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What’s the best food to eat on high altitude treks, climbs or expeditions?
Perceived exercise effort is increased at altitude. There is a real decrease in exercise capacity above 5000 feet elevation (1) and exercise just feels harder. To make matters worse, usually sleep is compromised at high altitude as well. Eating enough calories and drinking enough can help you feel better.
On climb day, ascending to high altitude can cause a lack of appetite. So pack whatever food tastes the best to you and will be something you will want to eat regularly. During the climb at altitude the focus is on consuming enough calories, carbohydrates and fluids. As you ascend, eat often, and eat snacks that will maintain your glycogen levels to use as fuel.
During your training the food you eat in your meals and training sessions should be nutritious and antioxidant rich to promote recovery and performance. I recommend real foods.
Experiment During Training
To determine which foods fuel your body best, try different items on various training hikes to see how your body feels after consuming each snack. Also, keep in mind that some foods can cause GI upset. So this is best discovered before climb day.
Climbing a mountain burns calories. Lots of them! Rising stress hormone levels place a higher demand for fuel on your body. As calorie needs increase, athletes need to add to their caloric intake.
Moderately increasing carbohydrate intake is key in replacing glycogen stores in your body when climbing and compensating for the increased caloric demand at altitude.
Altitude makes water loss worse because at altitude you will breathe faster and more deeply. This is because the higher the altitude the lower the air pressure, so you take more breaths for the same amount of oxygen. This extra breathing leads to fluid losses. If you aren’t staying on top of your intake, dehydration may sneak up, and leave you feeling light-headed and nauseated.
When you are over 10,000 feet elevation drink 1 to 1.5 liters of water daily 3 to 5 liters of water plus 200-300 grams of carbohydrate. Monitor your urine color. It should be a light yellow. Sports beverage powder packs easily in a small ziplock bag to add to a water bottle.
Recommended sports beverages:
Fluid Performance Natural, carbs
Gatorade Thirst Quencher, carbs
GU Hydration Drink, carbs
Hammer HEED, carbs
Accelerade, carbs and whey protein
Powerbar Recovery, carbs and whey protein
Food Packing Considerations
When packing food for your upcoming climb it’s important to consider a few variables: calorie density, weight, durability, and enjoyment.
Food is important. Plan out your meals and snacks, pack them as well as you can in a way that will make them easy to eat on the upper mountain when you are cold and tired. Some foods come in a convenient packaging and others will need to be repacked in a Ziploc.
For day one, you can bring some fresh foods: meat sandwich, pita and cheese, string cheese, hardboiled eggs, fruit, carrot sticks, orange slices, broccoli, for instance. For perishable food, it is advisable not to keep them above 41F for longer than 2 hours. Food-borne bacteria can multiply rapidly especially so in over 70F. It is better to be safe than sorry. Having the “runs” in the mountains would be a nightmare.
You can make a disposable ice pack by filling a sandwich size zip lock with water, squeeze the air out then put it in another zip lock bag and freeze.
Below are a few tips to consider:
- Bring a variety of foods that you like.
- Bring a mix of sweet, salty and savory.
- Bring a mix of protein, quick burn and slow burn carbs.
- Things get beat up in a backpack so consider durability (think bagels vs. bread and thick pretzels vs. thin ones).
- Bring food you know and like and have experimented with on your training hikes.
- Remember extra food is far better than not enough, but not too much. Food is heavy! That’s why it takes some careful planning so your pack isn’t too heavy.
- Think about bringing no more than a pound per day.
- You can and should eat every time you stop for a break. On a typical 3 day climb of Mt. Rainier, I recommend bringing about sixteen 200-400 calorie snacks (that gives you a little extra).
- Keep some small snacks like cut up mangos, nuts, protein bars cut into bite-size in your pockets so they are easily accessible when you take a break. Keep bars that freeze in your inner coat pockets to keep them warm.
- Test the food you are taking when it’s frozen to see if it’s still edible.
Food Suggestion Ideas:
Here are some foods to keep you powered up on your high altitude climb:
- Homemade protein energy balls
- Peanut butter in a cup
- Almond Butter squeeze packs
- Chocolate bars. Fun-sized Snickers bars are small enough that you can put them in your mouth to thaw if they’re frozen
- Shelf Stable 8 ounce Silk almond milk
- Shelf Stable 8 ounce 1% Organic milk
- Dried fruit: mangos, dates, apricots, pineapple, apple (cut into bite size)
- Powdered sports beverage, see my recommendations above
- Planter’s Antioxidant Mix
- Roasted chickpeas, Saffron Road Organic
- Roasted chickpeas, The Good Bean
- Honey and banana sandwich on whole grain bread, bagel, tortilla
- Tortilla wraps
- Jerky cut into bite size
- Individual Cooked Whole Grains Pouch
- Energy and granola bars
- Clif Shot Blocks
- Caffeinated gel packets or Clif Shot blocks with caffeine
- Wild Albacore Tuna Pouches, 3 ounce
- Starkist Tuna Pouch
- Chocolate-covered espresso beans, almonds, peanuts or pretzels, Peanut M&Ms
- Nuts that don’t crumble like cashews and almonds
- Tortillas with peanut butter
- Durable crackers like Triscuits
- Thick pretzels
- Gummies, Hot Tamales, gummy orange slices, Swedish Fish.
- Hard candies to suck on: peppermints, lemon drops, Jolly Ranchers, Werthers
- Cookies, oatmeal cookie, fig bars
- Bars: protein bars, energy bars, granola bars, Kind Nut Bars
- Fruit leather
- Fruit leather
- Trail mix, like Power Up
- Applesauce Pouches
- Huma Chi Energy Gel
- Annie’s Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks
- Kind Fruit Bites
- Wehrlin JP, Hallén J. Linear decrease in .VO2max and performance with increasing altitude in endurance athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Mar;96(4):404-12. doi: 10.1007/s00421-005-0081-9. Epub 2005 Nov 26. PMID: 16311764.