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Food Tips for Hill Walkers

July 27th, 2009

hill-walking-food.jpgHill walking is an energetic pursuit. The energy required comes from food in the form of calories so eating well is important for the hill walker. Running out of energy is unpleasant and potentially dangerous.

If you are very fit and the weather is benign you can walk all day without eating and not run out of energy. I once walked for several days on less than I normally eat at one meal during a long walk through the Canadian Rockies when I ran out of food far from the nearest supply point. I was very hungry by the time I emerged from the woods and had lost a fair bit of weight. The walking, on steep slopes in dense undergrowth, was very strenuous and I was carrying a heavy load, yet I did not suffer any ill effects. The weather was warm and sunny, however, and I was extremely fit, having been walking all day every day for two months.

I would not suggest going out without food; I am just pointing out that it is not absolutely essential, at least in dry summer conditions. In cold wet weather I would not want to be without food as it helps keep you warm as well as providing energy. Also, tiredness during a walk is as likely to be due to a lack of food as a need for a rest. On long fell runs I have several times felt exhausted and had my legs turn to jelly, yet been able to go on for a significant distance once I had stopped and eaten.

What I learnt from these experiences was to eat little and often to ensure a constant supply of energy rather than to eat large amounts infrequently. A succession of snacks is better than one long lunch stop. Apart from the irregular energy flow if you eat a large amount of food at one go, your body will take longer to digest it and you should really rest for a while afterward — which is fine when you are relaxing on a summit in the sunshine, but not so attractive when you are huddled behind a boulder in the rain.

Quantities, Calories, and Content for Hill Walker Food

How much food is needed depends on personal metabolism and body size as well as energy output so no definite daily figure can be given. But approximately 2500 to 3500 calories for women and 3500 to 4000 calories for men should be adequate for three season walking. In winter more may be needed.

Food should not be chosen purely on its calorie content. Fats contain twice as many calories per unit weight as protein or carbohydrates but are hard to digest and slow to release their energy and so not a good idea to eat in any quantity while walking. Protein you need not worry about as any balanced diet will contain enough. Indeed, many people eat more protein than necessary. This leaves carbohydrates, the component of food that most directly and quickly supplies energy and therefore the one that should make up the bulk of the hill walker’s diet.

Carbohydrate comes in two forms: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are digested so quickly that they can lead to a rush of energy. Unfortunately this may be followed by a slump soon afterward. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate and while it is worth having a few sugar based snacks along in case quick energy is required it should not make up most of your food. The energy provided by complex carbohydrates is released more slowly and steadily, making these the best for walking. Cereals are largely made up of complex carbohydrates, so bread, biscuits, cake, oatcakes, crisp bread, flapjacks, and grain bars are all excellent for keeping you walking. Also good for snacking on are dried fruits as the fructose contained in these takes a little longer to be processed than refined sugars.

Perhaps the best food for nibbling is trail mix as an open bag can be carried in a pocket and dipped into whenever you feel like it, a good ploy on days when the weather is so nasty you really do not want to stop to eat. What goes into trail mix is completely up to you. The original mix is just raisins and peanuts. This can get a bit dull so other dried fruit such as cherries, banana chips, apple flakes, papaya, and pineapple chunks plus different sorts of nuts can be added. Smarties and M&Ms are tasty extras too as are yogurt and chocolate coated raisins and peanuts. Shredded coconut adds a savory taste as do sunflower and other seeds. Granola can be added too, along with anything else you can think of. I know one walker who chops up chocolate bars to add to his never-empty bag of trail mix.

Eating is more than just a way of supplying energy. It should also be enjoyable. My own choices for lunch are cheese and jam sandwiches, trail mix, flapjacks, grain bars, and the occasional chocolate bar. Whatever your choice, if your food is at all fragile it is probably best to carry it in a plastic box. Otherwise wrap it in plastic bags to keep it dry — there is nothing worse than soggy, disintegrating sandwiches!

Breakfast for Hill Walkers

While the amount you eat on a hill walk is important, so is the food you eat beforehand. Breakfast is an important meal as it provides the energy for at least the first few hours of walking and probably more. What you eat for breakfast is unimportant; what matters is that you eat enough. Many people do not bother with more than a cup of tea or coffee first thing in their everyday lives. This is not a good idea before a hill walk so even if you do not usually eat breakfast you should on these occasions. If you really cannot face food when you have just got up you could pack some sandwiches or other snacks and eat them immediately before you start walking. It is better to eat earlier than that, so that the energy from your breakfast is available as soon as you set off.

When breakfasting at home I usually just have a larger helping of muesli than usual, but when staying in a mountain lodge or other place where breakfast is provided I eat whatever is available. In Scandinavia where large buffet breakfasts are the norm I eat far more than just a bowl of cereal but less during the day.

Emergency Food for Hill Walkers

Carrying extra food in case of a longer day than planned or even an unintended night out is a good idea. Many people suggest carrying food you do not like so that you will not eat it until you have to! I do not like this idea as I think the morale boost from food you enjoy could be important in a difficult situation or emergency. If emergency food is to be carried on several walks it must last well and not be easily crushed. I usually carry 1/3 lb. (225g) of sun-dried bananas, which are compact and high in calories.

Winter Cooking for Hill Walkers

In winter more food is needed than in summer and it is good to have something hot. Usually this means a drink rather than food, though a flask will hold soup as easily as tea or coffee. Wide-mouthed flasks will hold thick stews as well. An alternative is to carry a lightweight stove and small pot with you plus some instant soups or other quickly cooked snacks. If you melt snow or draw water from a stream, the weight of the stove need be no more than that of a full flask. And of course you can have a hot drink whenever you want or need one as long as there is water nearby.

Extra time is needed with a stove but the hot food produced can be very welcome. I can remember lunching on coffee and sandwiches on the summit of Loch Awe on a bitterly cold winter’s day and feeling very envious of a nearby couple as the smell emanating from their stove was delicious.


Amy Weber is a freelance writer and article supplier for DailyArticle.com, a source of some surprisingly inexpensive but original articles on hill walking and other topics for those who are patient enough to browse through the full selection.


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