The 5-Step Food and Nutrition Guide for Mountaineers

by: Dan Renyi

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Have you noticed that somehow people tend to pack the exact same food, like some chocolate and a couple of granola bars, regardless of where they go to climb or how they generally think of nutrition? There is this habit. There is this misconception.

In reality, what you take with you has a crucial impact on your performance throughout your trip. It is not just what you eat but when and how much you take that will help you bring out the best of you. So stop thinking it is all equipment and training that only matter! Nutrition is another pillar of your performance.

The Last Supper

You need to start prepare your body the evening before you head out. The supper before the summit push should be about carbs. Fill up your glucose tanks! What’s great about glucose is that your body easily transforms and stores it in the form of fat so that it can use it up when needed.

You’ve probably heard, carbs are the big favorites of sports people – and equally so of climbers. You need easy-to-absorb carbs.

Of course, “easy absorption” is a relative term and you should aim for moderation, like with most things. Whatever is quick to absorb is similarly quick to exit the body. One example is white sugar. When there is a lot of sugar input, the output you will experience is pretty unpleasant: you can get dizzy or even faint.

And you will be puzzled why you get so tired so quickly — when you just ate XL. Yes, but it was full of white sugar (chocolate) and white flour (bakery products). It is just not worth the effort, you see?

Instead, the right choice would be whole-grain products, beans, lentils, potato, just like fruits rich in sugar, such as banana, nectarine, or dates. As they get absorbed more slowly, these superfoods give you more energy, thus, you’ll feel active for a longer time.

Although tonight is about carbs, you shouldn’t forget about protein either. About 40% of your meal should be meat or tofu.

It is worth paying a bit of attention to unsaturated fat as well, because it faciliates the absorpsion of carbs. Your body will thank you for adding some sardines, nuts (like almonds or walnuts), or berries (like raspberry, blueberry or cranberry) to your meal.



Breakfast: To Give a Good Start to Your Climb

The goal with your breakfast is, on the one hand, to give you energy for your climb, but to make it light for the digestive system, on the other hand. Now you need to put your muscles and your brain to top performance, which won’t happen if your drain yourself with heavy meals.

Since fiber, fat and protein have long absorption processes, work with carbs only. Whole-grain bread, porridge, or if you like gourmet (and who doesn’t?), you can have pancakes with dried fruits.

Of course, breakfast can be a challenge on alpine climbs because you often set out early – 1-4 AM. Who wants to eat anything at around 1-4 AM? You’ll probably munch on something and then stop for a quick breakfast up the route when the sun has come up.

Be moderate with hydration. This is the opposite of what most people tell you. Your body doesn’t need more than two cups of tea or coffee.

Don’t count on a lot of restrooms up there. So it wise to avoid too much of the morning drinks (they tend to be diuretic and make you pee) and too much of protein and fat (they accelerate digestion, and output — if you know what I mean).

Brunch(es): To Keep You Strong During the Trip

You’ll see that only a couple of hours of physical activity will have its impact on how you feel. The carbs from your plentiful dinner last night are out. You need to refill your tanks about 2-3 hours after you headed out.

Get the fruits (like figs, bananas, or dried fruits) and the nuts (like walnut, almond, peanut or pistachio) out of your pockets — yes, it is a very good idea to keep them in the pocket of your backpack or your jacket, and not somewhere at the bottom on your sack. If you are taking energy bars, it is wise to pick those which are at least 50% made of carbs.

Just one word on bananas. They are awesome. Containing a lot of carbohydrate, vitamins, and potassium, essential for your heart, banana is (should be) the top choice and all-time-favorite for climbers, mountaineers. Transporting them high up the mountain in your backpack takes some planning and consideration, but it can be done. Just make sure the bananas don’t freeze.



Hydration: To Keep You Fresh During the Trip

We just told you not to have too much to drink for breakfast. But you don’t want to get dehydrated either. Note that dizziness and fatigue can be the symptoms of mountain sickness but also of dehydration. 70% of your body weight is water; if you lose only 2% of it, you’ll experience symptoms of lethargy. (What? Well, you’ll feel pretty crappy.)

Since you’ll be sweating a great deal, it is very easy to reach that point. So it is best to have a sip every 10-15 mins to avoid losing focus. Theoretically, you need about 0.5L of water each hour, but with 7-8-12 hour climbs it is practically impossible to carry this much weight with you.

We usually suggest that you bring around 1.5-2 liters (50-65 oz). Altogether, keep in mind that it is better to sip regularly than to drink up the bottle at once.

Sports or isotonic drinks are great sources not only of water but also of minerals and vitamins, of which you lose a lot while sweating. From a climber’s perspective, sport drinks are essential because they help prevent muscle cramps.

If you are uncomfortable with their color, you can try the powder version which you can prepare yourself. If you want, you can squeeze and add some citruses (orange, grapefruit or lemon) to your drink.

Dinner: To Recharge Yourself After the Trip

You wouldn’t imagine how soon you’ll need to fill up your tanks again. 30 to 60 mins after you finish your work-out, fats turn into carbs and they start to absorb. You’ll need to get a decent meal. Proteins and carbs are equally important this time; be generous with yourself.

The ideal dinner after a climb would contain meat, eggs, milk, veggies and fruits. Some of them help regenerate your muscles, while some are great sources of energy. The next morning you’ll wake up fresh and full of enthusiasm, leaving all the exhaustion of the previous day in your bed.


Wrap It Up

So once again. Nutrition is crucial to the success of your journey. Making the right food choices is as important as any other piece of the mountaineering puzzle, like stamina, skill and gear.

Also, anything you read will be general advice but you’ll need to try out a couple things yourself. Be mindful of how your body reacts to certain foods and drinks at various altitudes – and experiment around. Knowing how your body works and what sort of fueling it needs is not only a performance booster, but can be the difference between fun and physical struggle towards the end of your trip.