January 16, 2015
Written by Michael Y. Park
Yes, we know you’re cold. Sure, we agree that you’d “literally” be risking frostbite by going out to eat. And we totally get why it’s not worth you leaving the safety of your toasty comforter to hit the “on” button of your slow cooker. It’s tough feeding yourself when the temperatures outside dip around freezing and the TV weatherman keeps talking about a “cold snap.”
So we turned to an expert on cold-weather eating for some advice on how to keep yourself fed when the mercury’s low. Will Steger is a noted adventurer who made history as the leader of the first team to make it to the North Pole by dogsled, the first team to cross the Antarctic by dogsled, and a bone-chilling host of other treks that involved truly deadly subzero temperatures. He’s also the founder of the Will Steger Foundation, which seeks to educate people about and find solutions for climate change. Here’s what he said to keep in mind about eating when it’s cold out. Really cold.
Food Is Heat
When it’s 60 below zero (100 below with wind chill) and your life depends on being able to generate enough heat to bring your sleeping bag to body temperature for most of the night, you need to make sure you have enough fuel for your body’s fire. And the fuel in this case is food. When Steger and his teammates crossed the Antarctic from 1989 to 1990 (3,700 miles in 220 days), each person had to consume about 6,000 calories just to maintain body weight. Dipping below that meant the body would burn its reserve of fat to keep warm, and then burn up muscle, which would lead to disaster. At the same time, naturally, they had to keep the weight down to what the sled dogs could reasonably carry. “We were limited to two pounds, two ounces per day for ourselves, and had to cram everything into that weight limit,” Steger says in a phone interview. “And remember that the dogs are eating at the same rate, so for ten dogs, that’s about 27 pounds of food per day per sled.”
Fat Is Life
When you’ve got a strict weight limit but still need to pack in three times as many calories as a person in temperate climes, you obviously need to prioritize calorie-dense foods. “That’s why fat is very important,” he says. “We get the majority of our fat from butter and cheese, with normal rations of four ounces or a stick of butter a day, another two ounces of almond or peanut butter, and cheese.” A typical day would be carbs with fat in the morning (oatmeal with butter), peanut or almond butter and cashews or almonds and dried fruit for lunch, and butter melted onto rice or pasta (almost always spaghetti) for dinner. “The carbs are really just a vehicle for more butter.” To meet his vitamin C requirements, Steger squeezes the juice from a whole bunch of lemons or limes into a plastic bottle before the trip and adds some to his water each morning.
Energy Bars Can Cause Serious Damage
Energy bars sound like an obvious go-to ration for extreme cold, but you have to be careful. “Everyone in the Antarctic has chipped a tooth on them.” The trick, Steger says? “Put the bar into the palm of your palm of your glove and just smash it really hard as you hold onto the upright (handlebars) as you travel. Usually you can break it into a bunch of pieces, and then you soften them up in hot water to get them in your mouth fine. A broken tooth is no fun when you’re 2,000 miles from the nearest dentist.” (You have to be careful about eating nuts for the same reason. The typical way to eat nuts on a trek is to pop them into a Thermos of hot water and then eat them with a plastic spoon, as if it were a soup.)
You Really Get to Know Your Butters
Steger likes to pack unsalted grass-fed organic butter on his cold-weather treks, and has subsisted on butter diets for so long that he’s learned to tell the weather by how his sticks of butter react to the temperatures at breakfast. “At a certain point the butter breaks off in a smooth fracture—you could tell the temperature within ten degrees by the snap.”
His teams don’t carry their nut butters in supermarket jars—too much extra weight and space. Instead, they roll them up into thin plastic-wrap tubes and cut off what they need day by day. “You can’t have peanut butter in a mass, because you couldn’t get at it without an ax.” Steger goes for creamy peanut butter over crunchy, and almond butter over either because it’s easier to digest.
On special mornings, Steger and his teammates would mix butter with peanut butter and have that for breakfast. “Boy, that’d be great! It’d take care of you almost the whole day!”
Not All Cheeses Are the Same at 60 Below
Cheddar and brie are both out in extreme-cold treks for different reasons. Cheddar gets so hard at those temperatures that you might as well try to eat a stone. Brie, on the other hands, is soft but doesn’t pack enough calories per ounce to make it worth carrying, Steger says. His cheese of choice? Muenster.
Chocolate Is the Best
Also included in the daily ration? Four ounces of chocolate. “You’d get a good two to four hours of energy out of it.” Steger’s favorite way to have it would be to mix it in with a Thermos cup of whole-fat dried milk reconstituted with hot water. It’s easy to get down and gives you that extra mood boost that’s key on marathon treks. “It becomes like this really thick hot chocolate that’s, oh God, it’s just so wonderful.” Though Steger prefers the benefits of dark chocolate, he says that the consistency is harder to deal with at low temperatures and can be harder to digest, while milk chocolate melts more easily in the mouth.
Coffee Is the Worst
“We don’t do do coffee. Even the coffee drinkers don’t do coffee,” Steger says. “It brings you up and then down, and you can’t afford to go up and down like that because it wears down your system. It just takes up too much energy. And when you’re doing 20 miles a day for 220 days, one dietary error each day adds up over time.” The less-caffeinated hot beverage of choice? Black tea.
Pemmican Is Good, Raw Caribou Is Better
Pemmican, the Native American trail mix of fat and dried meat, is great, especially if you use pork instead of less calorie-efficient beef, Steger says. You just pack it into patties and break off a bite when you need it. He’s also a big fan of dried soup mixes, which add calories and flavor to your hot melted snow and ice. But his favorite meal of all, when it’s available (like in arctic Canada)? “I’d eat about two pounds of caribou or seal when I’m on my own each night, pretty much raw. I might boil it or fry it up, but it’d still be frozen in the middle. To this day, I feel that it’s the best food I’ve ever had. You just feel great eating it every day.”
Crossing the Antarctic by Dogsled Still Beats Your Commute
“I find it less annoying than getting stuck in rush-hour traffic,” Steger says. So you’ve still got that to complain about.