I have been asked many times over the years what I pack to eat when I’m out hiking. It’s an interesting question, a very important one, but one that is deeply personal depending on your own tastes, preferences and nutritional requirements. I therefore hadn’t planned a blog post on the topic until just recently, when I was asked specifically for advice on how to fuel up for a 60-mile charity hike. 60 miles? Wow – that is a long way to walk in one go by anyone’s standards. And it’s going to require a lot of fuel.
Honesty box at Gartness on the West Highland Way.
I have therefore given this some thought. And, based on my experiences of hiking miles and miles in various places and trying out lots of different food options, you’ll find below some hints and tips for what works (and what doesn’t work) regarding what to eat on a long hike. I should probably add, although I suspect that’s plain, I am no nutritionist. I also don’t have any “special diatery requirements”, I’ll eat pretty much anything. The advice in this post therefore comes from me, as a food loving hiker, to you as someone who’d like some hints and tips, not from any official or professional point of view. Take the advice and adapt it to suit yourself and your circumstances.
In the past I have been very poor at eating enough when I’m hiking. It’s difficult. More difficult than you might think. I have never packed too little food, you understand, but I never actually stop to take my pack off to find my goodies. I have become much better in recently years, slowing down a bit to enjoy the hiking, taking my pack off regularly, sitting down to eat my sandwiches, and using the various pockets in on pack to keep snacks within easy reach.
What to Eat on a Long Hike
My first piece of advice is to eat real food. That is, food made up of actual ingredients that has both flavour and texture. And a variety of it. There is nothing worse than bland and texture-less hiking fodder – it is boring, not particularly nutritious (a colourful meal is a healthy meal, after all), and you simply won’t bother eating it.
A selection of shop-bought snacks to help me across Rannoch Moor.
Secondly, pack your favourite things; food you actually want to eat. Do not underestimate the importance of enjoying what you eat; it accounts for a surprising amount of motivation for the mind (and therefore legs) when you are hiking a very long way. There is sometimes nothing better for the soul than grabbing your favourite packet of sweets when you’re feeling a little bit lacklustre and like you might not make it to the summit. Not that I advocate bribing yourself with food, of course, but having treats in your pack always helps.
Before You Go
Make sure you are fuelled up (and well hydrated) before you start, and if you’re hiking a very long way like my friends and their 60-miler, make sure you fuel up a good few days prior. That means eating good, healthy and nutritious food, including carbs and protein. But don’t alter your diet hugely the day before you go out, or your body will get all confused – and one thing I know about my body is that it really doesn’t like to be confused! Stick to your normal routine as much as possible, just eat more of the carbs, proteins and vitamins you enjoy and are used to having (I won’t eat a whole load of pasta the night before a big hike, for example, as I rarely eat it these days and my body will simply refuse to digest it).
One thing I have learnt is that snacking regularly when hiking is absolutely vital. Don’t leave eating until you feel the slump, you know as well as I do that is too late. So I recommend having a nice selection of snacky bits and bobs to keep you going, and raid your supply at least every hour to keep you going.
While you may think it a bit old fashioned to go for GORP – good old raisins and peanuts – it is an excellent choice and I know some people who choose to take a bag of fruit and nuts to nibble on and nothing else. You’d certainly get lots of energy from that, but it might get a bit dull after a while. There are so many other options…
If you’re a savoury snacker, then boiled eggs, carrot and cucumber sticks, cherry tomatoes, crisps, roast chicken, cubes of cheddar, mini scotch eggs (cut in half before you go and add salad cream for extra flavour and moisture), mini pork pies, beef jerky, salted and unsalted nuts, peanut butter (it comes in single serve pouches these days but you can just put some in a little Tupperware to save the waste), oat cakes and crackers are all popular choices.
Looking for something midway between savoury and sweet? Malt loaf is your friend. I recommend cutting slices, buttering it, and then creating Soreen sandwiches wrapped up to make it super simple on the road. I rarely hike without malt loaf in my pack!
Mmmm malt loaf.
Have a sweet tooth? I know I do… cereal bars and date bars are great, fresh fruit such as apples and bananas, Snickers and other chocolate bars (I take the mini ones as I can more easily spread out my chocolate consumption throughout the day), chewy sweets such as Jelly Babies and Percy Pigs, and dried fruits such as cranberries and mango (so super sweet and better for you than the fake sugary sweeties),
My number one hiking snack? Home made flapjack. Oats, syrup, dried fruit, nuts, seeds – it is an absolute classic but really is one of the tastiest and energy rich hiking foods going. Even better if your friend made it for the whole group and you can just eat it!
Homemade flapjack. Oh yes.
Have a Lunch Break
One thing I have learnt over the years is that hiking all is much more enjoyable – and doable – if you take a proper “lunch break”. When planning your route, pick out a spot that means you’ve done a good chunk of the mileage and stop for a proper sit down for a proper lunch. I generally take a packed lunch in a tin, so the whole meal is in one place, and will sit down and enjoy the contents in one sitting. Little and often is great if you are looking for a very fast hike and have no time to stop, but that break is an excellent opportunity to take the load of and recharge a little before continuing on your way. Slow travel is good travel!
As for what to put in your packed lunch, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the humble jam or cheese sandwich. They travel well, provide the necessarily energy boost, and remind me of childhood! What more could you want?
Sandwich, pork pie, malt loaf. Perfect packed lunch!
I often say that pork pies are the perfect hiking lunch; pastry and meat – carbs and protein – in a very handy and easy to eat package. Scotch eggs also make great hiking lunch box food for a similar reason. Don’t want bread or brown food (or meat)? Make up a pasta, cous cous or rice salad with a load of roasted veg and herbs and take that with you (don’t forget your spork!).
I will also take a selection of suitable accompaniments which may or may not also be also found in my snacking bag on occasion, such as a bag of crisps (salt is good for replenishing that lost through sweat), some raw veggies, a boiled egg, some buttered malt loaf (honestly, I could live on Soreen), some cubed cheese, and a spoonful of peanut butter.
Gotta love a colourful salad!
For lunch time pudding, as such a thing is vital to my survival when hiking (and in general, really, good advice for life I think), I will make sure I have an apple or some grapes for that sweet kick, and maybe a little bar of chocolate to get me back on my feet again after sitting down for my break. And maybe another piece of flapjack if there is any left.
Whatever you choose to eat for lunch when hiking, make it something you know you’ll enjoy. And, just in case the weather is poor, also make sure you have an option that you can eat stood under a tree or even on the go if you need to.
Consider Taking Hot Food
If you are hiking a very long way, or the weather is looking cold, then the opportunity for a hot drink or even a hot meal is one of those luxuries that can absolutely make a trip. There are so many portable stoves, such as the Jetboil Flash, that can be carried in your day pack, along with some brilliant dehydrated meals from companies like Outdoor Food, that will provide good calories that are designed to keep you moving. Planning in a hot meal is especially important if you are hiking into the evening or overnight; hot food as it gets dark makes a massive difference in those circumstances in my experience. I do admit I generally don’t bother with a stove unless I’m hiking or camping overnight, in which case I will also carry some porridge for breakfast to give me a decent start first thing in the morning.
Mealtime with hiking buddies on the West Highland Way.
Or, if you don’t want to faff with a stove and dehydrated food, take a flask of hot water and some cuppa soup or miso soup for a warming treat when you stop for your cheese sandwich. Sometimes that little trickle of hot savoury liquid down your throat is exactly what you need – especially if it’s cold and wet on your walk.
What About Gels?
While I am a fan of dehydrated and freeze-dried meals where they are useful (since I discovered Outdoor Food), I am absolutely not a fan of energy gels and similar. I have used them once or twice, but they have always left me with stomach cramps and absolutely no energy whatsoever – which is completely against the point. No-one wants to hike with stomach cramps! I do know runners who absolutely swear by them, but I just don’t get on with them. I would say if you want to give them a try make sure you fully test them out as a fuelling strategy, don’t just go out all day and eat nothing but, that will only end in upset.
A similar product to gels are those glucose tablets you can get from the chemist that are designed to give you a massive energy boost when your blood sugar is low. I do have a packet in my hiking first aid kit, but I would only eat one if I really needed it, I’d very much rather get my energy from food.
There’s Always the Pub. And the Shop.
The obvious problem is that food is heavy. Very heavy. The above is all well and good, but if you carry everything I have suggested in this blog post, you will have a very big load. And so while you do need to make sure you carry enough, you can’t be taking too much or your back and knees will be very unhappy. If you are hiking through towns/villages or know there will be a campsite shop at your destination, then only carry what you need up until that point and stock up.
Soup and a sandwich at the Beech Tree Inn.
And I happen to believe that the best hikes include either a pub for lunch or a pub for dinner. Take some cash and make use of it. Walker friendly pubs often have a nice roaring fire, and some great pie or sausages on the menu. You may even be lucky and find one with a decent home made apple crumble and custard for dessert too!
Of course, if you really are going to the back of beyond for several days in a row, with no access to food supplies or fine eating establishments en route, then dehydrated food is your best friend – you just have to make sure you take time out of your hiking to stop and cook it.
Packing Your Food
I keep my food organised in my pack so that it is easy to find when I want it. The last thing you want is not being able to find the snack you had been promising yourself because it’s at the bottom of your pack with your first aid kit and spare socks, or, worse, squashed sandwiches.
I start by packing up my lunch in a tin – my gorgeous and well-loved aluminium tin by SIGG (I really must invest in a couple more). It’s one of the small ones and in it I can get a filled roll, a small pork pie, a couple of slices of malt loaf, some carrot and cucumber sticks, a fruit bar, and a couple of mini chocolate bars. I keep my lunch all in the same place so that when I stop for my lunch break, which if it’s a particularly long day will involve unlacing my boots and relaxing for a while, I can grab one thing from my pack and know I can enjoy the whole meal without having to hunt around for the different components or indeed worrying about saving some of it for later.
The rest of my food for the day (or days) will be in a dry bag or reusable plastic bag (or two for multi-day hikes where you are needing to be super organised). This will probably be the heaviest thing in my back except for my water supply, and so I’ll try and keep it as low in my pack as I can without it being stuck underneath everything. I often find a bit of space down the front of my pack, where the pack is at its most flexible, is a good location.
Oh, and there will always be a packet of mints and a cereal bar in one of the pockets in my pack I can reach while I’ve still got it on. And a chocolate bar in the top pocket for emergency snacking. This way I know where I can grab a bit of energy when I need it.
Leave No Trace
The final message I have for you is quite simple. Take your rubbish home. It is possible to go out hiking with very little packaging if you plan well, but you will almost certainly generate waste of some description. If you pack your hiking food in a tin like I do, then use it to keep all your rubbish in and discard it in the most suitable bin when you get back home. It’s not just plastic packaging, which is annoying but quite often inevitable; also take home your banana skins, apple cores, orange peel and the rest. Unless you are a nature and wildlife expert you will unlikely know what kind of foods the fauna on your route are used to (and not used to) eating, so don’t mess with their diet any more than you want to mess with your own. If you carried it from the beginning of the day, carry it all the way home.
What do YOU eat on a long hike?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. What do you eat on a long hike? What is your favourite hiking lunch – assuming it’s not in the pub? And how about your favourite hiking snack? Are you a pork pie and malt loaf kind of hiker? Or maybe you don’t go anywhere without your dehydrated meals?
No, you’re a banana! Taken on the Lyke Wake Walk.
And while I’m here, if you could offer my friends one piece of advice on fuelling well for their 60-mile hike, what would it be? Jot your comments below and we can all learn from each other.