Climbing Food

Here are some general notes on food largely based on a trip I did last year when we climbed a route in the Elias Range in Southern Alaska. These are some baseline observations. I think I can improve on this food significantly next time around.

But first here are some basic rules I use for what goes into my pack:

  • Take food you like. Yes, I really happen to like PowerBars. I’ve gone to the trouble of trying lots of flavors and figuring out which ones I can eat and which ones taste like crap.
  • Try it at home first. If you can’t eat it at sea level in your nice warm kitchen then what’s it going to be like on the hill?
  • Some food is psychological, I like to eat gummies at the end of the day and look forward to that Protein Plus bar. To me it’s worth carrying a few because their value isn’t just in the calories.
  • When you’re not climbing you should be eating or sleeping. Take lots of good food to eat at basecamp so you can be well fed and well rested before the route. I’ll add another post of basecamp food sometime in the future.

On this trip we applied the Twight packing algorithm to the max and left pretty much everything behind. Here’s a list of what we ate each day. The route wasn’t short enough (7000′) and we weren’t fit enough to do it single push style so taking a bunch of bars and gels wasn’t an option.

Item kCal Weight (g)
2 Nature Valley granola bars 360 84
2 PowerBars 460 130
1 PowerBar Protein Plus bar 300 78
6 Gummy bears 40 20
3 Hard candies 70 20
2 Gu or Hammer Gel 200 64
Cytomax, dry power for 1 quart 285 75
Teas 0 20
1 Lipton Instant soup 68 17
1/2 Alpine Aire meal 330 85
Total 2113 573

This works out at 360 kCal for each 100g in dry food weight. For comparison 573g of fat would contain 5157 kCal and the same amount of carbohydrate or protein would contain 2292 kCal. So this is pretty close to the best possible amount of energy for a carbohydrate/protein diet.

Really high calorie foods like cashew nuts and salami have values around 600 KCal per 100g but these are fatty foods, which are harder to metabolise at altitude. Anything much fattier than that will be inedible. If you’ve found a way to consume and digest lard at then please let me know.

In the end we spun the five days worth of food out to six which wasn’t that hard seeing as we hadn’t been able to cook a meal one night. I think I came back with a couple of Gus and half an Alpine Aire (we’d split one in anticipation of another bad weather day).

According to CalorieLab I could have been burning anything from 600 to 1,400 kCal an hour. That would leave me at least six thousand calories short for each day. 3,500 kCal is roughly equivalent to loosing or adding a pound in weight. So over six days I’d expect to loose twelve pounds, which is pretty much how it turned out.

How could this be improved? Take less food overall? Maybe. For shorter trips you can definitely take a lot less and just accept that you’re going to be burning fat and muscle as fuel. I’m not sure this scales to longer trips. As it was the lack of calories started to grind us down by the time we hit the summit. Or try and carry food with a better or more useful energy to weight ratio and a high carbohydrate content.

Hopefully the weather will improve here and I’ll get to put some ideas into practice and report on my findings and a new food list.

Useful Links:

Calorie and fluid replacement during alpine mountain climbing
Nutritional Advice for Military Operations in a High Altitude Environment
Hammer Nutrition – free article downloads
Gym Jones – Knowledge – Fat