Nutrition on a mountaineering expedition can make or break the trip. Without the correct type of fuel, you cannot perform your best. In the context of mountaineering, there are several constraints to be tackled:
- Food needs to be lightweight enough to carry 7 days worth (or more) at a time
- Convenient to eat on the move and easy to prepare at camp
- Must contain the right amount of macro & micro-nutrients specific to expedition life
- Long shelf-life, as food is often prepared well in advance of when it will be eaten
- Tasty & satisfying after a long day in the hills
This article will provide ideas for what foods to take on a long expedition or traverse, where you do not have porters or donkeys carrying in regular foods for the trip, where you need to be fully self sufficient.
In general, reduce all excess plastic packaging, to minimise the amount of waste you accumulate and carry. For example, spreads like Marmite or peanut butter, butter or coconut oil, powders and loose snacks can all be carried in small biodegradable bags such as the Compostic bags. These can be burnt or buried when empty as they are compostable.
Crackers will become destroyed if you remove the cardboard, so this might be worth keeping.
Making food at home in bulk can also reduce the amount of plastic involved with your trip.
5AM, the alarm rings, another day on the mountain looms ahead. You'll need a filling breakfast to power you through the first third of the day. I bring a combination of home-made muesli and Radix breakfasts, as variety is key. My home-made muesli is designed so it can be eaten either hot or cold, depending on whether you need a quick get-away or not.
Home-made muesli recipe: In the oven, roast a combination or large and small oats in coconut oil. Add to this coarsely ground nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts) and seeds (pumpkin, linseed, sunflower) and fruit (dried apple, banana, blueberries, goji berries, dates) and shredded coconut. Bulk it all out with plain rolled oats. The raw rolled oats combined with roasted oats mean this works fine as a hot or cold meal. Carry a small bag of milk powder to add separately.
Radix also make fantastic and very filling breakfasts with two flavours - Apple & Cinnamon, or Mixed Berry. The expedition range breakfasts are super high calorie, nutrient dense meals made up of ground nuts and seeds, fruits, high quality protein powder and coconut oil for extra calories and sustained energy.
Starting the day well hydrated is important, especially in the alpine where cold temperatures reduce your thirst. I'll have one cup of coffee (instant coffee + milk powder) for the caffeine boost, and one cup of relaxing herbal tea for the hydration (and to balance out the caffeine).
Protein powder is another great addition - a protein shake in the morning sets you up for success, or at night provides an extra protein hit for fast recovery.
Moving for 8-12 hours or more per day requires constant drip fuelling. Eating large amounts in one hut will drain blood from the muscles to the stomach. So having a range of convenient snacks close to hand is essential. Although sugars provide quick energy, the mouth will suffer if you over-load it with sweet foods all day, so an equal balance between savoury & sweet snacks is needed.
Sweet snacks include:
- store bought or home-made muesli bars (about 4 per day)
- protein bars
- dried fruit (apricots, dates, mango, apple leather).
Home-made Apple Leather recipe: slowly simmer diced apples until soft, then puree the mixture. Cut out donut rings of greaseproof baking paper for your dehydrator trays. Dehydrate 1-2cm thick layer of apple puree for 24 hours, then cut into bite-size pieces.
Home-made fruit & nut bar recipe: in a food processor, grind up a selection of roasted nuts, seeds, coconut, and remove to a bowl. Separately process dried fruits and coconut oil. Combine an equal amounts of dry nut mixture with oily fruit, and mix with enough protein powder to make a solid congealed mass of energy. Press out into a 5cm thick slab, then slice into bars. Package in Compostic bags, store in freezer. Bonus ingredients include maca powder (improves performance at altitude), chia seeds, caffeine powder, and any other powerful ingredient you can think of.
Salty snacks include:
- Salted nuts (cashews, almonds, pecan, walnut...)
- Beef/venison jerky
- Vegetable chips
- Corn chips
Home-made jerky recipe: marinade thin meat strips in 1/2 cup soy sauce, 2Tbsp worcestershire sauce, 2tsp black pepper, 1tsp onion powder, 1tsp salt, 1/2tsp garlic powder for 12-24 hours, then dehydrate for 12-15 hours.
On longer trips, having a lunch that is different to your daily snacking life can break up the day. A savoury meal with higher fat & protein content will really help sustain you. Typical lunch foods that have good shelf life are:
- Wraps, crackers, dry breads
- Salami - go for a more dense variety
- Butter or coconut oil
- Marmite (kiwi classic), peanut butter
Dehydrated meals are the best way to get a full dinner. Most store-bought options have undesirable digestive side-effects. Home-made dehydrated meals allow you to customise the ingredients to your own tastes without any additives. Dehydrators cost about $100 NZD and are a worthy investment.
An easy example is a vegetable curry with rice. To dehydrate vegetables, slice and par-boil or steam the vegetable and dehydrate for 12-24 hours until dry. Good vegetables to dehydrate include carrots, peas, capsicums, cauliflower, broccoli, courgette. Make the curry with onion, curry paste, spices, tomato puree and canned tomatoes and protein sources such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans. Simmer on low heat until thick, then dehydrate for 24 hours. Break up pieces and flip trays over every 6-12 hours. Minced meat can also be used in the protein mixture. Dehydrate cooked rice for about 12 hours to produce instant rice.
When dehydrating try to remove all fat from the meal as this can cause food to go rancid, reducing shelf life. Carry a bag of coconut oil (solid during spring-winter trips, use another container type for summer trips) and add a large tablespoon to each meal for your fat content. Add some to breakfasts too, hot drinks included!
Of all store-bought dehydrated dinners, Radix meals are our favourite. They are the most nutritious and contain the best range of ingredients. Main meal flavours in the expedition range include Wild Alaskan Salmon Lemon & Garlic, Mexican Chilli with Organic Beef, Moroccan Style Lamb, and Indian Style Chicken Curry. Plant-based options also exist. Most meals consist of meatballs, rice, vegetables and a thick spice sauce. Various whole vegetables are also visible once prepared in addition to powdered vegetables included in the sauce which aid in quick re-hydration. The process of freeze-drying encapsulates nutrient quantity so that meals are as beneficial to performance as possible. Each meal in the Expedition Range contains about 800 calories which is more than any other brand per gram.
All of these meals only require the addition of hot water and no further cooking. Take one Radix meal in it's original packaging, and all other meals re-packaged in Compostic bags to save weight and space. The Radix packaging is resealable and has reflective properties to reduce heat loss during rehydration. This can be rinsed out after each meal and re-used for all following meals, including breakfasts, so no extra food vessel is required. Just a spoon. While you wait for your meal to rehydrate, which takes 10-20 minutes, put it inside your jacket like a hot water bottle or wrap it in a sleeping bag to keep it insulated.
There are two main cooking set ups: gas cookers and white fuel stoves. A Jetboil type system using gas cannisters is the perfect choice for a typical 3-5 day trip. This system is more lightweight, and easier to use while on a technical route for brewing. For a party of three, one medium gas and one small gas would be sufficient, and gives the option of taking a lighter gas can on the route for snow melting. Gas cannisters do not perform well when cold, so keep them warm in your sleeping bag overnight and put them on a small dish so you can pour a little warm water over them during use.
On longer trips however, especially where there is more snow melting, a white fuel stove such as a MSR Whisperlite is a better choice. Especially on a long traverse where the weight of many gas cans will accumulate, whereas 1L plastic Fuelite bottles are lighter and can be flattened for carrying. The Universal Whisperlite can also be used with both white fuel and gas. The rule of thumb is 100ml of Fuelite per person, per day. This will be higher if a lot of snow melting is required and can be less if fewer hot meals and drinks are needed. A handy trick is to bring a small bottle of meths for priming the stove - it saves a spoonful of Fuelite each priming, produces less soot and is safer.
In terms of sustainability, Fuelite plastic bottles can be recycled whereas most gas cans end up in landfill. An alternative is to use 100 Octane petrol and transport it in a large 890ml MSR fuel bottle, cutting out any plastic. Just note that petrol burns slightly dirtier than Fuelite.
Use a 1000-1600ml Titanium (lightweight) pot if using a liquid fuel stove. Use a bail handle on the pot so that you can cook over fires wherever possible below the bushline. This will reduce your fuel requirement.
Geoff Spearpoint recommends a ration of 750g dry food per person per day. This is broken down roughly into 125g breakfast, 200-250g snacks, 150g lunch, 225g dinner. Plus incidentals like drinks. Use this to estimate how much your total food weight should be for the trip and adjust if you are under or over.
Thanks to Rob Frost, Gavin Lang, James Thornton and Geoff Spearpoint for their input to this article.