Backpacking Snacks That Will Satisfy Your Cravings and Aren't All That Healthy
Every time I read a post or listen to an interview with a nutritionist about what to eat while backpacking I roll my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely applaud all of the people out there who can be content eating dried fruit, nuts, and 85% cacao while banging out dozens of miles of walking, but realistically that is absolutely not me. Over the almost seven years that I’ve spent hiking over 5,000 miles in New England, my snacks have changed very little and although I do try harder to take in more protein and less gummy bears, I subscribe to the philosophy that any calories, even if they’re empty ones, will get you a lot farther than no calories at all.
When I was approached by Hyperlite about coming up with some great on-trail recipes, the idea was more than daunting for me. Not only do I not eat anything out of the ordinary on trail, I rarely backpack. What could I contribute to the conversation, I thought, I eat the same things as most other hikers. But then I got thinking; thru-hikers are hungry humans and talking about food is one of their favorite things to do. Perhaps I can’t offer much insight into unique ways to spice up a raman bomb, but I absolutely know how to eat while walking, in fact, I’d say that I’ve got that down pat.
So, this is how I fuel my body to be able to crush dozens of miles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when I’m hiking four days a week and driving to and from trailheads.
I’m Picky, and I’m Hungry
Let me start off by saying that I am a very picky eater. The running joke in my family is that when preparing meals for my 6 year old nephew at large family gatherings, they may as well make a second serving for me. I would rather eat a bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese than steak and potatoes, and my philosophy regarding meals is, if it’s something that I’ve always liked, why would I try something new? This mindset tends to spill over into the world of backpacking snacks and after spending the past seven months hiking anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week while working part time, I have my meal prep down to a science.
Although I’m not the fastest hiker, I can maintain a 2mph elapsed time simply because I rarely stop. My food has to be easy to ingest while moving and still provide me with the calories I need to keep going. I know what I like, and I stick to the same routine in terms of food (for the most part) because it works.
In my hip belt pocket is where I put my “big three” which are an applesauce pouch, some form of gummies (right now I’m into Motts), and a granola bar or two. I can suck down the applesauce, pop the gummies into my mouth, and down the bars while moving and that’s all that matters on-trail. At the summit, or whenever I decide to take a longer rest, I’ll break into my food bag.
Lately I’ve been on a salty/chip kick, a big 180 for this bonafide gummy-holic, and my go-tos are usually Cheese Its, Cheetos, and rice cakes. Knowing the important role that protein plays, I always carry at least one dedicated protein bar and try my darndest to eat it before breaking into the junk. It was recently brought to my attention that a protein bar isn’t a protein bar if the number of carbs or fat is more than the number of grams of protein. That being said, after scouring the bar section of the grocery store, I was pleasantly surprised that my current protein fave, Power Crunch, fits the bill. While it only contains 13/14 grams of protein, it’s better than zero.
Some Thoughts on Protein
“I am basically a vegetarian.” When asked what I eat those are the words that often escape my lips and my strong aversion to meat has always made getting in at least 65 grams of protein a day difficult. After spending the first six years of my hiking career taking in barely any protein, I stumbled upon what would end up being a game-changer for me - the Chobani Complete drinks. Offering 20-25 grams of protein each, with less than 200 calories, and lactose-free, these drinks are a staple in my off-trail diet. While I know packing out cold drinks is most likely not going to happen, because I’m a day hiker, I can pound one of these bad boys 30 minutes before a hike and feel a noticeable difference in not only my energy levels, but I no longer experience the drastic crash accompanied by a Hypoglycemia diagnosis when going more than a few hours without eating.
*I take in 20 grams (at least) before hiking by drinking a Cobani Complete, but for backpacking I’ve witnessed seasoned thru-hikers supplementing vitamins and protein by drinking Carnation Instant Breakfast drink mixes.
This discovery led me to incorporate more protein into my on-trail snacks because if this one drink can make me feel this good, what would adding more protein do? I’ve added 13 grams of protein to my day by eating Power Crunch bars when I’m feeling depleted. Rather than stuffing my face with Cheetos, I remind myself of how much better I feel after my morning beverage and opt for the protein bar first. (I am really picky about protein bars and have tried my share of brands with little success. The Power Crunch bars are a lot lighter than most protein bars and the peanut butter and lemon ones are my favorites.)
The last tweak I’ve made to my trail snacking is I try to get in one more source of protein before delving into the Cheese It’s. I don’t love nuts, but I know they’re high in the good kind of fats we need and more protein. Rather than just pounding honey roasted peanuts by the handful, though, I’ve been making my own trail mix of sorts using salted cashews, nature valley protein oats (13 grams of protein per serving), and peanut M&Ms. It has just the right amount of salty sweetness and makes me feel like I’m not eating complete garbage.
The Rest of My Food - AKA the Good Stuff
Although there are a wide variety of bars out there to choose from, I’ve gotten to the point between hiking and working as an educator, where you don’t get to eat a real meal during the day, that granola bars are borderline cringeworthy. Switching up the bars helps to slow down burnout, so I tend to keep it interesting and not carry the same exact bars over and over again for months. Same goes for gummies, which is another stable item in my pack.
I’ve carried Pro Bar Energy Chews, Scratch Labs gummies, and Gu gummies over the years, going from one to another depending on how burnt out I get. I have always loved gummy anything so I took a cue from a backpacking podcast host and copied her “gummy trail mix” idea a few years ago and haven’t turned back (buy all the gummy things you can find and mix them together in a ziploc bag, voila, gummy trail mix). Although my sweet tooth has decreased in recent months, for years my go-to trail snack was gummy bears (Haribo only) and Trolli Sour gummy worms.
Cheese It’s, chips (Dill Pickle Lays or Salt & Vinegar), Cheetos crunchy, and rice cakes have usurped gummies in my food bag as of late and I always try to carry a variation of these items so that it keeps things interesting.
Prepping My Food
Once a week, I get gallon sized ziploc bags and prep my food bags for the week’s worth of hiking. I lay out each item on the counter and make sure that there are at least 3 bars, chips/Cheese Its, gummies, and applesauce in each pile. Then, all I have to do the morning of the hike is grab a bag and go.
Realizing how much of a role protein plays in maintaining my stamina while hiking has been a game changer for me. As you will notice after reading this article, I am by no means a nutritionist nor do I claim to eat healthy while hiking. However, incorporating protein into my diet while hiking provided a noticeable difference in my strength and stamina on hikes. Please feel free to add your own favorite hiking snacks in the comment section.