Any 'ole granola bar simply won’t do on the trail. Stash these hiking snacks in your pack when you’re taking on a short forest walk, all-day trek, or multi-day journey.

By Megan Falk
September 11, 2020
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The moment your stomach starts rumbling and your energy levels take a nosedive, your instinct's to comb through your snack stash for whatever — be it a sugar-filled granola bar or bag of pretzels — excites your tastebuds. But if you’re trekking up a mountain or through a secluded pine tree forest, you’ll need to be a little more strategic with your snack choices — and when you eat them in the first place.

In fact, hikers should consider eating a snack every 60 to 90 minutes between meals, depending on the intensity of the hike, says Aaron Owens Mayhew, M.S., R.D.N., C.D., the backpacking meal planning expert behind Backcountry Foodie. “This is because a hiker can be at risk of burning through their glycogen stores — aka hitting the wall or 'bonking' — within one to three hours of hiking if the body isn’t fueled adequately,” she explains.

These glycogen stores — or the stored form of glucose (a type of sugar converted from carbohydrates) in your liver and muscles — act as a reliable source of energy while you exercise. The more intense the activity, the more quickly your stores are used up. But if your glycogen stores get too low while you’re exercising, your muscle cells can’t produce enough ATP (adenosine triphosphate, a molecule stored in the muscles and the direct source of energy for muscle contraction) to hold that exercise intensity, according to an article published in Nutrition Reviews. The result: You feel run-down, fatigued, and more inclined to lie down for a nap than to climb that next peak. (Related: These Benefits of Hiking Will Make You Want to Hit the Trails)

To keep your energy high throughout your trek, Owens Mayhew recommends loading up on hiking snacks that boast a balance of carbohydrates, which provide the body with that essential glucose; fats, which act as slow-burning fuels that keep your body moving after you metabolize the carbs; and protein, which help build and repair muscle, she says. 

But nutritional qualities aren't the only factor you need to when stocking your pack with hiking snacks: portability should be considered too. If your backpack is stuffed to the brim, choose hiking snacks you don’t actually mind getting flattened, like PB&J sandwiches made with a flatbread or tortilla rather than crusty sourdough, says Claudia Carberry, M.S., R.D., L.D., founder of Charge the Trail, a site providing nutrition guidance to long-distance hikers. Instead of packing hiking snacks that create as many crumbs as a Nature Valley bar (i.e.: cookies, snack cakes, chips), opt for crush-resistant foods such as granola, nuts, and wasabi peas and store 'em in baggies to keep them from getting into every nook and cranny of your pack. (BTW, to prevent an unwelcome squish, Carberry recommends packing heavier items toward the bottom of your backpack and placing your hiking snacks on top. But if you’re looking for easy access, Owens Mayhew suggests stashing them in the hip pockets of your bag so you can eat on the go.)

Before you buy all the munchies, know that some hiking snacks aren't ideal to eat 365 days of the year, so plan accordingly. In the warmer months, energy bites and bars that contain coconut oil will end up softening, and chocolate snacks will often melt, making them both super messy to eat, says Owens Mayhew. Choose foods that won’t spoil quickly, such as pre-packaged snacks and homemade trail mixes, adds Carberry.

Conversely, in the winter, snacks with higher water content are likely to harden and become difficult to actually eat (or even bite into), says Owens Mayhew. Since foods with a higher fat content tend to have a lower water content, they’re more likely to stay soft and edible in the colder months, she adds. Load your pack with nuts for quick day hikes, and for multi-day hikes, stock up on hard cheeses and cured meats, which hold up well in the chilly air, recommends Carberry. “Packing a block of cheddar and a log of salami will make for satisfying lunches," she says. “Slice it up and put it on tortillas or flatbread with a packet of mustard."

So, in general, what hiking snacks are actually worth stashing in your pack and bringing on the trail? Try these picks from Owens Mayhew and Carberry for some specific ideas or just inspiration for your next adventure.  

The Best Hiking Snacks for a Quick Day Trip

If your hike is more like a long walk through a nature park that gets you *slightly* out of breath, plan on bringing a light hiking snack to eat every 90 minutes, says Owens Mayhew.  Translation: Don’t try to fit your entire pantry into your small day pack. Luckily, short hikes give you the option to pack fresh foods without having to worry about them spoiling, says Carberry. “Apples pack well because they're durable and withstand bouncing around in a backpack." 

For packaged snacks that won’t weigh down your pack, Carberry suggests CLIF Bars (Buy It, $19, amazon.com), Luna Bars (Buy It, $15, amazon.com), or Rx Bars (Buy It, $19, amazon.com), all of which contain a balance of carbs, proteins, and healthy fats to keep you fueled. And when Owens Mayhew just needs a salty-meets-crunchy munchie, she turns to Goldfish crackers (Buy It, $13, amazon.com), pita chips (Buy It, $15, amazon.com), and plantain chips (Buy It, $25, amazon.com) — just make sure to pair them with a smart source of fat and protein, such as hummus or a handful of nuts.

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The Best Hiking Snacks for a Day-Long Trip

Being strategic with your munching is even more important if you're tackling the trail from sunrise to sunset (vs. a mile-long journey). “The most common mistake is that hikers tend to not eat snacks between the breakfast and lunch meal and then struggle toward the end of the day,” says Owens Mayhew. “After lunch, hikers often eat something sugary because they need a quick energy boost to get them to camp where they can eat dinner.” (And set up one of these best camping tents.)

While that emergency mid-afternoon sugary snack — i.e. Honey Stinger Energy Chews (Buy It, $20, amazon.com) or sugary candy — is helpful to have on hand in the event that you do hit the wall, the sugar rush will wear off quickly, leaving you in the same low-energy, super-hangry situation, explains Owens Mayhew. To keep your spirits high and stomach satisfied, go for a hiking snack that contains carbs, protein, and fat between breakfast and lunch. And if you end up scarfing down some candy later in the day, eat a well-rounded snack right after your sugar-induced burst of energy wears off so you won't be crawling to your campsite for dinner, she says. Try a KIND Breakfast Bar (Buy It, $16, amazon.com) topped with nut butter, such as Justin’s Almond Butter Squeeze Packs (Buy It, $10, amazon.com), or a Honey Stinger Cracker Bar (Buy It, $22, amazon.com), which boasts protein- and fat-rich peanut butter sandwiched between two multigrain, chocolate-dipped crackers.

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The Best Hiking Snacks for a Multi-Day Hike

When you’re out in the wilderness for days on end, the rules of snacking still apply: Eat a well-balanced hiking snack every 60 to 90 minutes throughout the trek. Since you’re munching more frequently, though, you're bound to experience what Owens Mayhew likes to call “flavor fatigue” after eating the same energy bars between every single meal. The solution: Pack homemade trail mix. The hodgepodge of ingredients, flavors, and textures won’t get old — and you’ll save some cash by skipping pre-packaged snacks. Try Carberry’s trio trail mix, which contains a variety of nuts, dark chocolate Raisinets, and Life cereal to provide 7 grams of protein, 25 grams of carbs, and 18 grams of fat per 1/2-cup serving.

One key point to remember on multi-day adventures: Consume at least 20 grams of protein, in addition to carbs, at the end of the day to help your muscles recover and prepare for the next leg of your journey, says Owens Mayhew. “This can typically be done via the dinner meal, but an additional protein-rich snack prior to bed isn’t a bad idea if the dinner meal was consumed several hours before bed,” she explains. (See also: Is Eating Before Bed Actually Unhealthy?)

For a savory, super-filling hiking snack, Carberry suggests loading a pita pocket with a pouch of tuna (Buy It, $21, amazon.com). And for an end-of-day munchie that satisfies your sweet tooth, try a Chocolate Salted Caramel Luna Bar (Buy It, $6, amazon.com) or CLIF Nut Butter Bar (Buy It, $20, amazon.com), adds Owens Mayhew. 

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What to Do with Trash or Scraps From Your Hiking Snacks

No matter if your hike was a few hours or a few days, chances are you’ve got quite a few wrappers and apple cores stuffed in your bag. (Reminder: It’s best to follow a “leave no trace” mentality on the trail, and that includes carrying all of your waste — including food scraps — out of the park.) Bring a designated bag to stash your trash in throughout your hike, says Carberry. Or if you want to reduce your waste production from the get-go, stick to DIY snacks (such as the homemade trail mix previously mentioned) or, before you hit the trail, parcel out and pack up individual servings of that huge jar of nut butter and party-size bag of Goldfish in reusable silicone bags (Buy It, $33, amazon.com), suggests Owens Mayhew. Not only will you be doing Mother Nature a solid, but you'll also have plenty of leftover hiking snacks to fuel you through your next trek. (Up next: What It’s Like to Hike 2,000+ Miles with Your Best Friend)

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