Let’s talk trail snacks! Snacks are fun regardless of where and when they’re eaten, but snacks become essential on the trail. Hiking burns a lot of calories and you can easily bonk if you don’t find some way of refueling along the way. Trust me. I used to hike all day without any snacks only to absolute crash and burn once I got home. I’m talking laying on my couch from 5 pm onward with no energy to do anything. It made for a riveting social life. In other words, you gotta fuel yourself on the trail.
When it comes to hiking, you’ll want to be extra thoughtful about what you bring along. Here are a few simple rules to help you pick the best hiking fuel for the trail. I’ve also followed up the general rules with links to some of my favourite products and recipes (and no, I haven’t been compensated for product suggestions–my readership is nowhere near what it needs to be for that!).
Trail Eats 101: snacking right for a hike
1. Keep it Compact and Resilient: You’re going to be carrying whatever you have to eat, along with all your gear, and your water. That’s a lot of stuff. What you don’t need to add to the mix are giant tupperware containers or large-sized snacks. Keep trail snacks small. And, if you’re anything like me, your snacks will quite literally be crammed into your backpack. This is not the time for rice crackers in their foil pouch nor a pillowy soft coffee cake in a baggie (yes, these specific examples come from experience). They will only end up flattened and crushed beyond recognition. Choose foods that can withstand the pressure of a full backpack.
2. Watch out for thirst makers: Heat and exercise already make you thirsty enough, so don’t pick a snack that’s going to add unnecessarily to your thirst. If you do, you could burn through your water supply way faster than planned. Plus, it’s just unpleasant to be parched. Salty nut mixes are your enemy. Instead, look for raw, unsalted trail mixes. They’ll also be less delicious, which means you won’t eat an entire family sized bag before you even reach the summit. Peanut butter sandwiches are also on my no-go list. Peanut butter mouth is the worst even at the best of times so you know throwing dehydration into the mix is going to make it downright intolerable. As a rule of thumb, if foods make you really thirsty when you’re not even exercising, you probably want to steer clear when you’re sweating up a storm.
3. Sugar + carbs are your friends (but do both wisely): Oh, how the world likes to villainize sugar and carbs. Let me tell you, if you’re going to hike 20+ kilometres and gain a bunch of elevation, sugar and carbs are a great source of energy. That said, this doesn’t mean packing chocolate bars and candy. Sure, those snacks are fine every once in a while, but they’re going to make you hella thirsty (see above) and won’t provide more than a quick energy boost. Plus, there are so many fantastic products on the market that make use of dates and other natural ingredients for sweetness, as well as great recipes for home-made trail cookies and bars (I’ve included one of my favourites below). Look for products with a handful of ingredients (all of which you can easily pronounce), with fruits as sweeteners, with minimal additives, and with healthier grains.
4. Make sure they don’t need to keep their cool: Anything that would normally be kept in your fridge is probably not ideal for hanging around in your hot backpack all day. Forget food safe rules and just imagine being absolutely starving and having to dig into a lukewarm, wilted salad. Even a simple meat + veg sandwich can be rather unforgiving after a few hours in a backpack. Don’t even talk to me about anything with mayonnaise…
5. Avoid big smells: This one is pure paranoia, but I have a long-standing and largely irrational fear that if I take any food with a strong odour on the trail, I will surely be attacked by a bear. Like I said, I know this is irrational but, when it comes to bears, my philosophy is that one can never be too careful. I keep my snacks relatively neutral in the odour department and live to hike another day.
If you’re wondering what I most often carry in my backpack, here are my top 5 trail snacks, including some home-made options!
1. Cashew Lara Bars: My stomach does not handle any of the Lara Bars with almonds, but the cashew bar is stomach-approved and absolutely divine. The ingredient list is short and they will give you a quick sugar hit when your energy reserves are low.
2. Prima Ginger + Pistachio: I am a sucker for anything ginger. And these have the added boost of brown rice crisps and quinoa flakes for some staying power.
3. Trail cookies: I make quite a few modifications to this recipe, usually adding coconut, chia seeds and dried (unsweetened) cranberries in place of the chocolate and cacao nibs (because not once in my life have I had cacao nibs on hand). You can also sub peanut butter for the almond butter if you don’t want to pay $9000 for a jar of almond butter (seriously, how has it gotten so expensive?!?). Your end result will be a crazy dense and filling cookie, perfect for on-trail energy boosts.
4. Green smoothie: Okay, okay, this is totally going to look like it violates my ‘no refrigeration required’ rule and my ‘compact foods only’ rule, but hear me out. I bought this great small, super-insulated thermos years ago and it fits perfectly on the outside pouch of my backpack AND keeps things cold for over eight hours. Here’s the trick: I make the smoothie the night before and freeze it overnight. For the smoothie, use a high-power blender to blend: 1 whole apple (peel and everything, which is why you need a really good blender), juice of one lemon, 1/4 of a cucumber, 2 TBSP chia seeds, and 1-2 cups of frozen kale. Blend and add water to get to desired consistency. This has almost no sweetness so it’s not for everyone but it is ultra refreshing on a hot day and full of vitamins and minerals!
5. Sierra Trail Mix: The link is for a local drugstore house brand, but any raw mix will do. This one is heavy on seeds, lighter on nuts, and doesn’t have any of that pesky, thirst-making chocolate. I’ll save my chocolate binges for post-hiking, thank you very much.
Snack wisely on those trails, friends!