It probably goes without saying that a lot of Mountain House customers - an awful lot of them - have a predilection for the high country. (The same goes for a lot of Mountain House staff and ambassadors.)
Mountaineers kick-stepping their way to an iced-over summit. Rock climbers tackling alpine spires and big walls. Hunters seeking elk that are still haunting the summer range deep into autumn. Anglers questing after nameless trout-plied tarns. Backpackers, at long last, undertaking that ginormous high-elevation circuit they’ve always dreamed about.
The allure of the heights is pretty obvious, but there’s no question these above-it-all places come with their own challenges. Among those challenges is meal preparation, given the related impacts of high altitude on the boiling point of water and cooking time.
In this article, we’ll run through the basics of cooking food at high elevations—and lay out why our Mountain House pouches are absolutely ideal for alpine and subalpine cuisine!
A Quick Note on Terminology
Herein, we’re going to use “high altitude” and “high elevation” synonymously, but scientists often make a subtle distinction between these terms. Altitude refers to the vertical distance above sea level—basically a free-air measure—while elevation is the height of a particular point of Earth’s surface above that baseline. So you’d say an airplane is cruising at some 33,000 feet in altitude, or a handsome fleet of altocumulus clouds is drifting by around 14,000 feet in altitude, whereas a particular mountain summit, you'd say, tops out at 13,045 feet of elevation.
If we want to get nitpicky, therefore, a climber or backpacker up in the mountains or elevated plateau country is dealing with the effects of altitude on their high-elevation water boiling and cooking. But we split hairs here…
Understanding the Effects of Altitude on High-Elevation Water Boiling & Cooking
All else being equal, atmospheric pressure (sometimes simply termed air pressure) declines with altitude. As you go higher up in the atmosphere, in other words, the pressure drops.
This impacts the boiling point of water, which is the temperature at which water in its liquid form starts transforming into its gaseous form of vapor. Technically speaking, this happens when the vapor pressure of water coincides with the atmospheric pressure.
At higher elevations, due to the lower air pressure, water comes to a boil at a lower temperature than at sea level. Whereas at sea level, the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s 203 degrees at 5,000 feet in elevation, and only 194 degrees at 10,000 feet.
The rule of thumb is that the boiling point of water drops by roughly one degree for every 500 feet gained in elevation.
More than a few people wrongly assume the opposite: that water boils at a higher temperature at high altitudes. Again, that’s not the case: Water up in the high country starts boiling away at a lower temperature—and thus more quickly—than it does down in the lowlands. The misconception arises because it generally takes longer to cook food at high elevations, for the simple fact that the water is boiling cooler. In other words, lower boiling points translate to longer cooking times.
For example, at a 5,000-foot contour, water will boil at nearly 10 degrees cooler than at sea level, and you’ll want to about double the cooking time.
Other Challenges of High Elevations
The decreased atmospheric pressure at high elevations isn’t the only complication these environments pose to a hungry rambler. It’s often windier at higher elevations.
High-altitude winds that are less slowed down by the frictional drag of the surface, for example, may blast right into an exposed mountaintop or isolated high mesa rising into their level. And the complicated terrain one often encounters in the heights can play a role, with winds funneled and strengthened by canyons, passes, and other topographic influences. Needless to say, a flame fluttering in a strong breeze doesn’t do a very efficient job of heating the bottom of a pot.
Of course, it’s usually colder at higher elevations, too (though there are exceptions, as when low basins or valleys are socked in by fog and stratus during an inversion, while peaks and ridges bask in sunlight). As we’ll get to, some cooking fuels perform better in colder conditions than others.
Preparing for High-Country Trips: Picking the Right Backpacking Foods, Backpacking Stoves, and Other Supplies for Higher Altitudes
Because cooking time takes longer at high elevations, it’s best to choose quick-cooking or no-cook foods so you’re not expending a lot of fuel and time. A long boil will also see more evaporation, potentially requiring a larger amount of water—often at a premium in alpine country—overall.
Mountain House Meals: Made for the High Country
The freeze-dried meals we produce here at Mountain House are the perfect choice for high-elevation trips. They require minimal cooking time to reconstitute in boiling water, as the food is precooked. **It’s less important to extend your cooking time when heating Mountain House meals at altitude, compared with raw foods such as rice or couscous.**
And, in fact, while the basic recommendation for preparing our meals is adding hot water and waiting a short while—typically nine or so minutes—you can actually reconstitute these tasty, backcountry-ready eats with cold water. If going that route, you just need to let the contents of your Mountain House pouch soak for twice as long or so than the cooking time indicated on the package.
The speed and simplicity with which you can whip up a nutritious and delicious Mountain House feast using easy-peasy "cooking methods" make our products ideal for mountain jaunts.
Backpacking Stoves, Fuel, and Windscreens
How about backpacking stoves? Liquid-fuel stoves perform more efficiently than pressurized canister stoves at altitude—and at lower temperatures—because they’re manually primed, so they’re usually the better choice for high-country treks and climbs. Quick-heating, high-output white gas, and kerosene are both good fuels on this front. (Learn more about choosing the best backpacking stove.)
You should also consider a windscreen for your stove, to shield that precious flame from the aforementioned breezes and gusts of the high country. In alpine settings, you may have minimal naturally existing windbreaks to take advantage of, after all. You can construct a windbreak from stones or logs, but a better Leave No Trace method is to purchase a stove windscreen—or manufacture your own DIY version at home!
Safety When Boiling Water & Cooking at High Elevations
While alpine climbers in extreme conditions must sometimes cook within their tents or portaledges, you should try to avoid that if at all possible, given the potential for fumes and flames. Fill and refill your liquid-fuel stoves well away from your tent as well as any open flame.
We’ve already talked a bit about the effects of altitude on water purification earlier in this article, but if you’re interested in learning more, please read our blog post, where we really dive into the topic.
Boiling is a highly effective way to purify water, as it kills bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. At lower elevations, bringing water to a rolling boil should be enough to do so, although the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention suggests letting the water boil for a minute is the safest bet. The CDC also recommends adding an extra three minutes of waiting with a rolling boil at elevations above 6,500 feet. But there’s some debate about that; many speculate that, even at higher elevations, water that comes to a boil has been effectively purified.
If you want to err on the side of safety, you can absolutely extend the boiling time. If you’re really strapped for fuel or water, however, you may decide you’re comfortable with just bringing water to a boil.
Take Mountain House on Your Next Mountaineering Expedition
Here’s the deal: Mountain House meals taste great—and are easy and quick to prepare—at any elevation, from bottomland forests to snow-bowl cirques. Have a gander at our full collection, and get some high-country dreaming for next season going!