Eating in the wilderness, and especially at altitude, is a very complex subject. Because of this, nearly every first timer and even seasoned wilderness travelers will have questions as to what they should take along for food in the alpine environment. Most sources I have seen on the subject end up presenting a standard menu for things to take along, but each individual’s biochemistry responds to nutrients differently from every other individual.An average person on an average day burns around 2500 calories. A backpacker carrying 50 pounds for 6 hours over level terrain may burn 4000 to 5000 calories. Add elevation gain and a few more hours and the count raises to 6000 to 8000 calories.
As you can see, according to this estimation, to keep well fueled is a very serious undertaking. I have known about the above facts for many years, and have always fallen far short of getting down the above mentioned mass of calories on every outing I have every been on.
For myself and many others, sheer altitude has a profound affect on appetite, and add to that the amount of weight that would have to be carried in food supplies on a multi-day climb and you begin to see the problems involved in accomplishing the above daily goals.
Fortunately, the human body can get away with far less for short periods of time that are usually involved for most recreational climbs and wilderness outings. But one thing is for sure, if you reduce the required calories that your body needs, performance will suffer.
So, all that being said, what is one to do when it comes to eating in the wilderness. What is a good balance between weight, nutrition and palatability. Well, before we make up our final list, we need to understand a few more things so we can be more educated about the choices we make.
DIFFERENT FOOD TYPES
Vast amounts of energy are required to climb mountains, and when it comes to food, that translates into calories.
Each of the three principal food types: carbohydrate, fat, and protein offer a specific number of calories per gram. Carbohydrates provides 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9 calories per gram, and protein provides 4 calories.
At first glance, you would think that foods high in fat would be the best choice based on calories/gram but this calculation does not take into consideration other important factors. Variables such as altitude, and the activity level of the individual are all important when considering which food type to load up on.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF THE DIFFERENT FOOD TYPES
A) Highest calorie per gram ratio (see above).
B) Great fuel for keeping the body warm and calming the system for sound sleep. (add olive oil to food before turning in for the night)
C) Long Term Energy Source
A) Harder than the other food types to break down.
B) Yields only half the power produced from glycogen when compared to carbohydrates. (glycogen discussed below)
C) Requires more oxygen (scarce at high altitude) to break down than the other food types.
NOTE: Fat intake for an alpine climber should be about 30% of caloric intake. Alpine climbers place great demands on larger muscle groups, such as the legs, and fat is a particularly good food source for long term, slow aerobic activities. Climbers who participate in cragging and bouldering do not need as much fat in their diets, and should limit it to about 20% of their total calorie intake. CARBOHYDRATES........
A) Easy for the body to break down.
B) Excellent source for quick energy
C) Fast gastric emptying. (Gets into the blood stream fast)
A) Because it burns so quickly, must be constantly resupplied.
NOTE: Carbohydrates should make up the majority of your calories. Some say that protein should be combined in the meal in order to slow down the digestion of carbohydrates which would result in longer lasting energy. Getting enough carbohydrates is critical to the endurance athlete, because if the body runs short, the body will go after the muscles in order to make up for the lack. PROTEINS
A) Vital for recovery after a difficult day of climbing.
B) The best substance for increasing strength.
C) Food source for rebuilding damaged tissue.
D) Major component of the immune system, and is used to make enzymes, which facilitate every reaction that goes on in the body.
NOTE: Should try to get at least 90 grams of protein per day.
A) Slow to break down, and thus takes time to get into the blood stream.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER:
The climber needs 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight. If it does not get this, the body begins breaking down muscle tissue to get it. Muscle tissue is only 20 percent protein, so this is very inefficient and detrimental to performance. It also explains the ammonia smell (muscle tissue breaking down and being excreted in the form of sweat) after heavy exercise. The body is actually eating itself.
Knowing all this, it is better for the mountain climber to break down fat for a longer lasting source of energy. But to do this, requires a good source of carbohydrates. Successful fatty acid breakdown requires the continual background support of the glycogen and blood glucose provided by carbohydrates. Therefore, when glycogen is used up and blood glucose levels dip, fat metabolism slows way down.
This is why it is important to take it easy in the mountains. You save your glycogen (carbohydrate) supplies so you can make maximum use of the fat burning process that is nearly unlimited. If you burn your glycogen levels up too early in the climb, your toast (you start burning your muscle tissue as mentioned above). The only solution if you burn all your glycogen supplies is to take time out and rest and eat. Glycogen is also critical for short bursts of power that are invariable required for climbing and emergency changes of direction in order to avoid danger.
I cannot tell you how many young folks I see burning up the track in the mountains only to fall by the wayside further up the trail because they have exhausted their stores of carbohydrates. When glycogen is all used up, you "hit the wall" and performance slows to a crawl. Easy and steady conquers peaks, and now you know why. Suggested Meals
Depends on how soon you have to get underway. But, if you are like most alpine climbers, you do not have time to lounge around, and pre-dawn starts are the order of the day. "It's latter than you think is always true in the mountains"
Therefore, breakfast should be high in carbohydrates so that blood does not have to be diverted to the stomach for digestion and thus take away vital strength from the leg and arm muscles that are needed for climbing and hiking.
A) Instant oatmeal with protein powder, powdered milk, and sugar.(Can be eaten cold)
B) Pop Tarts (Very fast breakfast but short lasting energy source)
C) Granola with dried fruit (the fruit will help keep you regular)
D) Energy Bars (longer lasting energy, but harder to digest when you are active)
E) Plenty of Water (If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated)
F) Hot Cocoa (If you have time. Cocoa can be a great starter, but be aware that more water will be needed since Cocoa contains caffeine which is a diuretic.)
Starts right after breakfast. During exercise things change. Performance dips, if blood has to be diverted to the stomach for digestion. Bill Vaughan, who helped formulate the original energy bars, then developed carbohydrate gels, which are easily ingested and efficiently utilized during exercise. He came up with a product called GU, a gel that supplies 25 grams of carbohydrate in the form of glucose polymers and fructose. The gel, when combined with a couple of mouthfuls of plain water achieves the solution of 4 percent to 8 percent carbohydrates ideal for gastric emptying. GU contains leucine and valine, two of the branched chain amino acids that are burned up during exercise but are essential for physical activity and muscle recovery. GU also contains a small amount of caffeine to aid fat metabolism to help keep your mind alert.
Experts suggest that you ingest 1-2 packs of GU or equivalent per hour. It provides all the energy you need while under load, and enters the blood stream in minutes. Mix with water as you go. The body cannot absorb more than 400 calories per hour during exercise without inhibiting gastric emptying, and GU works good for this. But not everyone will take this route, and most opt for other solutions. However, foods such as meats, energy bars, and other sources require blood to be diverted to the stomach, and performance will suffer. As always, make sure to get down plenty of water. Water, next to oxygen is the most vital substance that your body needs during a hike or climb. DINNER
This is the time that you need to make heavy use of the other food types, namely fats and proteins. Dinner time is the time to replenish fats for fuel and warmth during the night.
Fats also provide slow burning energy for the next day. Proteins are needed during this time for rebuilding the muscles and tissues that were exhausted during the long day of hiking and climbing.
A) Freeze dried dinners with plenty of added olive oil
B) Seeds and or nuts.
C) Protein bars
D) Instant Soups (make for super lightweight meals.....just add water)
E) Quesadella with lots of cheese (taste great in the mountains)
F) Cookies, candy bars, freeze dried deserts, etc
G) Vitamin C for repair and control of free radicals that are produced during periods of heavy exercise. WATER
I find that most climbers (including myself) are usually in a constant state of dehydration when engaging in climbing activities. Experts say that even a 1 to 2 percent drop in water will cause a dip in performance. If that is not bad enough, a loss of concentration and early fatigue may set in at even this low level of dehydration. A three percent drop in one's water level can bring on headaches, cramping, and dizziness (not to mention a loss of strength as mentioned above). This is not a good state for a climber to be in. Proper hydration also is critical to carry nutrients to the cells, protect tissues from injury, and maintain proper joint lubrication.
It is also important to know that the body can only make use of so much water at any given point in time. For example, when the body is at rest (say while relaxing at home), it can only make use of approximately 8 ounces of water per hour (for the average person). In the mountains (due to the dry air from higher altitude) this figure increases. The pace you choose also has an effect on water demands. A climber or backpacker inaction will be able to take in and utilize two, three, or even more cups of water per hour. But this should be done at a steady pace. For it is far better to drink small quantities often, than to gulp down a quart of water (or more) while sitting in camp. Once the body becomes dehydrated it is very difficult to rehydrate it in a short period of time. Many wilderness travelers reason in their minds that they will be able to make up for lost time by drinking a large amount of water during an extended break. But the body will not be able to assimilate it efficiently and you will pee out most of the fluid before the body can make use of it. Bottom line, make sure you down enough water in a timely manner. As the old saying goes, "If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated."
For much much more on this most important subject of Water, see our page on Water/Dehydration Sports Drinks
Many athletes make use of sports drinks. This can be helpful for alpine climbers who are engaged in long term energy requirements, but a fairly normal diet will provide all the electrolytes you need. Electrolytic loss during exercise is actually quite slow, so short term activities that involve a few hours of action do not usually require replenishing of electrolytes. If you do make use of a sport drink, watch out for glucose (or even worse) high fructose corn syrup (not just fructose) as the second ingredient after water. If glucose or high fructose corn syrup is the second ingredient after water, then you are likely to get an energy crash (after the initial energy boost). This is because the insulin will kick in after the sugar rush to reduce the elevated blood sugar level, and you may end up more fatigued than before you downed the drink. So choose wisely when it comes to sport drinks.
TO COOK OR NOT TO COOK
If you can bring foods that do not require cooking you will gain the advantage of saving both weight and time. Dried foods or foods that require only ambient temperature water to make, can certainly provide all the calories you need for a backpack or climb. Most backpackers find it easiest to have many snacks throughout the day as opposed to having 'official meals'. Trail mix, chocolate, energy bars, homemade bars, high energy cornbread and gel packets work great. Be aware of how temperature affects your choices also. On a hot day, your nice chocolate bar can make a big mess in your pack, or, when the mercury drops below freezing, an energy bar may require a jack hammer to break down. So plan accordingly.
Most people, however, love a cooked meal, and cooked food or heated items can have a positive moral boosting effect on the group. There is also a certain amount of camaraderie that goes on during the preparation of a cooked meal. And don't forget the value of being able to heat your inner core with a nice hot meal on a cold day!
So, it's pretty much your choice. If you feel fine with dried food, go for it, there are definite advantages. But sometimes there is no choice when it comes to bringing a stove or not. If your climb or outing takes you above timberline, and your only water source is frozen, a stove and plenty of fuel is a must. It would be impossible to get the necessary water into your system by sucking on snow and ice. FUEL
On a recent trip I had the chance to check out just how far an 8 oz canister of Isobutane fuel would go. We were at 12,000 feet elevation camped on a glacier in the Sierra Nevada. All water had to be obtained by melting down snow and ice. I started out with a full 8 oz canister as mentioned above. I was able to melt down 4 1/2 gallons of water from glacial snow and ice, and was also able to boil water for 6 cups of soup and make several quesadilla's which required melting down cheese. I figured I could have got 5 gallons of water if I did not do any cooking, or would have been able to heat up a multitude of dinners if I did not have to melt down any snow. I was happy to get some solid info on fuel usage because I rarely used up all the fuel I packed in, and ended up taking home partially used canisters all the time. This information will be of great help for future planning.
There was very little wind during our cooking and snow melting operations (as described above), and temperatures were in the 50's during the day. Colder and/or windier conditions would have required more fuel.
TIP: Always leave some water in your melting pot. It makes things go a lot faster. Also, turning up the heat with only snow in the pan, will very likely ruin your lightweight cooking gear. So always start the melting process with 2-3 inches of water in the pot if at all possible.
Where is the best place to get your food? How about your local grocery store? You can find all sorts of very tasty meals and save lots of money to boot by purchasing it there. Food at specialized backpacking and climbing franchises have all sorts of specialized food items, but they can be very expensive. Soups, rice, bread, tortilla's, cereals, hot chocolate, tea, spices, pasta, instant oatmeal, and all kinds of food can be obtained at very reasonable prices at your corner grocery store. You can also save weight, by repackaging your food items, or placing them in plastic zip lock bags that can latter be used as trash bags. Thinking through every item you put in your pack always pays off. Especially if that item can serve double duty.
Choosing food in the mountains is not always easy and can be very personal. The above serves only as a guideline. Some will take nothing more than a stick of beef jerky and a slice of bread, while others will take along all the fixings for gourmet meals. Canned food and non-dried fruits taste fantastic in the mountains, (because the body is screaming for moisture up there) but the weight of these items can be backbreaking. Therefore, the balance between weight and luxury cuisine is difficult at best.
It is our hope that the above has given you a better understanding of eating in the wilderness. Take time out to try different foods that you plan to bring into the great outdoors. If it does not taste good at home, it certainly won't taste good at high altitude. So plan carefully.
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