There’s this phenomenon I’ve heard talked about among outdoorsy folks, that out in the wilderness, food tastes better. During a mountain hike or an ocean paddle, even the simplest fare can be enjoyable and nourishing. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put a little extra thought and effort into what you pack to eat – the opposite, in fact.
Over the years, I’ve unearthed enough soggy, smashed sandwiches from my backpack to rethink what makes for good trailside food, and what’s better left at home. I’ve experimented with different breads, energy bars, trail mix and drinks to discover not only what snacks hold up in my pack, but also what types of food I most desire after struggling up the steep slope of a mountain.
For example, when I hike mountains in Baxter State Park with my family each summer, it has become a tradition for me to create sandwiches out of Bagel Thins (holds up better than bread), salami, cheddar cheese and mustard. At the top of a mountain, the salty, zesty sandwich is a welcome snack, usually in combination with something sweet, like a cookie — or two.
In addition, my hiking companions and I also usually pack fresh fruit, such as a tangerine or peach. And we always pack some homemade G.O.R.P., which stands for “good old raisins and peanuts” but often includes more ingredients. In my family’s case, we typically throw Goldfish crackers, cashews and M&Ms into the mix.
Of course everyone has different taste buds and dietary requirements and restrictions. I’m well aware that my salami sandwich may sound plain or simply unappealing to some. Others may be allergic to the peanuts in traditional GORP or, like my husband, really can’t get past the fuzzy skin of a peach. So in an effort to offer a wide variety of trailside snack ideas in this column, I reached out to my readers via Facebook, asking for their favorite foods to pack for outdoor adventures. In the following list, I’ve condensed some of their advice and suggestions and combined it with a bit of my own.
But before diving in, I do want to remind everyone who is eating outdoors to clean up after themselves. Following Leave No Trace outdoor principals is easy. Just pack out what you pack in, even apple cores and orange peels.
“It may be biodegradable, but when lots of people leave that stuff laying around trailside, it starts to impact things,” wrote Rick Charity, owner of Maine Alpine Guiding.
I think that’s a great reminder. I know that when I’m sitting at a scenic overlook near the top of a mountain it can take away from the scenery and overall experience to have pistachio shells littering the ground at my feet or worse — a chip bag tangled in a nearby blueberry bush.
A great trailside snack any time of year, sandwiches come in many varieties, but one favorite for many people is peanut butter (or almond butter or Nutella) and jelly because it won’t spoil in the heat and contains plenty of quick sugar, as well as some protein.
To improve this tried-and-true sandwich, consider using something more durable in place of bread, such as an English muffin (suggested Steve Yenco of Mainly Maine Photography) or rice cakes (suggested by Bailey Keating of Lisbon Falls). And as I mentioned before, I use Bagel Thins, which are essentially thin bagels. You can also jazz up a traditional PB&J by adding fluff or bananas.
Keep in mind that in the summertime, cold cuts and other meats might spoil in the heat after a long day of adventuring unless they’re protected in an insulated lunch box or cooler with ice. During the winter, however, these types of foods last much longer.
Packed with sweet, energy-packed ingredients, energy balls are trailside snacks for which there are many recipes available online. Come common ingredients are oats, peanut butter, chocolate chips, honey, chia seeds, flax seeds, dried fruit and nuts. According to Kristina Gonser Weaver of Orono, this snack is bite-sized, easy to eat and kids love them. They can also be pretty healthy, depending on the recipe you select, and there are no-bake varieties.
Quick energy foods
I almost always have a granola bar in my backpack. It’s an easy snack that I don’t have to prepare, and while it’s not the most exciting item of food, I usually end up eating it anyway. When it comes to granola bars, I’m not very picky, but I do like to mix it up. Some of my favorite include the Nature Valley fruit and nut bar, the Clif Bar carrot cake bar, and pretty much all the KIND bars, which are gluten free. Energy bars suggested by readers include Redd bars, Keto Bars, Quest bars, LUNA bars and Larabars, many of which are gluten and dairy free.
Quick energy can also come in the form of gummies, gels and drinks. Readers suggested Clif Bloks, which are block-shaped gummies, and Gu Energy Gel, which is an edible, flavored gel that provides fast energy, making it a popular item for endurance sport athletes. I’ve tried both, and I’m more a fan of the blocks than the gel, but that’s just personal preference. Readers also mentioned Honey Stinger, which makes honey-based, gluten-free energy waffles, organic energy chews, protein bars, healthy snacks, and energy gel. And they mentioned adding electrolytes to your water using products such as Nuun hydration tablets.
Fruit and vegetables
Often when I spend time outdoors I find myself craving fresh food, especially juicy fruit, and I know I’m not the only one. Numerous readers mentioned fresh fruits and vegetables they usually pack for trailside snacks. Some suggestions include clementines, avocados, apples, carrots, pears, oranges, blueberries and grapes, some of which should be packed in a hard container so they aren’t squished. And Ashleigh Ryan Vincent of Camden suggests freezing some of these for a cool summer treat.
Several readers also suggested dried fruits, including dried pineapple, mango and raisins, which leads us to trail mix — or G.O.R.P.
“Good Old Raisins and Peanuts” and other types of trail mix has long been a popular trailside snack. You can buy it premade in most convenience and grocery stores, but it’s also easy to mix yourself, adding your own favorite ingredients.
“I make G.O.R.P. with peanuts, M&Ms, raisins and the secret ingredient… candy corn,” wrote Cliff Watson of Wellesley, Massachusetts to my query about trail snacks.
Meanwhile, Mary Ann Perry of Rochester, Indiana, makes trail mix out of peanuts, dried cranberries, M&Ms and — the best part — chocolate-covered espresso beans.
“Many hikers we meet will try the beans,” she wrote.
Jerky, cheese sticks and other savory favorites
Another popular trailside snack is jerky, which is dried meat, often marinated before dried or packed with spices. This snack can last a long time without spoiling, and it’s packed with salt, protein and flavor, all things that people often crave when active outdoors. Jerky is also a food that can be shared with canine companions, pointed out Alison Kieffer of Caribou, who often shares her beef jerky with her dog Wander.
Other savory snacks that readers suggested are cheese sticks, pretzels, sesame sticks, pepperoni sticks, and canned tuna, sardines, corned beef hash and chicken.
If looking for a quick pick-me-up, candy can be just the thing. Some of my readers swear by Snickers bars, while others like to suck on Skittles while they hike.
“This isn’t for everyone, but I’ve learned over the years of hiking with my two boys to always carry hard candy,” Mindy Clements Rowlands wrote. “It makes them happier and keeps their mouths busy and less likely to be used for whining. I just keep some in my pockets and pass them out as needed.”
Genius, I say. But candy isn’t just for the kiddos. A lot of outdoorsy people I know like to have a little candy on hand, especially chocolate.
If you want to step your outdoor food game up a notch, there are plenty of meals that carry well in a backpack for a day hike, paddle or rock climbing excursion. Just ask Brett LeBlanc, a guide at Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School and the founder of Bangor Outdoor Club. LeBlanc, like many guides, is known for packing full meals for his outdoor adventures. He changes up what he makes, depending on the season, but in the summer, he prefers a couscous dish with sautéed vegetables and sometimes tofu. He also creates a tomato-based rice dish with peas and cooked down carrots, and sometimes he’ll opt for a pasta dish. All he has to do is consider what foods will keep, and for how long, in certain temperatures.
“Cooler temps and winter is open season,” he wrote. “Couscous, chicken, hummus and spinach are a top favorite. I also find soba with sautéed spinach, mushrooms and tofu topped with Sriracha as a top pick — as well as any king of burrito … if you really do a lot of outdoorsy stuff or that’s your job, frozen Clif bars gets old really fast.”
Another way to enjoy meals outdoors is by packing dehydrated meals, such as those made by Maine’s Good To-Go gourmet trail food company. However preparing these meals requires a heat source, such as a compact stove, a pot and water.
If you don’t want to cook your meal on the trail, there is still one way you have a hot meal: pack it in an insulated bottle or thermos. Mike Brown of Boston said that he regularly packs hot soup in his Hydro Flask for cold weather outdoor adventures. At the top of a mountain, he said, hot roasted red pepper soup simply “warms the soul.”