Trail mix is often recognized as the go-to snack to pack when going on any adventure, especially hikes. Have you ever wondered why? The answer is because it is a well balanced and healthy snack that is perfect for keeping your energy levels up and satiating your body when being active.
Trail mix is one of the best hiking snacks, as long as it is healthy. You might be asking, “What makes one trail mix well-balanced and healthy for you, and not another?” Here is the answer.
What is a Healthy Trail Mix?
First, let’s start by defining what makes a trail mix a healthy trail mix. A trail mix is generally a mix of snack foods, using dried fruits and nuts as its base. You might then add some other foods and flavors, but it really comes down to nuts and dried fruits at the core.
As we all know, trail mix has grown to include much more than just dried fruits and nuts, but let’s look at these two key ingredients and why they’ve stood the test of time.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds make up the largest portion of any trail mix. When we look at the health benefits of different nuts and seeds it becomes clear why. One of the greatest benefits of eating these are that they are full of heart healthy fats. Most of the fats found in nuts and seeds are monounsaturated and or polyunsaturated which are the type of fats that help lower bad cholesterol levels, aiding in heart health.
Not only does this ingredient provide you with the healthy fats your body needs, it is also a great source of protein. There is nothing worse than being hungry when being active; it takes away from the fun and experience of what you are doing. So, trail mix being packed full of protein from the nuts allows you to snack on the go and not suffer from hunger. While each different kind of nut and seed has their own health benefits such as added minerals like magnesium and zinc, which ever ones you choose or prefer in your mix will always offer these benefits.
Dried fruits are in a trail mix to add a boost of healthy sugars and vitamins, but surprisingly the bulk of the nutritional power comes from their high amounts of fiber and antioxidants. Fiber assists in digestion and keeps you fuller longer. Having healthy sugars from dried fruits also helps in stabilizing your blood sugars giving you a steadfast energy source, verses a poor energy source that gives high peaks and low valleys like you get from added sugars.
Included in the dried fruit category is the all-important raisin, something that is found in many trail mixes and gorp recipes. Raisins are great because they provide an instant shot of electrolytes, including potassium.
How Do You Tell a Healthy Trail Mix From an Unhealthy One?
What separates a healthy trail mix from an unhealthy one is the additional ingredients found in the mixture as well as the quality of your nuts and dried fruits. Like all snacks, trail mix should be enjoyed in moderation. Just because something is healthy doesn’t mean you can eat an entire bag of it. By eating a serving size or two of trail mix on a hike you are consuming the nutrients and calories you need to keep your energy levels healthy.
We would always recommend that you make your own trail mix. By doing this you can control the number of additives you put in your body, but let’s face it, sometimes we just don’t have the time. So, when shopping for a store-bought mix there are a few things that you will want to look out for to know you are keeping it healthy. The better quality of ingredients you can get the greater the nutritional value of the mix.
Salt in and of itself is not bad, but when a snack is high in sodium it can assist in dehydrating you while on the trail. Like with other high sodium snacks it can make you very thirsty, and this is not a desirable side effect when being active. While a little sodium is necessary for your body, have too much and you will be reaching for your Yeti or Hydro Flask.
Now, all trail mixes have sugar in them, but try to stay away from high fructose and other processed sugars that can make their way into store bought mixes. While dried fruit have natural sugar, they come with fiber as well and give a steady blood sugar boost. You might see M&Ms to add a touch of flavor too. Some M&Ms are probably fine, but too many don’t help your nutrition. Remember, M&Ms come from the candy aisle!
Much like salt, sugar can also dehydrate the body.
As with any food, sometimes you have to look at fillers and mixers too, to be sure that they are not sneakily giving you a bunch of ingredients that you did not ask for.
Most of the ingredients in trail mix are calorie dense but be aware of unnecessary high caloric mixes. These ones are usually packed with more additives than nutrient rich ingredients. Your trail mix should roughly be 50% nuts and seeds, 40% dried fruit, and 10% anything else. So, if the trail mix on the shelf is 40% candies, chocolates, and cereals that is a clear indicator to avoid that blend. In order for a trail mix to do what it was designed to do, it needs to be balanced and consist of the more nutrient rich ingredients and less of the fillers.
Sometimes, I see syrups added to the mix, for example, in order to provide more flavor and sweetness. If used sparingly, that can be OK. But if used a little on the heavy side, that syrup can give you more sugars and simple carbs than you might have imagined. Assuming you are on a long hike, your body will probably do just find processing it all, but if you are having trail mix as a general snack, beware of the sugar!
Ingredients of a Good Trail Mix
The following ingredients are the ones we like to look for in a trail mix.
Almonds: Almonds are often my base for a good trail mix, with a great fat profile (healthy) of unsaturated fats, fibers, and dense calories.
Cashews: I love adding some cashews to my mix, they add zinc and Vitamin K.
Walnuts: Another great nut, with plenty of fiber and magnesium. The only issue with walnuts is that they can easily crumble if crushed, so keep that in mind if they are going to be at the bottom of your fanny pack with a bunch of other stuff putting weight on them.
Dried fruits (mainly raisins, cranberries, or apricots): I am generous with the dried fruits in my trail mixes, because they are a great source of natural sugars, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They also offer some sweetness without adding a bunch of chocolate, M&Ms, or sugars.
Pumpkin and Chia Seeds: Pumpkin and Chia seeds are rich in essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and various minerals, contributing to heart health and digestion.
Sunflower seeds: I like sunflower seeds in my trail mix because they provide nice doses of magnesium and Vitamin E in addition to the healthy fats.
Dark chocolate chunks (keep them small!): Dark chocolate contains antioxidants and may have positive effects on mood and cognition, making it a tasty and beneficial addition to your trail mix. I tend to not be as big a fan of the chocolate chunks if I know the trail mix will get warm, because the chocolate can melt and get messy.
Whole-grain cereal or pretzels: Adding whole-grain cereals or pretzels provides a satisfying crunch and a source of complex carbohydrates, supplying long-lasting energy for your adventures. Don’t do too much, though, as pretzel are really a simple carb.
Coconut flakes: Coconut flakes are something I learned about when doing more tropical gorp recipes, and I really like them. The delightful tropical flavor provides healthy fats, fiber, and minerals.
Yogurt-covered treats: Yogurt-covered items, like raisins or pretzels, can add a touch of sweetness while providing calcium and probiotics, benefiting gut health.
Spices (like cinnamon or nutmeg): Adding a dash of spices not only enhances the flavor but may also provide anti-inflammatory properties and aid digestion. Start small and don’t overdo it!
Roasted chickpeas: Try some crunchy roasted chickpeas for protein, fiber, and a variety of minerals, promoting a sense of fullness and supporting muscle recovery.
Flaxseed: Flaxseeds are a bit of a secret weapon, and super high in calories if you just need some dense foods on the trail with you. They are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and lignans, which have potential health benefits such as reducing inflammation and supporting heart health.
Trail Mix Summary
Overall, trail mix is a staple for all active people for a reason. It is a great source of the macronutrients needed while camping, hiking, or taking on any other adventure. It replenishes your muscles, brain, and body with healthy fats, ample amounts of fiber, and muscle refueling proteins. Your best bet is to prep a large batch of trail mix at home so you can control the sugar, sodium, and other additives found in store bought brands. Plus, by preparing your own trail mix you can be creative and cater the flavor profiles to what you desire. The combinations are only as restrictive as your imagination.
If this is not an option and you need to buy store-bought trail mixes, don’t worry; just read the bag. As long as the trail mix is mostly nuts and dried fruits, and not horribly high in sodium or sugar, you will most likely get the health benefits you need from the mixture. Trail mix has stood the test of time as a staple because it truly is a healthy way to snack.