What do I eat in the mountains?

What do I eat in the mountains?

Mountain food

Do you give much thought to the food you pack for a day in the hills? Or is it a case of I’ll lob in a sandwich and a few snacks, maybe a flask of coffee and hope for the best?

It’s enough to think about all the other kit we need and my food choices are often a guesstimate based on experience of how hungry I’m likely to be on a typical mountain day. There’s normally a sandwich and crisps for lunch, a banana, some flapjack, nuts, a chocolate bar and perhaps a wedge of malt loaf. But how much of each do I need to take? Sometimes I’ve felt hungry. And other times I have a little left over at the end of the day.

Pasta bubbling

When it comes to overnight camps, I tend to go for a pasta and sauce concoction with some chorizo stirred in. All quite tasty but I have no clue how much energy that provides. Probably not enough, I realise, as I’m reaching for the Haribo later in the evening.

The point is I have absolutely no idea how many calories my body needs to work effectively in the mountains. It’s always been a case of throw in some things I like to eat and see what happens.

Does it matter?

You might not think it matters. Particularly on a day walk. If I feel a bit hungry at the end of the day I can always feast like a king later on and feel just fine.

But apart from the obvious safety implications of not having enough energy when moving through potentially hazardous terrain, you’ll feel a whole lot better, and be able to cover a lot more ground, when you are properly fuelled up.

What changed?

When I stopped working as a lawyer, my diet gradually improved. No more ‘working lunches’ and snatching five minutes to nip out for a pre-packaged sandwich and a trip to the vending machine. I started to feel better and became quite discerning about the food I eat, realising there’s a direct correlation between the two.

I decided to translate this thinking into my outdoors life too, after a recent overnight trip with some big days in the Lake District. I’m a definite grazer and seemed to be eating more than my friends, yet I often felt peckish. My rucksack was already full to bursting with an array of snacks and I didn’t particularly want to carry any more to increase my calorie intake. I needed to make some more efficient choices, balancing weight and space in the pack with calories and variety.

It was time to get scientific*…

*Quick disclaimer – I’m not a nutritionist. I’m just sharing what’s worked for me when it comes to the food I eat, and ultimately enjoy, when out in the hills. If you are at all concerned about your diet then you should always seek professional advice.

How do we measure energy?

When driving a car, we have a handy gauge on the dashboard, telling us how much fuel is left in the tank. More sophisticated models even translate this into remaining miles before needing to refuel.

Our bodies aren’t equipped with these instruments, but we all recognise that feeling of weakness, lethargy and the dreaded ‘hanger’ that comes when we are running on empty.

Food gives us energy, and how much energy our food contains is measured in calories. At a simple level, the more calories there are, the more energy we get.

If we know how much energy our bodies are using (I’ll call this output) and how much energy the food we are eating contains (input), then we can work out how much we’ll need to eat when out in the hills.

How many calories do I need (output)?

Taking mountains out of the equation for a moment, you’ll have probably heard the NHS recommendation of 2,000 calories a day for women and 2,500 for men. This is all well and good but it gets more complicated when we remember everyone is unique and these numbers won’t work for everyone. The number of calories needed depends on your age, how much physical activity you do, your size and your health generally. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to calories.

Hillwalking is a strenuous activity. And it’s not just a quick burst of energy expenditure either; we need to sustain that effort throughout the day. It figures that we’re probably going to need more than the 2,000 / 2,500 calories recommended for everyday life.

In Hillwalking by Steve Long, it suggests a daily allowance of 3,500 calories as a useful starting point for planning a suitable mountain menu. Like the NHS figures, I stress this is a starting point only and you’ll need to adjust for different bodies, loads, or particularly strenuous mountain days.

Break it down

But it’s a number to start with, so let’s think about how we might get there on a typical mountain day.

We’ll need to spread our calorie intake out across the day. So it makes sense to think about the three main meals: breakfast, lunch and tea. Steve Long’s book recommends allocating around 25% of the calories to breakfast and 33% to our evening meal. That leaves the remaining half coming from lunch and snacks.

If we translate these percentages to calories, using our 3,500 target it looks a little like this. I’ve played around with the figures to give some round numbers:

Breakfast 900
Lunch 500
Tea 1,150
Snacks 950
Total 3,500

Counting calories (input)

This is the tedious part (or exciting part, depending on your point of view)! We now need to work out the number of calories in different foods to start building our menu.

I’d never bothered to do this, because it seemed far too complicated. While some foods make it really easy – I have a packet of beef jerky here which proudly states 202 calories per packet – you won’t ever find this information written on the side of a banana.

If your food doesn’t come in packets, the internet is a great source of information. And you’ll find apps like myfitnesspal, which can also help. But ultimately, I’ve found the best way is to build yourself a spreadsheet. This can be as simple or as detailed as you like. I love a good spreadsheet, so had a blast playing around with formulae and seeing how different combinations of food could get me to this new magic target!

Not getting enough

After entering my typical meal and snack choices, I found I was well short of my 3,500 calorie target. And when I analysed the numbers, I saw a pattern emerging.

You see, we live in a world where calories are the enemy. I can’t think I’ve ever seen an advert for a food boasting it is high in calories. Brands prefer to vie for our attention with ‘low calorie’ options. This approach, of course, has some merit: we can’t be eating an infinite amount of calories with our typically sedentary lifestyles. Although it’s typically more complicated than this and a healthy, balanced diet of natural foods is arguably more important.

With this in mind, it can be hard to increase our calorie intake without unwittingly resorting to unhealthy choices. Or, becoming really bored eating bigger quantities of the same things.

As an example, my usual breakfast consists of two Weetabix with milk, a 150ml pot of natural yoghurt and a small glass of orange juice. This gives me 390 calories, so some way short of our 900 calorie target for breakfast. I like to think this is reasonably healthy but I’d find it hard to stomach another two and a half bowls of Weetabix to get me to the 900 calorie mark.

It’s the same for tea. My pasta and sauce with added chorizo comes to around 550 calories – about half of what I need on the hill. I wouldn’t want to double the portion size. Nor do I want to reach for the chocolate bars after I’ve climbed into my sleeping bag.

Upping the intake

There’s all sorts of ‘outdoor specific’ foods out there. These usually take the form of dehydrated meals, which are light but can sometimes be lacking in the taste department. Or you can go for boil-in-the-bag options which taste pretty good but can be heavy. These compromises often come at a price too, so try the different options and see what works for you.

TentMeals main meal

There’s no denying these products make your life easier when it comes to designing a menu. TentMeals, for example, does a simple range of ‘high energy, lightweight, healthy and tasty’ camping meals. Their breakfasts and evening meals come in individual 800 calorie packs. And there’s also a smaller 500 calorie option. The packets are tiny, taking up very little space in your rucksack, while offering a huge boost of calories.

What does a typical menu look like for me?

Let’s put all this together then to see how I now go about building a typical mountain menu.

Breakfast Dehydrated (or similar) breakfast
2x brioche rolls
Lunch Oat cakes
Beef jerky
Boiled egg
Tea Dehydrated (or similar) main meal 800
Snacks Trail mix
Homemade flapjack
Chocolate bar
Total 3,500

The approach I take is to start with my breakfasts and evening meals. This gives me a sub-total which I’ll top up with lunch and snacks, eaten throughout the day. I like to build in some variety for multiple days, particularly when it comes to snacks. So I might swap out flapjack for malt loaf, or banana chips for bombay mix.

Finally, I’ll always throw in some Jelly Babies or another sweet treat. These are great for boosting morale in a group, particularly when the weather’s bad. The guy with the sweets is always a valuable member of the group! And they are amazing if you just can’t face another oat cake.

What I’ve learnt

Like many hillwalkers, I was underestimating the amount of energy I need to replace out on the hill. While I was eating the right kinds of food, there just wasn’t enough of it. And carrying more clearly comes with a weight penalty. Taking a ‘scientific’ approach has led to more efficient ways of beefing up my calorie intake.

It’s not always a case of eating more; it’s a case of eating smarter. Pre-determined portion sizes encourage me to eat little and often throughout the day. While my main meals contain a decent hit of energy without being too overwhelming to eat.

Has it worked?

Without a doubt. I have more energy and recover more quickly, so I’m ready to go again the next day.

It’s also less boring. I was finding it difficult to up my calorie intake, without just shovelling more of the same into my mouth. I do like chocolate but the thought of eating several Mars bars a day isn’t as appealing as it sounds.

Why not give calorie counting a go when it comes to packing your rucksack? I’d love to hear your ideas for how you fuel up in the mountains so please do get in touch.

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