Backcountry Nutrition;
Part 1

George Bieker Headshot
Written by: George Bieker
Instructor & Lead Guide at American Alpine Institute, Apprentice Rock & Aspirant Alpine Guide with the AMGA, & co-founder of Summation Athletics.

Throughout my career as a guide, as a coach, and a fitness "hobbyist", I will say I think I've been asked probably the most questions about nutrition. So, we are going to tackle some of the key concepts to better guide your nutritional decision-making. This series will be released periodically, and each post will elaborate and build on previous ones. A couple of caveats before we begin, there is ALOT of information out there, and deciding what information is good versus what is bad will take some critical thinking, time, patience, and most of all experimentation with your own body. There is no one size fits all approach, but starting here with some of these key concepts will help you start your nutrition journey.

So first things first, there are 3 basic types of macronutrients that fuel the human body. They are Fats, Proteins, and Carbs. These are the money makers of everything from protein synthesis to energy to lubrication, everything we need to nourish and sustain our bodies. So what are they and what kinds should I look for?

Fats Icon Let's start with Fats. Fats are a fuel source or can be for the body at lower excursion levels. Not all fats are bad and no, FAT in general is not the enemy. From an energy standpoint, they produce the most calories per gram at a whopping 9 calories per gram. Making them quite a good solution when in the backcountry or when we have to carry all of the energy we need to eat. Also for us backcountry enthusiasts depending on the environmental temperature and our activities' caloric needs, it may be very hard for us to be in a caloric surplus, to begin with, so packing some extra fatty foods can help us stave off a caloric deficit. If at all possible, we do want to stay away from trans fats and hydrogenated oils, typically from processed foods. Other fats we would like to focus on if we have the ability is Omega-3 fats or polyunsaturated/monounsaturated fats. Personally, Omega-3's make up a huge part of my diet and come from supplementation, grass-fed butter, avocados, flax seeds, fatty fish, and fortified eggs. I typically do pack supplemental fish oil into the backcountry.
Carbs Icon

Carbs are the energy powerhouse for high-octane outputs. There are a few types of carbs out there and depending on activity output carbs are important for not only fueling activity but are an essential component of refueling post-activity (along with protein). Carbs come in at 4 calories per gram and can be generically categorized (for my purposes) into 2 major types, complex and simple. One takes a while to be broken down, and one hits the body a bit faster and causes upticks in energy as well as blood sugar. Again, each situation is going to be unique but a couple of things to keep in mind for us athletes and backcountry aficionados is when and what. Complex carbs like quality oats and sweet potatoes will give us energy throughout the day as they take longer to break down, they also will not cause (as much) of a spike in blood sugar or insulin levels as a quick sugar snack might. So, I might choose those before longer cardiac days in the mountains for breakfast along with some fats and proteins. For quick energy or training events lasting longer than 45 minutes, I carry some sort of simple sugar or a quick way to refuel in the mountains or while training (during activity), these can be gels, honey, dates, etc. Most of us are familiar with these and they are a miracle worker, especially for long days in the mountains. During my ultras, I would make sure to eat something like this every 30 minute after the first 45 minutes of activity, like clockwork, when my timer went off regardless of hunger. I still do this when I have long tours or guiding days in the mountains. Mix that with some caffeine and walla you are off to the races (literally or figuratively). There is a lot more to say about this but for now, let's move to carbs post-activity. We want to refuel either after a training block or after a hard climb so that we can be ready to do it again, day after day, pitch after pitch. So again, if it's mid-exercise I'd suggest something quick like the items listed above, if it's the last activity of the day I might recommend a more complex carb like a sweet potato and a bit of protein. Natural unprocessed sources are going to be premier, but necessity will dictate what you choose.

Protein Icon
Proteins, the muscle maker, the builder, the repairer is one of the most critical macros and one of the most difficult to eat adequate amounts of in the backcountry (hence why I am such a fan of quality bone broth). Protein also comes in at 4 calories per gram. All proteins derived from animals have all 23 essential amino acids. If you are getting your protein from other sources, you will want to ensure all essential amino acids are included either through supplementation or combinations of different protein sources. For quantity, you need somewhere between .7 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight of protein per day. This is to either maintain your current body for building more muscle or to repair an injury. .7 on the lower end and 1.7 for those of us trying to be the next Schwarzenegger. These will be different for women and men as well. Here, personal experimentation is crucial. To start estimating how much protein you need just divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get Kilograms then multiply by say 1 to get an idea. This will show you how many grams of protein you will need per day. You may soon realize it takes quite a lot to hit anywhere near these numbers, especially on backcountry overnights. After a bit of personal experimentation, I have found I like to try and hit the upper end of my protein intake. This fact, over the years, has pushed me towards a couple of practical changes in my nutrition guidelines. I now search out bone broths for extra protein (and a lovely hot drink in wintery environments), I bring whey protein powder in the backcountry and either use it both for refueling after activity, as well as a breakfast supplement that is quick and easy and packed with calories.

    Okay, now that we have a basic idea of macros, let's talk about caloric needs and tracking. Our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the minimum number of calories we need to meet the needs of our basic life-sustaining functions (breathing, metabolism, etc). This number can be calculated by several online sources and with my stats, 5'9" & 165lbs comes into around 1,700 calories per day, for more accurate measurements you will need an electric scale or a DEXA scan. 1,700 calories at a minimum to sustain my life even if I was bedridden, this has nothing to do with exercise levels or training regimes. Let's just say that meeting and exceeding this caloric need is mandatory to maintain a healthy body and prevent injury. I come from a climbing background and have no time for the "strength to weight ratio" talk that is pervasive in the culture.

    "No athlete should be on a calorically restrictive diet if they want to improve their ability and prevent injury."

    We need to be eating enough good food to create and maintain muscle and then teach our bodies to use this new muscle, not atrophy or risk injury by adhering to calorically deficient diet routines. Enough on that for now.

    So how do we track our intake? Well, there are a million apps out there, and the only way to know what macros you are hitting and your calories per day are to track everything you eat, every day, for a month. Apps like myfitnesspal are free and allow scanning of UPCs to enter what we eat quite easily. Tracking in itself will give you a good idea of what your macros look like, how you can eat better, and if you are hitting your caloric needs day in and day out based on your BMR and activity needs.

    Take a month, try it out for yourself, and come back for my next post to learn about training supplementation.

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