The best hiking food strikes a balance between functional practicality and deliciousness. So advised the hiking authorities and nutritionists we talked with, just as summer gets underway, about what food and drink to pack for day hikes.

While traditional items like trail mix, energy bars and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will always be good choices for a long walk in the woods, our expert sources also had plenty of creative snack and meal ideas, along with strategies to ensure you’re fueling your body in the most effective and efficient ways. While it’s important to pack nutrient-dense foods heavy on carbohydrates, variety and crave-worthiness are also key, they said.

“Take things you know you will enjoy eating,” advised Wesley Trimble, communications and creative director for the Maryland-based American Hiking Society. “If you’re bored with a certain food, you might not be inclined to eat it when you should, leading to problematic drops in blood sugar.”

Our sources emphasized that a day hike is an opportunity to enjoy a day of fun snacks and mini meals that you wouldn’t ordinarily eat. Follow their collective guidance to keep your body energized and morale boosted out on the trails, starting with these fundamental principles:

Keep hydrated. Summer hikes can cause you to sweat considerably, making proper hydration essential. Bill Brooke, Maine chapter chair of the Appalachian Mountain Club, advises each hiker to bring 2 liters of water for a summer day hike. “It’s easy to go through 1 liter on a hot day, particularly if you’ve got any elevation on the hike,” Brooke said.

Some hikers replenish their electrolytes with sports drinks like Gatorade, and Brooke likes to add Nuun electrolyte tablets to his water. Heather Kasvinsky, Vermont-based author of the hiking and camping food blog This Noshtalgic Life, said she uses Nuun tablets fortified with about 40 milligrams of caffeine, less than half of the caffeine in 8 ounces of coffee.


“It’s not like having a cup of coffee, it just gives you a little bit of an extra boost, and I find that it helps my muscles not feel as tired,” Kasvinsky said.

Pack with thought. Some foods can be crushed to bits, bruised or melt in a crowded backpack. Experts recommend storing heat-sensitive items like chocolate or cheese deeper in your pack, not in an outer pocket where direct sun can beat down on it. Crushable items like chips or fresh fruit that could bruise will fare better at the top of the pack.

Also, keep in mind the hiking mantra, “leave only footprints,” meaning you need to take all your trash with you when you leave the trail for the day. This includes not just food packaging, but also biodegradable material not native to the hiking area, like banana or orange peels. Plastic Ziploc bags work well to hold handfuls of garbage, and Kasvinsky said she also likes reusable silicone bags by Stasher.

Instead of bringing ice or cold packs to protect the more perishable items in her backpack, Kasvinsky said she will simply freeze a food item that she’ll be eating later in the day – like a container of guacamole or a small stick of cured meat – and use it to keep the other items chilled. A bottle of water filled three-quarters of the way, then frozen, can also work, and you can sip from it while it melts.

Pack for abundance and variety.

If you’re doing a strenuous hike, say Mt. Katahdin, shown here, you may need 3,000 to 5,000 calories to fuel it. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Trimble and others agreed that packing a variety of food – sandwiches, an assortment of sweet and salty snacks, fresh fruit and veggie sticks – also makes the hike more fun and interesting. He even packs some “morale-booster” candy like a Snickers bar for himself and Skittles for his daughter.


“It’s a treat. It feels like a reward out on the trail,” Trimble said, noting that the candy delivers a needed dose of quick carb energy, making it a practical choice under the circumstances.

Stop regularly for food breaks. Brooke said people on half- or full-day hikes should stop for snacks every one or two hours. “You want to have enough high-energy food to keep you going throughout the day,” he said. “If you keep consuming calories, it helps keep your energy up, particularly toward the end of the day.

“When people are lagging behind on trails, we stop and eat something, and it usually perks them right up,” Brooke continued, noting that most mountaineering accidents happen on the way back downhill, when people are tired.

Nutritionist Debbie Pepper-Dougherty of DPD Nutrition Consultants in Cumberland Foreside said it’s especially important on a hike to listen closely to your body’s hunger and satiety cues so you can be sure you’re refueling as often as you need, without overeating or becoming bloated or weighed down.

A bowl of oatmeal, in progress here, gives you energy for hiking before you so much as set foot on trail. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Fuel up beforehand. Meal planning for a hike should start with the breakfast or lunch you eat before setting out. Before a day hike, Pepper-Dougherty likes to have a breakfast rich in carbs with some protein as well, like a fruit and yogurt parfait, cereal or oatmeal, or French toast.


“Carb energy is quick fuel,” Pepper-Dougherty said. “Carbohydrates break down quickly and are available for muscle tissues to use anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours after consuming, compared with the three to five hours it takes your body to process proteins.” Because of the lag time with proteins, she said meals that combine carbs with protein can help extend the release of carbohydrate energy.

Don’t fear the carbs. “A higher carb diet is the way to go with hikes,” Pepper-Dougherty said. “Carbs also hydrate the body better, hence the name carbohydrates.”

Pepper-Dougherty said she normally advises people to get about 50% of their calories from carbs, 30% from fat and 20% from protein. But for hikers, she ups her carb recommendation to 60% and proteins to 30%, and suggests cutting fat to 10%. “People don’t need to get obsessive, but don’t be afraid of the carbs,” she said.

“You need to eat enough energy to support what you’re expending, and carbs are the No. 1 fuel source” on a hike, concurred registered dietician Kristine Taylor of Tidewater Nutrition and Wellness in Portland.

“People on low-carb diets may skip carbs, but you’ve got to have them because that’s the energy,” said Kasvinsky, the author. “I don’t know how they do these hikes. I bet it would just take one hike for someone to not pack carbs, and then they’d come back and say, ‘Why did I do that?’ ”

Trail mix is a classic source of energy when hiking. Hannah Green Photography/Shutterstock

Snack smart. Trail mix and GORP are standard hiking snacks for good reason. They deliver plenty of carbs from dried fruit and chocolate, protein and fat from nuts, along with crunchy-chewy textures and a salty-sweet flavor combo that satisfies cravings.


Kasvinsky makes her own trail mix from what she has on hand in her pantry – pistachios, chocolate chips, dried cranberries and cashews, for instance.

“But GORP is good too — good old raisins and peanuts,” Kasvinsky added. “It’s something you can reach into you pack, grab a handful and keep hiking.”

Fresh fruit and veggie sticks also provide carbs, and their moisture content makes them feel refreshing to eat on a hot summer trail.

For protein, jerky is the go-to snack for many avid hikers, since it’s a lean source of protein that also helps restore depleted sodium levels. And jerky isn’t just beef-based anymore. Hikers today can find chicken, fish, duck, mushroom, jackfruit and more. “There are endless options out there now, including vegan jerky, so really it’s for everyone,” Kasvinsky said.

“Because of its relatively lower fat content, jerky can also be digested faster than nuts or nut butter,” Taylor said. What’s more, if you pack foods that contain sodium, potassium and calcium electrolytes such as bananas, oranges, salty nuts and jerky, you can skip the sports drinks or electrolyte beverages, she said.

Kasvinsky likes to buy shelf-stable snack packs of olives for a salty produce snack. She’ll also sometimes pack hard-boiled eggs, which she and her family sprinkle with Tajin seasoning made from mild chile peppers, lime and sea salt.


Energy and protein bars are another convenience staple for experienced hikers. Some of our sources liked Rx or Luna bars. “Personally, I got burned out on some of the bars,” Brooke said. “They’re good, but after a while you’ve just had enough of that particular kind of food.”

Pepper-Dougherty and Taylor cautioned that some energy bars – and processed snack foods in general – may contain sugar alcohols, inulin or chicory root, which can cause gastrointestinal distress. They said to read energy bar labels carefully to check for these added sweeteners.

“In general, I wouldn’t recommend packing food you haven’t eaten before, in case it gives you GI trouble,” Taylor said.

Keep sandwiches simple. Brooke said a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a go-to for him and other hikers in his club, delivering ample carbs from the bread and jelly, along with protein and fat in the peanut butter. And unlike meat-and-veggie sandwiches, a PB&J probably won’t get soggy.

To avoid sogginess, Trimble advises packing components for ham, turkey or similar sandwiches in separate bags – using one bag for the meat, one for lettuce, tomato and other veggies, one for bread and another for condiments – and assembling the sandwich just before eating.

Brooke, a vegetarian, often packs items like a bean and cheese burrito or a pita stuffed with cheese and veggies.


Kasvinsky prefers wraps to sandwiches because “they seem to pack better, they’re more self-contained and don’t mush as much as sandwiches, and they’re easier to hold one-handed.”

On a day hike in Europe, food editor Peggy Grodinsky encountered a family of fellow hikers enjoying charcuterie for lunch. A folding knife would be safer to carry. (Bread and cheese not pictured.) Peggy Grodinsky/Food Editor

Get creative. Kasvinsky encourages hikers to get creative with their hiking food. One of her own favorite meals for family hiking trips is a charcuterie board. She packs a small cutting board and a fold-out knife to slice a small stick of cured meat like salami or pepperoni, along with hard and semi-hard aged cheeses like manchego or parmesan, which she said hold up better in backpacks than softer cheeses.

She may also bring an aged cheddar wrapped in wax, or wax-covered Mini Babybel cheese, because the wax coating helps keep the cheese from sweating. She’ll bring along a complementary condiment like a jar of fig preserves, and someone in her family will be charged with hauling a baguette in their pack (though pre-slicing the bread would be fine too).

“I can’t tell you how awesome it is to sit on top of a mountain and have that charcuterie spread,” Kasvinsky said. “People we see up there always comment, ‘Oh wow, you guys really know how to do it.’ ”

On a recent camping and hiking trip in New Mexico, Kasvinsky said she packed some avocados and made her family a standout lunch by spreading smashed avocado onto rice cakes. She sprinkled Japanese furikake seasoning – with sesame seeds, seaweed and shiso herb – over the avocado along with a dusting of True Lime crystalized lime juice.

Kasvinsky has a dehydrator at home and puts it to use on fruits like kiwis and strawberries that she can’t buy dried at the supermarket. She’s even dehydrated her homemade cilantro-lime hummus and olive paste, which she rehydrated during the hike, combining them with sundried tomatoes to make wraps in flour tortillas.


“I’m all about getting to a destination and taking out all of these goodies from my pack and sitting, relaxing and rewarding ourselves,” she said.

While some hikers like to pack shelf-stable, lightweight pouches of tuna or salmon, Kasvinsky leans toward Freshé brand gourmet tinned fish, which come in exotically appetizing flavor profiles like Provence Nicoise, Moroccan Tagine and Aztec Ensalada.

“The trouble with tinned fish is that you’re going to end up with a fishy-smelling tin when you’re done,” she warned. “So you have to bring a Ziploc freezer bag to seal the empty can in afterward.”

“We like to live it up,” Kasvinsky conceded of her family’s taste in hiking food. “But it doesn’t have to be a big ordeal, you just have to think beforehand what’s going to satisfy and deliver your needs for protein, fat and carbs, your salty and your sweet, everything you want for a fun, delicious day.”

Sesame-peanut bars make good trail snacks. Peggy Grodinsky/Food Editor

Sesame-Peanut Bars

Trail bars are personal, and food editor Peggy Grodinsky said she did a lot of experimenting and trying recipes before finding one that suits her. In the end, the recipe that’s become her favorite is from Bon Appetit magazine. It travels well, can be put together in just a few minutes – handy when you have to wake up early the next morning for a hike – and reminds Grodinsky of Middle Eastern sesame candies. The bars are healthy, certainly more so than the peanut butter-oatmeal cookies or Rice Krispie treats with pumpkin seeds, coconut and dried apricots that she also likes to take on hikes. When she doesn’t want to bake these, Grodinsky has been known to pack and devour (too) many (Maine-made) Bixby Bars.


Yields 16 bars

1¼ cups black and/or white sesame seeds
¾ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
¼ cup unsalted roasted peanuts
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons peanut butter
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Butter well an 8-by-8 inch baking pan. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together the seeds, coconut, peanuts and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the honey, peanut butter and vanilla. Press into an even layer in the prepared pan. Bake until golden-brown at the edges, 20-25 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool. Then cut into 16 squares.

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