What you pack to eat on a hiking trip is critical to getting the most from your adventure. So that begs the question: what are the best hiking snacks to fuel your body, and keep your mind alert while you enjoy the great outdoors?
While you might think long and hard about your clothing and equipment options, the importance of food is often overlooked. Read on for some advice on finding the perfect hiking goodies for you.
Has Your Food Got What it Takes?
Like other endurance athletes, hikers need a steady supply of energy and nutrients in their system. While nutrients should be provided by a healthy everyday diet, on a hike, you will need to think about providing your body with energy that is easy to get to. Whatever snacks you choose, they need to provide the right levels of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in an easily digestible form.
Digestible means that your body shouldn’t have to work too hard to break down the meal into fuel, as it’ll be working hard enough as it is. A snack with a certain amount of fiber will help keep things moving inside, while you take care of things on the outside. A snack with just a few natural ingredients will be easier on the body than one made up of a complex mixture of chemicals and additives.
Carbohydrates are the most important ingredient in a hiker’s snack stash. These are basically sugars that provide your body with energy. There are two types of carbs – simple and complex.
Simple carbs are what make up sugary sodas and candy bars. Simple carbs cause a flood of glucose to be released quickly into the blood providing a high initial energy boost. The downside is that the energy boost will soon be followed by a crash – something you don’t need halfway up a mountain.
Complex carbs will release energy into your body over a longer period of time, avoiding the shock to the system energy crash of a candy bar. Ingredients like nuts, grains, fruits and veg contain complex carbohydrates and fiber too.
Without proteins to repair and grow well-used muscles, the hiker will be prone to injuries and fatigue. Even a sedentary person will need a constant supply of proteins to replace those lost through excretion and lost hair and skin.
On average we are advised to consume 46-56 grams (for women and men, respectively) of protein per day, so hikers need to make sure they raise this amount. For regular hikers, an additional 0.7 grams of protein for every pound of body weight is recommended.
Meat may spring to mind as the obvious protein-rich food, but if you are vegetarian or vegan, there are still plenty of options. Cheese is a good vegetarian protein source, while nuts and seeds are excellent sources of protein for those who choose not to eat dairy.
Your body needs a certain amount of fat for optimum health. And – good news for hikers – fat is an excellent source of the extra calories you’ll need to keep moving out there.
For its weight, fat packs in the most calories of any food type, so you are sure to find fat in many of the best hiking foods. And as you will be burning all those calories, there is no need to feel guilty about them.
Nuts and nut butter are an excellent source of fat for hikers, as they are combined with protein in a natural and easily digestible form. Nuts are also easy to pack and carry and can be stored for long periods without going off.
When to Eat on the Trail
Part of what we love about hiking is being fully in the moment, present in the body, feeling the power of the weather and the incredible scenery. Being ‘at one’ with nature is one way of putting it.
To be fully at one with nature we need to stay in tune with our bodies. The right time to eat out on the trail is when your body is hungry. Listen out for the hunger pangs and the rumbling tummy.
Eating too often while exercising can take blood away from the muscles and lungs in order to digest food. To stay most active, smaller snacks, eaten when the body ‘asks’ are the best option.
Depending on the conditions – the temperature, terrain, how well you are feeling generally, your fitness level, etc. – your bodies needs will change, so stay in tune with what your body asks and you should be on the right track (no pun intended!).
Don’t forget to Drink
Water is essential to the process of breaking down food into fuel. Sipping water little and often ought to keep you hydrated, and this is something you need to pay attention to even in cold weather.
Lots of people are regularly dehydrated and don’t realize it. When correctly hydrated the body will produce straw colored urine. Anything darker than this means that more water is needed.
Moisture is lost from the body through sweating and even breathing, so constant replenishment is necessary. Warning signs that you aren’t drinking enough can include headaches and stomach cramps.
What to Look For in a Hiking Snack
As we mentioned above, your snacks should have a combination of the most important ingredients, and in as natural form as possible. Check the ingredients listed on the pack for complex carbs such as nuts, dried fruit, cereals, and grains, or make up your own super-snacks.
Vitamins and minerals should be coming from the everyday diet – your main concern when hiking is keeping energy levels high.
While hiking, your calorie needs will be much higher than on a more sedentary day, so high calories are a must.
Just how many extra calories you will need to keep you going will depend on a number of factors. The average man needs 2,500 calories a day while a woman needs 2,000 calories to maintain body weight. This will vary according to each person’s weight, metabolic rate and activity levels.
On a day’s hike of around 15 miles, a 150 lb person carrying a 30 lb pack can be expected to burn anything from 750-850 calories more than their usual daily requirement. Of course, this would likely be more in extremely cold conditions or if the terrain was challenging.
So a total calorie intake for a day of hiking could be around 2,850 calories for a woman, and 3,350 calories for a man.
Pack Size and Weight
The food you choose to take with you will take up space in your pack and will weigh you down.
On a short trip, with only a relatively small amount of food needed, this may not be so important, but if you are planning a trip with overnight stays, you will need to look for maximum calories in a minimum package.
Dried foods have the weight of the water removed, meaning you can pack more energy into the space you have available. Of course, the water will have to be replaced at some point, but if you are planning on purifying water sourced as you travel, you’ll have that need covered.
Are you traveling in hot weather? Snow? Think about how your snack will stand up to the conditions. Eating something that looked delicious when you packed it, but is now a gooey, melted mess shouldn’t be part of your trip. Nor should breaking a tooth on a frozen solid energy bar.
If you are hiking in the cold, will you be able to open your food when you need it? What about if your hands are wet? How about in an emergency? The most well-designed packs will be easy to open in any conditions, something that you could be very grateful for if you get in a bind.
Your next consideration should be the amount of packaging you will have to bring home with you. Excess packaging just means more to carry and it’s bad for the environment too – packaging should be adequate, not excessive.
Do you sit on your pack during rest stops? If so, you might want to double check that the packaging on the energy gel you decided on is up to that kind of abuse. Your food needs to stay wrapped till you want it – not take its own trip around the contents of your backpack. A sleeping bag covered in energy gel? No thanks.
Do You Want to Eat it?
Remember earlier on, we talked about how your food needs to be easily digestible? Well, it can be a good idea to try any potential hiking snack out in everyday life first. If you don’t get on with a particular food, indigestion and cramps may follow, and out on the trail is not the best place to deal with these issues.
Another thing that’s good to know before heading out is if you actually like the food. Is the flavor good? The texture? There is no point trying to force yourself to eat the latest scientifically proven wonder snack if you hate it. That is asking for trouble. Go for something you know you enjoy instead.
Make sure you check the ingredients list of any pre-made snacks for allergens or ingredients that you may be intolerant of. Again, you need to be able to rely on these foods, so make sure you can eat them before you go.
Cheaper than ‘energy bars’, granola bars can be picked up in any store or can be easily made at home. They are great for packing and are still edible if broken or squashed.
Depending on the exact ingredients, granola bars can contain all the major nutrient types – carbs, fats and proteins, and some have added dried fruit too. They tend to be quite dry, so be sure to drink plenty of water when you eat your granola bar.
Sandwiches are easy to make and infinitely customizable. You can find your personal favorite filling combination and still meet your body’s nutrient needs. How about trying some of these fillings?
- Peanut butter and jelly – the quick energy from the jelly combined with the slower release energy, fat, and protein from the peanut butter covers all the bases.
- Chicken/Tuna and mayonnaise – High protein chicken or tuna, with high-fat mayo, will help tired muscles keep moving.
The down-side of sandwiches is in their portability (or lack of it). Without a heavy and bulky box to protect them, the possibility of them surviving in a backpack is quite low.
Another thing to bear in mind is how well they will stand up to heat. Some sandwiches may not be fit to eat after a few hours in a pack in full sun.
Let’s not forget about good old fruits. While many fruits don’t pack the calories the other foods on this list do, the humble banana can hold its own. 186 of the 200 calories in a cup of mashed banana come from carbs, making this a very carb-rich food source. With its own bio-degradable packaging and delicious taste, the banana is worth considering especially for a day hike.
Dried fruits can be more transportable than their fresh counterparts, and they are much more energy dense too. They won’t go off and can be crammed into whatever spaces are left in your pack. What’s more, dried fruit can be very economical, as you can easily make your own at home.
Trail Mix (a.k.a. GORP – Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) has been a firm hiker favorite for many years, and for good reason. High in carbs and protein, all natural ingredients usually, packs easily, lasts for ages and tastes great.
Trail Mix can be bought ready mixed in handy portion sized packs, or in bulk. You can even mix your own, adding everything you like the best, most of which you’ll probably already have in your kitchen.
You can keep it traditional with dried fruits and nuts, or get creative and add marshmallows, coconut chips, choc chips and even handfuls of your favorite breakfast cereal.
Obviously not a vegetarian option but another traditional favorite. Jerky is made from thin strips of dried beef and contains masses of protein, about 50 g protein for every 100 g of jerky. It can be carried in an airtight bag and is light and easy to pack. With a very long shelf life, jerky can be eaten as is or can be added to a soup or stew cooked over the campfire on longer trips.
You can buy a jerky as ready made or look up one of the many recipes to make your own. Jerky can also be made from pork, chicken or other meats, too.
Every boy scout will tell you that keeping some boiled sweets in your pack for emergencies is essential. They are great for a little sugar hit, or to take your mind of the huge hill to be climbed up ahead.
Also shareable, extremely long lasting, tiny and liked by most people, boiled sweets are a must on any hike.
Kendal Mint Cake
A UK favorite for hundreds of years, this glucose rich energy bar was made famous in 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing carried it to the top of Mount Everest.
Made from sugar and peppermint oil, this is a delicious snack that will give a quick energy boost, and a psychological boost too.
Energy bars are small, easy to pack, still okay to eat when squished and contain a lot of energy for their size. Usually chewy, these snacks generally have a carb to protein ratio of about 2:1, with a small amount of fat. The higher protein options are better for endurance sports such as hiking.
It is worth checking the ingredients list before you buy. Energy bars can range from nutrient-rich at one end of the range (offering slow release energy and protein), to sugary, candy-style bars at the other end. The sugary type may be okay for a quick energy burst, but make sure you check to know which type you are looking at.
The best energy bars will contain all natural ingredients such as fruit, nuts, and spices for flavor. They have a fairly long shelf life, and it might even be possible to freeze some types, enabling you to take advantage of bulk buy options and save cash for that new hiking gadget you have your eye on.
Energy Gels offer a massive energy punch in a tiny package. Weighing only an ounce or so, gels are very easy to pack and carry. They come in a variety of flavors, but all have a very thick liquid texture which may not be ideal for everyone.
The energy from gels will be released into the bloodstream very quickly, making them ideal for emergencies or very high demand sports. Beware though – some manufacturers add caffeine to boost that powered up feeling even further. If you can’t tolerate caffeine double check the packaging.
Choose Your Favorite
The ultimate hiking snack will be different for every hiker, and for every trip. To choose yours, you need to know your calorie needs and what sort of conditions you’ll be hiking in. Next, you can decide on the weight and pack size your snacks need to fit into.
With an idea of the different types of hiking foods that are available, you can make the best selection for your needs. Don’t forget to try new foods out before you go to make sure you like them, and take some spares – your friends will probably love them too.
So what’s your favorite snack while hiking? Any other treats that you think belong on our list? Feel free to share in the comments!