Trail Foods My Family Devours

By Michael Lanza

One big lesson I’ve been reminded of many times in the backcountry (and have written about before at this blog, including in my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors”) is that a grumpy child is usually just a hungry child. But the challenge facing many parents who take kids out hiking, backpacking, floating rivers, or on any other outdoor adventures, is figuring out what to feed their children when there’s no kitchen or refrigerator handy. Here’s the approach we’ve used with our son and daughter through several mostly successful years of numerous wilderness trips.

Experience has taught me to keep it simple and follow a few basic rules:

1.    Bring food that they like and will eat.
2.    Bring plenty of it.
3.    Try to make it as nutritious as possible, but don’t obsess too much over this—they’re burning a staggering volume of calories and need all you can cram into them.

While our strategy might not win us any parenting awards, it has helped keep our kids smiling and moving even on trips that would be pretty darn strenuous even for adults, including, most recently, backpacking the 34-mile Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, in the Canadian Rockies (lead photo above). I’m also a big believer that daytime snacking is critical for kids, because they generally have much less muscle mass and fat reserves than adults, and an activity like hiking demands fuel for stamina.

Here are some of the snacks and meal foods we consistently take when backpacking because they’re tasty, packable, durable in a backpack, and actually have some nutritional value. Plus, my kids will eat them—in large quantities.


Trail snacks my family eats.
Trail snacks my family eats.

Clif Bars
$15 per box of 12 bars
230 calories per 2.4-oz. bar

Clif has been developing new flavors with an emphasis on “flavor,” and I think it has paid off: I like the chocolate chip, apricot, black cherry almond, white chocolate macadamia nut, and a new flavor, nuts and seeds. Loaded with protein (9-11g), fiber (4-5g), potassium (260mg), and carbohydrates (45g)—but also sugar (23g)—with no trans fat and fewer calories from fat than many trail foods, these bars have powered my family on many backcountry adventures—and me on bigger, endurance adventures without my family. I also like the Clif Builder’s 20g Protein Bar chocolate flavor; $19 per box of 12 bars, 270 calories per 2.4-oz. bar.

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Half Pops
Half Pops

Half Pops
$1.70 per 2-oz. bag
280 calories per 2-oz. bag

Nut- and gluten-free, containing nothing you don’t want to eat (trans fat, corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavors, etc.), these half-popped kernels of popcorn are salty enough (260mg per bag) to replace some of the sodium your body loses when hiking, and they’re satisfying. They come in four flavors; my family likes the aged white cheddar the best. Our kids plowed through bags of these on our five-day backpacking trip in Paria Canyon and on a four-day backpacking trip on the 34-mile Rockwall Trail in Canada’s Kootenay National Park. My wife and I like them, too.

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Honey Stinger Organic Waffles
$22 per box of 16 waffles
160 calories per 1-oz. serving

These have been a longtime favorite of my family’s on many backpacking and other wilderness trips from the Grand Canyon to Kootenay National Park. Certified organic, made with honey, containing no trans fat and nut free, the waffles come in several flavors; we like the honey flavor best, but enjoy all of them.

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Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today, a Trip Advisor site, and others. Subscribe for updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the top of the left sidebar or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.


My daughter, Alex, snacking in Kootenay National Park, Canada.
My daughter, Alex, snacking in Kootenay National Park, Canada.

$3-$4 per 3.5-oz. or 5-oz. bag
110 to 144 calories per 3.5-oz. or 5-oz. bag

Slightly reminiscent of Cracker Jacks, though not nearly as sweet (or as junk-foodie), KettlePOP’s two flavors, sea salt and kettle corn, are made with four natural ingredients and contain no preservatives, artificial flavors, or trans-fat. They satisfy the salt craving you get when hiking. My kids devoured bags of these on the trail in Kootenay.

Trail Butter
$8 per 8-oz. jar, $5 per 4.5-oz. resealable tube
170 to 200 calories per 2 TB serving

You may not have heard of Trail Butter, but when my family and another family sampled it backpacking in Utah’s Coyote Gulch, all eight of us, adults and kids, loved it. Made from almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, dried fruit, seeds, nectar, honey, and oils, it’s tasty and spreadable, a bit thicker than chunky peanut butter. It comes in an 8-oz., plastic jar with a screw cap that’s backpack-friendly, as well as 4.5-oz. squeeze tubes that can be resealed. See my original review of Trail Butter.

Other staples of our family backpacking trips include:

•    Peanut butter or Trail Butter spread on pita bread for lunches; the pita is tasty and durable in a backpack, and while dense and filling, it doesn’t take up as much space as bagels.
•    We each have our own, preferred recipe for GORP, so we mix personal bags of it, and it’s a handy trail snack that delivers an energy boost.
•    Real pasta cooked and served with pesto always constitutes at least one dinner on our family backpacking trips.
•    Annie’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese, the flavor that requires only adding water. My wife and daughter will eat this for at least one dinner on every trip.
•    Vacuum-packed salmon (no refrigeration required) served with an add-boiling-water rice mix for dinner.
•    Lastly, it wouldn’t be a backcountry in my kids’ eyes if we didn’t have a big chocolate bar for evening dessert, plus hot cocoa mix.

See my related stories my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors,” my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” my “5 Tricks For Getting Tired Kids Through a Hike,” my Ask Me tips about how I plan food for backpacking trips and my tips on food for backpacking with kids, and all of my stories about family backpacking trips and family adventures at The Big Outside.

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8 thoughts on “Trail Foods My Family Devours”

  1. Another great one thx!! I hope I get to eat all the yummy food for my upcoming jmt hike!! Hope the rough fire is contained or good easterly wind starting sept 10!!!!

  2. Michael,

    Great post….thank you!!

    When you are out on the trail, going it without the kids, what do you tend to pack for meals? I am trying to plan an extended hike in the fall and with a desire to keep my pack weight down, I am looking to find the best solution that also provides much needed caloric replenishment. I had eyed the Mountain House freeze-dried options but they are pretty bulky, albeit convenient though.