So often in our modern lives, we are seduced by the appeal of pre-made and ready-made items. Don’t have time to wash and slice veggies? Pick up a prepared tray of crudités (…for an inflated price). Simply too busy to prepare the ingredients for stir fry?
Grab all the pre-cut veggies and protein at the grocery store (…for a few extra dollars). Frazzled before a big family barbecue? Opt for the pre-pattied hamburger meat at the butcher shop (…and don’t be surprised when your bill totals more than usual).
Yes, convenience foods are great for time management, but they’re not great for your wallet. And while there are certainly some foods that aren’t worth the extra time it would take to make on your own, there are loads of items that are highly cost-effective—not to mention more nutritious—to make it worth your while.
Trail mix is one of those foods, and we’re going to prove to you just how easy it is to make fresh, healthy trail mix (that can be tailored exactly to your tastes!) for a fraction of the cost of store-bought.
What makes trail mix a trail mix?
By definition, trail mix is a mixture of dry foods such as nuts, granola, dried fruit, and sometimes bits of chocolate—all chosen for their ability to be easily transported during hikes without need of refrigeration, and for the particular nutritional attributes they provide: carbohydrates (dried fruit, granola, chocolate) and energy-sustaining fats (nuts).
Trail mix is commonly referred to as “gorp,” which is said to be an acronym for “granola, oats, raisins, peanuts,” but there is also a link to the not-very-commonly used verb “gorp,” which means “to eat greedily.”
Trail mix also has some aliases in other cultures; in some European countries like Germany and Poland, trail mix is called “student food,” and in New Zealand, it’s often referred to as “scroggin” or “schmogle.” All colorful terms for a simple yet sustainable mix of foods designed to provide an energy-boosting snack during your outdoor adventures.
Why bother making your own trail mix?
You’ve likely seen packages of prepared trail mix in your grocery store or wherever you buy your outdoor gear, so why not just grab a bag and be done with it? Here are a few compelling reasons to bypass the pre-mixed stuff and opt for creating your own trail mix concoction:
It might seem most convenient to purchase the pre-made trail mix while you’re stocking up on your other supplies, but if you make large batches of homemade trail mix in bulk, you’ll always have a stash on hand, and that means one less item to worry about at the store. Plus, trail mix makes a great snack to have around whenever you know you’ll be on the go in your everyday life.
Long days of marathon meetings, road trips, lengthy shifts at work, all-nighters to meet deadlines or study for exams — all of these are great opportunities to turn to trail mix as a way to keep you full and focused while you’re on task.
With its relatively short list of ingredients, trail mix might seem pretty transparent when it comes to its nutritional attributes, but when you’re responsible for every element of your own homemade trail mix, you can have complete control over its nutritional value.
By hand-selecting everything that goes into your mix, you can determine things such as whether or not you want to go organic or non-GMO, or if your particular needs require less carbs and more good fats. Being able to control the nature of the nutritional punch your trail mix is packing can be a huge asset to you on the trail.
Most store-bought trail mix has an expiration date, sure….but does that apply to the mix as a whole or to eat individual ingredient? Why not take the guesswork out entirely and know the shelf life score of your own homemade, personally blended mix?
When you’re choosing the ingredients, you’re also aware of how fresh they are, and you can easily determine how long your mix will remain fresh in the pantry or your pack.
Choosing the homemade, made-in-bulk option is often the most cost-effective way when it comes to many foods, and trail mix is no exception. Pre-made mix can be great in a pinch, but that kind of convenience comes at a price, and if you make it a habit, you’ll be noticing the impact on your household bottom line.
Putting a little thought and planning into making homemade trail mix will make a noticeable difference in the amount you spend on this tasty snack.
Don’t like raisins? Leave ‘em out! Crazy for carob chips? Dump ‘em in! Always craving pumpkin seeds after a few hours of heavy hiking? Scoop in an extra cup or two. Making your own mix means you can customize the ratios and ingredients any way you like — a particularly big advantage when you’re dealing with food allergies and dietary restrictions.
Just because it’s sometimes called “gorp” doesn’t mean you always have to stick to that boring old four-ingredient cast of characters. Mix it up! Experiment with adding dehydrated fruit instead of dried, or maybe some wasabi peas to spice things up, or some chunks of beef jerky for a salty protein-loaded bite.
Some experiments might be bigger hits than others, but by making your own mix, you’ll have the opportunity to discover your own personal favorites…and also, it’s fun!
How to start your own personal recipes?
Now that we’ve sung the various and sundry praises of making your own homemade trail mix, let’s look at a few ways to get started on your own personal recipes.
The energy-sustaining power of nuts and the “good” fats they provide make them an essential part of any trail mix, and—if you’re not allergic to them and won’t be hiking with anyone who is—mixing up a nut-heavy batch of trail mix will give you a great source of satisfying sustenance.
Cashews, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and pistachios are perfect candidates for a nutty mix, each providing their own healthful mix of fats and nutrients. Mixing in an equal part of each will give you a good balance of flavors, but since nuts are quite dense and rich, you might want to break things up with one part dried fruit to lighten up the mix.
If you aren’t familiar with many nuts beyond peanuts (and you don’t have any allergies holding you back), buy a small amount of each in bulk or in a high-quality can of mixed nuts. You’ll get a good sense of which flavors appeal to you most, to ensure you tailor your mix exactly to your tastes.
One thing to note, however, is that the high fat content of nuts make them more susceptible to spoilage if they aren’t stored correctly or sit around too long — and anyone who has ever bitten into a rancid nut will tell you that it is a less-than-pleasant experience.
Nut-Free for You and Me
If nut-based trail mixes send you running for the hills—for allergy reasons or a simple matter of preference—fear not: there are plenty of ways to create satisfying and energy-sustaining mixes without including a single nut. Seeds are a great alternative to nuts both in taste and nutrition, and using seeds such as pepitas or sunflower seeds as a base will still give you a strong base flavor to build from.
Not a seed fan? Try bite-sized sesame crackers (often found in the bulk foods section) or oyster crackers, pre-seasoned with cayenne pepper or chili powder and himalayan sea salt to give your mix an extra kick. Small cheese-flavored crackers can also give your nut-free tail mix a strong base (and energy-providing carbs) that you can build from, adding in dried fruit for sweetness and variety of flavor.
Dried fruits are a trail mix staple, and for good reason: they are light, sweet, nutritious, and, quite frankly, they add a splash of color that makes your mix darn pretty to look at. There are a wide variety of dried fruits to choose from these days, so it’s a wise idea to taste-test before you commit to which fruits you want to have in your mix.
Popular dried fruits from trail mix include raisins, cranberries, cherries, mango, pineapple, coconut flakes, bananas, blueberries, goji berries, apricots, figs, dates, and apples. It should be noted, however, that while dried fruit can provide some antioxidants and vitamins, it can also add quite a significant amount of sugar to your trail mix.
It’s best to treat dried fruit as an accent ingredient rather than a base ingredient, and—depending on your caloric needs—you should limit your addition of dried fruits in your mix so that it doesn’t turn a healthful snack into a sugar bomb in disguise.
That being said, sometimes you might be looking for a trail mix to satisfy your sweet tooth, or a mix to act as a lightweight and easily transportable dessert while you’re on the go. There are a number of delicious ingredients that you can add as desired to sweeten up any mix to dessert status.
Popular sweets to blend into your homemade mix include yogurt chips, yogurt-covered raisins or nuts, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, candy-coated chocolate bits, mini marshmallows, carob chips, and—if you’re seeking an extra kick of flavor and energy—chocolate covered espresso beans.
These ingredients should obviously be used in moderation and in consideration with how they work with the other elements of your mix; too much of a good thing can result in a mix too sweet for even the most devoted sugar fanatic, and the last thing anyone wants on the trail is an epic sugar crash.
Greatness by Grains
The complex carbohydrates of grains are a wonderful (and nut-free) way to customize your homemade trail mix, while adding fiber and a wide variety of flavors. Be sure to choose whole grains when you can, paying attention to sugar and sodium content; leave the salt and sugar to the nuts, fruits, and sweet ingredients.
Some great grain-based ingredients include popular whole-grain cereals with sturdy, bite-sized pieces or flakes that don’t crumble easily, small pretzel pieces, granola, wheat crackers, toasted oats, and air-popped popcorn. You can go completely salt-free with your popcorn or cracker choices; while this might make them totally bland snacks on their own merit, they will be perfect companions to the other ingredients in the context of your trail mix.
The Need for Seed
As we mentioned before, seeds are a wonderful base ingredient for any homemade trail mix. Seeds provide many of the same nutritional benefits as nuts, but without the allergy-triggering side effects. Feel free to season or roast your seeds to give them a fuller flavor, but avoid over-salting (or sweetening) them — you’ve got other ingredients to cover those bases.
Some popular and tasty seeds for trail mix include pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, and chia seeds. These can all be purchased in smaller amounts beforehand if you want to taste-test any seeds you’re unfamiliar with, and if you find you don’t have a favorite, choose your seeds based on the nutritional elements they bring to the party.
Seasoning and Spice and Everything Nice
Once you’ve chosen your ultimate combination of ingredients from which to build your own customized trail mix, now comes the fun part: deciding how to season the mix. You can take two basic base mixes and make them taste completely different just by how you choose to roast and season the nuts, seeds, and/or grains.
Or you might find that you prefer to go completely natural and rely on the un-doctored taste of your ingredients to provide all the flavor of your mix.
If you prefer a sweet or spiced taste, consider adding a dash of cocoa, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or even pumpkin pie spice to your mix. For a more savory taste, experiment with sea salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, chili powder, and cumin.
Visit specialty spice shops in your area for different varieties of seasoned salt (or salt-free seasoning blends) to really give your mix a unique flavor.
For more backpacking food tips, see our must-read article for additional ideas you can use.
Versatile, portable, sustainable, sweet, salty, and delicious, trail mix has been a favorite of outdoor adventurers for years, and will likely remain a pack essential for generations to come.
With the wide variety or seasonings and ingredients available to us today, there virtually limitless ways we can choose to blend and flavor homemade trail mix to meet our specific nutritional and palate-pleasing requirements.
Before your next trip, check out our article on the best trail mix to give you more choices.
Are you a trail mix guru? Do you have a favorite homemade blend? Or are you a lifetime store-bought mixer who is looking to branch out into making your own? Share your thoughts, comments, and recipes with us in the comments!