The Anatomy of the Hiking Snack

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The Anatomy of the Hiking Snack

I’ve always admired the hikers who wake up before the sun does, who drive two hours away to tackle a steep mountain with an incredible view at the top, who see the whole ordeal as an alternative to the gym. I have never been one of those hikers. To me, hiking isn’t a form of exercise; it’s more about being outside, spending time with friends or with myself, allowing my normal life to drop away for a few hours so I can pretend we as a species never left the forest or created the stock market.

If you’re the first kind of hiker, all you have to do is pack a few Clif bars in your backpack, and you’re ready to go. But if you hike like I do, the food situation is a little more complicated. Packing the right hiking snack requires intuition, forethought and creativity. It demands an appreciation of nature and an understanding of how to curate the best trail mix combos. Most importantly, it takes advanced sandwich-making skills.

The following is a guide for us, the hikers who are more concerned about what they’re going to eat at the summit than actually making it up the mountain. This is the anatomy of the hiking snack.


Obligatory Pre-Hike Caffeine

The hike snack technically begins before you’re even on the trail. Caffeine, especially for an early morning hike, is essential. There’s nothing like the feeling of embarking on the first leg of a seven-mile trail with espresso coursing through your veins, making you delusional enough to imagine you can manage the hike without nursing your sore muscles for days afterward. I prefer coffee, but feel free to choose your favorite caffeine-delivery system. Make it ahead of time and put it in a thermos, or stop by a local coffee shop before you begin your trek.


Water and More Water

There is one part of the hiking snack that you absolutely cannot forget under any circumstances: water. You need a lot of it. Like, more than you think, especially if it’s hot outside. A water bottle is good, but a hydration bladder is better because it’ll generally hold more liquid than a standard bottle. Even the strongest, most accomplished hikers are not above proper hydration. If you can’t bring water with you on your hike, you shouldn’t be going.


Snack vs. Sustenance

Now that we’ve got some of our liquids figured out, we need to get some food in our packs. The goal is to achieve a careful balance between the categories of snack and sustenance. Snacks are all about fun and flavor—think Oreos, M&M’s, those edibles you’ve been looking for an excuse to take. When it comes to sustenance, though, it’s more about making sure you have the strength to make it to the top. This is where your bananas, trail mix and pretzels come in. Only you will know the perfect balance, but you should consider the length of your hike, your general hunger level and the relative preparedness of your fellow hikers; after all, the best hiking snacks are the ones you share.


Mid-Hike Sandwich

We’ve got the snacks covered, but if you’re like me, you’re actually going to want some semblance of a meal during your hike, especially if you’re walking more than a couple of miles. Enter the mid-hike sandwich. There are few rules to consider here: You’re only obligated to make the most delicious sandwich you can manage to throw together with the ingredients in your fridge. If you want to establish yourself as a hiking snack expert, though, you’ll add chips to your sandwich for a satisfying crunch. This meal must be eaten on a large rock overlooking a beautiful view.


Sweet to Savory Ratio

Another important aspect of the hiking snack you should consider before getting on the trail is the sweet to savory ratio of your snacks. Neither snack flavor profile should take precedence over the other. If you ask me, two savory snacks and two sweet snacks usually yield the best results, but don’t let that limit you; there are unlimited combinations to explore.


The Summit Beer

The summit beer: the best part of every mediocre hiker’s trek. Of course, if you’re on a particularly difficult hike, there’s a good chance you’re not going to want to carry any more weight than you really need, so this one is optional. If having a can in your pack doesn’t bother you, though, the summit beer can result in a revelatory moment as you rest from the hardest part of the hike. Looking out over the landscape with a beer in your hand, you’ll realize that your crappy bologna sandwich and lukewarm PBR are better than any restaurant meal you’ve ever had.

As you start your descent, legs wobbly from both the beer and too much exertion, you might just experience one of those moments of true satisfaction, a fullness not just of stomach but of soul, before you once again begin your perpetual trudge through the trees. This is why we hike. And snack.


Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.