Chow now and how! Forest Service firefighters learn to pack on the calories

Leo Kay
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
August 21st, 2013 at 5:15PM

There are certain jobs in this world in which nutritionists and medical professionals alike actually encourage people to pig out during the height of activities.  Some may think of professional football players or even Navy seals having this “predicament.” 

Count the U.S. Forest Service’s wildland firefighter in that category, too.

Comprising the backbone of all wildland fire suppression activities, hotshot crews and smokejumpers regularly spend 12-hour days traversing rugged terrain in hazardous conditions digging firelines, clearing brush and conducting back burns in already sweltering heat to protect communities and property.  Without proper high-calorie diets, firefighters could easily become fatigued and lose body weight and muscle.

On a typical day, the average wildland firefighter should ingest up to 6,000 calories, including more than 700 grams of carbohydrates. These men and women are even encouraged to salt their food to make up for lost electrolytes. In contrast, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and  Health and Human Services recommends anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day for active adults.

The types and sources of calories, carbs and fluids recommended for firefighters can vary depending on age, body composition and other factors. In a typical fire camp, however, cooks are required to serve the firefighters foods that are high in carbohydrates and low in fats. Complex carbs such as potatoes, corn, rice and beans are available on the chow line with most “healthy fats” derived from nuts, seeds and oils. One constant remains the same for firefighters and non-firefighters alike: Mom was right, always eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Experts also point to the amount and type of hydration as being crucial for strength and endurance while on the fireline. Firefighters should drink one litre – slightly more than four cups – of liquids per hour on the job, with up to one half of that coming in the form of electrolyte sports beverages.

Once fire season is over, firefighters are encouraged to resume eating meals like the rest of us.  Then they can go to www.Choosemyplate.gov to learn the best nutritional tips on how to stay healthy when the world isn’t burning all around you.

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