Fuelling the Body: Real Food Fundamentals

The grade is a lot steeper than anticipated. Each step is a struggle over roots, under logs and through deep puddles, and my heavily laden pack is killing my back and hips. We left late and in a rush, now the sun has gone behind the mountain, and the forest is dark and quiet save for the angry grumble of my stomach starting to eat itself from the inside out. The mere thought of enticing smells and delicious flavours keeps me plodding one foot in front of the other. My existence is all about one thing – I can’t wait to sit and eat.


Dennis Fleet, Spearhead Traverse. Photo: Jimmy Martinello
Dennis Flett, Spearhead Traverse. Photo: Jimmy Martinello

By Jess Robertson, RD(t)

Food is the body’s fuel and heavy exercise burns through food stores a lot faster than a day at the office. While flavour and weight are paramount, the question of how to healthily maximize our caloric intakes while touring, camping and hiking is becoming more prevalent. Armed with some basic nutritional information, a couple of small changes to your meal-planning will yield huge differences in your energy, stamina and ability to reach the final goal.

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  1. Your mother was right: breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

The goal is an easy, warm meal that gets you back on the trail quickly but will sustain you through to lunch. Tried-and-true oatmeal provides the body with fibre and carbohydrates for mid-morning energy and is good base to build on. Add in some dried fruit for the early morning sugar boost and skim milk for necessary calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals. Seeds and nuts will provide protein and longer-lasting satiety and energy to keep you powering on for hours. Stay away from anything with “unknown” food additives – no need for that junk.




  1. Snacks rule, especially chocolate.

Curb that mid-morning hunger by pulling a handful of almonds right out of that dirty camping pant pocket. They’ll provide that extra boost to power through. Chocolate fiends should get dark chocolate bars containing nuts rather than plain milk chocolate. As a lower glycemic index snack, the nuts provide longer-term energy and reduce the crash from the simple sugars in chocolate., Dark chocolate has a higher amount of flavonols which studies have shown help reduce “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Ultra-light crackers are another mid-trail energy treat and provide quick energy from carbs. Spread them with peanut or almond butter for a longer-lasting protein energy boost. Granola bars can be an excellent source of energy, but beware of the type you choose; steer clear of those containing ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, or glucose-fructose listed within the first few ingredients. Go for high protein, high calorie, fibre-filled bars to get an energy-dense snack to keep you plodding along.

Read Don’t Believe the Hype: A Registered Dietitian’s Take on Cleansing




  1. Lunch is not an hour.

When halfway up a peak, with only a wobbly boulder to sit on, lunch needs to be quick, easy, and filling. Look for rye or dark breads, multigrain wraps or bagels as sources of complex carbs to fill you up and provide a lower glycemic index. Compliment that grain of choice with low-sodium, lean meats (turkey or chicken) and cheese as sources of energy-sustaining protein. Adding nuts, soy, and chopped vegetables will increase protein, healthy fats (polyunsaturated), vitamin and mineral intake without dramatically increasing the weight of your pack.




  1. Dinner – the Highlight of the Day.

When the cabin or camping spot finally appears over the last false summit, dinner is both reward and replenishment. Really anything goes at dinner; the key is to replenish your glycogen stores with carbohydrates and rebuild your broken-down muscle tissue with protein. Whole wheat pasta is king. Mix in pre-made pesto, sundried tomato and meat or a legume (chicken, turkey, tuna, chickpeas) for a complete meal or use some of those extra whole-grain tortillas filled with quick rice, beans, tomato sauce and spices. Again, channel Mom and remember your vegetables – vitamins and minerals!

Although pre-packaged/freeze-dried dinners are convenient, lightweight and conserve on cooking fuel, many are also expensive, taste like Styrofoam with cardboard dressing, and are filled with unknown, unpronounceable ingredients. Ditch them if you can.

Most importantly, Remember that our food doesn’t just fuel us, it also tantalizes four of our five senses, so my advice is to not skimp. Savour the moments with your food, a stunning new view and the satisfaction of a life after a full day in the mountains. Fuel the body with dodgy food additives and fillers, and you’ll feel it. Power up with real ingredients and watch yourself dominate that early morning summit push.

Read Plan Breathe: How Your Breathing Style Effects Performance on the Mountain