Crisis Nutrition

The first time I heard the term “crisis nutrition,” I was talking with Mark Twight. Mark was a professional alpine climber and one of my mentors. Mark was describing the predicament alpine climbers face in regards to nutrition and hydration during arduous multi-day climbs.

While most of us aren’t world-class alpinists training for serious climbs, there’s still much to be learned from looking at their approach. The alpine climber, soldier, and backcountry hunter can only carry so much on their backs into harsh, unrelenting terrain while expending extreme physical effort.

We can’t eat as well in the mountains as we do at home. Our bodies and minds are stressed due to environmental conditions and fatigue. We need to acknowledge this fact and modify our diet to meet the demands. Crisis Nutrition confronts this truth. We need to be capable of continued performance in hostile conditions with a less than ideal diet.

No one wants to be driven out of the mountains by things like the weather. We certainly don’t want to kick our own ass and let something we can control, like nutrition, ruin a trip. When putting out a considerable physical effort with limited resources, you will not be able to eat at optimal levels. Still, you must be able to eat well enough to maintain adequate physical and mental performance.

Food fuels the body allowing for proper mental functions and repairs muscle as it’s broken down during extreme effort. It’s imperative to eat well-balanced meals and hydrate in the field as best as possible. To achieve this, carry food that packs as much nutritional punch to sustain performance and maintain adequate hydration levels.

No matter your style or physical ability, backcountry travelers are mountain athletes, and the stakes can be high during remote trips. You can carry only so much food and water during these arduous endeavors. There are no aid stations or easy evacuations if your body falters.
The biggest mistake I see people make is transitioning their daily dietary requirements into the field. It’s great to count calories, eat on a schedule and consume the highest quality food possible. Some, however, can’t run on low octane fuel when required.

The mountains are unrelenting and indifferent to your strict dietary requirements. You will not be capable of eating the same in the wilderness as you do at home. It’s essential to understand this and learn how your body responds in these stressful situations.

Establish what food works for you in any circumstance — no matter what. The only way to achieve this is by acquiring information, gaining experience, and applying knowledge in the field — learning through trial and error.

Pre-Trip Preparation
Before leaving the trailhead, try and eat a good, well-rounded meal and start hydrated. You’re getting ready to physically wreck yourself and don’t want to start at a caloric deficit. The backcountry is not an organized and monitored athletic event. You need to try and make yourself as indestructible as possible.

Try and shoot for around 1.25 lbs. and 1.5 lbs. of food and drink mixes a day. This weight limit keeps you honest with how much to pack and seems reasonable to carry. Let your imagination and tastes inspire you to come up with unique food creations.

Meal Preparation:
To save weight and space in the pack, remove dehydrated meals from the manufacturer’s packaging and pour them into quality Zip Loc freezer bags. This step eliminates quite a bit of trash and is a lighter, more compact option than the commercial packaging.

This “field stripping” allows the opportunity to customize and supplement the meals at home, adding extra calories and spices. I like to add beef jerky, dried cheese, and spices to my dinners and dried fruit, powdered milk, and protein powder to my breakfasts.

I also carry a small squeeze bottle with some cooking oil. Oil is a great way to add fat calories to any meal with little weight. For instance, olive, almond or avocado oils all have different tastes, but pack about the same, dense, 120 calories per tablespoon.

Be careful when pouring hot water into the Zip Loc bag. It doesn’t happen often, but holes can develop in the bags, and you could spill water on yourself, causing burns. If you have an issue with pouring hot water into a plastic bag and eating the food, then don’t, and eat out of the manufacturer’s packaging. I think you’ll find, that field stripping is a convenient and practical way to prep meals and save space.

* When finished eating, use the empty bag to urinate in during the night. This tactic limits you from getting out of the shelter in poor weather.
It also reduces contaminating the ground, or your boots, randomly peeing out the tent door.

Trail food
Trail foods are quick, easy calories intended to sustain energy throughout the day. Typically this is where most carbohydrates are consumed. Depending on heart rate and exertion, proteins and fats should be consumed during the day to maintain strength and limit muscle damage.

Carry food you know you can eat no matter how you’re feeling. This is especially important when feeling nauseous at altitude where food loses flavor. I can eat the same freeze-dried meal and food bar every day and not get tired of it.

It’s imperative to bring along food that you will be able to choke down to fuel your bodies engine even when it doesn’t seem very appealing. If you can’t eat the food you’ve brought along, then it’s not worth carrying.

* Common trail food are: food bars, beef jerky, nuts, dried fruit, seeds, granola bars, energy gels, and chews

Breakfast should fuel your body for the day’s activities. Don’t consume too much for breakfast if you’re going to start with strenuous hiking. Your body will fight to supply oxygenated blood to your legs and lungs as it works through digesting the food in your gut. Try and drink at least a liter of water or, in cold weather, hot herbal tea before heading out for the day.
* Instant oatmeal with protein powder, beef jerky, and almond oil is a good breakfast option

Dinner should help repair broken-down muscles and help you recover from the day’s effort. Hydration is also critical at night. Catch up on what you didn’t drink during the day and reserve water to sip on during the night.
* My usual dinner is a freeze-dried Chili Mac with a tablespoon of olive oil and beef jerky

We all know people who can’t go an hour or two without ingesting caffeine or nicotine in some form. I strongly recommend those folks not go cold turkey on a big trip. I know guys who get splitting migraine headaches, blurred vision, and become irritable. Some can hardly function in the wilderness when they try and cycle off their respective vice. A backcountry hunt is not the time to start rehab.

I try and reduce my caffeine intake before and during a big trip to limit its diuretic effect and help me stay better hydrated. I don’t stop my daily caffeine intake because it’s something I look forward to in the mornings and provides motivation.

Don’t start taking supplements before a big trip that you haven’t tried prior. Supplements can be great, but I’ve seen people have some odd reactions to their untested supplement cocktails. Day 1 of a 10-day mountain hunt is not the time or place to “get healthy” and begin to supplement. Don’t ruin a trip by taking supplements you haven’t tried thoroughly before.

Wilderness trips can be long and grueling endeavors. The best clothing and equipment isn’t worth much if you can’t climb the next steep ridge or carry your pack for a week. It’s imperative to eat as best you can under other than ideal conditions for sustained performance in the backcountry.

No one is there to manage your nutrition and hydration. You can’t afford to bonk 20 miles into remote wilderness. This realization will be sobering the first time you begin to falter. Train with your food plan and assure it works for you every time under all conditions.

Gear References
These links take you to some of the gear I use and rely on in the mountains. This is not a definitive list but a good place to start. Ultimately, testing and training allow us to dial in a system that works for each of our unique requirements.

Freeze Dried Meals
Mountain House:
Peak Refuel:

Food Bars
Perfect Bars:

Boikeys Biltong:
Maui Nui Venison:

GU Energy Chews: