Long, sustained adventures in the mountains often require extreme outputs from our bodies — and short ones do, too.
Whether we’ve trained for years in order to achieve success on a significant project, or we just enjoy short hikes on our local loop trails — all of this can only happen if the body has the necessary fuel. And it all starts with nutrition. A mountaineering expedition, a thru-hike, a 100-mile ultra-marathon, or a day hike … all demand a very different fueling mindset. But there are some consistent principles that remain true to avoid mishaps and build your best adventure experiences.
Carbohydrates, or carbs (CHO), are the primary source of energy for your body — often referred to as the fuel for your car. They can be divided into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbs, or sugar, are quicker to digest and tend to produce spikes in blood sugar, which makes them a great ally for immediate energy during any endurance activity. Complex carbs have a long-lasting elevation in energy and are highly nutritious. Although longer to digest, they provide a crucial source of energy before a long adventure in the mountains.
- White bread
- Whole wheat bread
These macromolecules consist of multiple chains of amino acids (AA) and perform a wide variety of functions within your organism, including muscle recovery. Your body needs 20 different amino acids to work properly, but it can only produce 11 of them — which means you have to find the remaining 9 through food, specifically in different types of proteins. Finally, to make things even trickier, not all protein sources contain the 9 essential amino acids. The majority of the animal-based proteins have them, but most of the plant-based proteins do not.
Before you entirely skip this section, let me introduce fat as your 2nd source of energy when out in the mountains! Whenever your body needs immediate energy, it will turn to carbs as they are much faster to digest and easier to reach. However, whenever you are on a low-intensity exercise, like hiking or backpacking, using fat becomes much more beneficial.
Does that mean you have to eat cheese while hiking? No! Well, yes if you’re as much of a cheese lover as I am! But we all have plenty of stored fat to use instead of carbohydrates.
Nevertheless, learning to use your fat-burning mechanisms takes time and dedication in regard to your endurance training (See more about this in our first KINTIPS post). Spending time in low-intensity exercises is a great start!
Even though we use multiple mechanisms per activity, here is an example of the ones involved depending on your heart rate during these activities — and therefore, which macronutrient is being used.
Our body has the ability to adapt to a lot of incredible situations, but dehydration is not one of them. Just like proteins, water contains a high amount of essential ingredients, known as electrolytes. Electrolytes have significant benefits to our body — they are as equally important as the water that carries them. The consequences of a lack of electrolytes can be significant during a high-output activity.
Let me explain this chart through a quick story:
It was 4 p.m. and I was in the middle of the Swiss Alps. I dragged my duffel bag out of the car and packed all of my camping, climbing, and mountaineering gear — along with food and water — for a 3-day trip into the high alpine zone. My ears were still adjusting to the 8-hour flight that I was on just a few hours earlier, and the massive heatwave made me fight for each breath.
“Here we go, Trist”, I said out loud in order to motivate myself to officially start my trip with a 5-hour approach hike in the late afternoon.
Having a hard time eating during the flight, I now had followed the recipe, step by step, toward an awful state of dehydration. My mind quickly shifted and I found myself experiencing a mix of all the consequences mentioned above throughout the approach. It was truly among the hardest hikes I’ve done in my life, only because of a nutritional mistake.
I learned two of my best lessons that day:
- Even if you are physically ready, give yourself a day to adapt mentally on any given trip.
- No matter how hard you train, it’s impossible to adapt to dehydration.
Where to start?
There is unfortunately no magical recipe for a perfect diet in the mountains. We all have our own restrictions, preferences, and routines that make us happy out there. Although nutrition remains highly personal, there are a few go-to practices ensuring a no-surprise adventure.
Whenever in doubt, carbohydrates!
Our body requires fuel, and nothing is as efficient as carbs. So when in doubt, always opt for carbs as it remains the primary source of energy as you’ve come to understand. From there, it’s up to you to find what works best for you to reach 100-500 calories per hour depending on your activity. The longer the adventure, the most varied food it has to be!
Water, water, water!
Did you know that your body uses fluids to digest, control core temperature, protect your joints and tissues, move vitamin components around, and help in brain functions? We use water a lot more than we think — and it simply makes sense to replenish often throughout the day. Don’t wait to be thirsty to drink! As long as you’re eating often, overdrinking is very unlikely.
Hard to distinguish, yet they can be highly damaging if your stock gets too low. Sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium are among the most important ones during long outdoor activities. These are the ones you don’t want to run out of as they can quickly turn your day into a nightmare.
Still unsure where to start? Let’s dive into three of my personal favorite nutritional brands that could give you some ideas for your future adventures.
- Näak Bar – Located just an hour away from my area in Canada, Näak provides specific fuel designed for ultra-distances. Let’s just say the elite athletes behind the brand have proved the product works incredibly well and continue to raise the bar in the competitive world with sustainable ingredients.
- Nuun Hydration – Nuun has been changing the way hydration works in the backcountry. Ultralight and extremely easy to use, their tablets have been proven as life-saving items for strenuous climbs or on longer adventures.
- GU Energy – GU has recently expanded its product line in order to be entirely self-sufficient in terms of energy. Gels are a fantastic way to get both carbohydrates and electrolytes in a single sip. However, make sure to try out a few before the big day as they tend to be hard on the stomach for some people.
Proper nutrition is just as important as training! Getting it wrong is often the reason behind some bad days in the mountains — getting it right will help you both succeed, and enjoy your adventures so much more. Do not underestimate the power of fueling! And in any case, adventures are a lot more fun with food!
Tristan Hogue is a mountain enthusiast, student, and trail runner based in Montreal. He hopes to inspire others to live their dreams by exposing himself to unique and challenging projects around the world and passing on his wealth of training techniques and practices. Follow him on Instagram at @trist.hogue.