You can’t stop an idea whose time has come. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz invented calculus roughly simultaneously, even though neither was aware of the other’s work. Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestley (not to be confused with Jason Priestley), Antoine Lavoisier, and others independently discovered oxygen in the 18th century. And in the 1800s, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both came up with the theory of evolution and didn’t know of each other until both had published.
But in the last third of the 20th century, the big question was, who invented trail mix?
In the late 1960s, two different companies claimed to have invented trail mix. Harmony Foods filed a patent application in 1968 for a blend of dried fruit, nuts, and seeds for hikers. And California-based Hadley Fruit Orchards claims to have originated the “widely imitated” trail mix to sell to hikers in the nearby San Jacinto mountains.
In my attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery, I conducted extensive research, which consisted of 15 minutes of Googling. What I discovered, I’m certain, will throw the entire field of trail-mixology into turmoil.
It turns out that humans have been making nourishing, travel-worthy food mixes for, well, as long as there have been humans. Horace Kephart wrote about the beneficial weight-to-energy ratio of nuts, nut butters, and dried fruit in his 1906 classic page-turner, Camping and Woodcraft.
And I can just picture a brainstorming meeting conducted by a bunch of our paleolithic ancestors, storyboarding their creative ideas on the cave walls of Lascaux or Leang Lompoa. Perhaps they grunted “Eureka” as they grabbed a handful of nuts and dried berries to fuel themselves for a long day of gathering and hunting.
Whatever its origins, trail mix and other hiking foods are here to stay. And a few handfuls of GORP — “good old raisins and peanuts,” “granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts,” or not an acronym at all but an archaic term meaning “to eat greedily” (as in “Did you see him gorp that banana?”) — have sustained many a day hiker looking to pack maximum calories with a minimum of bulk and weight.
But there’s so much more to trekking and hiking food than trail mix. What about multiday hikes? What about enjoying a variety of foods? And how about including fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables loaded with phytonutrients that can help our bodies heal and rebuild after a strenuous day on the trail? Can we find hiking food that not only nourishes our bodies but also protects and respects the environment?
Hiking is a popular outdoor activity. And why not? Not only is walking in nature great for your physical health, but research also shows that connection to and enjoyment of the natural world has profound mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits as well.
According to people who like to count things for a living, US interest in hiking has been increasing steadily, with almost twice as many people engaging in it in 2020 as in 2006. It grew even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic as people looked for outdoor activities that were less likely to spread pathogens.
From a public health perspective, that’s a good thing. The more people who hike, the lower our rates of obesity and lifestyle-induced illness will be, and, hopefully, the more of us will care for and protect the natural world.
Traditionally, hiking food suggestions included plenty of animal products, such as hard-boiled eggs and beef jerky. Back in the day, this made some sense; they didn’t spoil easily, their high-fat content meant they provided lots of energy in a small and light package, and they could be eaten while walking without requiring cooking or utensils. You could just gorp them down.
So in the interest of a healthy society that honors nature, I want to talk about how to eat and drink in a way that makes hiking even more enjoyable, healthy, and respectful of the environment. Whether you’re going for a short hike before work or on the weekend, an all-day hike, or a multiday hike, you’ll discover how to fuel your body with the nutrition and hydration it needs.
And while I may not be able to settle the raging debate over who gets the credit for inventing trail mix, I’ll share some recipes that you can definitely take credit for making when you share them before, during, or after your next hike.
Before we get to the details, let’s talk principles. Specifically, the seven principles of Leave No Trace, a set of outdoor ethics that tells us to leave the natural world more or less as we found it. After all, popular hiking spots are popular for a reason. And the cumulative effects of human presence can diminish their charm, as anyone who’s made a pilgrimage to the remote Galapagos Islands and was visually assaulted by the vista of high-rise buildings, hotels, and restaurants can attest.
The seven principles of Leave No Trace are:
Four of these principles — planning, waste disposal, leaving what you find, and minimizing campfire impacts — are particularly relevant when you are packing food for a hike.
Before packing food for backpacking, consider your needs. How long will you be hiking? Make sure you take enough food and water (if you can’t drink the water where you’re going) to get you through the entire hike — with some extra in case of unforeseen circumstances. If you’re hiking out and back, remember to pack for a round trip.
If you’ll be spending nights on the trail, plan one-pot (or one-container) meals to minimize the number of things you’ll have to pack and decrease the garbage you’ll produce. Quick-cooking foods can also cut down on preparation time.
Leave nothing behind after you’ve eaten on a trail. Take all trash or recycling out with you, or dispose of it in designated receptacles at trailheads and picnic areas. While your carrot ends and apple cores will biodegrade, save them and bring them home for your compost. Don’t leave them for wildlife (or worse, feed them directly).
While pretty much all of nature is edible to someone, that doesn’t mean we should look at our favorite forest or meadow as a free-to-all buffet. Experienced hikers and campers may enjoy an occasional edible plant, but only when they’re absolutely certain they know what they’re eating. Don’t even think about nibbling on that leaf or berry (or mushroom!) if you can’t confidently identify it.
Also, be careful not to consume plants that are rare, slow to reproduce, or whose nutrients are critical for other species that share the ecosystem. In short, if you’re unsure, let it be.
While campfires conjure romantic images of “roughing it” (especially if you’re a fan of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles), lots of people burning lots of wood in a small area can cause significant harm. Don’t chop down limbs and branches of living trees or shrubs; use only dead wood that you find on the ground.
You’ll also want to take care to make sure your fire doesn’t get out of control. If possible, use an existing fire ring at a campsite where flames won’t spread and cause damage. Keep the fire small, and burn it only for the time you are using it. Allow wood to burn completely to ash, and put out fires with water, not dirt.
Even better than a wood fire is cooking on a portable camp stove. That way, you can leave the dead wood to rot on the ground, where it can provide habitat and food for the little critters that keep the ecosystem balanced and healthy.
Most people are much better at recognizing hunger than thirst. That’s why it’s crucial to pay attention to your hydration when you’re out on the trail. Dehydration is not only physically taxing and potentially dangerous, it can also cloud your perceptions and impair your cognitive abilities. And the last place you want to become loopy and irrational is on a hiking trail where missing a sign could get you very, very lost. According to researcher Andy Galpin, a 2% loss in body weight due to dehydration can lead to a 10% decline in physical and cognitive performance.
Prevent dehydration by drinking 16–24 ounces of water in the hour before you hit the trail. (Hopefully, the parking area has a restroom or porta-potty; otherwise, I hope you’re OK peeing in the woods.) During the hike, it’s best to sip water slowly. An ideal range of consumption is eight ounces every 30–60 minutes.
Hiking hydration needs will vary based on temperature, clothing, altitude, and intensity. The hotter it is, the more your clothes wick moisture away from your body; the higher the elevation, and the harder you work, the more liquid you’ll need.
You need about a quart of liquid every two hours on a hike. For more strenuous hikes, or those where you’re perspiring or breathing heavily with exertion, go for the upper end, or even higher.
Oh, and when you perspire, you’re not just losing water; you’re also losing minerals. On those sweaty hikes, you will need to replenish your electrolytes as well. You can do this with the aid of an electrolyte powder mixed with water, a drink that naturally includes some electrolytes (such as fruit juice or coconut water), or salty snacks. If you have nothing else at hand, you can make an electrolyte drink by adding a pinch of salt and sweetener to your water bottle.
You can assess your hydration status by paying attention both to your thirst and the color of your urine. If you don’t feel an urge to drink and your urine is light yellow to clear, then you are probably hydrated enough.
If you will be bringing your own hydration on your hike, you have several options. Hydration packs are basically backpacks with a dedicated “bladder” for storing water. Because water is so heavy, a backpack is a good way to bring a large amount without tiring out your arms.
For shorter hikes, a water bottle that you carry or clip to your daypack with a carabiner might be all you need. If you’re planning on jogging or running on your hike, you don’t want lots of water sloshing all over the place. In that case, check out hydration belts and hydration vests, which contain pockets for storing water bottles that minimize annoying bouncing.
Another option — one that will be crucial for multi-day hikes — is to get your water from a natural source on your journey. Unless you know that a particular spring or stream has been tested for purity and lack of nasty pathogens, make sure to purify the water with a portable water treatment device. While LifeStraw is the most popular water purification brand among hikers, there are many options that you can find online or at your local outdoor adventure store.
“Safe most of the time” isn’t good enough when it comes to the potential downside of serious bacterial exposure. It’s about as reassuring as “this plane hardly ever crashes.”
Many people’s ideas of hiking food revolve around a worry that hikers need a lot of protein. And for lots of historical and economic reasons, when people talk about protein, they’re typically talking about animal protein.
Just like the mainstream vision of a dinner plate generally including a big chunk of meat in the leading role, with starches and veggies as supporting characters, the stars of the hiker’s pantry are all-too-often things like hard-boiled eggs, beef jerky, string cheese, and other cured and processed foods of animal origin that will keep us from “wasting away” as we navigate hills, valleys, rocky trails, and stream beds.
There are a few problems with this approach. First, we know that meat and dairy can negatively impact your health. Second, animal products are much harder on the environment, requiring more land and water, creating more pollution, and emitting more greenhouse gases.
Third, our bodies’ favorite energy source is actually carbohydrates, not protein. When you’re walking many miles and challenging yourself with uneven terrain and elevation, your immediate need is for easy-to-digest calories to keep you going.
I’m not talking about what popular culture calls “carbs” — breads, cookies, crackers, and so on. I’m referring to complex carbohydrates that are found in whole plant foods, including fruits that contain simple sugars in a package that also delivers fiber and water.
That’s not to say you should avoid protein. We need some for routine bodily maintenance and slightly more for recovery from strenuous activity. But that doesn’t mean huge quantities, and it doesn’t mean you have to eat animal sources. There’s no need to go full “Rocky” and down four raw eggs in a single gulp.
Plenty of plant foods are great sources of protein that will help you recover. And those plant foods also provide energy for the hike itself because they contain — wait for it — complex carbohydrates. Plus, they’re much better sources of most nutrients and antioxidants, which can help you perform at your best. For optimal results, choose whole foods over processed or packaged foods to avoid unwanted ingredients like artificial flavorings, colorings, added sugar, and other additives.
Don’t start your hike hungry. Especially if you’re going on a strenuous and long hike, you want to get ahead of your energy requirements. Halfway up a mountain is probably not the place to practice intermittent fasting.
Begin the day with a breakfast that’s low in fat, high in complex carbohydrates (meaning they contain starch and fiber, not that they enjoy mid-20th century existential French philosophy), and contains some protein. In general, whole foods are best, thanks to their full complement of micronutrients, but you may want to dial back the fiber if you’re going on a long hike and won’t have ready access to a toilet. Of course, if pooping in the woods is your way of being one with nature, then by all means bring on the roughage! Just add a decent digging trowel to your gear, such as the aptly named “Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel” by The Tentlab.
The goal of your pre-hike meal is to provide fuel while giving your body enough time to digest most of the food before hiking. A good rule of thumb is to consume around 300–500 calories at least one hour before a serious hike.
Some breakfasts to eat before a hike include the following:
For longer hikes, eat a little bit every one to two hours instead of waiting for a large meal in the middle of the day. That way you’ll keep your energy levels high, and your body can remain in motion and limber all day. Your trail food should ideally aim for roughly the following macronutrient distribution: 45–55% carbs; 35–40% fat; and 10–15% protein. The shorter the hike, the less fat you need.
A big camp dinner is fine if you’re ready to pitch the tent and relax for the night. But you don’t want to make your body play the “let’s try to trek and digest at the exact same time” game, which at best will slow you down, and at worst will give you digestive distress that will challenge the digging capacity of an excavator, let alone a Potty Trowel.
If you’re sweating even a little, make sure to include some salty snacks to replace the sodium that’s releasing through your pores. And don’t neglect the other electrolytes that you’ll need to replenish, like magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
For hikes longer than three hours, or those in hot environments, go for nonperishable items. No one wants to deal with the black banana that got squished between the granola bar and the water bottle. While we’re on the topic, I don’t recommend just tossing your food into the same backpack compartment as the sunscreen, binoculars, and copy of 31-Day Food Revolution that you always carry. A small, soft lunch box can both protect your food from your other gear (and vice versa), and make it easier to access.
Here are some ideas for food you can eat during the hike:
Several companies make freeze-dried or dehydrated meals you can bring with you. The nice thing about many of these offerings is that they are light, since you add the water back before cooking. They do involve extra packaging that you’ll have to port out, and not all brands are healthy or environmentally friendly.
While you don’t want to gorge yourself after visiting the gorge (English sure is a funny language), there is a 30–45-minute post-exercise window when your body is especially receptive to replenishing and repairing muscle tissue. After a hike, a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein is ideal. The carbohydrates replace lost muscle sugar and the protein provides amino acids to rebuild muscles.
Look for foods that contain both protein and complex carbs. Some examples include:
But wait — how are you going to make a smoothie or shake within 45 minutes of finishing a hike if your vehicle is parked at a trailhead an hour away from home? That’s where the miracle of modern technology comes in (and where I start sounding like an infomercial). Keep your fresh and frozen ingredients in a good cooler, and if you’re pulling out all the stops, consider getting a small portable blender, such as a Blendjet or Nutribullet.
For multiday hikes, aim for around 1½–2½ lbs of food per person per day. Unless your food is watermelon (which I don’t recommend), that will translate to anywhere from 2,500 to 4,500 calories, depending on the caloric density of the food. Your caloric needs will vary based on the intensity and length of your hike, your size and weight, and your basal metabolic rate (how many calories you burn just by being alive).
Now it’s time for five awesome recipes. The only problem is, they’re so delicious you’ll be tempted to make them and eat them right away and totally forget about hiking. I’ll make you a deal — test them out once (you know, just to make sure they’ll work on the day of the hike), and then save them for your wonderful walks, terrific treks, remarkable rambles, and excellent excursions.
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