Heading out on any mountaineering expedition requires a lot of forethought and planning. From acclimatising to bringing all the correct gear and training properly beforehand, there is a lot to think about before heading out into the mountains.
However, planning what and how you will eat both before going on an expedition and while you are climbing is critical to staying healthy and having a successful trip.
Diet and nutrition tips while training for an expedition
While eating well on the mountain or trail is essential, it is not the only key to success.
Having the proper diet while training prepares your body to deal with the kind of conditions it will experience on an expedition and is, therefore, a crucial part of training for a successful trip.
According to Brian Rigby of Boulder’s Elite Sports Nutrition, climbers and mountaineers should think of nutrition in terms of a pyramid while they are training.
Rigby’s sports nutrition pyramid comprises four separately sized blocks, with the largest and most important at the bottom and the smallest and least significant at the top.
Getting enough calories
At the bottom of the pyramid is getting enough calories. Rigby says this is the base of all climbing nutrition. If climbers are not taking enough of the right calories to burn as energy during workouts, none of the other steps of the pyramid matter.
According to Rigby, to determine the number of calories necessary for your specific body weight, you will need to figure out your resting metabolic rate using an online calculator and multiply this number by 1.2.
This figure represents the amount of calories you burn while sedentary. Add calories burned from daily activity estimates and that figure will be your ideal caloric intake.
Most trainers and dieticians recommend measuring your daily intake for the first few weeks until you have a good idea of how to reach your ideal daily caloric intake. After that, you will only need to measure periodically to ensure that you are still eating correctly.
Along with getting the number of calories correct, Sarah Maurer, a fitness coach, high-altitude mountaineer and ultra runner, stresses that eating the right calories is just as important.
She says – and the scientific literature agrees – that endurance athletes should be getting the majority of their calories from complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, which digest slowly and do not spike blood sugar.
Complex carbohydrates are the ones that are used to build glycogen, which is an energy source stored in and utilized by the muscles during extended workouts, such as hiking and climbing for long periods.
The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) recommends that mountaineers consume between 50 and 65 percent of their caloric intake with carbs.
Keep reading: Who are IFMGA Guides and Why Should You Hire One?
Fat consumption should then make up between 20 and 35 percent of calories and should be limited to poly- and monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, canola, fatty fish, avocados and eggs.
The remaining 15 percent of calories should be comprised of protein. Maurer adds that climbers and mountaineers should focus on complete proteins, which include the six amino acids that are not naturally synthesized by the body.
Foods such as rice and beans and whole-grain crackers with nut butter provide complete proteins.
For advice on the best way to meet these dietary recommendations during training and on expeditions, always consult a certified dietician first.
The next step up Rigby’s sports nutrition pyramid is nutrient timing, which relates to how often you are eating, how much you are eating and how your meals interact with your training schedule.
According to Rigby, protein frequency is the cornerstone of nutrient timing. He says that climbers and mountaineers should be eating at least 20 grams of protein every three to four hours.
Protein is key in restoring and building muscle mass. During strength training and climbing conditioning, it is key to recovery after strenuous workouts and beneficial for warding off fatigue and muscle injury.
However, nutrient timing is also essential for carbohydrates. Rigby and Maurer both recommend concentrating carbohydrate intake immediately before, during and after working out since this is when the body has its most significant need for carbs.
While it is once again imperative to consult a certified dietician to make the eating plan that is right for you, there are three general rules of thumb to follow:
- Eating five to six meals each day spaced out by about three or four hours;
- Consume at least one high protein food during each meal;
- Eat the most carbohydrate-rich foods around workouts.
Macronutrient goals and periodizing your diet
Rigby places macronutrient goals and periodizing one’s diet as the third and fourth blocks of the pyramid.
Reaching your specific macronutrient goals means consuming the proper ratio of carbohydrates, proteins and fats for the expedition you are going on.
The rule of thumb for mountaineers is the same as the aforementioned UIAA guidelines. However, some climbers heading to very high altitudes (more than 6,000 metres/19,700 feet) prefer to have the body fat adapted.
“Our bodies produce most of the energy we need to live by way of aerobic metabolism, which uses oxygen to break down primarily fats and carbohydrates with a small contribution from amino acids (proteins),” Rolfe Oostra, the head guide and co-founder of 360 Expeditions, tells ExpedReview.
“Carbohydrate or sugar delivers the most intense energy of all three sources,” he adds. “Think of it as the body’s high-octane fuel that must be constantly replenished, as we can only store about an hour’s worth in our bloodstream.”
“A high-altitude, low-oxygen environment dramatically suppresses one’s appetite, and as a result, mountaineers struggle to take in enough calories,” Oostra continues. “Fat is the essential fuel for a long-duration event like an expedition to a 6,000-metre peak because our bodies can store many days’ worth of it.”
All of this leads to periodizing one’s diet or tailoring when and what you are eating based on your training regimen.
For high-altitude expeditions, Oostra recommends fat adapting and periodizing your diet to prepare for this. For expeditions to lower altitudes and treks, this is generally not necessary.
“It is important to do an exercise regimen focused on re-training your body to feed off its intermuscular fat stores,” Oostra says. “For the big expeditions, consider long-duration workouts over many hours at a low intensity on an empty stomach.”
Diet and Nutrition Tips During an Expedition
"The importance of adequate caloric and fluid intake must be rated at least as highly as that of oxygen," said Griffith Pugh, an expedition physiologist, who accompanied Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953.
Even on one of the first expeditions into the death zone, above 8,000 metres (26,200 feet), Pugh recognised the importance of adequately fueling on an expedition.
Once you have completed your training regiments and are preparing to head out on the expedition, it is essential to plan accordingly for how you will pack your food and snacks and when and how much you will eat once on the expedition.
Packing and preparing meals and snacks for an expedition
Before heading out on an expedition, you should experiment with some of the food you may pack for the expedition.
According to the UIAA, appetite and taste perception are highly reduced above 5,000 metres (16,400 feet), which can lead to extreme weight loss on mountaineering expeditions. At the same time, physical exercise requires twice as many calories as it would at sea level at these same elevations.
“As there are likely to be times when energy intake is insufficient to meet energy expenditure, it is important that the diet be palatable, satisfying and easy to prepare and eat to minimise any potential weight loss,” the UIAA says.
“Having a variety of energy-dense foods and easily prepared carbohydrates for self-selection at meals or that can be put in pockets for easy access while climbing (especially carbohydrates) can be a useful strategy,” the UIAA adds.
For example, you should experiment with powdered eggs, milk and cheese to see which protein is most palatable. You should also try dehydrated vegetables, stock cubes, dried fruits, and different nuts. It is essential to figure out what tastes good and is easy to eat.
Studies have also shown that bringing packages of spices along is helpful. These add flavor and make powdered foods more palatable, especially at high altitudes when your appetite has considerably diminished.
The UIAA further recommends planning meals that can be cooked in a single pot using minimum cooking fuel and are easy to clean afterward. At extremely high altitude – think Everest Camp III and above – the UIAA goes so far as to recommend bringing food that requires no cooking or can be prepared by mixing with hot water.
“There is no point carrying up food that is not going to be eaten. Carefully consider the dietary needs, food likes and dislikes of your expedition members,” the UIAA says. “The ease with which a meal can be prepared at altitude, and in the cold, is critical to ensure a greater possibility of matching energy intake and palatability to the energy needs.”
In selecting the right foods to bring on an expedition, the UIAA also recommends testing how these foods hold up in different conditions. From extreme heat to temperatures below freezing, it is essential to bring food that will stay intact and remain edible through a range of different temperatures and humidities.
Eating on the expedition
Once you’ve decided what to bring (or discussed meal options with the guide leading the trip), it is just as important to know how to fuel yourself while on an expedition.
“The goal before the hike [or climb] is to get some fuel into your system and have it mostly digested and the nutrients circulating by the time you start,” says Maurer.
This means that the first meal of the day on an expedition should be eaten at least one hour (preferably more, if possible) before leaving camp. On summit day, this may mean waking up a bit early to have the food digested before heading to the top of the mountain.
The first meal of the day is one of the most important while mountaineering or trekking and should be a balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fats to avoid a blood sugar spike and crash. Maurer says eating a whole-grain bagel or crackers with peanut butter or another type of nut butter is a good example.
After eating breakfast, you will likely dress and pack for the rest of the day of climbing. Before heading out, it is also a good idea to eat a simple carbohydrate, such as candy or fruit, to boost your energy levels.
After you’ve left camp and are starting to hike or climb, it is best to eat more small portions of carbohydrates – 30 to 90 grams – every hour.
Simple carbohydrates are the fastest fuel you can choose and are great for short bursts of energy. Adding snacks with higher fat and protein contents slows down digestion and leads to longer and more sustained energy. As a result, it is important to mix and match these snacks as you are hiking or climbing.
If you are hiking or climbing in the heat, it is also important to make sure you are eating enough sodium to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat.
Gels and energy bars are great for replenishing both electrolytes and sugars, but sometimes it is good to have actual food. This is more challenging on high-altitude climbs, but for simpler ascents and treks, it can be nice to bring snacks such as tater tots, bacon and pickles to replenish salts and sugars.
Once you have completed hiking or climbing for the day, it is essential to eat appropriately to prepare for the following day.
Climbers and hikers should eat a small, complex carbohydrate-rich snack 30 minutes after arriving at camp for the day to replenish glycogen stores in the muscles.
A few hours later, you should have a more substantial meal with a roughly four to one carbohydrate to protein ratio to refuel for the following morning.
Along with eating properly, staying hydrated is just as important on any mountaineering or trekking expedition.
“Anything you eat during exercise is going to be absorbed much better if you take it with plenty of water,” says Maurer.
She says there are advantages and disadvantages associated with both water bottles and hydration systems.
Water bottles are good for keeping track of how much water you are drinking, which is helpful in making sure that you are drinking enough, especially on hot days.
Meanwhile, hydration packs are helpful for drinking water on the go and decreasing the amount of time spent stopping to drink more water.
When drinking water on an expedition, it should be sipped instead of gulped down as slowly taking in the water gives the body more time to absorb it and fully rehydrate all the cells using water to fuel themselves.
The UIAA adds: “It is not possible to prescribe how much water should be drunk each day as this will vary according to weather conditions, intensity/amount of physical activity, individual variations in sweat losses and gender.”
However, several studies have suggested that climbers on Everest require between 2.5 and 4.1 liters per day to stay adequately hydrated. The variation is largely down to what physical exertion occurred on the day and your unique physiological makeup.
Before heading on an expedition, it is best to consult a certified dietician to determine how much water you should be drinking at high altitudes to ward of acute mountain sickness and stay adequately hydrated.
Since it is sometimes difficult to measure water intake at a higher elevation, the UIAA recommends regularly checking your urine as this is an easy way to determine hydration levels.
“Urine should be very pale yellow when you’re hydrated properly, and your urine should be sufficient in volume,” the federation says. “The more dark yellow, even light brown urine becomes, as well as being scant in volume, this suggests increasing to severe dehydration or even acute mountain sickness.”
Make a nutrition and hydration plan before you go
Heading out on a trekking or mountaineering expedition is always an adventure and can lead to unforgettable memories that will last a lifetime.
To ensure that you will make the most of your trip, make sure to follow some of these nutrition and hydration trips both in the build-up to the expedition and while out on the mountain or trail.
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Climbing Nutrition: https://www.climbing.com/skills/climbing-nutrition-the-sports-nutrition-pyramid/
Sarah Maurer: https://missadventurepants.com/podcast/healthy-hiking-snacks-mountaineering & https://missadventurepants.com/podcast/sports-nutrition-mountaineering