An army marches on its stomach, and the same adage applies to hungry hikers. The average thru-hiker burns between 3,000 and 5,000 calories in a day, which is roughly double what a person of the equivalent weight would burn on a sedentary day. When we’re pushing our bodies so much, it’s important that we eat well. The problem is carrying it all. I’d love to take my fruit bowl and a pile of fresh veggies with me into the backcountry, but it’s not practical.
This means that many hikers, myself included, rely on dehydrated meals and dried foods (instant noodles, couscous, and porridge are my trail meal staples). Sometimes, if I’m hungry between meals, or if I’m hitting the trail early, I don't have time to cook up breakfast before setting off to catch the sunrise. That’s where energy bars come in, nutritious grab-and-go, calorie-rich bars that are a handy snack whilst walking, or even a meal replacement when you’re pushed for time.
Why should I choose an energy bar over other snacks?
One is space. Energy bars are small and easy to stuff in your pocket. A packet of chips, for example, is bulkier and will get crushed in your backpack. They’re also long-lasting. It might be tempting to hike with packs of string cheese and chocolate, but when your tent and backpack are sweating under the midday sun, these melt and taste funky pretty quickly, while an energy bar will stay fresh. The other reason is nutritional value. An energy bar packed with fruits, seeds, and nuts provides many more nutrients than a packet of sweets.
What should I look for in an energy bar?
Fats, carbohydrates, and protein are all important to give you plenty of energy and to keep a balanced diet when hiking. According to nutritionist Dr. Greg Potter, who works with Resilient Nutrition, carbohydrates are particularly important for high-intensity hiking.
“In general, the higher the intensity of an activity, the more you should favor carbohydrates over fat, because carbohydrates can be burned for energy faster than fat,” says Potter. “The trade-off, however, is that since fat typically contains more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates or protein, the more fat-rich items you include the less weight you must carry, so you probably want a mix of high-fat and high-carbohydrate items.”
What should I avoid?
It sounds obvious, but avoid energy bars with too many artificial ingredients, such as processed sugar. Some cereal bars have more sugar than a candy bar, which will give you a brief spike in energy as you get a sugar rush, but they’re not going to sustain you for hours. If they include natural sugar, though, it’s not necessarily bad.
“Some energy bars contain quite a lot of sugar from dried fruit,” says Dr. Potter. “In these instances, the sugars come from ingredients that are rich in health-promoting fiber, micronutrients, and polyphenols. Not all high-energy bars and products are high in sugar, though. There are “keto” bars that contain practically no sugar at all.
I’ve been busy tasting energy bars to analyze the best out there. Nutrition is important, of course, but let’s not forget that they should be tasty, too. Take it from a hungry hiker, these energy bars are delicious.
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Nakd’s Cocoa Delight bars are one of the most expensive that I tried, and at just 130 calories per serving, they’re perhaps not the most practical for my top choice, but they tasted so good that I couldn’t help myself. It’s refreshing to be able to take in the ingredients list at a glance (there are only four: dates, raisins, cashews, and cocoa). Surprisingly, even with the low-calorie count, one of these bars kept me full for hours.
The Clif Bar Crunchy Peanut Butter is one of the most filling bars that I’ve tried, and contains 260 calories. There’s 18 percent of your recommended protein allowance, 15 percent of your recommended carbohydrates, and 19 percent of your recommended fiber, and the bulk of the ingredients list is organic.
All of Larabar’s energy bars sound like cakes at your favorite café. The pumpkin pie flavor tastes really autumnal, only has nine ingredients, and is good for multiple dietary requirements (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and soy-free). It feels quite indulgent, too, and is the exact sort of bar I’d eat as dessert after my instant noodles when camping.
Personally, I prefer savory over sweet, which is why I love Keho’s tex-mex moment bars. They’re pretty low in carbs, but still pack in 210 calories and have a high-fat content. The flavors are fantastic: red bell peppers, sweetcorn, avocado oil, mushrooms, and more. They look a little like flat-packed birdseed, but if you can get around this (and I certainly can), the taste is great.
The thing that I really like with Eat Natural Dark Chocolate, Cranberries and Macadamias bars is the texture. They’re really crunchy and chewy, which stops me from wolfing them down in a couple of bites when I’m hungry. This made me appreciate the flavor combination: the mild, shredded coconut contrasting with tart, tangy cranberries, and the sweetness of the dark chocolate.
You can really taste the goodness in the KIND Peanut Butter Breakfast Bars. Each one has 230 calories, and one full serving of grains, for slow-release energy. They’re chewy, satisfying, and gluten-free to boot. I’m happy with anything with peanut butter, and these are very nutty.
I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic with protein bars because I’ve found them too sugary, but I really enjoyed the JiMMY! Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Bar. The 18 grams of protein meant that I felt really full instantly, and it works well as a meal replacement.
To me, a protein bar feels a little weird for breakfast, but the Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Soft Baked Breakfast Bars taste fruity enough that I’m happy to eat them first thing. They also help satisfy the craving if you haven’t been able to get your hands on fresh fruit for days. On the downside, the cakey consistency means that they get squashed and crumble easily, particularly when stuffed at the bottom of a backpack.
The Munk Pack Honey Nut Keto Granola Bars have a chewy texture and although they taste very sweet, the sugar content is extremely low. They’re suitable for vegans, and grain-free, so a good option for hikers with dietary requirements or digestive issues. Although they’re very tasty, they contain just 140 calories, so work better as a snack than a meal replacement.
When I’m hiking, my caffeine intake dips considerably and I miss my thrice-a-day coffee breaks, but the QUANTUM Energy Squares are a great substitute for this. With 100 milligrams of caffeine, each square contains the equivalent caffeine content of a cup of coffee. The chocolate and sea salt combinations is a good mix of sweet and salty, and provides a much-needed salt boost when you’ve been sweating on the trail.
The Nature Valley Almond and Blueberry Bars have the consistency of a flapjack. They’re dense, they’re delicious, and at 240 calories a serving, they’re a good option for a quick energy fix. They are rather crumbly, so I’d recommend taking a break before you tuck in.