Smarter Snacking: Fueling for Long Days in the Mountains

By Charlotte Austin

Packing food for a day in the mountains can be daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Check out these simple tips for fueling your next adventure.

Calculate your calories

It can be daunting to estimate the right amount of food for a multi-day trip, but it’s a lot easier if you calculate the number of calories you’ll need per day. For me and the activities I do, I like to follow this guideline: if I’m working hard (climbing, skiing, hiking strenuous terrain), I’ll need 300-400 calories for every hour of movement. If I’m working less hard (walking, puttering around camp, kayaking), I’ll need 100-300 calories per hour. Estimate how many hours you’ll be moving each day, multiply times the number of calories you’ll be burning, and add a buffer of 10-20%.

Mix it up

When you’re packing your snacks, think about variety. You never know what’s going to taste good when you’re working hard in the mountains, and it’s nice to be able to choose between salty, sweet, spicy, and sour. Sometimes beef jerky hits the spot; other times you might be craving trail mix — and if you’ve got options to choose from, you’re more likely to actually consume the calories you need.

In addition to choosing a variety of flavors, choose snacks with different glycemic indexes. For slower endurance activities you’ll want longer-burning energy sources like fat and protein, but for the summit push you’ll want some fast power from sugar and caffeine. If you stock your snack bag with different options, you can choose what you want when you need it.

Eat real food

Energy bars and gels can be useful: they’re easy, simple, high-calorie, and tasty. But they’re also expensive, hard on your stomach, and often made with hard-to-pronounce ingredients. So while it’s tempting to stock up on high-tech pre-packaged products, experienced mountain athletes often choose real food. The options are endless! Anything non-perishable and reasonably sturdy can be thrown in a backpack: peanut butter sandwiches, dark chocolate, jerky, mixed nuts, hard boiled eggs, etc.

If you do buy energy bars, look for the simplest options. The bars that are made with real food and with the fewest ingredients are often easiest on the stomach, especially when your body is working hard.

Prep at home

As you’re gathering your snacks together, assess what can be done at home. A little bit of preparation goes a long way toward making long days in the mountains go smoothly.

For example, it’s simpler to make sandwiches in your kitchen than on the trail. Slicing cheese is easier (and less risky!) with a cutting board than on the side of a mountain. Unwrap anything that’s individually packaged. Divide trail mix into single-serving Ziplock bags. Stash energy gels into your parka pockets. If calories are pre-prepped and easy to access, you’re a lot more likely to stay properly fueled.

Don’t wait until you’re hungry

It’s the oldest mistake in the book. Bodies give strange signals during endurance activities, and those signals can be even stranger at altitude or in the extreme heat or cold. Many mountain athletes never actually feel hungry, but that doesn’t mean that their bodies don’t need calories.

Aim to eat at least once per hour, even if it’s something simple like a handful of nuts or an energy gel. If you feel low-energy, spacey, or start to develop a headache, stop and eat several hundred calories of real food. And remember: if you forget to eat, you’ll feel bad, which can make food sound even less appealing. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s easy to break.

Always make sure to carry extra food and water when you’re traveling in the mountains. Check with your climbing partners or group members for any allergies or food sensitivities, and plan your own snacks accordingly. Always be aware of any animals in the area, and consider operating by the principles of Leave No Trace.

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Charlotte Austin is a writer, climber, and mountain guide who lives in Seattle, Washington. When she’s not in the mountains getting a sunglasses tan, she’s hanging out with Huckleberry, her dog. Read more of her work at www.charlotteaustin.com.