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Best trail mix: how to fuel your body on long hikes and epic expeditions

best trail mix: bag of trail mix
(Image credit: Getty)

When you stumble upon your best trail mix recipe, it's a beautiful thing. You might know it as ‘gorp’, ‘scroggin’ or plain old ‘trail mix’, but ever since recreational walking became a thing, hikers have been using various cocktails comprised of nuts, seeds and dried fruit to keep them going while trekking.

And, while it might sometimes look like bird food, trail mix deserves its good rep as one of the best and most practical energy sources for hikers on the move. It won't weight down your hiking backpack, doesn’t need cooking nor careful storage, doesn’t go off, it’s cheap on a cash-for-calories basis, and if it spills in your pack or even on the ground, then just scoop it up and stuff it into your mouth anyway. As fuss-free fuels go, it’s hard to beat.

Though the basic idea and benefits of trail mix were outlined in a 1910 camping how-to book, and two surfers were actually credited with its ‘invention’ in 1968 when they mixed raisins and peanuts together, it’s pretty obvious that some form of ‘trail mix’ must have been around since primal foragers tucked a few nuts and berries into their mammoth skin kilts in case they felt a bit peckish later in the day. These days, we just stuff it in our day pack and off we go...

best trail mix: a handful of trail mix

A handful of trail mix contains a glut of energy for your hiking escapades (Image credit: Getty)

Jack Kerouac, in his 1958 book The Dharma Bums, writes about Gary Snyder preparing rations for a climb up California’s Matterhorn Peak. They fill a bag with ‘peanuts and raisins and another bag with dried apricot and dried prunes’, with Kerouac adding, incredulously, that that was all the ‘food for three grown men for 24 hours or more climbing at high altitudes...’ He’d summed up the point of trail mix in three principles: simplest ingredients, maximum energy, least weight. This is what makes it a hiking essential.

Bagged-up commercial trail mix is always available in supermarkets and whole food shops, but the ingredients are easy to source in the same shops, and there’s a lot to be said for DIY-ing your own combination. Not least because there are plenty of variations on the basic and dull recipe as defined by trail mix’s familiar American name, ‘gorp’ – allegedly an acronym for ‘good old raisins and peanuts’. Being able to select a wider variety and a higher quality of ingredients than just ‘raisins and peanuts’, and adjusting the taste with unlikely or even eccentric choices, can only improve what is already one of the best go-to snacks for on-the-go situations. It is also ideal as a small, fuss-free camping meal, particularly if you're on an expedition.

Best trail mix: the basic recipe

best trail mix: lots of trail mix

Basic trail mix comprises nuts, seeds and dried fruit (Image credit: Getty)

Classic trail mix combines nuts, seeds and dried fruits. That’s it. Though you can make a better quality and healthier trail mix by carefully sourcing ingredients. For example avoid the cheap banana chips that are often used to bulk out cheaper commercial mixes, as they’re often coated in refined sugars and fried in oils; you’re better off low-heat drying strips of fresh banana then chopping into small pieces.

Indeed drying apple rings and other fruit can make for a far better and ‘fresher’ trail mix. On the move, store your trail mix in a reusable Zip-loc bag or a dry bag and then stuff it into your pack; you can take out small amounts to keep in a smaller bag in a pocket to dip into. On longer hikes it can make sense to bag up each day’s ration separately, so the total amount lasts the whole trip, or perhaps just choose ingredients that make it less ‘moreish’ so there’s little tendency to scoff the whole lot early on. Or just take more.

Trail mix muesli

Though you’ve probably already come up with the idea of stirring trail mix into oats to make muesli or a better porridge for camp breakfasts there’s a lot to be said for bulking out trail mix with rolled oats for their slow release energy benefits and additional B vitamins and minerals. This approach certainly has its place in a hydration pack if you're tackling the challenge of a long ultra run.

best trail mix: girl with a bag of trail mix

Stopping to grab a handful of trail mix is always a welcome moment on a hike (Image credit: Getty)

Pimp my mix

It’s tempting to add favourite tastes and flavours to the basic ingredients. Sometimes that’s a good idea, sometimes less so. Throwing in chocolate chips, popcorn or whatever means you’re moving away from the ‘trail’ part of trail mix and towards something closer, ‘shopping mall’ mix. Chocolate melts in warm conditions and popcorn softens in the kind of outdoors situations where trail mix should be hard and lean – but if either gives you a lift when you most need it, then go for it. Covered chocolates, like M&Ms or Smarties, can help avoid the worst of the melt problem.

On the other hand, adding in chopped dates makes a lot of sense. High in protein, with natural sugars, and a range of vitamins that are far better eaten in date rather than pill form, they’re my number one addition to trail mix – indeed if I only had the chance to stock up on a single foodstuff to last me through several days, dates would be my overall choice.

Some swear by the benefits of cacao nibs (crushed cocoa beans) for their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and for their theobromine content, which can perk one up like caffeine – perhaps you can leave the hiking flask at home. Others add goji berries for their large amounts of vitamins A and C and alleged immune-system boosting effect, or chunks of crystallised ginger, which can help with nausea and stomach problems – a common feature of mild altitude sickness.

Chia seeds became a bit of a phenomena when Chris McDougall, in Born To Run, suggested they helped fuel Mexico’s Tarahumara through incredible feats of endurance and distance running. For a tiny seed they have big pluses, particularly their high (by plant standards) protein and calcium levels. For some people, the drawback to adding dry chia seeds to trail mix is the way they absorb moisture as you’re chewing them, becoming a gloopy slime (adding what the more innovative of celebrity chefs might call a ‘unique mouthfeel’).

best trail mix: trail mix tumbling from a jar

There almost endless possibilities as to how you can customize your trail mix (Image credit: Getty)

Trail mix flapjacks

Finally, campfire flapjacks have become a whole new thing with trail mix – the fruitier the better – added to the basic fine oats, flour and honey recipe (a bit of oil and a pinch of salt, too, if you want to get fancy). Cook them on top of a heated rock for full flavour, sit back in your camping chair and enjoy. Beware the temptation of using up all your gorp allowance in one flapjack binge.

Commercial trail mixes

Numerous companies make premade trail mix, including Wild Roots , Acti-snack, Planters, Wyldsson, All Good Provisions, Navitas and Enjoy Life, who do an allergy friendly no-nut trail mix.

Bags of nuts (almonds, peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, cashew nuts and pecan nuts) can be bought in most supermarkets and added to bags of fruit and seed mix and other ingredients (flax, pumpkin and chia seed mix) to make your own combinations.

Independent health and whole food shops are likely to have better – and more expensive – ready-mixed bags than supermarkets but, then, they will also stock the individual ingredients you need to tailor-make your own trail mix, and that’s always going to be the better option.

Jasper Winn

After a wild childhood in west Cork, Jasper Winn began embarking on long cycles, walks, horse journeys and kayak trips across five continents – adventures he’s decanted into books, magazine articles, radio and television documentaries. Keen on low-tech but good gear, Jasper is an advocate of slow adventures by paddle, pedal, saddle, boot and sail. He has circumnavigated Ireland by kayak and cycled across the Sahara. Twice. Having ridden north-to-south across Algeria he discovered the only way to get back was to turn round and pedal north again.