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The Best DIY Trail Mixes for Outdoor Adventures

When prepping for an outdoor adventure, do not underestimate how important food will be to your enjoyment and capabilities on the trail. “Food plays a huge part in how you feel,” says Aaron Owens Mayhew, a registered dietitian and thru-hiker and the founder of Backcountry Foodie. “What’s really funny is I can actually keep up with the 20-somethings, not 40-somethings [like myself], because I’m eating well.”  

Consistently, Owens Mayhew packs trail mix for her adventures and recommends the practice to her clientele of bike packers, trail runners, canoe campers and backpackers. The right combo of nuts, grains, fruits, and sweets provides macro nutrition and excellent energy in tasty, easy-to-chew combinations that are easily customizable. 

Understand your body’s needs

For adventure fuel, Owens Mayhew prioritizes the macros first: carbs, protein and fats. “If you don’t have those, you’re going to run out of energy and feel terrible!” The rule of thumb is to try to stick to a 3:1 ratio of carbs and protein. “The most your body can utilize carbohydrates is 60 grams at a time in an hour. And the most your body can utilize protein is 20 [grams per hour],” she says. “So 60 grams of carbs to 20 grams of protein is the perfect ratio for energy and recovery.”

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For trail mix, carbs can come from dried fruits as well as sources we traditionally think of like goldfish crackers and pretzels. Great protein can be sourced from nuts, dried edamame, and freeze-dried cheeses. 

Owens Mayhew doesn’t focus as much on fats. Carbs and proteins are going to aid the most for high-intensity outdoor activity. Protein can also help warm-up body temperature more than fat because of how it is metabolized. Fat “is just an additional source of energy,” she says.

This, of course, is generalized advice. There are intricacies in what the body needs depending on climate, temperature, elevation and intensity of activity. For example, summer hikers on the Arizona Trail will need less energy but more fluids and electrolytes due to sweating versus spring hikers on the John Muir Trail, who will need more fuel to stay warm. 

What ingredients are best? 

Good news: You don’t have to get too picky about what goes into your mix, apart from following the macro recs. “Nuts are nuts,” Owens Mayhew says. “When it comes to nutrition, you’re going to get carbs, fiber, protein and fat and all that [from any of them].” She feels similarly about dried fruits and recommends seeking out flavors when buying. “When you’re hiking, you want to enjoy your food,” she starts, highlighting that the healthiest foods aren’t doing you any good if you aren’t willing to eat them. “That’s the one thing you can control. You can’t control a [bad] day because of the rain, but you can control having food you actually look forward to eating.” Don’t worry about not getting the omega-3s from walnuts if you’d prefer peanuts. 

What’s more, when you’re exerting a lot, some simple sugar is a very good thing. That means that if you have cravings for Pop Tarts, sour gummies, peanut butter M&Ms or whatever you want while being brutalized by a mountain, have at it!

“[When] backpacking, you’re physically active and burning through the sugars,” she says. “It’s not like you’re sitting at home watching television and letting that accumulate.” In fact, she always packs some chocolate into her trail mix. “I call it my happy food!” she says. 

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That said, Owens Mayhew warns that common maladies like dry skin, slugginess, muscle weakness and other performance-related issues can be caused by poor nutrition. “I’m having more and more people come back to me like, ‘now that I pay attention to food, my performance is so much better. I don’t get tired, I’m not angry, I’m recovering better.’”  

Part of the problem for long-term adventurers is that they may be lacking minerals and vitamins. In these instances, dried fruit is not created equally and freeze-dried produce actually serves better nutrition. “Dehydrating your food can actually lose up to 50% or more of the vitamins just because of the exposure to the heat,” she explains, “whereas freeze-dried retains 97% of the vitamins during that process because it’s [not] exposed to heat for as long.” 

If freeze-dried fruit isn’t your favorite, pack a daily multivitamin instead and continue munching the mix you prefer. 

Make your own trail mix

Making your own trail mix is easy and a super effective way to get the nutrients you need during a hike. By DIYing it, you also ensure that every ingredient is something you actually want to eat, reducing food waste on trail and carrying unnecessary weight. Here are a few of her fave mixes 

For long energy burn: Tropical Mix 

Ingredients: Dried pineapple, diced dates, dried coconut flakes, Brazil nuts, pistachios, cashews and yogurt chips

Why? “This is going to be more of a long burning energy source because it’s got a combination of carbs, protein and fat mixed in, which is what makes it last longer.” Enjoy this mix anytime during or before your adventure to power through the long haul. 

For quick energy: Dessert Mix

Ingredients: Stropewaffle pieces, cranberries, pecans, cinnamon almonds and candied orange peels

Why? Don’t let the name deceive you—this mix is not reserved for a nighttime post-dinner treat. In fact, Owens Mayhew doesn’t recommend eating it before bed because the mix of simple sugars and complex carbs is “going to get you going!” Keep it handy for when you need some quick energy, maybe as a pre-climb snack.  

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For post-hike recovery: Helena’s Custom Mix 

Ingredients: Protein Granola [Owens Mayhew likes Nature Valley Oats and Honey Protein], dried blueberries, dark chocolate-covered almonds, peanuts and banana chips 

Why? Because this has the 3:1 ratio of 3 carbs to 1 protein, this is the “perfect end-of-day snack,” Owens Mayhew says. She clarifies it’s for “end-of-day” and not “end-of-long-push”: This is for “when you’re actually letting your body sit and do nothing and recover from all the damage you did during the day earlier.” 

For winding down: Spicy Mix 

Ingredients: Dried edamame, spicy peanuts, pumpkin seeds and cheese crisps

Why? This mix is especially good on really cold nights or for cold-prone people because of the high protein, which can help warm the core body temperature for up to six hours.“If you’ve eaten dinner at 5 or   but you’re not going to bed till 9, that would be a really awesome thing to have right before bed,” Owens Mayhew says. 

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