UKH

Health


To get performance out of your body, you have to put fuel in. But on a big hill day not all foods are equal. You want grub that's easily carried, easy to eat, and with a good nutritional balance to keep the muscles pumping. Your choice of hill food should also be tasty, says Fliss Freeborn, because you need to want to eat it. Here are her least worst hill snacks - Top Trumps Edition.


"What snacks did you bring for us then?"

"Snacks? I thought you were bringing the snacks."

"What, no? I've got the giant rubber duck and the soy sauce for later on like you said, but no snacks. Thought that was your job."

"Uh oh."

Can you beat an old fashioned sarnie? According to our scoring system, yes...  © Dan Bailey
Can you beat an old fashioned sarnie? According to our scoring system, yes...
© Dan Bailey

The above (entirely fictional) scenario is the worst case possible for hill food: not having any at all. Going without food for a day won't kill you, but you'll be miserable if you're doing hard exercise sans calories. Even a giant rubber duck won't help you here - they're just a bit too chewy.

Hill food is an essential component of a good day outdoors. Planning ahead and making sure you have only the best snacks with you will help both physically and mentally, especially if you've got an ambitious route planned. The anticipation of inhaling a sandwich at the next Munro is a great incentive to get up it a bit quicker – and opening a bag of jelly babies after 25km, soaked through to the skin, is bliss beyond the imagination of non-hillwalking mortals.

Of course, as well as being important for mindset, the right food is crucial to give your muscles the fuel they need. Sports scientist and fell runner Naomi Lang says: "You want both fat and carbohydrate in the ideal hill snack. Make sure you have both slow and fast release carbs too, but basically eat a good mix of everything."

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Staying hydrated is equally important, especially if you're after sponsorship from a certain soft drink brand
© Fliss Freeborn

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To get the most bang for your buck calorie-wise, never choose lichen
© Fliss Freeborn

Naomi explains that a balance of carbs and fat is valuable, as your body will be burning both for fuel when it's in a certain heart rate zone. As well as recommending eating simple sugars alongside starchy carbohydrate while out and about, she says it's important to replenish muscles with a big hit of protein post-hike. Naomi is an advocate of the fried egg sandwich as hill snackage (followed by Kendal mint cake) but as a diehard 'food is fuel' sort of person, she doesn't mind the fact that cold fried eggs often take on the texture of old flip flops covered in personal lubricant. I prefer my fried egg sandwiches hot, but it's really down to personal choice here. Naomi can run a lot faster than me if that helps you decide.   

So what's best to bring? There are, of course, no hard and fast rules around what you should be eating outdoors - if you want to take six cornettos and a bag of watercress, no one's going to stop you. But for top hillwalking performance, there are some guiding parameters which are good to stick to: a balance of portability (including energy density for weight), nutritional value in terms of getting the right fuel to your muscles, and of course, deliciousness. Finding the food that has all of these is ultimately pointless, as you'll probably want some variety in your snacks, but I'm going to try anyway, using the ancient and sacred method of top trumps. I've taken some classic (and not so classic) hillwalking snacks and evaluated them against those guiding principles, so you don't have to.

Gels & Blocks 

Gels and blocks offer a rapid release of glucose which is absorbed straight into the bloodstream to quickly reach the muscles. These types of products are more geared towards very high intensity exercise like road cycling and mountain running where your glycogen is being depleted at a startling rate. Normal food requires being turned into glucose by the body first, but gels and blocks cut out the middle man to get glucose to your muscles ASAP.

Energy gels rarely score high marks for taste   © Fliss Freeborn
Energy gels rarely score high marks for taste
© Fliss Freeborn
 

If you're aiming to cover very long distances over a few days carrying minimal weight, having a few gels handy for when the inevitable muscle fatigue sets in isn't such a bad shout. But for most hillwalking days, they're unnecessary, expensive and don't exactly spark joy in the taste department.

  • Taste: 5/10 (if we're feeling generous)
  • Portability: 10/10 
  • Nutritional suitability for walking: 5.5/10 
  • Cost: 3/10
  • Score: 18.5/40

6 Cornettos and a bag of Watercress

No one's stopping you, like I said. The watercress will provide a peppery hit to the cloying vegetable fat and sugar of the ice cream, and add some important vitamins and minerals too. I just can't think why no one's done this before.

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Of course it makes perfect sense
© Fliss Freeborn

  • Taste: 6/10 (minus a point for the watercress) 
  • Portability: 1/10 (gets a point for being more portable in winter)
  • Nutritional suitability for walking: 3/10
  •  Cost: 7/10 (if you buy the off-brand ones, of course)
  • If you do try it, let me know how it goes.   
  • Score: 16/40

Trail Mix

The classic. But is it any good? The age old problem with trail mix is that we all eat the smarties or M&Ms first, and are left with a sad pile of raisins in a Ziploc bag.

The sweets tend to get eaten first - bad news for jelly babies  © Dan Bailey
The sweets tend to get eaten first - bad news for jelly babies
© Dan Bailey

Trail mix is also annoying to eat if it's not immediately accessible in a pocket, and even then it'll spill and you'll be picking cashews out of your coat for weeks. The other issue with trail mix is that its nutritional effectiveness depends entirely on what you put in it. Having just dried fruit and sweets will provide a quick energy burst, but you're better off adding more nuts and seeds for a slower burn – the fat and fibre in the nuts will help mitigate any spike in blood sugar and stop you crashing after only a short while.

  • Taste: 8/10
  • Portability: 7/10
  • Nutritional suitability for walking: 8/10 (if adding nuts and seeds too)
  • Cost: 7/10
  • Score: 30/40 

Roasted, salted peanuts

Cold-fried-egg-queen-sports-science-machine Naomi also swears by salted roasted peanuts as another fuel of choice. And it's easy to see why. Not only are peanuts very calorically dense for their weight, they're also a good source of fat and protein, helping you replenish body salts lost in sweat. Any type of roasted salted nuts is a good bet, but roasted salted peanuts are the cheapest option by a mile. I mean, they cost peanuts.

Some people go nuts for them  © Dan Bailey
Some people go nuts for them
© Dan Bailey

The only thing with peanuts is that although they do provide some level of carbohydrate, very little of this is fast release sugars – if you're moving at a significant pace and are likely to be burning through your 2000 calories of stored glycogen pretty quickly, opt for chocolate coated ones, or swallow a whole curly wurly afterwards.  

  • Taste: 7.5/10 
  • Portability: 8.5/10 
  • Nutritional suitability for walking: 8/10
  • Cost: 10/10
  • Score: 34/40

Sandwiches

The classic hill bagger will come armed with a few cheese and pickle sandwiches, an apple and a Twix. They'll insist on eating lunch at the cairn, no matter the weather. But a big lunch can be difficult to handle when you're walking because more bloodflow is required in the digestive system, rather than your legs, to break down a full meal. You really don't want a post-lunch slump on the descent.

No mere sandwich should make you that happy  © Rob Greenwood
No mere sandwich should make you that happy
© Rob Greenwood

Moving straight away can also lead to indigestion, but it differs very much from person to person. Eating in smaller amounts more regularly suits some people, but others are more python-like and require a just small roe deer once a week. If you're worried about indigestion, eat slowly if you can, and don't force yourself to have a whole round of sandwiches at the top if you don't need to.

Nutritionally, bread is a source of starchy carbohydrates, which are broken down into maltose, then glucose in the small intestine. White bread will spike blood sugar faster than brown because it has less fibre.

What you fill your sandwiches with will obviously alter their nutritional effectiveness, but I highly recommend Nutella and peanut butter for demanding winter days, or slapping last's night's leftovers between slices, with a bunch of brown sauce and some virtue-signalling spinach.

For top trump purposes, I've assessed the suitability of a classic cheese and pickle sandwich - other fillings are available:

  • Taste: 7.5/10 (it's not mind blowing, let's be honest).
  • Portability: 6/10 (can be annoying to carry a specific lunchbox, and sandwiches fall apart now and again, just like us)
  • Nutritional suitability: 8/10 (pretty well balanced with fats, starchy carbs and a little bit of sugar from the chutney)
  • Cost: 8/10 (pretty cheap all round)
  • Score: 29.5/40

A great sandwich hack is to use wraps, which are just as good calorically as bread. Wraps are infinitely more portable because they don't go soggy as easily, but they're also not quite as nice as bread. 

Dave MacLeod Special: 5 hardboiled eggs

I actually asked Dave via email for some comments for this article but he didn't get back to me. I imagine this is what he might have said anyway.

OK, we ran out of eggciting ideas for images here  © Dan Bailey
OK, we ran out of eggciting ideas for images here
© Dan Bailey

  • Taste 5/10 (it's an egg)
  • Portability: 6/10 (loses points for shell waste, and squishability)
  • Nutritional suitability for walking: 7/10 (minus a point for having 0 carbs, but great fat and protein)
  • Cost: 9/10 (egg is cheap. Or cheep.)
  • Score: 27/40

Cold Pizza

Now we're talking. A glorified cheese and tomato sandwich, cold pizza is actually an excellent hill food. Think about it: starchy carbs from the base, fat from the cheese and olive oil and a little burst of sweetness from the tomatoes – plus any protein from toppings like ham or pepperoni.

Margherita Peak - is it found in the distant Rwenzori, or the lunchboxes of discerning hill-goers?  © Dan Bailey
Margherita Peak - is it found in the distant Rwenzori, or the lunchboxes of discerning hill-goers?
© Dan Bailey

Even a minging pizza that you spoiled by leaving it in your car on a hot day has its merits up a hill   © Dan Bailey
Even a minging pizza that you spoiled by leaving it in your car on a hot day has its merits up a hill
© Dan Bailey

Cold pizza is also more portable than a wrap or sandwich, because the topping won't slide off or fall out, and you can't really squash it too badly. Simply cook off a pizza the night before, slice it up and wrap it in tinfoil. It's genius and you know it.

  • Taste 9/10 
  • Portability: 9/10
  • Nutritional suitability for walking: 9/10
  • Cost: 8/10 (you can buy the cheaper one cos you're eating it cold anyway).
  • Score: 35/40

Flapjack/Granola Bars

When we think of hill snacks, it's often this sort of thing we turn to, and for good reason. Oat-based hill snacks tend to offer a good mix of slow release, fibrous grains, and they're usually held together with fat and sugar, which is great for both taste and adding calories.

Shuffle the deck, then pick a bar...  © Dan Bailey
Shuffle the deck, then pick a bar...
© Dan Bailey

If you can make your own flapjack, you should. Here's a recipe. If you're buying flapjacks or cereal bars, make sure to avoid ones which have puffed rice or cornflakes as their main ingredients and try to find ones which have wholegrain oats or nuts instead. Choose the dense ones, and don't bother with bars specifically designed for walkers in outdoors shops. They're expensive and usually disappointing, a bit like Christmas as an adult.

  • Taste 9/10 (if you hunt around - some are of course minging)
  • Portability: 9/10
  • Nutritional suitability for walking: 8/10
  •  Cost: 8/10
  • Score: 34

The final verdict

What a game! There were some strong contenders – here's the scoreboard from least best to best:

  • 6 Cornettos and a bag of Watercress – 16 points
  • Gels and Energy Blocks – 18.5 points
  • 5 hardboiled eggs – 27 points
  • Cheese and pickle sandwich – 29.5 points
  • Trail mix  - 30 points
  • Flapjack/granola bars - 34 points
  • Roasted Peanuts – 34 points
  • Cold Pizza  - 35 points

And cold pizza wins out – because it's absolutely the best thing to take with you. In all honesty though, bar the cornettos, take a good mix of the things from this list up the hill and you'll be singing. Variety, as Naomi says, is key.

If you'd like some inspiration for high-protein hill-cooking after your day of optimum hill snackage, you can find that here:

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