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Food can make or break your ascent. Packing and carrying sustenance on a route is crucial, whether it’s on snow or rock. But it starts before that, too. The night before the climb, eat a nutrient-rich, carb-heavy dinner consisting of whole grains, beans, and fruits to store glycogen—your fuel source for climbing. For example, whole wheat pasta with red sauce and veggies or chicken and avocado provide an ideal blend of protein, carbs, and healthy fats. Make sure at least 60 percent of your meal is derived from carbs to amp up the glycogen supply.
In the morning, eat easy-to-digest carbs, like oatmeal, fruit, pancakes, or yogurt, and make sure you get enough liquid on board, including coffee. If coffee isn’t part of your normal daily routine, however, avoid it. Otherwise you might be desperate for the bathroom sooner than usual.
On the climb, plan to eat during every hour of activity, especially carb-rich foods, which get absorbed directly into the bloodstream to help keep muscles moving. Aim for at least 200 calories and about a quarter of a Nalgene bottle of fluid. A few quick tips to go by:
Pack easy-to-eat snacks so they’re accessible (i.e., in a chest or hand-warmer pocket). By easy-to-eat, we mean fast-open packaging, tastes you enjoy, and food that you can munch on even while you’re moving.
Pack what you know you like; this isn’t the best time to try anything new.
Don’t skimp on the calories. You’ll be burning a ton, so pack enough to replenish those calories burned, plus more.
A few tried-and-true, durable snacks to power your climb.
Honey and banana
Energy and granola bars
Caffeinated gel packets
Mini burritos, pre-cooked
Chocolate-covered espresso beans
Nuts, like cashews and almonds
From the pros
I try to get people to understand their own fuel needs. I prefer real food, as opposed to bars and gels, so I encourage others to eat what is familiar, like chocolate and cheese.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this. Probably too much! Bring protein and fat along with sugar, like string cheese and meat sticks (cured salami or sausage). Gummies are palatable and easy to eat while walking and breathing hard. And, of course, a Snickers bar for emergencies. Or celebrations.
People often eat too much at once, thinking they need to eat a lot more when their days are long and hard. I eat little bits at a time: nuts, trail mix, and whole-food bars. Fruit is totally worth the weight because the moisture content helps keep you hydrated. Drink mixes are good to replace electrolytes, but be careful with concentrations: A common mistake is to mix too many electrolyte-rich foods together, and too much sodium is a recipe for physiological disaster.
People who don’t eat, bonk. When they bonk, they need simple sugars because they’ve used up all their mitochondrial glycogen stores. For a long multi-pitch, I’m fairly insistent clients eat protein in the morning along with complex carbs, like apples. For alpine climbing and skiing, I advocate for a 50 to 55 percent carbohydrate diet.
Don’t deviate too far from the foods of daily life. On multi-day outings, variety is important; too many of the same bars and chews isn’t appealing. Pick foods that satisfy you normally, like a tasty sandwich or baked goods, and then supplement with chocolate, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, etc. If you’re going to be in sustained below-freezing temps, consider what the food will be like frozen. On bigger single-day outings, starting with a good breakfast and truly hydrating at the beginning of the day are crucial. Remember to eat and drink once you start; often guests get so into it that time flies by without eating, and that’s when they fall behind. Tuck snacks into a pocket where they are truly handy.
Food depends on the person and the type of climbing. On long rock routes, bring something that can be eaten easily at the belay, like energy gels and bars. The bulk of my food on multi-day mountain routes is normal, everyday food. Making sure you get enough calories is much easier if your lunch bag is stuffed full of tasty food. Variety is also important because you never know what your body is going to crave at higher altitudes or during that 2 a.m. alpine start.