There are few things more important to a mountaineering trip than your food supply. Good food is essential fuel for your summit bid. Without foods to power you uphill, you probably won't make it very far - as anyone who's bonked halfway through a climb could tell you!
Of course, your food supply is also among the heaviest items in your pack. That means you can't simply pack piles of tasty food with unlimited options to choose from. There's a delicate balance to strike to minimize your food weight while also ensuring that you have enough calories to get you through your trip.
In this guide, I'll walk you through the food planning process to help you figure out what food you should bring on your next mountaineering trip.
Why Minimizing Food Is Important
It's oh-so-tempting to bring more food than you'll actually need on a trip. What if you can't stomach another Clif bar three days into your trip? What if your trip takes longer than expected?
I for one am certainly guilty of giving in to this temptation. There are plenty of times that I've gotten back to the car with two extra days' worth of food in my pack.
The problem with that is that it means that I had been carrying around more food - and consequently, more weight - than was strictly necessary for my trip. That made every step harder, slowed down my pace, and ended up forcing me to consume more calories than I otherwise would have.
The better you can match your food supply to the amount of food you actually need, the better off you'll be. Moving fast in the mountains isn't just a matter of efficiency, it's also a matter of safety. Bring the amount of food you actually need, and leave the rest out of your pack.
Planning How Much Food You Need?
So how much food do you actually need? That's a difficult question to answer since it varies from climber to climber and trip to trip.
A good rule of thumb is to plan for 4,000 calories per day.
Of course, there's a lot of wiggle room in that estimate. If you're heading to an alpine summit in winter conditions, expect to burn 6,000 calories per day or more. Petite women on a summer trip may need only around 2,500 calories per day.
The best way to figure out how many calories you typically need is to keep track of how much food you bring on each trip and how much you actually end up eating. Then, adjust accordingly for the next climb.
You can also measure food by weight instead of calories. That's often easier if you bring homemade dehydrated meals or fresh foods that don't have a nutrition label. Plan on two pounds of real food per day, and adjust from there.
It's also a good idea to throw in a little extra food. Not a lot - I typically plan for around an extra half a day per person. That ensures you won't run out of food in case you eat a little more than you expect. In an emergency situation, you can ration your remaining food or go for days without food. It won't be fun, but it's not life-threatening.
Breaking Down Your Meals
One of the best ways to plan out your food is to think in terms of three meals, plus snacks.
For some people, breakfast will be the biggest meal of the day. For others, it might just be an energy bar.
A lot comes down to how much you feel like you can stomach first thing in the morning. Personally, I know that I can't eat more than half a bar when waking up for an alpine start without feeling nauseous.
If you can eat more, you should. This is a great opportunity to get protein in your body to prepare for the day ahead. Oatmeal with peanut butter and sugary carbs like raisins is a good idea, or you can turn to freeze-dried meals from companies like Mountain House. Bagels and cream cheese can also work on shorter trips (these are delicious, but not as calorie-dense as other options).
If you're a coffee drinker, bring along some instant coffee packets and take the time to boil water in the morning. You'll thank yourself a few hours later when you're feeling peppy rather than exhausted.
Lunch is usually a quick affair, if a meal at all. Typically, I'll save some of my favorite, most calorie-dense snacks and eat them for lunch. Peanut butter packets, salami, jerky, cheese, and similar high-fat, high-protein foods provide a quick jolt of energy and keep you fueled for several hours.
Don't plan on packing a lunch that requires you to get your stove out. Boiling water takes a lot of time and this means you can't simply leave your stove behind at base camp for the day.
Dinner is a great time to take in as many calories as you can, to replenish all the energy you burned over the course of the day. Complex carbs like quick-cooking rice and couscous are great options, as are pre-packaged, freeze-dried meals.
Consider adding bacon bits, dried turkey, or cheese to boost your dinner's fat and protein content. If it's cold enough out for butter to remain solid in my pack, I'll usually bring a stick along to add to meals.
You should also use this as a chance to replenish electrolytes, too. You can make your dinners more interesting by adding salty crushed tortilla chips or crackers, for example.
After dinner, you can get in even more calories by drinking a cup of hot chocolate (try adding butter!) or munching on trail mix.
Snacks are going to provide the majority of your calories throughout the day. The most important thing I can say about snacks is to bring yourself a wide variety of foods. Energy bars might seem appealing at home, but by the time you're on your 15th Clif bar you'll be wishing desperately for anything else to eat.
In addition to bars, try mixing in energy gels, nut butter packets, fruit leather, chocolate bars, jerky, string cheese, salami, or anything else you might like to eat. If you need inspiration, check out the bulk section at your local natural foods store.
One thing to keep in mind is that, especially in the summer, you'll lose a lot more salt than you realize throughout the day. Salty snacks are the solution. In fact, on especially hot or sunny trips, you might consider adding electrolyte tablets into your snack routine.
How To Store Your Food
Depending on where you're going, storing your food can be something of a challenge.
In areas where bear canisters are required, food storage is straightforward: store it in an approved canister. Yes, bear cans are heavy, but don't skirt around the rules - it's bad for wildlife, you'll get ticketed if you get caught, and it reflects poorly on the mountaineering community as a whole.
In areas where bear canisters aren't required, you can simply keep your food in your pack during the day. I like to have a single stuff sack containing all my meals, with snacks easily accessible in exterior pockets.
At camp, you should put your food in a stuff sack and hang it from a tree if one is available. Even if your area doesn't have bears, mice and chipmunks are more than happy to eat any food you leave on the ground. If there are no trees, you can either bury your food in the snow or build a pile of rocks around it.
Don't sleep with food in your tent - there's a real chance you'll wake up in the morning to find out that a rodent has chewed its way through the door and stolen your food. You should also never leave food alone at base camp, even if you're leaving other gear behind for the day.
Mastering food planning is a key element of mountaineering. It takes experience and careful accounting to figure out how much food you need on the average trip and what foods work best for you. While it's better to have too much food than not enough, be careful not to fall into the trap of carrying far more food than you realistically need.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.