If you’ve ever hiked a tough trail or gone on a serious climb through the mountains, then a stomach inspired question likely crossed your mind: What do mountain climbers eat to maintain energy and help their bodies get through the strenuous exercise? The key is in preparation — and, according to professional climbers and mountaineers, plenty of high-calorie food and carbohydrates.
The perfect diet is one that’s tailored to the individual. Still, one version of the ideal food list for mountain climbers, thru-hikers, and your average weekend warrior starts with a carb-heavy dinner and ends with a small high-sugar treat for energy.
Here’s what you should eat while hiking and climbing to improve your performance and stamina, according to certified professionals.
1. Start planning before you go to bed the day before.
“Fueling the night and an hour before a climb is critical for achieving optimal performance during the climb,” Chris Higgins, a trainer certified by the American College of Sports Medicine who works with Calisthenics Gear, says. “The key is in carb-loading the body, no matter what eating pattern you’re following, to ensure you have lots of energy all throughout the activity.”
Carbs — in particular bread, crackers, and pasta — are at the top of the list the night before a big climb for Higgins.
According to the Appalachian Mountain Club, a balanced meal of protein, carbohydrates, and at least one fat source is ideal before a climb or hike. Oatmeal, quinoa, nuts, and seeds are all high-carbohydrate foods that will give you sustained energy.
Studies on carbs and exercise support these day-before food choices. One study from Mississippi State University found that carbohydrate ingestion can increase both your muscle exertion as well as boost the amount of time it takes before you feel exhausted. Another study states that the most likely contributors to fatigue are dehydration and depleted carbohydrates for endurance exercise that lasts 30 minutes or longer.
2. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
What you eat on the morning of your hike or climb matters just as much (maybe more) as what you eat the night before. Higgins opts for carbohydrates from fruit and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes. Healthy fats from avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, cheese, and high-fat meats like salami and pepperoni made the cut as well “so my body will not burn carbs as fast as it can and leave me feeling tired and unable to finish the climb.”
Cody Bradford, an American Mountain Guides Association climbing guide who can be found on 57Hours, experienced how helpful eating the right food can be first-hand during a climb in 2017.
“I went to climb in Potrero Chico in Nuevo León, Mexico, in 2017 and was astounded by some of the folks I met who just showed up to the crag with a Snickers and some crackers,” Bradford says. “They climbed so much harder than me and I was curious, so I asked for their food routine. They told me it was all about breakfast, and choosing something high in protein and carbs to start their day so that, later, they could eat lighter and faster.”
It’s important to note that while what you eat matters, so does what you drink. “Most importantly,” Higgins says, “my body should be hydrated with fluids & electrolytes during mountain climbing.
“I feel like [my pre-climb diet] is the trick for me to have more endurance, energy, and improved power, during extreme sports like mountain climbing,” Higgins says. “I simply came up with this routine by thinking of my body as a car needing to be loaded with fuel (carbohydrates) in order to make sure it gets to its destination and beyond.”
3. Tailor your diet to the type of climb.
Books like Training for The New Alpinism and Training for The Uphill Athlete can provide guidance as you get started in climbing. For many climbers, however, trial and error is the best way to find what works best for their body and the climb they plan to tackle that day.
“Determining what to use for fuel before a climb depends on whether it’s a long, alpine style route, wherein aerobic performance will be the driving factor of success, or a shorter and maybe more challenging rock climb that requires quick bursts of anaerobic performance,” Bradford says.
A high-fat and high-carb breakfast is ideal for longer routes (Bradford goes with egg, avocado, and potatoes on a tortilla or piece of toast). “This ensures my body can go at a steady, consistent pace over diverse terrain without stopping very often,” Bradford says. For shorter climbs, a lighter, protein-rich option like an energy bar with yogurt, banana, and peanut butter will give you the fuel it takes to perform without weighing you down.
4. You don’t have to stick to highly processed food.
There are many highly processed and packaged foods on the market that promise to deliver optimum performance. Sometimes sticking to whole foods that your body knows is what it really takes, though, says Gaby Pilson, an outdoor educator and guide that’s worked all over the world, from Antarctica to Scotland.
“When it comes to fueling up before a climb, I find that there’s nothing better than sticking to real food that I’d eat in my day to day life,” Pilson says. “While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the nitty-gritty details and benefits of different gels and energy bars, at the end of the day, nothing really fuels you better or makes you feel as good as eating quality, wholesome, naturally nutritious foods.”
Pilson eats oats with dried fruits, nuts, and seeds for breakfast before a climb, for example (along with lots of water and plenty of coffee). Her snacks during the climb include homemade trail mix, wraps, and sandwiches. Pilson keeps a tasty treat (hello, chocolate) for the summit for an energy boost.
“Although I’ve dabbled in energy bars and gels, I’ve found that the above routine, which focuses on real food, works best,” Pilson says. “Not only does it provide me with both the fast sugars I need for quick energy and the fats/proteins for long-lasting energy, eating real food just makes your body feel better in the long-term. While you can probably get away with eating nothing but Clif Bars and energy chews for a day, that stuff just isn’t going to cut it day after day and week after week on a major climb. Plus, our bodies love routine, so sticking to foods you’d normally eat at home while in the mountains is a solid choice.”
5. Eat what you enjoy, but be flexible.
“I’d say that the more you travel to climb, the more you realize that fueling up with regular ol’ food that you like and enjoy (with an eye toward getting a good mix of macronutrients at all times) is the best way to go,” Pilson says. “If you’re climbing in Nepal for two months, you’re not exactly going to have access to an endless supply of energy bars. Sure, you can pack five protein bars for each day of your trip, but your luggage will weigh a ton and you’ll probably despise the protein bar flavors that you packed by the end of your trip.”
That said, the food you enjoy and typically eat isn’t always available depending on where you’re climbing.
“Ultimately, being able to get creative with whatever food you have available to you in more remote locales is a key skill that any climber or adventurer ought to learn,” Pilson says. “To me, the key is to understand the core tenets of nutrition and how various foods affect your body. If you can master those fundamentals, pre-climb nutrition becomes something that you can do well anywhere in the world.”