by Diane Spicer
What to eat on a hike to get the energy to keep going?
One answer, 4 words: trail mix as fuel.
Sounds like a hiking cliche, but slow down a minute.
The topic of eating the right food on a hike is nothing new around here.
If you’ve been reading the Hiking For Her website for a while, you know that I’m all about getting the most from what is eaten on a hike.
No exception for the best trail mixes!
You can skip down to the next section on trail mix recipes if you’d rather not read a short description about why choosing the right ingredients for your trail mix, depending on what type of hike you’ve planned, makes good biological sense.
Or stick with me here for a brief glimpse into why you need all of the Big Three hiking nutrients if you're serious about carrying trail mix as fuel for lots of energy on your next hike.
Your body is a hiking machine.
That means it's built for walking hour after hour, as long as you keep fuel flowing through your bloodstream.
Here, let's be brief about how to keep your energy levels high during a hike.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are a fancy way of saying sugar.
Use simple sugars in your trail mix when you want a fast hit of energy.
Simple sugars are refined, processed and easy to digest.
That means they hit your bloodstream fast, and can be grabbed by your cells easily.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, take a while to be pulled apart in your digestive system.
While they have their place in hiking food lists, they don’t make much sense in trail mix designed for fast energy.
So go simple here.
Like this rice cracker medley from Trader Joes!
Proteins are molecules that have important functions (like the enzymes in saliva) and they also provide structure (like your thigh muscle fibers).
You don’t need a lot of protein in a trail mix, because it’s harder to digest than carbs.
Plus, your muscle contractions on the trail don’t need protein until you’re recovering from your hike later in the day.
That's the time to hit the best sources of hiking protein hard.
Fats have a lot of nasty baggage attached to them, some of it undeserved in media hype about artery clogging or weight gain.
Every human cell needs fat molecules (lipids) for structure, and some of them (like your brain cells as you process these words) need it for proper function as well.
So don’t omit fats from your trail mix!
But don’t go overboard with them, because it will slow down your digestion and work against your goal of maintaining your hiking energy at a sustained, high level.
Here are three dirty little secrets of fat in trail mix as fuel:
Satisfying hiking food is a good hiking insurance policy!
But moreso on a long backpacking trip than on a day hike.
So go light on the fats in your trail mix on a short day hike.
Unless you're a paleo hiker, relying upon fat conversion into energy.
You've pushed your biochemistry into relying upon fat as muscle fuel, but you'll still need some glucose to keep your brain cells humming along (it's their preferred fuel).
Ready to design a trail mix template that will keep you fueled and satisfied for three different types of hiking?
The exact ingredients you choose are up to you!
But I'll get you started with a few ideas.
Sounds like a great way to stretch your legs, right?
And because your muscles won’t be gobbling up calories (energy) at an alarming rate on this hike, a light mix of sweet, salty and savory will do the trick.
In fact, you can omit the salt entirely because you won’t be building up a significant amount of sweat (unless you’re carrying a toddler, or training for an upcoming hiking trip).
Or unless your shoulder hiking weather is unusually hot.
Sweetness can be delivered to a trail mix recipe with a handful of dried fruit.
Be conservative and stick with raisins, or go rogue with mango and papaya.
Or cherries and berries!
Unsulfured, pesticide free organic dried fruit may cost more, but is less likely to provoke an allergic reaction to sulfites, or make your liver work hard at detoxification.
My favorite convenient source for non-GMO dried fruit: NatureBox.
Savory encompasses the fatty, crunchy, satisfying stuff like nuts and grains.
You can stay firmly in the traditional GORP (good old raisins and peanuts) realm.
Or you can indulge your taste buds with rich, buttery macadamia nuts, like these.
But there’s no need to over think this trail mix.
Throw a few handfuls of dried fruit + nuts into a re-sealable bag, and you’re good to go.
If weight maintenance or weight loss is your goal on this hike, be mindful of portions in your trail mix as fuel recipes.
Although you’re exercising, the amount of calories you are burning won’t allow for hefty portions of this trail mix.
On this hike your
body is going to work hard to maintain your internal temperature.
Trail mix as fuel needs more consideration, and here's why:
Continuous muscle contractions over a long time interval will generate a lot of body heat.
And sweat, which carries away both water and salt.
It’s important to balance out how salty your trail mix will be with how much water you’re going to carry, or how much surface water you’ll have access to for purification.
Fast fix: Simply add
salt to the trail mix you designed for your easy day hike (see Hike #1 above).
Get into the habit of buying ingredients in bulk when you dial in just the right combination of trail mix as fuel.
It saves not only time, but money.
Unless you do this type of hiking for a living (wow, now there’s a job description), your body isn’t prepared for diverting glucose, fat and protein into your cells hour after hour to maintain your stamina and energy level.
So help it out with a trail mix that is easy to digest, delivering fast energy (glucose in the form of simple sugars) and other nutrients without queasiness.
Sweetness is a big motivator for many hikers.
And thinking only of your hard working muscles, it's a smart move as a backpacker or rugged day hiker.
Here’s where high quality hiking chocolate enters the
picture trail mix.
Note the "high quality".
It pays to be thoughtful about your chocolate choices.
The good stuff i.e. high percentage cacao chocolate delivers a satisfying mouth
feel and hiking energy:
Salt becomes more important on a backpacking trip for two reasons:
So mix something salty and fatty into your trail mix: salted sesame sticks like these will give you a nice combination of fats, carbs and salt.
Or you can carry small vacuum packed pouches of salty olives with various flavor profiles to add to your evening meal.
Packets of electrolytes like these, in addition to your salty trail mix, can help fend off muscle cramps on long, hot, sweaty treks.
Trail mix is easy to throw together, lightweight and so enjoyable on a hike.
But there is so much more to eating well as a hiker!
Use the search box at the top of any page to find them quickly.
A few quick links:
Enjoy munching your trail mix as fuel while everyone else just thinks of it as trail snacks ;)
Best Trail Mix As Fuel Ideas
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When you use them to purchase recommended hiking supplies (or trail mix as fuel), you pay nothing extra.
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About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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