PHOTO: David Reddick
PHOTO: David Reddick

How to Fuel for the Skin Track

Including the best time to crack that celebratory beer

If you're like me, you eat more pizza during ski season than you should. Pizza is convenient, delicious, and makes for great leftovers.

Turns out, however, that a leftover cold slice is not the most efficient food for our bodies when ski touring. Touring is a major aerobic exercise that puts a lot of pressure on our bodies (do it for the glutes!) and requires proper fuel.

Plus, focusing on the next snack break is my No. 1 motivational tool while touring. In that sense, I’m not much more evolved than a dog: Will perform for treats. It’s one the few recurring thoughts I have on the skin track. The first being how much I love chairlifts--these manmade constructs that take us to nirvana. However, skin track snacks should be more than just a reward for suffering and can, in fact, help us ski better and feel less like dog doo.

Sports nutritionist Roxanne Vogel, the in-house nutrition expert at Gu Energy Labs, spoke about what to eat and when at the first annual Arc’teryx Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Academy in Jackson Hole this winter, and I followed up with my own questions--Including the best time to crack that celebratory beer.

Yes, breakfast is still the most important meal.
Vogel suggests having a hot breakfast so you’re starting out on a warm, full belly. Her go-to is coffee and steel-cut oats with milk, nuts, and dried fruit. Sprinkle hemp seeds on top for protein. (Aim for 10-20 grams of protein in your breakfast). If you generally drink caffeine, it shouldn’t be an issue to stick with your usual on days you’ll be touring. However, try to keep it to two cups of coffee to avoid a crash.

Keep a steady flow of the right calories.
During a moderate ski tour, most of us need to consume about 150 calories per hour to keep energy high and our bodies functioning their best. Vogel recommends a trickle feed approach while skinning. “Think of it like an IV drip--gradual and consitent--versus one big chunk of fuel. It’s better for digestive purposes,” she says.

Try to minimize fat and protein while working hard in the backcountry. Keep an energy bar in your chest pocket or a bag of pretzel twists on hand. Things like yogurt raisins, nuts, or trail mix are better if you're going to have time to sit and digest. Whatever it is that you pack, make sure it’s something you want to eat so you’re more likely to do it.

If you plan on stopping at the top of your skin track before skiing down, this is a good time to have some real food, like a sandwich or wrap. Vogel suggests one real food item for a full day out, with the rest of your calories coming from small snacks.

Stay hydrated.
The rule of thumb is to drink a half liter of liquids per every hour of touring.

You’re more likely to stay hydrated if you pack warm liquids and drinks with flavor. If it’s very cold, you’re in a particularly exposed area, or you need to keep transition times especially short, a hot drink like Tang, miso broth, or soup is also a great way to get calories, stay hydrated, and keep warm.

“We often don't think about it cold environments, but getting dehydrated causes a lot of performance issues and can change the way you think,” says Vogel. “It can cause lapses in judgment if the mind not working as clearly. That’s a safety concern.”

This is not an excuse to eat gummy bears. Sorry.
“Candy is going to give you the quick energy boost but is also going to crash out pretty quickly,” says Vogel. “It’s not my first choice because of the crash, but if you can combine with something more complex, it's still an easy-to-digest energy source in a pinch.”

Similar to gels, goos, and chews, chocolate espresso beans are great when you're bonking and just need some energy, but a good gel will also include helpful electrolytes.

There are some things to avoid.
It’s easy to pack whatever we happen to have in the fridge, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just crush this slice of pizza midday,’ but Vogel says that’s too many calories all at once. Plus, when a majority of those calories are protein and fat, it’s hard for your body to digest while working hard.

Start the apres with some protein.
Just because you’ve made it back to the trailhead doesn’t mean your body is done working. Adding a recovery drink mix to your water back at the car is a simple thing you can do to maximize the benefits from all the work you just put in and prevent extra fatigue and soreness the following day.

Your body also needs about 20 grams of protein at this point, which you can get through a protein mix, nut butter, or a turkey sandwich.

Can I have my beer now?
If you’re going to drink alcohol after touring, Vogel stresses it’s important to hydrate with water first. Alcohol has a diuretic effect, so you’ll have to pee more, making you even more dehydrated. Drink a full liter of water before you consider your beer. Adding some electrolytes will help aid in recovery and give you more bang for your buck. “You’ve got to pre-hydrated before you dehydrate.”

Pack strategically.
Now that you know what to pack, store it strategically to eliminate hassle during transitions. Carry small snacks in your jacket, thigh pant pocket, or waist pockets you can access without having to take off your pack.

Keep your thermos right on top of your pack where you’re more likely to see it and drink from it often.

“If you're tired, your brain just starts to function differently. Combined with low oxygen, mental clarity goes down and you may not feel super hungry, so you won’t happen to eat,” says Vogel. “Put things right there in front of you, instead of letting it go, is a good reminder.”