Food is fuel in all that we do. But when we’re especially active, it’s crucial to have the right type of fuel for our body. The right diet for hikers is one that will keep you going on the trail. For this, you’ll need a variety of energy-rich foods that are easy to obtain, pack, and eat on the go.
The 10 best energy foods for hiking are:
- Coconut flakes
- Dried fruits
- Energy/protein bars
- Beef jerky
- Nut butters
- Homemade meals
It’s important for every hiker to know not only what the best energizing food options are, but also to understand why these suggested foods are so beneficial for our bodies. Additionally, it’s even more helpful to know what makes an energizing food in general. Keep reading to learn more!
Before we dive into the energy-packed foods recommended for hiking, let’s get a grasp on what makes a food a good source of energy.
The key is to look for macronutrients. These are your carbohydrates (sugars), lipids (fats) and proteins (essential amino acids). Micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals are also important in your daily diet, but these usually accompany foods that provide your body with energy.
It’s not just any combination of these macronutrients, though. For example, a fast-food hamburger has quite a lot of carbs and fats, as well as some protein in the meat. However, eating one of these on the trail would likely leave you feeling sluggish and burnt out before you finish your first mile.
Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. They eventually break down into sugars and provide the calories that keep our natural processes going.
Simple carbohydrates will break down much quicker than complex carbs, so if you’re looking to maximize your caloric intake on the trail, grab foods with naturally occurring sugars.
These are things like fruits, dairy products, and honey, but can also be obtained by snacking on a small candy bar. Other healthy complex carbohydrate options include whole grain bread and fiber-rich veggies.
Lipids are fats that our body needs to produce energy and promote cell growth. We may recall from a distant memory of high school health class that there are two types of fats in our food: saturated and unsaturated.
At room temperature, saturated fats are usually solid. They can increase our bad cholesterol and clog our bloodstream, making them less ideal for our body. These fats occur in fried foods, baked goods, and some animal products.
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and can actually lower bad cholesterol while providing our bodies with energy. Unsaturated fats are key for energy-rich trail foods. These fats are found in nuts, seeds, beans, and naturally occurring oils.
Proteins are the building blocks of everything in our bodies. When we eat protein-rich foods, it provides the essential amino acids needed to make up everything from our skin cells to our bones. Any extra protein we consume is converted into energy that keeps the body going past the point of average physical exertion, making it essential for any hiker’s diet.
Excellent sources of protein include beans, nuts, oats, broccoli, and spinach, along with meats and other animal products. Now that you know what makes a food high in energy, let’s talk about the 10 best high energy foods for hiking.
Most backpackers and trail aficionados are familiar with GORP: Good old raisins and peanuts. Otherwise known as trail mix, this food is an obvious choice for hitting the trail!
The peanuts (or mixed nuts) provide plenty of protein and unsaturated fats, while the raisins or other dried fruit are a source of simple carbohydrates and antioxidants in concentrated form. The addition of candy pieces like M&M’s also give you a little pep in your step with the help of a little sugar.
The best thing about trail mix is that there are so many options out there. For those that don’t care for raisins, try substituting in craisins or dried blueberries instead. If you want even more options, search the bulk section of your grocery store for versatile pre-made mixes, or make your own!
- Highly customizable
- Tasty and nutritious
- Can be heavy
- Can get boring if you don’t change it up
Although coconut can be lumped in with the next item on this list, I wanted to give it the spotlight it deserves. Experienced trail blazers likely understand why. Dried coconut flakes have the most bang for your buck, so to speak.
Many avid backpackers will tell you that dried coconut flakes are the most nutrient-rich food per unit of weight while also remaining easy to pack and snack on. This means that if you’re trying to keep your pack light and your body fueled, dried coconut flakes are the way to go!
Dried coconut is calorie-dense, with a high fat content and packs more protein per serving than any other dried fruit, while remaining considerably lighter in weight.
- Versatile and lightweight
- Can use as an ingredient in other foods
- Not for everyone
- Some people are allergic
Dried fruits are an excellent natural source of sugar while remaining lightweight for your pack. While I still stand by coconut flakes, my next go-to for dried fruit on the trail is pineapple pieces or dried apricots.
Other types of fruit snacks are good to consider as well, such as all-natural fruit gummies and rolls (my favorite are the Trader Joe’s brand) or fruit squeeze pouches.
- Full of natural simple carbohydrates
- Lots of choice available
- Can dehydrate fruit yourself
- It can get expensive
- Not many calories
Energy bars were designed to keep our troops going in the field with ease and efficiency, so these are a no-brainer for keeping hikers fueled in the field as well!
With so many brands and flavors on the market, it’s hard to decide which bars are best to toss in your pack, but the simple answer is the kind you’ll actually eat. If you’re overly concerned with nutritional value, pick the bar with the least amount of ingredients listed.
Clif Bars, KIND, and Nature Valley are a few of my favorites that are all available at your typical supermarket for relatively inexpensive prices. If you’re more of a fruit bar kind of person, I enjoy and recommend the Nature’s Bakery fig bars.
- Easy to pack
- Widely available
- Convenient and plenty of choice
- Some are expensive and not very nutritious
- Packaging is often wasteful
With about 9 grams of protein per ounce, jerky is a convenient trail snack that’s also packed with hard to obtain vitamins like vitamin B12. Lean meat jerkies, like turkey jerky, actually provide more protein than beef, but are usually much higher in sodium.
Because of the high sodium content, jerky can help to replenish the salt you’ve lost through sweat during your hike, but it may also dehydrate you if you eat too much and it can raise your cholesterol over time.
For trail snacking, lean meat jerky is recommended. It is high in protein and vitamins, but low in unhealthy saturated fats and some types are also lower in cholesterol.
- Good source of protein
- Easy to carry and plenty of variety
- Not vegetarian/vegan friendly
- Can be expensive
Nut butters, such as peanut butter, almond butter, or even Nutella, offer protein-packed goodness with plenty of unsaturated fats and simple carbohydrates. All of this makes your favorite nut butter an ideal trail food!
You probably wouldn’t want to just bring a jar of peanut butter and a spoon on your hike. Instead, bring a companion snack to go with your preferred nut butter, like the next option on this list!
A simple PB&J or almond butter and honey sandwich would also do the trick, as well as purchased snacks like Ritz crackers with peanut butter filling or even Nutter Butters.
- Well-balanced and nutritious
- Can be paired with many other snacks
- Lots of choice
- Can add a lot of weight
- Some are quite unhealthy
Hard pretzels are made from wheat flour, which provides as much as 18 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of protein per serving. These can replenish the salt you sweat out on the trail, while providing macronutrients in a micro snack.
They are low in fat, however, which won’t keep you going for too long. To combat this, consider purchasing peanut butter filled pretzel bites! These are available in large bulk containers from warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club and will likely hold up better in your pack while providing an even more nutrient-rich snack.
- Easy to pack and eat
- Very light
- Usually inexpensive
- Can get crushed in your backpack
- Sometimes wasteful on the packaging side
Popcorn is one of my favorite and one of the most underrated trail snacks out there. Similar to pretzels, plain popcorn provides over 20 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of fat in a single serving, while remaining relatively low in sodium.
Before you run out and purchase a bag of pre-popped popcorn for your adventure, keep in mind that the nutritional value of the prepackaged snack will vary greatly depending on the brand, added flavoring, and many other factors.
Instead, I recommend buying kernels (another good bulk section buy) and making the popcorn yourself. You can either put it in a paper bag and microwave it for about 3 minutes, or in a pot on the stove top (similar to Jiffy Pop) to stick with the healthier options.
The key here is to steer away from saturated fats, like butter, and stick to natural oils like olive, coconut, or avocado. You can also just keep it plain if you prefer it!
- Simple, versatile and lightweight
- Relatively inexpensive
- Very customizable
- Some preparation required for homemade popcorn
- Lightweight but takes up space
Obviously your body can’t survive off of candy alone, but this quick treat may provide your body with a last jolt of energy to get you back to the trailhead if you’re feeling sluggish and it can be an excellent way to reward yourself for getting out on the trail!
Dark chocolate especially is a great choice for the trail because it provides more fat and carbohydrates than milk chocolate, even though it also has less protein. Because dark chocolate contains little to no dairy, the fat in this sugary snack is more likely to be unsaturated fats from natural oils, while also containing more antioxidants than milk chocolate.
If you’re looking for a healthier way to consume chocolate on the trail, try bringing some dark chocolate covered almonds or find energy bars with dark chocolate chunks included.
- Fast source of energy
- Easy to find and inexpensive
- Too much chocolate is a bad thing!
Homemade trail food is the way to go for most hikers out there. Many frequent hikers won’t make a special trip to the grocery store before each day hike, although many do keep things like bars and other quick snacks on hand to toss in with their homemade meals.
A few of my favorite homemade trail foods are hummus, avocado and veggie wraps, premade tuna melts (I usually make extras to use for my hikes when making these for dinner), or a classic PB&J. All of these options are packed with protein, carbs and healthy fats that will ensure a well-balanced trail meal to keep you moving.
- Accessible and inexpensive
- You can choose what to bring and eat
- Requires some prep work
- Need to take care with packaging
I’m a huge advocate for coconut-anything on the trail, simply for the nutrient value and calorie-per-pound this food provides. But I’m also just a fan of coconut and how it tastes. If you’re not into coconut at all, don’t pack it!
Never pack anything you won’t enjoy eating, because you likely won’t eat it in that case. Instead, pick a few other foods from this list that you do enjoy, even if they weigh a little more, or require a bit more prep work.
Before setting off on the trail, make sure to have a balanced meal. Go for foods like oatmeal, eggs, or pancakes that offer the macronutrients you’ll need to keep going all day. Another option is a breakfast burrito from your favorite place. Just be conscientious about the amount of saturated fats you might consume in order to avoid a sluggish feeling later in your hike.
I’m absolutely guilty of going out for pizza or sushi after a long hike. These aren’t necessarily poor choices as both offer plenty of carbs, fats, and protein, but I’ll admit there are better options out there.
While I don’t encourage others to follow this example, it is nice to have your own little reward system based on the type of things you like to eat. A fruit smoothie, for example, is a great refreshing and replenishing reward for your body after a long day on the trail!
Whether you’re grabbing a handful of GORP, or customizing a homemade meal for the trail, a well-balanced hiker’s diet is crucial when setting out, no matter the distance. All the foods on this list, paired with plenty of water, are sure to keep you going while adventuring. They are ideal because they’re open to customization and additions. Be sure to make them your own for happy journeys ahead!