As a fitness professional and nutrition enthusiast, I know just how important it is to stay properly fueled during a workout, be it a gym-based jaunt on the treadmill or an outdoor trek in the trails. The latter comes with its own unique set of challenges; however, you want to make sure your hiking snacks are portable and lightweight enough to enhance — as opposed to detract — from your hike.
“Snacks should be thought of as a way to fuel the body during long treks when food isn’t readily available,” says Robert Iafelice, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and author of “Hold On to Your Muscle, Be Free of Disease.” “The major nutritional consideration is that they are long-lasting fuels rather than quick energy.” So, what does that mean? Iafelice explains that hiking and other high-intensity outdoor activities predominantly burn fat for fuel. You’ll thus want to reach for snacks that regulate your blood sugar while providing satiety, including the likes of protein, fiber and heart-healthy fats. Unless your hike devolves into a series of sprints, he says sugary snacks for quick energy are not necessary.
While it may be tempting (and convenient) to reach for the nearest carbohydrate-based snack like crackers, chips, cookies, pretzels or dry cereals, Iafelice explains you run the risk of a blood sugar spike, which releases insulin to reduce your blood sugar to baseline levels. “The high amount of insulin overcompensates and drops blood sugar levels too low, resulting in reactive hypoglycemia or low blood sugar,” he says. “Low blood sugar can cause a variety of symptoms, including lightheadedness, headache, fatigue, listlessness, irritability, shaking, dizziness, weakness and hunger. The affected person then reaches for another carb or sugary snack to feel better. This then spikes blood sugar again, and a vicious cycle ensues.” This doesn’t mean you have to leave your favorite carb-based snacks at home. Simply offset this vicious cycle by pairing your favorite carb with protein and fat, like nut butter or cheese.
Sugar-free snacks enhanced with sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, mannitol and maltose syrup may sound like a wise alternative, but Iafelice says, “The problem with these sweeteners is that, in some people, they can cause excessive gassiness.” And that’s not something you want to contend with out in the wilderness.
While nutrition factors are crucial for your overall performance, there’s lots more to consider when snacking in nature. “Whatever the food you pack, wherever your hike takes you, please, please, please leave no trace,” says Linda Murphy, founder of thehealthyhiker.ca. “If you pack it in, you pack it out.” Anne Hildebrand, secretary of American Long Distance Hiking Association — West, recommends packing out even the skins and pits of your snacks since “food waste should not be left in the backcountry.”
Like all things related to your hike — from your clothing like socks and boots to your hiking gear — you’ll get the best result with trial and error. “Look for things that you will actually want to eat while on trail,” says Hildebrand. “The best way to know what that is is to experiment. Sometimes what sounds like a good idea to pack when you’re at home does not sound tasty when you’re in the backcountry.”
Here, the best expert-approved lightweight and portable snacks to help fuel your journey.
“I love my trail snacks,” says Murphy. “I try to bring those that are high in protein and calories but not too bulky in size or high in weight. My first go-to is trail mix. I go for whatever items are the most affordable in the bulk food section at the store, and end up with a good supply of mixed nuts, raisins and seeds mixed together in a big jar in my kitchen cupboard at all times. That way, when heading out, I quickly pour a half cup or so into a little baggie, and I'm good to go.”
“The sweet that sometimes makes it into [the trail mix] supply is M&M's,” says Murphy. “These are preferable to Smarties, chocolate chips or chocolate bars since they don't melt in the heat of summer and they don't get dangerous-for-your-teeth frozen in the winter.”
Dried fruits without any added sugar are a solid option since they’re shelf stable and take a while to chew, which makes them feel more satisfying. “Costco Kirkland Organic Dried Mango is my go-to,” says Monique Redmon, founder of HikerBabes Community.
This hiker-friendly jerky is another one of Redmon’s must-haves because it’s “lightweight, nutritious with protein and provides an energy burst to crush the trails.”
For a ready-to-go meal that even includes mini cutlery, look toward this tasty blend of carbs and protein. “I’m known to pack the snack packs of tuna or chicken salad with crackers,” says Murphy.
“Be careful what kind [of crackers] you bring along as you could end up with a baggie of crumbs,” says Murphy. “Triscuits travel best and have the most volume with regards to fiber.”
Why, yes, impromptu charcuterie is a great way to keep your blood sugar stabilized while on the trails. “Pepperettes and cheese sticks are great with crackers,” says Murphy.
“As far as fruit goes, apples travel well on their own, but bananas do not,” says Murphy. “Grapes and oranges are great in summer, as they add to your hydration intake.”
“Traditional healthy snacks like nuts and seeds are the best options,” says Iafelice.
“For nuts, a handful or two is all you need. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios are all good sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. These are great satiating foods that provide the sustained energy needed for hiking and camping. Note: I would suggest pistachios in the shell since it’s easy to overconsume them otherwise.”
“Anyone with a history or tendency of low blood sugar who goes on a camping or hiking trip should bring along some juice boxes,” says Iafelice. “Juice is quickly assimilated liquid sugar that can rapidly raise low blood sugar levels.”
For a satisfyingly sweet beverage option that’ll also keep you full, thanks to the addition of protein and fiber, opt for these portable plant-based smoothie pouches in mouthwatering flavors like Cherry Acai and Blackberry Vanilla.
“For seeds, pumpkin seeds stand out,” says Iafelice. “They taste the best and are loaded with nutrients, particularly immune-enhancing zinc. Like pistachios, they’re easy to overeat, so it’s best to eat them as part of a trail mix.”
“Protein bars are terrific snacks as well. Look for bars with around 20 grams of whey protein or more,” says Iafelice. “They should be low in sugar, less than 4 grams per bar and you can keep them in a cooler if temps are high.”
Iafelice recommends this blood sugar-sustaining protein bar for its low sugar count of 3 grams per serving, satiating 20 grams of protein and delectable flavors like Chocolate Peanut Butter, Chocolate Deluxe and Chewy Chocolate Chip for dessert on the go.
For a quick hunger fix during your quest on the trails, opt for one of Iafelice’s go-to Quest protein bars. The combination of 20 (or more) grams of protein, 13 grams of fiber and a single gram of sugar will leave you feeling full for hours. Plus, with flavors like White Chocolate Raspberry, S’mores and Chocolate Sprinkled Donut, you’ll be glad you made room for them in your hiking backpack.
This low-carb protein bar meal replacement or snack is Iafelice-approved for its respectable 17 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber and single gram of sugar. Not only does it taste like a decadent dessert, but it’ll regulate your energy levels for maximum performance.
If you’re short on time, grab these premade sandwiches in advance, but for extra nutrition bonus points, be sure to DIY. “Another good snack idea is crackers with nut butter,” says Iafelice. “You can easily make these tiny bites in advance. Any nut butter will do … sugar-free peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter. Use whole-grain crackers devoid of those nasty hydrogenated oils.”
The best part about this portable protein powder is that you can mix it up in whatever reusable bottle you plan to bring on your trek. It provides a solid 30 grams of filling protein, won’t make your blood sugar crash with its single gram of sugar and also gives you the same jolt as a cup of coffee for a quick boost of energy.
These simple fruit and nut bars made of wholesome ingredients like almonds, walnuts, apricots and dates provide the ideal combination of healthy fats, fiber and moderate amounts of protein to regulate your blood sugar and keep you feeling satisfied in between meals.
In just 90 calories, you get a filling snack made with 9 grams of protein and 0 grams of sugar that’ll provide sustained energy for your trek. Plus, they barely take up any room in your pack, so you can grab a handful for the long day ahead.