The Ultimate Day-Hiker’s Nutrition Resource
Written by Jenna Moore, High Altitude Sports Dietitian
So you got the bug eh? You are dreaming of wildflower basins and marmots… You sleep with your hiking poles closer to your bed than your toothbrush… You crave that snow-capped scenery on a rocky mountain trail so high that there is no more “up” to climb to! And now, with 14er season in full swing, you know that it is so important to fuel your body with the types of foods that will allow you to summit multiple peaks while getting back to basecamp feeling strong and energized!
Hi everyone, my name is Jenna Moore. I am a performance dietitian and a certified specialist in sports dietetics. I live in the backyard playground that is known as “Colorado”, and there is nothing that I love to do more than climb mountains! Currently, I have summitted 47 of the 58 14ers in Colorado. (I count as many as I can while only bending the rules!) So, if you are wondering what the most efficient, optimal, and practical fuel sources are for your next ascent, read on to find out how I have translated the most current “High Altitude Athlete” research so that you too can create the most epic experience on your summit day!!
What is “High-Altitude” and Why is It Different?
In the realm of sports nutrition, experts consider “high altitude” to be any elevation greater than 6,600 feet. Some of us actually live at an elevation that high (yay for more red blood cells!) and some of us are coming to hike a mountain from sea level. The higher you get in elevation, the more atmospheric pressure there is, and therefore, less oxygen in the atmosphere. In a sport like mountaineering, where oxygen needs are high (no pun intended), it is important to acknowledge that your body is going to be under a whole new kind of pressure (pun intended 😉) to meet its increased needs! That means that this blog post is also for you 13er climbers too! Your nutrition needs are very similar when climbing a 13er as they are on a 14er!! So now that you know your body is counting on you for help, let’s talk about how to fuel it optimally so that you feel energized and powerful on your climb!
What Nutrients are Most Important for Climbing a 14er (and/or a 13er!)
I know, this is just common sense right? But if you asked yourself: “How many ounces of fluid should I be drinking every day?” would you have a decent estimation? Now, let’s add to the equation the fact that high altitude can increase your rate of respiration (breathing) which can further increase your chances of becoming dehydrated1! Let’s also acknowledge that water is 33% OXYGEN and so water can be an excellent tool for decreasing the workload that your body has to do to take in the oxygen that it so badly needs at high altitude! In other words, you need to make sure you are hydrated and are hydrating yourself DAYS before a climb!
There are a number of studies that explore a person’s base fluid needs1,2,3 . After reviewing the body of evidence around this, I feel confident making this everyday recommendation:
Drink at least HALF of your body weight in ounces at baseline.
Of course, this is just a baseline recommendation, meaning that on a day where you are not exercising, sweating or are at a higher altitude than normal, this is how much fluid you should be consuming to ensure that you are hydrated for your climb. If you are someone who sweats a lot, your fluid needs are greater. If it is a hot day during a hike or you are getting a late start, then your fluid needs can be greater as well. If you are curious about determining what your exact fluid needs are, please feel free to contact me directly. I have provided my email address at the bottom of this page, but if you would like to skip to that I have placed it here as well:
How to Meet Your Fluid Needs at High Altitude
As we have already talked about, the atmosphere at high altitude can be very different from back in town. At higher elevations, the air is typically colder, dryer and contains less oxygen. Where our typical water losses from breathing at lower elevations averages somewhere around 100 milliliters per day, they can be as high as 1 LITER per day at altitude in very cold weatherA. Please note that I am NOT saying that you should be drinking 10 times more water! But if you are someone who only drinks 2 or 3 glasses of water per day, I would urge you to recognize that this is just not going to cut it on ascent day. Plan to take with you at least 2-3 liters of water, and if you are summitting multiple peaks in one day, consider bringing more water or taking a water filter if you know that there is going to be running water nearby.
Electrolytes (and Brand Recommendations!)
Many of us ask ourselves “are electrolytes right for me?” and as someone who is about to explain the science behind it, I would tell you that if you are an avid mountain climber (or active person in general) than the answer to your question should be “Yes, electrolytes are right for me!”
How our body absorbs water can be tricky. Because most of our cells are surrounded by a barrier that is made up of fat, water cannot passively transport itself across this lipid gate. We need a carrier to bring the water inside so that we can use that water to supply oxygen and make energy. Electrolytes are the carrier that transports water into our cells. Think of them as a tank for your water. The water is not getting inside that cell without the tank, and certainly not when you are exercising!
Sweat plays a huge role in our electrolyte balance. When we sweat, we are not only sweating out water, but electrolytes as well! The electrolyte that is especially high concentrations in our sweat is sodium. Eating salty foods like salted nuts, seeds and jerky can help with this balance, but it can be difficult to estimate exactly how much salt you are getting in your food, let alone if it is enough to rehydrate you. This is why on long, difficult, or speedy climbs I recommend using an electrolyte supplement.
Here are two brands I recommend using regularly to my high-altitude athletes:
If you are a mild sweater, consider trying
Nuun electrolyte tablets
Nuun has many flavors and varieties of tablets, some of which are especially designed for sport. There are also a number of them that contain moderate amounts of caffeine, so be mindful of this if you avoid caffeine or are consuming an extra cup of coffee that day!
If you are a moderate to heavy sweater, consider trying
2. Liquid IV powder sticks
In my opinion, Liquid IV is a game changer for serious athletes. I have recommended it to high altitude cyclists, climbers and ultra-runners and they swear by it when the trek gets serious! What I especially like about it is it does not contain any artificial colors (like Gatorade does…) and the electrolytes that it contains are in the right numbers for someone who needs to rehydrate efficiently and quickly.
Note: electrolytes have great flavor, but those flavors can often times linger in the reservoir and tube of a water bladder if they are put into it. This is why I recommend carrying a lightweight/disposable 16 oz water bottle so that you can mix the electrolyte into it. This will also ensure that you have the right fluid to electrolyte ratio in the bottle!!
Other Nutrients that You Need More of for Climbing a Mountain
Carbs are bad right? WRONG! In fact, I can’t tell you how many people I have worked with that say that it’s the protein that gives you energy ☹ To put it simply, carbohydrates are the most explosive form of energy. So when we are low on energy (and have explosive movements) then we need to fuel ourselves with explosive energy! Are nuts and beef jerky high in carbs? No, no they are not. That’s why it makes more sense to eat more of these foods on the descent (more on that to come!)
Here are some excellent hiking carbs in order from most simple to most complex:
Smoothie packs (I love Noku and Smashpacks!)
Oat bars (I like Bobo’s and Nature Valley)
Whole grains (…I’ll just leave it at that!)
What is important about eating carbs when hiking a mountain is that they are easily digestible. You want to feel light and energized on the ascent, but you also want to feel satiated enough to reach the top! This is why experimenting with different foods is important. By choosing simple carbs like the ones on the top of the list, you can feel more confident that you won’t feel as “weighed down” but you may feel hungry again before you reach the summit. By increasing the complexity of the carbs that you eat, you will feel fuller for longer! Be in tune with where your hunger levels are at, and choose your foods accordingly!
Cue the beef jerky! This nutrient plays such an important role in muscle recovery after hiking a 14er and satiation (feeling satisfyingly full) during your 14er experience. Optimally, we need protein throughout the day to absorb in an efficient way to fuel our muscles, but in the typical American diet, we eat very little protein for breakfast, a moderate amount at lunch (which is good!) and a huge amount at dinner (which is not.)
To optimally consume protein on a 14er day, consider your (1) amounts and (2) sources. Lean proteins will provide a quicker energy than high-fat proteins like steak or salmon. That means foods like turkey or chicken breast, white fish, egg whites, turkey jerky and 100% protein powders are your best source for satiety and muscle fuel during your hike up the mountain!
Repeat after me: “Fat is friend, NOT foe!” We need healthy fats to keep us full, and perhaps most importantly, for CALORIES. Fats are a much slower form of energy than carbs, so they are best utilized on parts of the hike where you are descending, or on hikes where the incline is very gradual (think Grays and Torreys). Of course, there is a HUGE difference between healthy fats (like nuts, seeds and guacamole) and unhealthy fats (like potato chips and French fries). As athletes who burn up to thousands of calories a day on 7+ hour hikes, we tend to think that we can “eat whatever we want” but after inflicting 7+ hours of pressure on your muscular system, your immune system and your respiratory system, the last thing you want to do is put a ton of pro-inflammatory foods into these systems to impair their recovery! Trust me when I say that immediately after a workout are the times where you have the highest potential to absorb these nutrients that you need, since you have just depleted them in your climb. Your body (and your mind) will thank you if you fuel responsibly!!
This mineral is an incredible tool to have in your belt. Magnesium is actually important for over 300 functions in the human body, and energy production is one of them! The problem that we run into with magnesium is getting enough of it in our mountain foods when hiking a mountain. Unfortunately, over the past 150 years or so, conventional farming practices have left our soil depleted of nutrientsB. Because our food absorbs soil-based minerals through their root system, if the soil is depleted of nutrients, so is our food (and therefore, so are we!).
Magnesium rich foods that are great to take hiking include:
These foods are convenient for placing in your backpack, but keep in mind that there is only about 20%-55% of the magnesium that you need in a day per serving of these. In an environment where you are burning more calories (and therefore creating more energy) your magnesium needs may or may not be greater than the average person. If you are considering supplementing with magnesium, note that this can often make people sleepy or experience more frequent bowel movements. So if you are interested in this supplement, please reach out to me so that we can find the best form and discuss the optimal dosages and times for taking it!!!
Iron is incredibly important for high altitude athletes because it is the nutrient that is responsible for delivering oxygen to your muscle tissues via your blood stream! When we repeatedly strike our feet on the ground from trail running or descending a mountain, this can essentially splice our red blood cells, destroying our active iron stores in a process called hemolysis. Many people avoid red meat (for many different reasons…but that’s another blog post! 😉) and unfortunately, red meats are the only source of the most absorbable form of iron known as heme-iron.
Other foods that are rich in the less absorbable form of iron, known as non-heme iron include:
fortified breakfast cereals (but please, if you’re eating fortified cereals, look into the ones that aren’t crap!!)
And last but not least, Vitamin D
…I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Okay Jenna, whatever you say. I’m outside like, all day and I know I’m getting plenty of sunshine!” But seriously guys, I know that a significant amount of that time is spent covered in long sleeves and sunscreen. I’ve been there. I get it. But vitamin D is so important for so many metabolic processes (including recovery, immunity and metabolism) that looking into what your vitamin D levels are actually at (and also what levels are optimal for sport) is well worth your time and lab panel money. Another thing to keep in mind is that nutrients like vitamin D that you get more of in the summer are eventually metabolized. So when winter rolls around, that is the time to start thinking about where you are going to be getting enough vitamin D from…since its probably definitely not going to be from outside.