by Diane Spicer
Best dayhike foods?
You're kidding, right?
Quickly throw a granola bar and a water bottle into a pack, and you're done!
Sure, you can get by with
eating starving like that on a day hike.
But why just "get by", when you can have abundant energy and stamina by eating the right day hiking foods?
And just so you know, not all granola bars and trail snacks are created equal.
Please allow me to share my favorite day hike snacks with you!
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These choices make good nutritional sense, and keep you fueled up with steady energy hour after hour.
Or hop further down the page for tasty dayhike food suggestions for lunch that aren't dependent upon trail bars.
You can use these hiking food suggestions for snacks on your backpacking trip, for all the good reasons mentioned.
They're lightweight, nutritious, tasty, and can fit a wide variety of hiking budgets.
Now let's get to it!
Not the "cocktails" kind of bars!
I'm referring to the hiking snacks that keep me going between meals during a day hike, in all kinds of weather.
And just so you know:
To be on the sanctioned Hiking For Her list of favorite dayhike foods, they have got to be delicious & nutritious.
They must pass close scrutiny of their ingredients (no fillers, artificial dyes or colors, or cheap corn syrup).
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.
I need to be gluten free, so that's also a strict part of the criteria for a great trail bar.
If you want to go organic, here are some tips.
With all that in "scrutiny" in mind, let's take a glance at my current favorite day hike food in the form of trail bars (also known as a partial answer to best hiking food for dayhikers and backpackers).
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:
ZING bars were 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.
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:
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 munching on one of these.
If you like savory and sweet combined, you should try these for sure.
Warning: These trail bars 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.
Although who could resist caramel paired with sea salt??
My apologies for the name of this one: Caveman Bars.
However, I'm willing to overlook the name and focus on their taste.
Because 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 the Hiking For Her calorie rule:
Calories don't count when you're working hard,
so don't count them!
I couldn't decide! All of them are quite tasty and filling.
The descriptive names will help you navigate away from nuts, if necessary.
GoMacro Bars are toothsome and satisfying, and the ingredients are a dream for hikers who scrutinize food labels:
no additives or preservatives, USDA organic, and can easily fit into your dietary restrictions, including
*The glucose is derived from 100% brown rice, making it a grain based source of carbohydrates.
Lots of flavors to tempt you, too!
Check out the mini bar variety pack, and stash some in your car, gym bag, and purse for emergency snacking.
Here's the truth, dear hiker:
The key to great hiking energy is a bit more complicated than chomping on the best trail bars.
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 the day of your hike.
Which day hike foods can deliver a good balance of fuel while you glide down the trail?
Ah! Glad you asked!
For a brief overview and some ideas for choosing the best hiking food, 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 day packs have crafty little zippered pockets within easy reach on the hip belt and shoulder straps, 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 high fructose corn syrup in it.
Read the labels!
And know that there are dozens of words for sugar.
Here are two of my favorite trail candies with no corn syrup.
The first one tastes like caramel with some extra flavor pops: espresso and gingerbread.
Not super hard, and will get softer if kept in your pocket.
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, the information in these booklets will get you pointed in the right direction (so to speak).
Some dayhikers like to stop every hour to snack on handfuls of trail mix or gorp, or to gulp down an energy bar (see above for recommendations).
These hiking snacks, in the category of very best hiking food, 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.
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
Caveat: This depends upon what I had for breakfast, the type of terrain, and the temperature, too.
That gnawing hunger 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!
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 yet.
My favorite source for fruit and nut mixes as trail snacks is Trader Joes.
Here are a few suggestions of trail mix to try for this important category of dayhike foods.
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.
Keep nuts in the freezer until you hit the trail - their oils won't go rancid on you if you can't get out for a hike as often as you'd like.
And you can always use them in your baking projects, right?
Not every hike needs the same amount or type of fuel i.e. hiking snacks.
Read this to match your trail mix to your hike.
Protein and fat, as already mentioned, can be obtained via nuts or nut butters.
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, and they make weaker cell membranes.
Avoid rancid nuts at all costs.
That means pay a bit more for high quality, properly stored nuts!
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.
Tip: Buy a small package and give it a taste test at home before committing to an expensive large pouch for a hike.
I love buffalo jerky because it seems to "burn clean" (no digestive upsets, no weird tastes, no burping) ... an important consideration for choosing your dayhike 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: Tanka buffalo and cranberry bites.
A bit pricey, yes, but geez it's great as trail fuel!
I have to pace myself because I tend to gobble it down.
Thankfully, this package lasts for several hikes.
Another fine jerky choice for hikes comes from Patagonia Provisions.
To save time driving to the trailhead, smoothies are an option.
Blend together almond milk (regular or chocolate), a frozen banana, some protein powder, a bit of maple syrup, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Hydroflask now makes straw lids for their double walled insulated metal bottles, keeping your smoothie at the correct temperature and safe to drink as you drive.
A recovery smoothie post-hike makes sense, too.
Store your smoothie in a cooler and have it waiting for you after your day hike.
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, if I'm working hard on the trail, I even have Second Lunch (ten million hobbits cannot be wrong)!
Anything I eat on the trail as day hike foods will 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.
Tip: If you're used to racing through lunch, dial into your surroundings and mindfully consume your sandwich slowly. your food will taste so delicious!
Try some of my favorite day hike food combos:
You can find lots more tips for the best protein sources for your hiking lunch here.
Wrap up your sandwich in a sheet of non-reactive reusable bees wax - a great alternative to plastic bags.
Or this handy 3-pack: small, medium and large wrapping options!
Hiking in warm weather?
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.
Did you know that the American food supply contains over 3000 ingredients to boost flavor, extend shelf life, and create certain textures?
a lot of too many 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.
So make sure that only the best dayhike foods are part of that plan.
The ones recommended here fit squarely into that category! I want you to be a healthy, happy hiker :)
This overview of the best dayhike foods should get you started snacking 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 much better off with bird foods.
But I couldn't resist the glint in this one's eyes as the best dayhike foods came out of my backpack!
Ready to try backpacking? Best backpacking food ideas
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades, & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
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Your support is appreciated, and used to create even more hiking information to be shared freely with all of our virtual trail sisters (and brothers).
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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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