a round table discussion

Photography by expedition teammates

Absolutely wrecked after a long day on the hill, your blood sugar levels have reached rock bottom. The tank has been empty for some time and any movement is about as progressive as Trump’s environmental policies. With the weather on the turn and daylight dwindling, it’s no time to be hanging about.

On expedition, a scenario like this is often just one poor food decision away. The simple fact is that you’ll burn a ridiculously high amount of calories compared to everyday life and your intake needs to rise to the challenge. Get your sustenance plan down to a T though and not only will you not be so strung out, you’ll get far more from your time on expedition, get it wrong and it’ll likely be  the catalyst for a downward spiral.

No one better understands the importance of staying stocked up in the field than our expedition leaders, so we checked in with a few of them to learn their approaches to food.

What’s your routine for all day sustenance?

Luca Alfatti: A massive breakfast in the morning, whatever’s available. You never know when you’ll next be able to eat. If everything goes to plan, I keep on a three meals a day schedule with plenty of snacks stops.

Becky Coles: A good breakfast and then constant snacking throughout the day covering all the food groups.

Lachlan Bucknall: Eat a good breakfast and eat anyone else’s leftovers! This has become a running joke on quite a few trips I’ve been on. Snack regularly when exerting yourself and have at least a decent evening meal to recover especially if you can’t stop properly for a decent lunch. Essentially just feed the machine. Don’t forget to rehydrate at the end of the day and the morning before setting off so you can minimise the amount of fluids you’re carrying if it’s not practical to top up en route.

Cat Cameron: A big breakfast doesn’t work for me. About half a banana or a yogurt is all I can manage first thing in the morning or I get sleepy and feel heavy for the day. But others need to eat and I expect them to eat no less than normal at this time of day. Snacks throughout the day are important, this is where the Scroggin’ comes in handy for faff-free energy on the move. Some people prefer a larger lunch, others a larger dinner. For me, I work best on a light stomach, then a huge dinner in the evening.

Ultimately, I encourage my teams to stick to their normal routine where possible, but increasing the calories with a strong emphasis on nutrition and getting those important vitamin-filled vegetables in. I also make sure we’re all really well hydrated. This really is the key to success.

Favourite quick pick-me-up?

Luca: Pick and Mix. I always take bags of them with me. Unless it’s an arctic environment, in which case I opt for cream eggs. The centre cream doesn’t freeze so it’s an awesome pick me up when it’s minus 30 and you still have a long way to walk.

Becky: Jelly beans and a good cup of Yorkshire Tea with condensed milk – much nicer than powdered.

Lachlan: Just fresh, peel-able fruit.

Cat: Back in the days when I could eat anything this was often a Soreen loaf. (*It is worth noting here that due to a nasty stomach infection, Cat Cameron’s diet is now hugely restricted by what she can and can’t stomach, including gluten and several food staples.) These days, I make a bangin’ bag of Scroggin’! Essentially a trail mix on steroids. This is what I live off during the day, whether on the river, long treks, trail runs or hours ski touring at altitude. A typical bag consists of sweet and savoury, with fast release energy sources for quick pick-me-ups, and slow release energy for long term performance throughout the day. It all goes into a zip lock back (easy to undo with gloves) and the general rule is it must consist of things you like and you can’t pick and choose, you take what you get so you get a good mix of the things your body needs: dark chocolate, dried banana chips, nut and seed mix, sliced up pieces of crystallised ginger, gummy sweets, a few sliced dried fruit, corn or rice cakes and oatcakes goji berries. Pound for pound it packs a serious punch on the weight to calories scale and I’ve introduced it to many a colleague and client on big days out. So much so that I always pack extra now as it goes down a bit too well.

How important is hot food on expedition and what’s the best in terms of joy to weight ratio?

Luca: Happy bellies, happy team. It’s very important mainly for morale, I’d rather cut a day short and have at least one hot meal a day then push hard and have a miserable group.

Becky: Hot breakfast, hot milk on muesli or granola if you can’t stomach porridge and a big hot dinner. Lemon and ginger tea in a flask for winter or snowy climbs.

Lachlan: Warm food has huge value for morale as well as nutritional value, especially if the weather is less than ideal. But hot drinks weigh nothing to bring, so long as you can source water locally so that wins for me in terms of joy to weight ratio.

Cat: Hot food may be an effort, particularly at the end of a long day but it encourages you to eat a good quantity of savoury food as part of a balanced meal, often with a substantial amount of slow-releasing energy rich carbohydrates to fuel you up for the coming day. Through being cooked, the components of the meal often become more palatable and easier for the body to digest so it’s a good way of blending together lots of vitamins and nutritionally rich food into something that is appealing to the weary expeditioner. Warm food is ok, as long as it was piping hot ten minutes earlier and everything that needs it has been cooked thoroughly.

What food in your experience is best avoided or chosen to combat inconvenient poo stops?

Luca: At cost of sounding cliche, being Italian, pasta and most carbs in general are my preferred option. If I can cook or have means to make it, I always try to source bread or an emergency stash of rice. I try to leave the nice local curries and sauces for post expeditions feasts.

Becky: Food best avoided is anything inconvenient for snacking on. I find most people carry loads of food during the day but don’t eat it because the packaging is too fiddly to open with gloves, it’s not accessible in their pack or it isn’t appetising when they’re exercising. It’s never good to bung yourself up. Learn to poo outdoors, there’s really nothing to fear.

Cat: I tend to avoid meat, particularly poultry on more remote phases. The difficulties with keeping it fresh and cool are not worth the risk to me. In villages, I’m happy to buy a goat or chickens if the group want some meat, providing it’s slaughtered and cooked within a couple of hours. In urban areas or on transport days, I’m a strong advocate of going where the locals eat, rather than the touristy places with a lower turnover and more chance of food sitting around. On two occasions I’ve had some team members lured into quiet restaurants by the prospect of pizza who have then spent the night next to the loo while the rest of us who went ‘local’ had the pleasure of normal bowel functions throughout. I’ll often defer to the judgement and local knowledge of the in-country support staff. Of course, they might be keen to line their friend’s pockets but if the place is busy and the food is good you can’t go too wrong.

Too much dried fruit can have a laxative effect. Cured meats like Chorizo, dried salami and biltong can provide lightweight, concentrated amounts of protein and don’t tend to go through the digestive system too rapidly as the body has to work hard to break them down. Citrus fruits are generally a safe bet, as are the myriad of different types of bananas. Mango can be delicious but in large quantities can irritate the bowel, as can pineapple. Take care with water melon too – unlike other melons, due to the large quantities of water needed to grow the fruits, they don’t filter water in the same way as other plants. Put simply, if they’re growing in stagnant water, the bacteria can be passed on. I found this out the hard way, which ultimately led to my current restricted diet.

What’s your rule when it comes to sourcing local food vs bringing your own?

Luca: As a rule of thumb I always source locally. I can count on one hand the times I brought in food with me. There are many reasons to try to get at least one hot made meal a day, from helping the local economy, to local interactions in the markets. To be able to do so often there is need to employ locals to help carry the extra weight which I believe adds a lot to an expedition from a human point of view. Of course this is not always possible.

Becky: Part of the reason I go on expedition is the cultural experience and part of any culture is the food, so the more local food the better for me. Considering where you buy food from and making sure it’s piping hot is important in not getting ill. Any sort of buffet is a no-no. I’m really strict with the ‘boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it’ rule for the first five days to allow my body to adjust. Then I relax a little and might eat small amounts of washed fruit or salad, in purified water of course. I’m always fastidious with washing my hands with soap and water. I only consider taking food from home if weight is an issue and I need specialist dehydrated meals, for example on high altitude mountaineering expeditions. Oh and my Yorkshire Tea with condensed milk in a squeezy tube.

Lachlan: Source locally if you can and supplement it with what you bring with you. That minimises excess baggage for your flight, allows you to better experience the culture and hospitality of local people and adds an extra level of adventure. If you’re going remote from any civilisation though, the weight of locally sourced food may be impractical in which case dehydrated meals could be the way forward. For avoiding food poisoning, either cook it or peel it. Heat kills bacteria or the bacteria is removed when you peel it.

Cat: As gluten intolerant, I always bring polenta or rice noodles along with me. Both are light weight and very fast to cook. In less wealthy, more remote regions, processed carbs like pasta and couscous are more expensive so I’ll more likely be eating potatoes, rice, maize or quinoa so it’s not a problem.

There are lots of benefits to buying locally. It’s more easily available, you get a taste of the local cuisine, as well as contributing to the local economy. It’s also often a lot fresher too. If hiring local cooks, it’s far better they cook what they know plus it’s the food that their bodies are used to. The last thing you want to do is have your support team suffering as a result of over-processed food. Where I know food options and quantity may be limited in a remote area, it makes sense to stock up before hand and carry more food in, so as not to leave the locals short of supplies for themselves.

Sudanese markets are hard to beat

What are the best expedition friendly veggie or vegan alternatives you’ve found?

Luca: Depending on how strict the person is normally tins of beans, tuna and generally tinned veggies seem to be the best option although not great for weight. These days the boil in a bag meals can be very tasty and nutritious. However, in my experience the majority of the vegetarians and vegans I get on expedition are very flexible, happy to pick the meat out of the plate or occasionally bend the rules especially in very remote settings and if hosted by local tribes.

Becky: I don’t think it’s hard at all, pulses are easy to find in most countries. Hard cheeses keep for a long time and are therefore good for expeditions. I love yaks cheese which is found in Nepal and chechil, the smoked cheese in Kyrgyzstan is delicious. Different nuts can be brought in most places around the world and are a great snack but can also be added to breakfast and evening meals. Peanut butter can also be bought anywhere and eaten as a snack or used to make satay, I could go on. In many parts of the world, meat is a luxury so meals are often vegetarian or vegan.

Lachlan: Being a carnivore I’m not best placed to answer this one.

Cat: I often go veggie for most if not all of the expedition duration and as I mentioned, leaving out meat avoids a whole host of nasty illnesses. There are so many alternative sources of protein – pulses, lentils, nuts, seeds, avocados so it’s never been an issue. Supplement powders like pea protein and chia seeds can also be added to meals easily but it’s generally easiest to bring them from home. Fresh eggs can often be bought locally in villages, and there are quite a few dehydrated soya alternatives that can be bought which soak up lots of flavours and go down very well on expedition.

It’s worth remembering too that not all gluten free food has to be labelled as such and often the label is an excuse to bump up the price. Find out the local words for wheat flour and gluten and have a close look at the ingredients list on packaging. If keeping weight down is a priority, then take polenta and rice noodles, both very light and fast to cook.

For convenience, there are some really tasty and well-priced dehydrated lightweight meals that you prepare in the bag they come in and most of the brands offer products to fit various dietary requirements.

Find out a little more about our expedition leaders on our meet the team page here.