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Managing [Nutrition] Extremes in Hostile Mountain Environments

As the weather warms up and we transition into the sunnier and drier time of year that can mean different things for our outdoor community in managing the nutrition demands of hostile mountain environments. 

For some, it’s time to get out and find sheds, morels, or both. For others, the first big race of the season is coming up. Maybe you're chasing tom turkeys or spring bears. Or you want to get out in the fresh air and see the hillsides shed their winter wools. For a population I am closely acquainted with, it means the start of fire season. I spent 6 years myself preparing for wildland fire seasons. Throughout this time I was taking classes at the University of Idaho studying food science. Firefighting and food sound unrelated, but as I quickly learned (the hard way) performance fueling is important and prioritizing nutrition in this field is critical. This connection inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in nutrition. I now take some of those lessons learned as well as my education as a registered dietitian nutritionist, RDN, and help outdoor athletes train, fuel, and recover to support their work and/or play. 

Crew stops to take five for a bite.

The demands of the job itself require wildland firefighters to train, think, and nourish themselves like athletes to be successful and get the most out of their performance…just like you as you start training for trips you may have planned this summer or fall.  While nutrition is always tailored to the person, there are some key things I’ve found while working with this group that I want to share with you as you ramp up your training and trips this summer:  

  1. What makes nutrition related to the WLFF/Outdoor Athlete unique? 

  2. How do I change how I eat with the changes in my season and training?  

  3. Is it possible to support performance and recovery when traveling so much- be it vacations, trips for scouting, hunting, or other outdoor pursuits? 

  1. Specific to the Wildland Firefighter/Outdoor Athlete

The demands of the job are unique. Unlike other athletes they are not preparing for one event. They may be asked to perform for days on end, for the duration of the fire season, with very little time between assignments. Much of the work is endurance based and the tempo is steady but requires great stamina, although there are also instances where strength, speed and explosiveness all come into play.  Sounds alot like some of the thru-hikes, hunts, or other outdoor pursuits we chase; doesn’t it? And we can’t forget the influence of the environment. Much like WLFF, outdoor athletes are at the mercy of mother nature and topography. This could mean hot and cold temperature extremes and unpredictable weather, high altitude conditions, and various humidities. These factors impact appetite, hydration status, metabolic processes, and more. Wildland firefighters from the southeastern part of the country could be assigned to a fire in the Rocky Mountains and expected to perform at the level of local crews with little to no acclimation. 

Big Take-a-way: Respect the utility of carbohydrates and consume them with frequency. One of the hardest lessons I faced when starting in wildland firefighting was thinking an extremely calorie restricted diet with little to no carbohydrate intake would support the work to be done. Very early in my first fire season I faced one of the hardest days I can remember, working a feisty prescribed burn in steep, Salmon river country with a heavy pack and physical demands I was not used to. I thought the normal breakfast at 7, lunch around noon, and dinner when I got back after work would suffice. What I thought I knew about nutrition told me carbohydrates were bad for you and would no doubt cause you to gain weight. My entire perspective changed that day and it was a lesson I can definitely say I learned the hard way.

When it comes to the demands outdoor athletes place on their bodies, embracing all fuel, but especially carbohydrate consumption early, often (more eating episodes = more work output), and in greater quantities than you normally might need will help fuel and recover the body and set you up to face the challenges at hand.

Sam remaining hopeful he'll dig out some Skittles in the MRE he chose.

2. Seasonal Changes- 

As fire activity is ramping up, crews have likely dedicated much of their time the past few months to physical preparations. With the national preparedness level (PL) going up, less time will be devoted to physical training and an emphasis on quick response to the initial attack of wildfires is the highest priority. Along with greater commitment to fires nationwide and more wildland firefighters in travel status, more time will be spent away from normal routines including fitness, sleep, food preparation and fueling routines. As the season winds down in the late fall, priorities will change to resting and recovering from the busy and taxing fire season. 

Big Take-a-way: Know how and when to pull the macronutrient “levers”. We have emphasized again and again how carbohydrate intake is a huge predictor for performance. But not every day, week, or even month of the year is intense, exhaustive work. Training ebbs and flows and with that, attention to fueling and tactics might change throughout the year as well. During the peak training times or season, and the event itself, attention to detail and specific goal numbers will allow you to know you’re supporting the work you’re doing. In the case of the wildland firefighter, as the long season wraps up it may be a good time to remain active, but change the focus to mobility and recovery. These lower volumes will require less attention to detail and less overall energy consumed. Choices become easy when you know how and when to pull the different “levers” of the macronutrients and how that will support your training phase.

Crew hikes off the line to spike camp for a helicopter-slung dinner.

3. Fueling with Purpose Away from Home-

Wildland firefighters are faced with the challenge to maintain consistency and a sense of normalcy while working in their dynamic and constantly evolving environment. One of the big topics that comes up with this population is how to support the training period they're in with their nutrition, especially when traveling. Sometimes the work takes them to remote locations with little to no food or grocery options. Or maybe the fire is large enough, the food is being provided by caterers and the choice of what, when, and where to eat is out of their immediate control. This might sound similar to a hunt or scouting trip you have planned, a vacation, or maybe you also travel a lot for work.

Big Take-a-way: Master the basics and come prepared.

Packing around a little nutrition knowledge and an understanding of how food works to support us and what we are needing can really help you master nutrition on the road. Whether you’re at the grocery store buying food, dining out, or navigating the hotel continental breakfast, knowing how different foods may or may not support your training phase and goals can empower you to make confident choices on the go. 

The second piece of advice I have would be to come prepared with staple items you anticipate not seeing while you’re out and about. For example, I typically encourage wildland firefighters to stock their bins on the truck with shelf stable protein sources and a few different high energy snacks and carbohydrate-rich staples. I also strongly encourage picking up some fresh fruits and vegetables for the cooler. These can all be few and far between when working on remote fires.

Although all of our situations are unique, many of us can relate our "why" to some of the challenges wildland firefighters face while trying to perform their job.

  1.  Many of us want to identify and fuel as hybrid athletes, boasting stamina and endurance as well as strength and power. 

  2. There are likely seasonal changes in how you’re able to train. Maybe your schedule and training opportunities look a little different throughout the year and you want to know how to make the most of that. 

  3. And most of us are on-the-go to some degree these days. Fueling can be a challenge when we aren't in our home environment, but to be consistent and make positive adaptations, we must navigate the basics of proper fueling no matter where we find ourselves. 

A packout from a remote initial attack fire-dropped off by helicopter, but getting out on grit! Haha

I no longer work as a wildland firefighter, but am lucky to work closely with many of them. I do still identify as an outdoor athlete, though. All of these areas relate to my own love for backcountry hunting and challenging myself in the outdoors, as well as the work I do now as a packer. I’ve observed that facing topography and the elements, seasonal changes, and fueling on the go are experienced by outdoor athletes everywhere. So, although the transition into the summer season looks a little different for everyone, you might be surprised by some of the relatable challenges wildland firefighters are up against when it comes to training and fueling. Some of what they face might not look so different from your day to day after all. 

Heidi is a fabulous addition to the Valley to Peak team! She's a recent graduate of University of Idaho who spends a vast majority of her time packing deep into the backcountry with mules for the Forest Service and hunting some of the great species of the West. She and her husband live in Northern Idaho.


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