good day of climbing and skiing, and mean you can get away with only eating snacks throughout the day. If possible, have a big, high-energy meal the night before your climb.
Eating snacks on the drive to your destination, like bananas protein bars, oat cakes etc. is another way of cutting down weight and giving your body the best chance to perform well.
Eating a good-quality breakfast with an element of protein in it is best. However, if you don’t have time to digest before you need the energy, it’s better to eat less and carry the rest as small snacks. This could be:
- Oat and quinoa porridge with ground seeds, desiccated coconut, made with milk (add a scoop of whey or skimmed milk powder for an extra protein hit) and drizzled with honey or maple syrup
- Scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast
- Banana pancakes with yoghurt & muesli
- Protein shake made with fruit and milk
You should always make sure you eat within a 1 to 2-hour period following any high-intensity physical activity to replenish stocks. If you’ll make it home in that time, then cook yourself a meal that includes good-quality protein e.g. fish, chicken, tofu, salmon or eggs and some good-quality carbohydrates e.g. brown rice, oats, quinoa, sweet potato, starchy vegetables (carrots/ parsnip/pumpkin/butternut squash) and leafy green vegetables. Also include healthy fats from olives, avocado, oily fish, nuts & seeds for example. A small protein snack on the way home will also help kick off muscle recovery.
Making your own protein bars not only saves money but also means you can be 100% sure that you are getting a nutritious snack to fuel your mountain activities. Here’s an example of a tasty recipe you can try out at home.
70 g wholemeal flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. baking powder
125 g smooth peanut butter
100 g brown sugar
100 g honey
1 large egg
2 large egg whites
2 tbsp. canola oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
170 g rolled oats
150 g dried cranberries
75 g chopped nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, or any seeds you fancy
75 g chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 160°C (fan oven) and line a baking tray (approx. 22 cm x 33 cm) with greaseproof paper. Combine the flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt in a medium-sized bowl. In a large bowl beat together the peanut butter, sugar and honey (an electric mixer is quicker). Beat the eggs and then add them to the peanut butter mixture, then add the canola oil and vanilla extract. Beat until combined. Add the flour mixture and mix with a rubber spatula. Mix in the oats, cranberries, nuts and chocolate chips. Spread evenly and baking tray and cook for 20 for to 25 minutes until lightly browned on the edges. Allow to cool, then cut into bars and store in an airtight container.
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High altitude sickness is a condition that is triggered by ascending to high altitudes without allowing your body the time to adjust, or acclimatise, as it’s known. High altitude sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) as it’s also known, should always be taken seriously.