How to Eat for Backcountry Skiing
With winter approaching and COVID very much still a fixture in our lives, more mountain dwelling athletes will likely be venturing out into the backcountry to avoid the crowds of a ski resort while getting some much needed vitamin nature and quality movement amidst the pandemic.
Now that snow is falling here in the West, it’s time to dust off the skis, get our avalanche beacons fired up, and get amped for some powder turns. In addition to getting our gear dialed, it’s just as important to start thinking about fueling those epic days in the mountains so we can feel awesome and focus on being efficient and alert, while making our friends jealous on the skintrack.
Podcast version of this article:
Step 1: understanding the nutrition demands of backcountry skiing
Backcountry skiing/alpine touring (AT) is a unique sport in the sense that it can be an all day affair with a mix of long, slow uphill or flat “skinning” to reach the slope we want to ski, followed by a short and sometimes intense effort on the descent that requires a significant amount of strength. Depending on your objectives and experience, backcountry ski tours can range anywhere from a couple of hours to borderline ultra-endurance feats. Many athletes (myself included) are drawn to this because of its special combo of aerobic endurance, leg strength, and a healthy dose of super fun adrenaline and connection with the serenity of a snowy mountain landscape. It’s a hard but beautiful sport, with many hours of walking uphill for a few minutes of downhill.
While most of the effort is relatively low in intensity, the body still uses a lot of energy to power this movement, including carrying our skis and packs up and down the hill. For new skiers especially, it’s easy to push into a higher work rate, demanding more energy from carbohydrate stored in our muscles as glycogen, which becomes depleted much quicker than our fat stores. So while we’re likely mainly using stored fat to generate the energy needed during those long, slow skins, carbohydrate metabolism is still happening in the background and anytime the effort gets bumped up and our breathing gets harder we’re tapping into those precious muscle glycogen stores, so snacking on carbohydrate foods will help spare their depletion.
Additionally, exercising in the cold demands even more energy use due to our body having to produce extra heat, with a preference for using carbohydrates stored in our muscles to keep us moving under the stress of cold, activated by our sympathetic nervous system. Thus, venturing into the mountains in the winter means we must fuel properly to avoid that oh so bummerful hypoglycemic “bonk” and running our glycogen tank too low which can impair our mental processes since our central nervous system relies heavily on glucose. Getting hypoglycemic messes with our decision making skills, which is no bueno in potentially risky situations like backcountry skiing. Since we’re in a cold environment, hypothermia is also a risk and becomes exacerbated by hypoglycemia, which can cause a whole host of other issues.
So, moral of the story: prioritizing fuel as part of your backcountry tour planning is essential for not only performance and enjoyment, but also safety. Next we’ll cover what that looks like.
Step 2: make a plan
One of the essential habits any avalanche safety course will espouse is the importance of making and sticking to a plan when heading out into the backcountry. Knowing and interpreting the avalanche report and weather, making a route plan with your partners, and having the right safety equipment (and the knowledge of how to use it) and the appropriate gear is critical for having a positive and safe experience.
The same goes for nutrition, but as is the case with so many athletes, often very little to no thought is put into this aspect of planning. Failing to plan is planning to fail as they say…
I like to go through a series of questions, similar to the gear, weather and clothing demands:
How long will I be out there?
Duration and intensity of exercise are the two main factors for determining food requirements during exercise. There is a big difference for what and how much to eat if you’re out for 2 hours vs. 8. This comes with experience and understanding your route, but err on the side of overestimating how long you’ll be out and plan accordingly. For endurance activities like skiing, a good general guideline is taking in roughly 120-240 calories per hour if you’ll be moving for over 90 minutes, so you can work backwards and give yourself an estimate of how much you might need. In the next section I’ll give practical examples.
How intense will it be?
Am I going for a hard effort or a big objective? Or is it a chill Sunday cruise with friends? The higher the effort level, the more food you’ll need, and the more emphasis on carbohydrate rich foods to keep energy levels high while skinning. This may also change hydration needs, as the harder we work, the more we sweat, and we may want to bring some electrolytes with us.
How much room do I have?
Something worth mentioning is space and weight. It’s a balancing act to pack light enough to not get over-encumbered and have to carry a bunch of extra weight up sometimes thousands of vertical feet, but also have everything you need for a day out. Warm layers, avalanche equipment, water, and food add up quickly. Sometimes we have to sacrifice something to fit the essentials, and if the goal is ultra light travel, there are ways to maximize calories per space taken up. Learning how to do this is part art and part science. More on this in a bit.
What time am I leaving?
Part of the plan should be what you’re eating for breakfast in the morning and getting on top of it instead of scrambling to find your ski boots and gear while your friends are waiting for you outside. Especially for those early morning dawn patrol missions, it’s critical to have something to eat so you don’t get behind. Our blood sugar drops during the night, so having even a small meal, like a piece of toast with peanut butter and jam or some granola with a banana can give you that little boost to start the day with a topped up tank. I’m also a big fan of packing overnight oats in a tupperware container for those early morning drives into the mountains, especially in preparation for the big days out when you might need the extra fuel and have some time to digest.
Step 3: organize your food kit
Once you have a grasp on what the day’s plan is going to look like, I recommend putting together a little “kit” of your snacks for easy access in your pack. It doesn’t have to be super complicated or take a lot of time. If it’s a long day: more food, shorter: less, etc. I like using a big ziploc freezer bag or stuffsack and having snacks accessible on side pockets of my pack.
A good starting point is choosing foods that are familiar, easy to eat and digest when it’s cold and wearing gloves, and take up minimal space. A crumbly homemade muffin might be super delicious, but likely to fall more onto the snow than into your stomach. Same with bananas; I’ve had too many explode in my pack to consider them worth bringing.
Another good rule of thumb to start off with when packing is to think about bringing one “serving”, ie one of these items, for each hour you anticipate being out there, and snacking early and often.
Here are some of my favorite snacks:
- dried mango
- PB&J sandwich or tortilla wrap (a tried and trued classic)
- PRO bar meal bars (dense in calories and nutrition in a pretty small bar)
- hummus and avocado wrap
- leftover pancakes (pro tip: pair with nut butter packet for a total gamechanger snack)
- homemade date, oat, and peanut butter based energy bars or cookies
- Justin’s nut butter packets
- coconut date rolls
- local pastries (not crumbly though)
- Larabars or other simple/real food bar
- nuts/trail mix
- emergency stash of gels/blocks/Swedish Fish
Favorite pre-tour breakfasts:
- overnight oats or warm oatmeal (if there’s time to make)
- muesli or granola with yogurt
- toast with PB and sliced banana, maple syrup drizzle
- If scrambling for time, some kind of bar like a Larabar or PRO bar
- coffee. Lots of coffee.
Of course, these are just a few options that I enjoy, so experiment and find what works for you! I usually try to mix it up with sweet with savory for the long days to prevent palate fatigue, and also bring some treats (like a cinnamon roll) or proper lunch item for the obligatory lunch break at the summit of a peak. Gotta keep morale high. It’s also super PRO to have an extra sandwich or food stash waiting for you in the car for the drive home.
You’ll also notice that these are generally pretty “real food” based and also balanced in their macronutrient breakdown. Quick burning “sport foods” like processed gels/blocks/bars etc. are great for activities that are really intense and a lot of strain is put on the digestive system when absolute energy needs are high. But for long, relatively slow days in the mountains, real food is where it’s at.
Plus, while of course carbs are a key fuel source anytime we’re exercising, we can also call upon using fat as a fuel when we’re moving pretty slow and at a low intensity. Fat provides more than double the calories per gram as carbohydrates, which makes it an ideal source of fuel when trying to maximize space in our packs or going for a very lightweight setup. Things like nut butter packets are a fantastic and minimal way to get fuel in the tank. A word of caution though: if you’re not used to eating high fat foods while moving, it’s a good idea to start small and experiment as it takes longer to digest these foods than it does carbohydrate rich ones.
Step 4: Hydration
Last but far from least: the other major nutrition consideration while out in the backcountry is hydration. It’s actually easier than we think to become dehydrated in the winter for a number of reasons:
1) It’s cold, which can lessen our thirst and drive to drink.
2) the air is drier than temperate months.
3) we’re often at higher elevations than normal, increasing our fluid needs.
4) we’re working (and breathing) hard on the uphill, getting cold to transition, and then warm again going down. These big swings in temperature means our body is working harder to keep our core temperature regulated, resulting in heat and sweat loss.
5) when we’re exposed to the cold, our blood vessels constrict to protect our core temperature, increasing blood pressure and causing the kidneys to push more urine into our bladder and making us pee more often, known as “cold diuresis”. This contributes to more water loss than normal and is important to keep in mind.
6) particularly in the spring skiing season, where large temperature swings are the norm, it’s easy to sweat A LOT when out in the mountains. It’s likely still dry and high altitude, so fluid needs are going to be high as well.
So, it’s important to prioritize our hydration in addition to eating, and recognizing that even though we may not feel that thirsty, we’re losing lots of fluid and electrolytes through our sweat and our breathing. Becoming dehydrated in the backcountry becomes a safety risk, with decision making and concentration becoming impaired. Like with food, sipping early and often is the key to success.
I recommend bringing 2 bottles, one with water/electrolyte drink and one insulated bottle with a warm drink to keep the core temperature nice and toasty.
Here’s a super simple DIY warm sports drink for winter activity:
Jackson’s touring tea:
- your favorite type of tea (I like earl grey or chai)
- pinch of salt
- 1-2 TBSP sugar
- Insulated water bottle like a small hydroflask
- optional: splash of your favorite non-dairy milk
Boil some water and add 1-2 teabags to your bottle. If it’s a plastic bottle, be careful not to make the water too hot! Add the water and the salt/sugar and let steep for a few minutes before taking the bag(s) out. Sip on throughout your tour and enjoy the warm fuzzies while your friends try to drink their frozen plain water out of their camelbaks.
This not only provides fluid, but also helps retain that fluid and maintain electrolyte balance lost from sweat, while providing a little hit of simple sugar to keep blood sugar levels balanced. Plus, it’s a tasty change of pace and helps keep our core temperature warm!
I think it’s important to zoom out and remember that the whole point of getting out into the mountains is to have a fun experience, find some flow, and connect with the natural world through meaningful movement. We want to feel great all day, not on the verge of bonking and dragging on that “one more” run on that epic powder day because we forgot to eat breakfast or bring snacks. We want our minds and muscles fueled and sharp in high risk situations. Fueling matters. It’s a tool for creating those rich experiences, just like our fancy lightweight skis and boots (but much cheaper).
So whether you’re going out for a before-work tour or a weekend yurt trip, get your snacks ready and some sport tea in the thermos, it’s go time. For the audio podcast version of this article, check out my recent episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (or wherever you listen to podcasts)!
Jackson Long is a performance nutritionist in Sun Valley, Idaho where he coaches for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation cross-country ski team and is a big fan of eating while in the mountains. For more meditations on endurance sport, nutrition, and flow, listen to his podcast, In The Flow.