There are three extreme conditions in which backpackers typically find themselves, heat, cold, and high elevation. If you are richly experienced in one of these environments and have found yourself preparing for an adventure to one of the others, understand that the foods that give you superpowers on your home planet may be kryptonite in foreign galaxies. Making a few adjustments to the menu will ensure you can still be a superhero in a strange new world.
To thrive in extreme environments obviously takes much more special prep than mere dietary choices, but food is the topic here.
Superpower: Fire Breathing
Environment: 90 to 120 degrees F
Abilities: Walk through the valley of fire with a smile and a song.
- Water with Electrolytes.
- Salty Carbs.
- Low Protein.
I guide a hiking group in Southern California and sometimes we travel the same trails in different seasons. It is a universal experience that a trail that felt like a breeze a few months ago can feel like mission impossible on a 90 degree day. In extreme heat, the body moves slower and every step feels like an anvil is attached to your leg. The body is working so hard just to stay cool that it seems to be boycotting extra exertion. Hiking in extreme heat can feel like trying to press your whole body through a wall of hot lava.
Two food-related things can knock down athletes in extreme heat: dehydration and hyponatremia. Without miring you in the various aspects of osmoregulation, I will simply say this. Your body aways needs to contain the right amount of water and that water needs to contain the right amount of salt. When you exercise hard, you sweat out both your water and your salt. Also, hot environments (like desert) sometimes have low humidity which leeches away your body moisture in secret. You need to adequately replace both water and salt/electrolytes.
What happens if you only drink water? Well, everyone knows what dehydration is: not enough water in the system. You avoid it by drinking water. Duh, right? And you really can’t drink too much water when you’re exercising in heat, but you can drink so much water that you dilute the electrolyte balance in your body and give yourself Hyponatremia which is a life threatening condition that starts with nausea, vomiting, disorientation, cramps… bad, bad stuff. Even park rangers have mistaken it for dehydration and given suffering hikers more water to drink, to disastrous effect. Be a superstar and keep both hydration and electrolytes in balance. Its easy if you just drink electrolytes with your water.
You can replace electrolytes by eating salty foods, but the truth is that you will have poor appetite in extreme heat. Definitely plan a menu with a high salt content, but more importantly, put electrolyte tabs in your water. Just as your body sweats out electrolytes with water, you can consume electrolytes with your water. Its an easy fix. Electrolyte tabs like Nuun or Zym dissolve in your water bottle or hydration bladder, are sugar free so they shouldn’t gunk up your container, and they taste good. It is almost impossible to overdose on electrolytes during strenuous exercise so I won’t even go into that, but use your head and don’t eat your electrolyte tabs like candy and you should be fine.
Eating high fat or high protein foods while exercising in heat can make you feel nauseous. Both high fat and high protein foods take a lot of energy to digest and metabolize (thermogenesis) which makes you feel hotter. They also take a lot of water to metabolize. Since all you want in extreme heat is to be cool and hydrated, this is the perfect time to avoid too much fat and protein and stick close to your salty carbs.
- Plan carbs for most of the day.
- Save the high protein, high fat foods for night when you can relax and digest in the cooler temps.
- High fat foods before bed will help you sleep warmer.
Bonus tip: If you are in extreme heat, it is possible you are in the desert which actually cools off quite a bit at night. Temps in the desert can swing from 40 to 120 degrees in 24 hours, especially with changes in elevation. High fat foods could help you sleep warmer through the cold night and have you in fighting shape to be a Fire Breather in the morning.
Superpower: Flame Throwing
Environment: Below 10 degrees F
Abilities: Be a walking furnace.
- High Carb/High Fat Snacks.
- Low Moisture Foods.
- Lots of Cooking Fuel.
Be prepared for a high gas bill because your body’s furnace will run full blast 24 hours a day in extreme cold. That takes a lot of fuel! To stay warm the body has to move. If we aren’t consciously moving ourselves by hiking, the body will move by shivering. Shivering is an involuntary exercise that helps the body generate heat. Movement stokes the fires, but fires take fuel. Being a Flame Thrower requires a lot of calories. In extreme cold you must eat constantly.
The challenge to having superpowers in extreme cold is intensified by the fact that you will probably be in challenging hiking terrain. Deep snow, steep mountains, icy cliffs…all of which require extra physical effort to traverse. Again, needs more fuel.
Complex carbohydrates are easy for the body to metabolize quickly, like kindling in a fire. So, in extreme cold keep the fire stoked with carbs. Fat is like a big log on the fire. It contains a lot of slow burning fuel and is known to increase cold tolerance. Fat also helps you maintain a steady blood sugar level because it helps those carbs release more slowly into your system. (In any climate, eating fat with sugar/carbs helps avoid sugar crash.) So in extreme cold, keep throwing big fat logs on the fire. Some say that protein reduces cold tolerance, but there are other studies that show it has no effect. You, of course, need protein for muscle repair, but for backpacking in extreme cold the daily diet should be carb and fat heavy.
- Plan many high carb/high fat snacks to eat at regular intervals throughout the day.
- Pack foods with low moisture content so you don’t end up with ice bricks instead of food.
- Take 4x the amount of stove fuel you would take during moderate weather, as it will be harder to achieve a boil in extreme cold conditions.
- Eat a high calorie, high fat snack before sleeping. Fat digests slowly, so this will fuel your body to be a Fire Breathing superhero all night while you sleep.
Superpower: Sky Swimming
Environment: Elevation over 10,000 ft.
Abilities: Breathe without oxygen
- Advance Hydration.
- Potassium Foods or Supplements.
- High Carb Foods.
- Ginko Biloba.
If you are accustomed to backpacking at or near sea level, a trip to a low oxygen environment like the High Sierras can make you feel exactly like a fish out of water. Heart racing, headache and nausea are par for the course at high elevation, but those symptoms can be precursors to serious altitude sickness which must be avoided by descending to a lower altitude to acclimatize before moving on. There is an expression in the high altitude hiking world, “Climb high, sleep low.” This means spend a little time hiking at higher elevation, but try to descend to sleep at a lower elevation before ascending even higher the next day. There is no dietary substitute for allowing your body to acclimatize, but there are tricks to try to help your body oxygenate so you can acclimatize faster.
Before the trip take Ginko Biloba supplements for about 10 days. This works for some by enhancing the body’s efficiency at oxygenation. I tend to get altitude sickness very easily so I’ve tried Ginko Biloba myself and believe it works to minimize my lightheadedness and nausea.
Be well hydrated before the trip and stay well hydrated during. Dehydration will intensify symptoms of altitude sickness, so why even go there? Make sure your body is saturated with all that good H20 before you even leave the house.
While hiking, eat lots of high carbohydrate foods. They take less oxygen to digest than fat and protein. In an oxygen poor environment, you will feel better and have more energy to hike if your food isn’t competing for your precious oxygen intake. Save most fats and protein for a recovery meal at the end of the day.
Maintain a good electrolyte balance by eating foods high in potassium or simply adding electrolyte tabs to your water. Since hydration is key to helping your body acclimatize to high elevation, you don’t want to make the same mistake some make in extreme heat, which is to over hydrate and dilute your body’s electrolytes. Hyponatremia is dangerous and could be misunderstood by your hiking buddies to be altitude sickness. Since it is easy as pie to keep your electrolytes in check by consuming them dissolved in your water, might as well just make it a habit.
What’s In Your Superhero Diet?
These are my few diet mods that have made an impact on my enjoyment of the backcountry in extreme conditions. I have suffered, gone back to the drawing board, and added these tricks that generally seem to deliver. I find that discussions with hikers about these topics bring to light some fantastic ideas I’ve never thought of. In the comments, please share the little known dietary hacks you’ve incorporated into your superhero regime. I’m eager to learn and grow from your experience. Thank you for reading and thank you in advance for adding to the conversation in the comments.