In the mountains, your body needs fuel that works just as hard as you do. When your pack weighs as much as your ambition, carrying all the sustenance for the journey, nutrition can’t be an afterthought. Making the right food choice can feel like a game of balancing priorities, but three fundamentals should guide your basic food planning for high altitude.
At high altitudes, you should eat food that contains energy-boosting carbohydrates, muscle-repairing lean proteins, and hydration. Complex carbs, like legumes, slow-release energy while lean proteins aid recovery without stressing your digestion. Certain foods can rehydrate and restore electrolytes.
Those are the bare essentials: eat a mix of foods that sustains energy, rebuilds muscle, and hydrates your body. Of course, nutrition’s a tricky beast, and it can get even trickier the higher up you go.
Meet Kyle Kamp from Valley to Peak Nutrition who specializes in nutrition coaching for outdoors enthusiasts. He’s the perfect advisor for no-nonsense tips and for cutting through the complexity of high altitude nutrition, separating the facts from the fluff. He’s kindly lent many years of experience to making this guide as helpful to your mountain nutrition planning as possible. By the end of this article you’ll have the tools and know-how to pick the right foods for high altitudes.
Ideal Foods for High Altitude
Hydration is key in high altitude environments too, where dry air and exertion increase your water loss. Sure, drink enough water. But beyond that, certain foods like bananas and spinach can help you maintain fluids and restore your electrolytes.
We asked Kyle what top 3 foods he would recommend someone bring on a week long hunt in the mountains, and he was expecting it, saying, “Many folks are looking for direct answers to this- ‘you should bring XYZ food…’ That’s not necessarily true.” Instead, Kyle recommends three different categories of occasion-satisfying foods, including:
1. Something You Can Suck on and Digest Easily:
There are many ways to absorb the nutrients you need, and sometimes, you don’t have to gulp down a three-course meal to get everything you need to maintain your fuel levels. Kyle points out that “Multiple studies show that athletes have improved performance just by swishing and spitting high carb drink mixes.”
He goes on to share, “Being at higher altitude dramatically increases the risk of your appetite going into the gutter. Being unable to eat something is a very high probability at some point. Having something like gummies, fruit snacks, jolly ranchers, or similar to suck on is a great way to give yourself some fuel as you continue to press deeper into the hunt or expedition.”
So even throwing a hard candy or something small enough to suck on while you hike, can help keep your tank full in between meals and snacks.
2. Something Hot:
Here’s one that rarely gets accounted for, although it should be an obvious factor in your food and hydration planning - that’s right, your warmth. Kyle puts it plainly as, “The greatest metabolic enemy that demands energy from you is the cold. You not only have the demand of your daily calorie needs to pump blood and move, but you have a multiplier added to that when you’re asking your core to stay warm on top of that.
So, how do you counter this? Simple, “Hot foods, drinks, etc. can be a huge asset in combating a higher energy demand. Tip: bring a full canister of fuel - not one of those half-full jobs you have left from September.”
3. Something You Can Drink with Carbs or Electrolytes/Sodium:
While calories and nutrition are standard planning for going into high altitude environments, especially if it’s cold, they often overshadow hydration planning. “Each time we exhale, we lose water.” Kyle goes on to explain, “If you’re at a higher altitude, you’re at an even greater risk of losing water as your blood vessels get smaller as a response to the elevation and cold conditions. This results in the need to pee more often… which means even more water loss. Throw in the fact that cold air can also mean dry air and it becomes easy to see where all of you could lose a lot of water over the course of the day.”
Test Before You Ascend
Perhaps the best advice for making sure you’re taking the right food for high altitude is to test before you ever get there. Kyle advises, “A person could violate every rule I have in here and feel great. Another could abide by every one and feel absolutely terrible. People are very different and trying what you want to take on an expedition or long hunt ahead of time is imperative.”
Is It Harder To Digest Food At High Altitude?
Yes, digesting food at high altitude can be more challenging, becoming slower and more difficult due to reduced oxygen levels affecting metabolism. Athletes should focus on consuming small, frequent, and easily digestible foods like carbohydrates and stay well-hydrated to aid digestion.
Kyle breaks it down as a result of oxygen and what you consume, stating, “Higher altitudes means less oxygen. Less oxygen means less blood flow to the gut as your active legs take preference. That, combined with a load of fiber, fat, and protein can wreak havoc on the system at high altitudes.”
What Are The Nutritional Needs At Altitude?
At high altitudes, nutritional needs focus on increased carbohydrates for energy, moderate protein for muscle repair, and ample hydration. This balanced approach supports energy levels and greater muscle function, and aids in acclimatization to thinner air conditions.
While there’s a clear need for basic nutrition, Kyle also points out a few other needs that should be tackled at high altitude.
Core Temperature Warmth:
“The heat piece is huge- making sure you keep the core warm, but this also includes eating in general. The body is a furnace and calories are logs being thrown in the fire. No logs, no fire. Not eating, no internal metabolic ‘burn’ taking place.”
Moderate Protein Reuptake:
“You do not need a load of protein to recover the muscle. The protein needs are different between GROWING a muscle and RECOVERING one. Most folks are trying to consume amounts for the former vs the latter, which is what we really want.”
Calories from Fat vs Carbs:
“Everyone has read about many backcountry skiers drinking olive oil to keep the furnace stoked. Contrary to popular belief, calories from fat do not create a greater thermic effect (energy created from digestion)...protein does. Carbohydrates provide nearly 85-100% of fuel for the active muscle when intensity is high, so keep that in mind as well."
Top 7 High-Altitude Nutrition Tips for Mountain Athletes
1. Prioritize Adequate Caloric Intake
At high altitudes, your metabolism shifts into overdrive, demanding more calories to power your body. To sustain your energy and keep the furnace burning, load up on frequent, calorie-dense foods - nuts, dried fruits, energy bars - they’re compact yet packed with the calories to stay sharp and strong on the mountains.
2. Focus on Carbohydrate-Rich Foods
Carbohydrates are your main fuel, especially at high elevations where your body relies heavily on them. Include foods like whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables in your meals to activate a slow release of energy over time. Planning your meals throughout the day, your carb intake might include an oatmeal in the morning, whole grains at lunch, and quinoa or brown rice with dinner.
3. Ensure Sufficient Protein Intake
Protein is the building block for muscle recovery and maintaining strength in the unforgiving high-altitude environment. Focus on incorporating protein-rich foods like lean meats, eggs, and legumes into your diet. These not only aid in muscle repair but also provide the stamina needed to conquer the mountains. Portable options like elk jerky or protein bars are simple, but effective for muscle maintenance.
4. Don't Neglect Healthy Fats
Fat is not the enemy; it's essential fuel up high. In fact, fats are crucial in a high-calorie diet, and counts even more at higher altitudes. Sources like nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil provide energy and help in nutrient absorption. Plus, they're easy to pack and don’t weigh you down, giving you the power you need while still staying light and agile.
5. Iron and Other Essential Micronutrients
Iron, along with micronutrients like magnesium, zinc, and B12, play an important role in your high-altitude nutrition plan. They keep your blood oxygenated and energy flowing. Keep an eye on your iron levels and consider supplements if necessary. For a natural supplement, add foods like spinach, lentils, and red meat to your diet.
6. What Should You Not Eat In High Altitude? Foods to Avoid:
At high altitude, you should mainly avoid eating food that disrupts digestion and hydration. Heavy, fatty foods and excessive alcohol at high altitudes can impair digestion and worsen altitude sickness symptoms. Foods high in salt and sugar, along with caffeine, can also dehydrate and disrupt sleep.
So choose your meals wisely to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort. Some foods are more trouble than they’re worth at altitude; high-fiber and caffeinated foods, for instance, might disrupt your digestive system. Choose what you eat smartly to avoid stomach troubles. Go for what’s easy to digest and energy-efficient.
7. Hydration Strategies
Water is your silent ally in high places. Dehydration sneaks up on you, so it’s crucial to stay on top of your fluid intake and increase it to maintain optimal performance. Carry a hydration pack and set regular reminders to drink water throughout your activities.
In addition to drinking water consistently throughout the day, include hydrating drinks like electrolyte-infused drinks. Stay hydrated, keep your energy up, and your body in peak condition.
Plan Nutrition for Needs and Likes
Your body needs a balanced intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats for sustained energy. But if there’s one takeaway that Kyle could impart, it’s to follow a simple mantra: “...Build a plan with carbs as the foundation and frame of your house. Allow proteins and fats to furnish it as you tolerate/enjoy…”
This also comes with a dose of reality. “Don’t get hung up on the planning… bring things you like because you’ll be FAR more likely to eat those than you would something you feel ‘meh’ about after 10 days in the mountains.”
Getting your nutrition ready for the heavy demands of high altitude is one thing, but your body has to be just as ready. To get you there, be sure to take on functional fitness designed for mountain athletes like yourself, such as the MTNTOUGH Backcountry Hunter Series. Better yet, give it a shot by trying it and all the other MTNTOUGH programs with a 14-day free trial.