Dayhike foods? You're kidding, right?
Throw a few granola bars and a water bottle into a pack, and you're done!
Not so fast, dear hiker.
Your body requires a steady supply of carbohydrates, fats and proteins throughout the day in order to keep you chugging along on the trail during a day hike.
Some of this cellular fuel comes from the stored glycogen (sugars in skeletal muscles, liver) and adipose (fat) from what you've eaten in the past, but most of it comes from what you eat that day.
So a granola bar and a few sips of water is a good start, but not nearly good enough to make your day.
Which dayhike foods can deliver a good balance of fuel while you glide down the trail?
Ah! Glad you asked!
For the nitty gritty answers about dayhike foods as fuel, read this.
For a brief overview and some dayhike food ideas, stick with me here for a bit.
Let's start with carbohydrates as an important nutrient to include in dayhike foods.
In fact, they're the most important of the "big 3" nutrients mentioned above! You'll see why in a moment.
Carbohydrates are sugars, either "simple" or "complex".
Simple sugars will flood your bloodstream with glucose ("Whoa! Burst of energy!"), then leave you to crash and burn ("Whoa! I gotta sit down").
Candy bars and sugary/caffeinated drinks are notorious for that quick hit of energy, but you should avoid relying on them for sustained energy on the trail.
An exception would be a candy bar with lots of nuts (sources of fat/protein), which can slow down the release of the sugar and provide a more sustained, even release of nutrients.
I hear that Snickers are favorite dayhike food for thruhikers, those dedicated hikers who specialize in serial day hikes along the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Superior or Wonderland Trails every summer.
Of course, a candy bar presents other issues:
Those simple sugars are high maintenance items!
I just skip all of the drama...
wIth one notable exception: I suck on hard candy when I have to work hard on steep uphill sections of the trail.
My packs have crafty little zippered pockets within easy reach on the hip belt, and I stash my favorite candy there. Each season I tempt myself with a new flavor.
These little flavor bombs keep my mouth hydrated (the saliva reflex), and take my mind off the hard work at hand.
And because the sugar is released quickly and steadily, it fuels my skeletal muscles and keeps my brain alert.
Heads up: If you're sensitive or politically opposed to corn syrup, be careful about buying cheap bags of candy because the cheaper it is, the more likely it is there's corn syrup in it.
Read the labels! And know that there are dozens of words for sugar.
Here are two of my favorites. The first one tastes like coffee with a hint of caramel cream in it:
The second one fills your mouth with fruity (organic) goodness, so stock up and stash a tin in each of your packs!
For all other trail work, the goal is slow and sustained energy release.
That's where complex carbohydrates from grains or fruit, plus a dash of protein, come into the picture - and your lunch sack - as appropriate dayhike foods.
If you'd like details on how to calculate your exact nutrition needs as a dayhiker, I recommend my e-booklet on this very subject, which you can pick up here.
I created it based on the questions dayhikers were asking about what to eat on the trail.
If you're serious about good trail performance as a dayhiker, this will get you pointed in the right direction (so to speak).
Some dayhikers like to stop often to snack on handfuls of trail mix or gorp, or to gulp down an energy bar (see below for recommendations).
These hiking snacks try to deliver all 3 types of fuel at a sustained rate into the bloodstream:
Unfortunately, stopping often to eat may work against you.
Your skeletal muscles will slow you down as your body tries to digest the frequent food because your blood is being diverted from legs and arms to your gastrointestinal tract.
For that reason, I prefer to rely on my stored glycogen and fat for the first 3 hours of a day hike, then stop for a snack when I receive strong hunger signals. (This depends upon what I had for breakfast, the type of terrain, and the temperature, too.)
That gnawing sensation after a few hours forces me to break out a handful of trail mix or an energy bar, along with plenty of water to wash it all down.
This isn't just a matter of getting the peanut butter off the roof of my mouth.
No, it's a cellular energy insurance policy! Water is a solvent, and if you don't have enough of it in your body, your energy levels will suffer.
My best trail tip is to snack on raw nuts and dried fruits, especially if you haven't found an energy bar you really like.
My favorite source for these? Trader Joes.
Here's a few suggestions to try. These handy packs can easily be repackaged into trail sized bags.
Just go easy on them. A handful, chewed thoughtfully as you check the map for your next benchmark, will do the trick.
And keep the nuts in the freezer - their oils won't go rancid on you if you can't get out on the trail as often as you'd like.
Protein and fat, as already mentioned, can be obtained via nuts or nut butters.
NOTE: Be sure to purchase high quality nuts. If they've been sitting around for awhile, the fats become rancid (see storage tip above).
Sometimes you'll notice the "off" flavor, but not always. Your body has a harder time processing rancid fats!
Another great source of protein is jerky (dried meat).
But beware! Not all jerky is created equal.
Some jerkies are chock full of preservatives and strong flavorings. Buy a small package before committing to an expensive large pouch.
I love buffalo jerky because it seems to "burn clean"... an important consideration for day hike foods.
I found a particularly flavorful and "clean" buffalo jerky because of a trail recommendation (Yes, I've been known to stop total strangers and ask about something, and this time it was along the lines of "Hmm, what's that? It looks good!").
Here's the product. A bit pricey, yes, but geez it's great as trail fuel!
I have to pace myself because I tend to gobble it down. The cranberries add a moist deliciousness that is amazing to experience.
Thankfully, this package lasts for several hikes:
When I finally stop for lunch, I make sure my slices of bread (complex carbs) have protein and fat between them, in generous amounts.
On hiking days I don't worry about calories, because I know that if I'm out for even just a few hours I'll be running a calorie deficit.
Some days, I even have Second Lunch!
Dayhike sandwich suggestions:
Anything I eat on the trail as dayhike foods has to be a great combination of flavor and nutrients backed up with good quality ingredients. I'm working hard, so I want to really enjoy my food.
If you're used to racing through lunch, dial into your surroundings and mindfully consume your sandwich slowly. It will taste so delicious!
I strive to avoid preservatives and artificial ingredients because they keep my liver & kidneys distracted from their important tasks: pulling nutrients from my bloodstream and dumping waste products from my body.
Also, I don't want my taste buds to become used to fake flavorings, lots of salt and sugar, or intense flavor combinations. I don't want to miss out on savoring the subtle flavors in great dayhike foods!
Did you know that the American food supply contains over 3000 ingredients to boost flavor, extend shelf life, and create certain textures?
That's a lot of chemicals!!
I respect my hard working liver and kidneys too much to throw all of that at them - especially on the trail when they're already working hard to get the right balance of blood sugar and water.
Bottom line? I want to achieve my hiking objectives for years to come!
Here's a handy way to remember the "big 3".
Not the "cocktails" kind of bars!
I'm referring to the snacks that keep me going between meals during a fabulous hike, in all kinds of weather.
To be on the sanctioned Hiking For Her list of favorite dayhike foods, they have got to be not only delicious & nutritious, but also pass focused scrutiny of their ingredients.
I need to be gluten free, so that's also a strict part of the criteria for a great trail bar.
Another thing I look for is the ability to buy these in bulk. If you purchase them one at a time, the price adds up fast.
So if I can get a good deal on a case of them, I freeze some and use up the rest in a short amount of time (a month or so).
I've found them to be great for snacks at work or while commuting, too.
With all that in mind, let's take a glance at my current favorite trail bars.
1. Lara Bars have been around for awhile.
When they first came out I was overjoyed by how short the ingredient list was and how much flavor they packed.
These bars rely upon nuts, so if you're nut intolerant (I will skip the easy joke here, and you're welcome) these are not for you.
The variety of flavors is mind boggling.
My current favorite is Cashew Cookie, but I have been known to buy a case of mixed flavors to keep my taste buds from dozing off:
2. ZING bars are designed by nutritionists who paid attention to nutrient ratios but also got the taste right.
These bars don't get rock hard in your pack overnight, and they don't melt in the heat (the same could be said of Lara Bars - but those will get smooshed if you subject them to high pressures like sitting on your pack).
I love the blueberry flavor, but truthfully, I have yet to meet one I don't like! The chocolate coconut bar really hits the spot sometimes but for some reason I keep gravitating back to blueberry.
These can be quite expensive if purchased one at a time, so consider the bulk buy option and split some with trail buddies:
3. Kind bars are a bit on the sweet side, but if I need lots of glucose in my bloodstream to tackle some elevation gain, I enjoy these.
If you like savory and sweet combined, you should try these for sure.
Warning:They rely heavily upon nuts.
If you are allergic to a particular type, read the labels. Most of the names shout it right out, such as my current favorite, Almond & Coconut.
4. My apologies for the name of my last favorite: Caveman Bars.
This is, after all, a woman's hiking site!
However, I'm willing to overlook the name and focus on their taste.
I was introduced to these bars on a back country trip through ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), and they kept me fueled through 10 days of rugged terrain and temperature extremes.
I kept looking forward to rest breaks so I could eat another one!
Remember my calorie rule: they don't count when you're working hard, so don't count them!
I couldn't decide!
The descriptive names will help you navigate away from nuts, if necessary.
This overview of dayhike foods should get you started on the trail.
Be sure to share your dayhike foods with your trail buddies! They aren't picky about flavors :)
P.S. Just kidding. Don't train these camp robbers (gray jays) to eat human dayhike foods. They're better off with bird foods!
But I couldn't resist the glint in this one's eyes! If only I could maintain such focus on the trail...