No matter whether you’re just out for a couple of hours on the trail, a full day hike or a multi-day trek, food is one of the absolute essentials you should have in your pack.
While you might not need a ton of food for a half day hike, in the event of an emergency where you’re incapacitated until help reaches you, having extra food on hand is part of your emergency plan. Always pack more food than you think you’re going to need.
Secondly, when you’re out on the trail your body expends a lot of energy; as you chug along, your body will be sweating and working muscles. It’s crucial to keep it fuelled so that you stay energised and mentally alert, as well as providing your body with nutrients for recovery after your hike.
And when you consider that hiking is our “happy place”, being negligent with our bodies (getting a headache or feeling hangry) will take our focus away from the true delights we get from walking in nature!
While hiking, your body uses a lot of energy – energy that comes from food (so skipping breakfast is not a good idea!).
Hiking is considered a moderate intensity exercise (although the sore muscles you feel the next day may have you doubting this!). Even if you hit a steep hill or rugged terrain, in terms of exercise, hiking is technically the same as walking.
Your body actually burns a higher percentage of fat than carbohydrates when you’re hiking but you’re always burning a mix of both fat and carbs. You also lose electrolytes to perspiration and deplete energy stored in muscles due to the amount of exercise hiking entails.
A lot of times, it’s tempting to pack sugar loaded snacks because your body can absorb it quickly, staving off a bout of fatigue. But when the sugar rush quickly wears off you’ll be left feeling lethargic and irritable, and all you’ll want to do is head home.
If you push yourself too hard and don’t have enough fuel in your tank (i.e. not eating regularly) you’re likely to start feeling lethargic, light-headed, clammy, and headache-y.
You’ll feel a lot better and your body will perform and recover better if you plan your hiking snacks to include carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein to replace lost salt and calories.
For long distance or multi-day hikers it’s essential to eat protein because your body will start to burn both fat and muscle stores. This isn’t as much of a big deal for a day hike, but protein is still important to help with building muscles when exercising and repairing muscles during recovery.
Before you pack your hiking munchies, consider the weather.
During warmer months, energy bars that contain ingredients like coconut oil or chocolate bits will get a bit soggy on you and be super messy to eat. Other types of food might spoil easily.
In winter fresh food snacks will hold up better providing seasonal variety to your hiking snacks.
What to Eat on a Hike
So, let’s put this all together and pack the ideal hiking snacks.
Remember the denser in nutrients your snacks are, the lighter your pack will be!
And when choosing snacks, you’ll want a combination of nutrients to eat consistently throughout your hike – about every 90 minutes.
P – protein C – carbs F – fats V – vegan
1. Beef jerky (P)
Beef jerky has been a favourite among hikers for years. Not only is it delicious and small to pack, it also helps refuel the muscles that you’ve been using. The protein helps keep your blood sugar levels normal, helps build muscle and helps muscle recovery.
Some brands have some pretty high salt content. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as you lose salt when you sweat and the jerky will help replace some of it. But if you eat too much, you might go through your water reserves faster than you should!
2. Fruit (C,V)
Fruit is an all season snack with fresh fruit keeping well in your pack during winter and dried fruit is perfect for summer.
Fresh fruit has naturally occurring sugars and an extra dose of hydration. It’s packed full of nutrients and bananas in particular are also packed with potassium, an electrolyte that is lost in sweat.
Consider cutting up your favourite fruit and mixing it with a little cinnamon or cayenne pepper for an added kick (and extra nutrients from spices).
Grapes can be frozen the night before and provide a cool treat on a hot summer trail.
Dried fruit like mango, apricots, dates, raisins, banana and apple chips are packed with antioxidants that can help fight inflammation. They also have natural sugars to give you an energy boost. And they are shelf stable, so they won’t go bad in your pack.
Applesauce squeeze packets for kids (little and big) are packaged well enough to survive your backpack and are another cooling summer treat if you freeze them the night before.
3. Nuts & Seeds (P,F,C,V)
Almonds, macadamia, cashews, walnuts, pecans; pumpkin and sunflower seeds are powerhouse snacks because they pretty much contain everything – protein, fat, carbs and are high in vitamin and mineral content as well as calories.
For their weight and size, nuts and seeds give your body some serious bang for buck.
You can mix your favourite varieties into your own trail mix for personalised flavour.
Take things to the next level and try candied or spiced nuts. You can either add your own spice mix or grab store bought packets of flavoured nuts.
4. Vegetables (C,V)
Veggies are packed with nutrients that boost your immunity and particularly help with digestion.
There’s no reason you can’t pack fresh veggies for your hike particularly in cooler months.
Be aware, though, they’re a lot lower in calories (and energy) than any of the other snacks listed here.
Hearty vegetables like carrots, celery and broccoli keep well on the trail without having to be refrigerated. Add a little hummus for added protein and dipping, and you’ve got a super healthy snack for your hike.
Vegetable chips have become quite popular in supermarkets now. Store bought ones are high in calories and fat (although not the healthy fats we’re after) but you can easily make and flavour your own at home.
5. Trail Mix (P,C,F,V)
There’s a reason this classic snack got its name. Originally made for hikers, it’s a portable, convenient and calorie packed snack.
Because the ingredients can vary, you get a good range of the nutrients you’re after to keep your energy up on the trail.
Prepackaged trail mix is widely available in many supermarkets.
It’s also easy to customise your own trail mix and swap in your favourite ingredients based on your preferences. You can include granola, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, Nutrigrain, pretzels, chocolate bits, veggie chips and popcorn. You can also add spices or seasonings like sea salt, garlic powder, thyme, cinnamon, and paprika for an extra taste and nutrient boost – you’ll find a ton of recipe ideas online.
6. Tuna and Crackers (P,F,C)
Along with protein, canned tuna adds some vitamin D along with healthy fats to your snack.
A can of tuna is actually a great non-perishable pack of protein that certainly won’t get squished in your pack. You can purchase many different flavours from the supermarket giving you a lot of choices.
Add in a half a dozen crackers for some carbs and to scoop the tuna from the can.
You will definitely want to have a zip lock bag for your empty can, especially if it has to sit in a pack for a couple of hours on a summer hike!
7. Pretzels (C,V)
Pretzels provide two things you need on a hike – easy to digest carbs and sodium lost in sweat.
They can be added to trail mix if you find them too dry on their own and candied or flavoured varieties can be found in supermarkets.
The savoury lovers will appreciate the low cost too.
8. Granola (P,C,V)
Most granola is rich in protein and fibre, both of which contribute to fullness. It’s calorie-dense (making it a great trail snack choice), as well as rich in micro-nutrients like iron, magnesium (another essential electrolyte), zinc, copper, selenium, B vitamins, and vitamin E. The raw oat itself is also known to help lower cholesterol.
Granola comes in many forms; rolled, roasted, clusters, sweetened, muesli bars and energy balls, giving you a lot of choice.
It’s easy to find in the supermarket, cheap and full of flavor, and won’t go bad no matter how long your hike lasts.
For healthier (less sugar) options, use rolled oats in homemade energy balls and clusters in your trail mix.
If you look online you’ll find loads of recipes to make your own muesli bars customised to your choice of flavours and ingredients.
9. Energy Balls or Bars (P,C,F,V)
Energy balls and bars are made to contain something from every macro nutrient group (protein, carbs and fat) – how much, depends on the ingredients.
They often contain dried fruit like dates to make them stick together, ground almonds, ground oats and even flavouring with cocoa powder or chocolate bits for that sweet hit.
Often store bought balls and bars contain added protein powder, which isn’t really necessary as the main ingredients often contain protein anyway. You’ll also find the added protein can leave your mouth quite dry so if you make your own, use natural protein found in food.
You can find both energy balls and bars in supermarkets and online you’ll find lots of recipes.
10. Chocolate (C,V)
So chocolate isn’t necessarily healthy food (unless you don’t mind 80%) but let’s face it, very few people will knock back all that chocolatey yumminess if it’s offered!
It’s probably best to keep your trail snack chocolate in tiny portions like choc bits in your trail mix, energy balls or muesli bars, meting out sugary energy in small doses so you don’t end up with a sugar crash.
But we certainly won’t hold it against you if a Mars Bar appears out of your pocket. Heck, you deserve it by the end of a hike!
To prevent unwelcome (and unappealing) squish, pack your heavier food items toward the bottom of your backpack and put your snacks on top.
For easy access, stash your bagged-up munchies in your pockets and that way you don’t have to stop, get your pack off and go hunting through its compartments.
Zip lock plastic bags are great for packaging up your trail snacks and for storing waste and leftovers.
If you prefer sustainable options to zip lock bags you can find reusable bags online like the ones below.
Extra nutrients can be found in electrolyte products that you add to your water. If you’re easily prone to fatigue despite snacking and drinking plenty of water, low electrolytes can be the cause of this (especially if you’re an older woman).
What to Do with Rubbish or Scraps From Your Hiking Snacks
No matter if your hike was a few hours or a few days, you’ve probably ended up with a few wrappers and apple cores in the bottom of your pack.
Remember to “leave no trace” on the trail, and that includes carrying all of your waste — including food scraps — out with you.
Bring a designated bag to stash your rubbish in during your hike.
Or if you want to reduce your waste production from the get-go, stick to DIY snacks. And before you hit the trail, transfer pre-packaged goods (which often have a lot of air in them so they take up extra space in your pack) into reusable silicone bags. Anything left over is already stored for your next hike!
When you’re hiking, your body is your vehicle. If it’s not fuelled well it will fail you!
At the beginning of this post we mentioned that technically hiking is just walking but we’re all aware of how much more physically demanding hiking actually is.
A lack of nutrients (and even more so, water) will create physical and mental fatigue not long into your hike, leaving you at risk for injuries and possibly bad decisions.
The whole point of hiking is the peace and the down-time, your happy time. Giving your body the juice it needs to take you there, means you get to enjoy every single second with Mother Nature!