Nutrition in the mountains

By Iona Pawson - May 13, 2020

“Few healthy, alert people walk off cliffs!” 

- NOLS

Before I begin, I would like to add a disclaimer: I am not a nutritionalist, nor have I studied the subject at anything more than a ‘curious mountaineer’ level.  These thoughts come from friends, colleagues, my personal experiences of seeing good and bad nutrition first hand, and wider reading.

About me

Professionally I work for Plas y Brenin on the majority of their mountain based courses.  This includes long days out completing the Welsh 3000s, camping, breaking trail in the snow during winter months, rock climbing and more.

Personally I have a passion for long remote self sufficient journeys which could last up to 5 weeks.  I am also a keen fell runner and novice mountain biker.  I love cooking, growing my own produce in our garden, and experimenting with different foods and training ideas in the hills.

Introduction

Firstly, nutrition is personal.  Our bodies are all different, we have all exercised and therefore trained (whether purposefully or not!) ourselves to use foods in differing ways.  This does not mean we cannot change what we do, train our body differently for the future, or follow some general ideas.  Embrace every day out in the hills as a time to experiment with what works for you when doing a particular activity.  (Although I wouldn’t recommend trying radical new ideas on a multi day expedition just in case this backfires on you and your team)

 Secondly, nutrition is fuel for the body, in addition to being quite tasty.  Good nutrition will enable you to have a better time in the mountains, and below are some ideas to consider when organising your trips, in addition to an example of what I might eat on a typical day at work in the hills.

 As a professional and relatively petite female in the mountains it can be easy to forget that I don’t require the same number of calories as somebody else.  This is down to a number of things including:

  • base metabolic rate
  • efficiency of movement
  • training and adaption to the sport
  • pack weight

However we can change all of those things.

 There are plenty of books and articles on the science of nutrition and this article seeks to provide top tips and things to consider rather than cover the technical aspects of nutrition.  For more on this there is a bibliography at the bottom of the page.

Carbohydrates

  • Easier to digest when moving
  • Save sugary foods for the last part of the day so you don’t have sugar highs and lows throughout the day
  • Eat a mixture of sugars and starches, e.g. a jam sandwich

Fats

  • Highest calories per gram of food, peanuts are 580 calories per 100g, olive oil is 850, butter is 700, when the weight of your bag matters carrying food that has more calories per 100g becomes crucial.
  • Eat more in the evening for a warmer night’s sleep, particularly when winter camping
  • Most people’s body will require more training to utilise fats more readily in the day

Proteins

  • Good for muscle recovery
  • Eat more at the end of a longer day, especially if the next day is long too

Vitamins and Minerals

  • Particularly important for multi day trips
  • Help to balance electrolytes, sodium levels

Water

  • Drink when you’re thirsty
  • Walk slower in the hills = less breathing and less sweating means less water loss
  • Manage clothing for less sweating in the hills
  • Schedule your walk to suit the temperature of the day, e.g. don’t walk in the midday sun in a heatwave, get up earlier and finish for a late lunch.
  • Drink more in the morning and evening, keep some water on your bedside table.

How this translates for me on a day out in the mountains:

The morning alarm goes off

  • A glass of water / juice / cup of tea

Breakfast

  • A mug of coffee - I like one a day in the morning, very occasionally I’ll take energy chews with caffeine in for a super long day in the mountains, but I don’t want to rely on needing a caffeine fix to concentrate later in the day or have to carry a big flask in addition to my water to get my daily coffee.
  • Banana Oaty Pancakes -  these are my go to breakfast before a long day in the hills. They contain a range of foods and some fruit too. You can top them with summer fruits, bacon and maple syrup, or as Cath Wilson does, yogurt and raspberry jam.
  • On a cold winter’s day nothing beats a full english breakfast in the morning, but being careful not to go too huge, whilst it soon burns off breaking trail in the snow and keeping warm I hate feeling too full at the start of the day it makes everything harder!

Second Breakfast


Yes, you read that right!

On occasion I will go for a run or bike ride before work, or need a breakfast that’s a bit easier to eat at the start of my day:

  • Summer smoothie - one banana, yogurt, milk, oats, summer fruits blended in the Nutribullet and drunk during our morning work meeting.

During the day

(note this very deliberately isn’t described as lunch)
  • Sandwiches - my favourite is cheese and ham for a balanced sandwich, however I try to pick something that has slow and fast release energy, something that tastes good and I will want to eat in torrential rain or gale force winds.
  • Fruit / dried fruit - In the summer months a juicy apple is incredible, homegrown strawberries in a tupperware are a pleasure to eat too. The remainder of the year I adore dried bananas which we dehydrate at home in a dehydrator.
  • Peanuts or a small bag of trail mix - good for eating on the move and easily stored in a pocket.
  • Cake / goodies - a cake towards the end of the day is a real pick me up, providing a sugar burst for those final bits of energy needed to get you back to the minibus. They are also amazing at just making you feel good. Other favourites are jelly babies and party rings.
  • Other things I eat on days off when work don’t provide my lunch include little risotto portables (see the book feed zone portables), peanuts, gingerbread hard bars, rice pudding.
nutrition-in-the-mountains-jelly-babies

Tea and Cakes


This wouldn’t be a Plas y Brenin blog without them!

Nothing beats a good cake and a cup of tea to refuel and rehydrate. Whilst the Brenin cake is mildly addictive, it fills the gap between lunch and supper, just enough to get you home or ready for a climb after work.

Evening meal

Some good home-cooking, balanced food, for example spaghetti bolognese with extra vegetables snuck in there. I love grating carrots and courgettes into evening meals, they bulk it up, taste good, and get rid of vegetable gluts from our garden. Who doesn’t love a pudding? I try to mix them up between gooey chocolate puddings, fresh fruit and baked goodies.

Ideas for multi-day journeys

  • Variety - try to take a range of foods so you don’t get bored. One of my friends once decided to only take peanuts for lunch for 5 weeks! After a couple of days he was begging to swap with anyone he could find on the mountain.
  • Colourful foods - the reason I take party rings, sometimes the smallest amount of colour can be a real pick me up, particularly if you don’t have any fresh food on your trip.
  • Dehydrated vegetables - really difficult to source in the UK so I make my own in a dehydrator and add them to my dehydrated food packets.
  • Cheese and butter - a little bit for every evening meal on a cold winter journey. These add fat and flavour to your meal.
  • Spices and herbs - these can help you transform a meal with very little effort!
  • Concentrated juice - if you struggle to drink enough water during the day and in the tent / hut consider adding a few drops of juice to your bottle.
  • Effervescent Vitamin tablets - a way to get your vitamins in whilst hydrating.
  • Dehydrated food, my current favourite is Firepot - it tastes of something, has real ingredients, the calories aren’t only made up with oil etc… and also have a great range for those with dietary requirements (they even do bespoke meals for folk with particular diet needs). The Plas y Brenin kitchens now stock Firepot for our camping courses too. You can make your own dehydrated meals too.
  • Consider cooking something at lunch time, it’s a hassle but stopping to boil water to make a soup or ready pasta meal in addition to your snacks is a great way to enforce a longer stop, really take time to rehydrate, eat and enjoy your surroundings. I begrudgingly began doing this whilst bikepacking and loved it.
  • Make your own energy bars or cake and prepackage into daily portions. The taste of home in a remote and wild place is so satisfying and can instantly make you feel better.
  • Another controversial one - consider taking ‘real food’ and try baking your own bread, making pasta sauces and other goodies in the field. It the weight of your pack isn’t an issue and you have lots of downtime in the evenings then real cooking on expedition can be fun and healthier.
  • Remember to consider where you are eating? Are you able to stop for lunch and cook? Does everything need to fit in a jacket pocket for lunch? Will you have boiling water and at what times of the day? Does your cooking plan match your team members? Is your breakfast liable to fill the tent with bits of Ready Brek if you accidentally breathe on it!? 

A final word

Finally, learn what works for you, and learn what works for your friends and team members. I still can’t quite get over the fact that my boyfriend needs almost double the amount of food and water that I do when we go into the hills to survive and enjoy the journey!

Summary

  • Get fitter and more efficient in the hills
  • Eat real food not energy bars, gels and powders
  • Light is right - take dehydrated food when camping
  • Don’t forget your vitamins
  • Enjoy the process of experimenting with what foods work for you in the outdoors on day and multi-day trips
  • Eat little and often when you’re out in the mountains
  • Stay hydrated
  • Embrace proper home-cooking

Further Reading

  • NOLS Cookery - the ultimate book on cooking in the backcountry if you want real food
  • Feed Zone Portables by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim - from the world of road cycling, a cookbook that will get you rethinking snacks on the hill.
  • The Dehydrator Bible by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt, Don Mercer - a good book to get you started on dehydrating your own food
  • The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition by Anita Bean 
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