“A crude meal, no doubt, but the best of all sauces is hunger.”
While working for the US Forest Service over the last handful of summers I often spent 5 to 8 days at a time in the woods, while doing extremely physical work and carrying a heavy pack. I spent 9 days on the move in the Picket Range in 2011, and have done many trips into the North Cascades that fell into the 4-6 day range. The most common questions that I get about going into the mountains for more than a couple of days are about food. Food planning and packing for long trips isn’t easy: your pack is always going to be heavier than you'd like, and you’re going to be burning a lot of calories. I don’t claim to be an expert on nutrition, but years of casual research and trial and error have showed me what I need to keep my body fueled for long days and weeks in the mountains. In this post I’ll share my ideas on food and hydration, and in my next post I’ll got into the hardware side of things… Stoves and water filters and whatnot.
Photo: Dan Helmstadter digs into his food bag at a bivy on the north ridge of Mount Stuart. Dan is an experienced mountain traveler, and knows that sometimes potato chips and cheese are just what his body wants.
I’m a pretty simple guy, and I try not to overthink things. That includes my diet. Everything in moderation, including moderation, as an old friend used to say. As an active 30 year old guy, I’m fine with the fact that I’m fairly loose about my diet compared to some of my friends. I try to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables when I’m at home, watch what processed foods I eat, and avoid frozen food and fast food. That’s about as far as my dietary rules go at the moment. I love ice cream. Beer is good. When I’m in the mountains, my rules are simpler: food should be light weight, easy to stomach, and should give me what I think my body needs for fuel and recovery.
I’ll start with breakfast, which seems to be the hardest meal to plan. I can no longer stomach instant oatmeal, and I like to keep it simple since I’m not really a morning person. Every morning starts with a cup or two of plain water, and a cup of instant coffee (Starbucks Via, or a store brand version of it). If it’s a warm summer morning I don’t even heat the coffee; just dump it in water, stir, and call it good. Depending on what I’m eating I might have a little protein powder in water too. The food might be a bagel with cream cheese, a big trail cookie with nuts and seeds in it from our local grocery store bakery, a couple of handfuls of dry granola (every once in a while I’ll bring powdered milk), or a mix of a granola bar, dried fruit, and trail mix. I shoot for about 300 calories.
I never plan a real lunch beyond the first day or two, which might consist of a sandwich or some leftovers from home. Throughout the day I try to eat a little bit every couple of hours. If I’m just hiking my snacks will be some variety of trail mix (I’m a fan of salty, crunchy stuff), cured meat and cheese, dried fruit, nuts, and bars. I’m pretty picky about bars: I’m burnt out on most of the major energy/protein bars, so I rotate through various granola bars, candy bars, and fig bars.
For long climbing or ski touring days my on the move diet gets very simple: an energy gel every hour or two, and some kind of solid food that has fat in it like a bar, or meat and cheese every 5 or 6 hours. I’ve pushed hard for over 24 hours at a time with nothing but bars and gels. The point of energy gels is that they offer a quick, single serving burst of easy to digest carbs, which your body turns into sugar, aka fuel. They resist freezing, and I find most flavors easy to eat. Some people can’t stand the texture though, so for them the best bet might be one of the various energy chews on the market, like Cliff Shot Blocks. When using energy gels or chews it's important to be disciplined about remembering to actually eat enough of them. They only provide about 100 calories each, so you'll crash if you forget to eat one for a few hours. Keep them handy: I once had to slurp one down while hanging from a piece of protection in the middle of a nasty four hour lead on Dragontail Peak. The empty squeeze pouches can be messy; it's worth having a pocket in your pants or jacket that you only stuff trash into to avoid getting anything else sticky.
As far as hydration during the day goes, it obviously depends on the work, the temperature, and the availability of water. Water is heavy, so I try to avoid carrying more than two liters at a time. If I’m hiking in a place where there are plenty of creeks I’ll hardly carry any at all, and plan on stopping at creek crossings to drink. I’ve found that if it’s not too hot out I can climb or ski all day on two liters as long as I start out hydrated. I’ll be thirsty at the end of the day, but that’s how it goes. At this point I try not to go climbing or skiing if it's too crazy hot. I’ve bailed off of climbs before when we found ourselves dehydrated and suffering in the sun, and more than a few times I’ve reached a summit completely parched, indifferent to anything except for getting down to water. Sometimes a little suffering isn't a bad thing: quenching an intense thirst on a trickle of water running down the side of a slimy boulder will create a fun, lasting memory. While doing trail work I’ll sometimes drink over two gallons a day when the temperature rises up over 90 degrees; luckily that work is usually at elevations where water is readily available. I’ll add a packet of electrolyte/vitamin mix to my drink at some point during the day, and sometimes I’ll drink coffee or some other caffeinated drink mix later in the day to make the final push.
I find myself getting lazier about mountain dinners as I get older. I’d rather focus on the sunset, the fire, the view, or sleep. Pre-packaged freeze-dried food is my go to for climbing and skiing. Easy, and I think that many of them taste good after a day of hard work. The cooking pouches can be bulky in the pack, so for longer trips I sometimes put some of them in plastic bags and reuse the cook pouch for two or three of nights. When working particularly hard I might suggest that everyone in the group brings a freeze dried meal, and then split a package of ramen or instant potatoes between two or three people for dessert. To go a little lighter two people can split a freeze-dry, and then share ramen or potatoes, and maybe have a little chocolate for dessert. I never eat ramen at home, but for most people I know it’s a staple in the mountains. Light, easy, hot and salty… I never really get sick of it. You can add a tuna packet or cured meat and some dehydrated veggies to make it a legit dinner.
Photo: Sol Wertkin getting started on a freeze-dried dinner as Jens Holsten melts snow on the Southern Pickets Enchainment in 2011. Because we were traversing a high ridge crest, we were only able to camp near running water on the hike out, and only found unfrozen water a few times in the seven days we spent up high. There was snow in most of the cols between the peaks, but carrying enough fuel to melt enough water for three people for that amount of time proved problematic. In the end our shortage of food and fuel prevented us from continuing on to traverse the ridgeline of the Northern Pickets like we'd hoped.
When working for the USFS or just hiking on my own time, I’ll mix my dinners up a little more. Freeze dried meals are pricey and can be hard on the digestive system, after all. Instant potato packets with meat and cheese, dehydrated black bean soup from a health food store’s bulk section, bean and cheese burritos, and macaroni and cheese are pretty standard. For the first night out I’ve been known to get truly fancy: steak sautéed with onions, garlic, and pepper, leftover pizza, or a good sandwich are all possibilities. If I’m planning on camping at a lake I’ll bring a collapsible fishing pole in hopes of supplementing my dinner with trout, but it’s hard to count on that. Remember to keep hydrating! Assuming I’m thirsty but not dying of thirst at dinner time, I’ll have a few cups of pure water, and a cup or two with a packet electrolyte mix or protein powder. You don’t want to be so hydrated that you have to get up to go pee multiple times throughout the night. While hiking or skiing I, or someone I'm with, will inevitably be packing a little whisky. If we're planning on much technical climbing it'll get left behind to shave ounces, and I've learned to avoid it until good and acclimated if I'm camping above about 9,000 feet.
On expeditions it’s nice to have a lot of food. Figuring out how to cook elaborate meals on a camp stove is a good way to kill time on a stormy day. Good food is just such a morale boost when conditions are bad. Burritos, quesadillas, mini pizzas, creative pancakes, burgers… If you’re camping on a glacier you can bury food to keep it from going bad, so the possibilities are almost endless. On my 24th birthday our neighbors on the Ruth Glacier in Alaska woke me up with coffee, eggs, hash browns, and bacon. I’d been on the glacier for a few weeks at that point, so it was a pretty impressive birthday gift. Just keep in mind that things like dry beans and pasta take forever to rehydrate at high altitudes. Some kinds might be better than others. We brought a lot of spaghetti noodles to the main camp at 14,000 feet on Denali, and never managed to make an appetizing meal out of them.
That’s all for now. Next up: stoves, fuel, and water purification.