Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Road to Whitney 3: Eating on the Mountain

One of the most commonly overlooked aspects of climbing mountains is nutrition.  Over the years, I have found that more and more people are just downright clueless about what to eat in the backcountry and Mt. Whitney sees an exceptionally high concentration of these people each year. I think part of this is the general decline of diets nationwide as a whole, but there seems to also be a healthy dose of uninformed food choices as well.

So what should you take to eat on the mountain to get the best performance possible?

Sadly, The last time you will eat this well is at the Whitney Portal Store

Balance, Balance, Balance!

A common thing I see inexperienced eaters in the wilderness do is rely on one food source because it is light or convenient. I have been out with people who brought only trail mix and beef jerky for a multi-night trip! A good rule of thumb is to try and mirror the balance of a healthy diet you would have at home. Your body will need a good mix of fats, proteins, carbohydrates and fibers to work at its best.

One thing you want to try and avoid when climbing mountains is to be overly concerned with minimizing calories or fats; diets are not going to help you perform well. Now, I'm not advocating eating anything under the sun, but your body needs a healthy dose of fats and calories to function. Don't forget, a single day climb of Mt. Whitney can last for well over 12 hours of continuous activity and you will run out of energy if you don't eat properly.

My go-to menu items for this type of trip include nuts, dried fruits and chocolate for snack items. Another common choice is cliff or power bars. While store bough energy bar are convenient and offer fairly balanced nutrition, I simply can not palate them as I get to higher altitudes (you naturally lose your appetite as you ascend). To get around this, I make my own energy bars. A great resource to help you start making your own can be found at the Sierra Social hub and I can confirm that all the recipes are great tasting and easy to make. I have tweaked a few of these recipes into my main go-to snack source on trail.

Breakfast is usually a mix of fruit and grains and maybe high protein items like hard boiled eggs if it is a short trip. For dinners I tend to stay away from many of the pre-packaged backpacking meals as I only like a few of the menu choices available. I prefer to go with 5 minute rice and packages of curry as it offers all the fats and carbs I need and tastes much better to me. If weight is a concern, I will go with dried meals from AlpineAire or Natural High as I prefer their menu choices.

An item that simply cannot be overlooked is the importance of staying hydrated.  Many trail foods (energy bars and trail mix in particular) are nearly as good at dehydrating you as they are at keeping you fueled. To help combat this I always drink at least 6 ounces of water when eating trail foods. On more difficult expeditions, I also bring sports drink mixes to add to water. My go-to's are Cytomax and Nuun tabs as I enjoy the taste and it replenishes valuable nutrients, not to mention it can cover the taste of iodine if I treated my water.

How Often to eat?

How often you eat is nearly as important as what you are eating. There is no reason to drag along all this great food if you aren't eating it at the proper time. One thing I have been guilty of in the past while doing a lot of hard climbing is waiting to eat until a good stopping point. I would often say "I will eat when I get to the top of this ridge" or some other arbitrary goal even if I was hungry then. Don't do this! What this caused me to do was run out of energy before eating and even after I finally ate it took awhile to recover enough to keep my original pace.

What you should be doing is eating small amounts of food fairly often. I try for about 200 calories per hour during tough activities. This is roughly equivalent to a granola bar or a handful of trail mix. This keeps your calorie and blood sugar levels constant and helps you maintain your level of activity.

One trick that has helped me immensely is to stop stashing away all my food in my pack. I try and keep it accessible either in a hip-belt pocket or in some other easily grabbed place. Not having to stop makes me much more likely to eat regularly. A particularly handy item I recently added to my gear setup is the Ribz Front Pack. This gives me a great deal of storage volume within easy reach at all times.

Sample menu list

So what should your Climbing menu look like? Unfortunately, it is tough for me to make a definitive outdoor menu as almost everyone's taste varies.  However, I have put together a sample menu for an overnight summer mountaineering trip such as Mt. Whitney.

1/2 cup Dried Fruit
1/2 cup unsalted nuts
2 packs instant oatmeal

1 package dehydrated noodle
1 energy bar
small chocolate bar

AlpineAire Peppersteak and rice dehydrated meal
1 package 5 minute rice and Meat Curry Pouch
small chocolate bar

homemade energy bars (3/day)
dried fruit
unsalted peanuts
dark chocolate bars
cytomax drink mix