Making The Perfect Trail Mix

February 5th, 2015, by Dylan Thomas
A trail mix is an attempt to provide a handy fuel supply which is easy to carry when on the trail. What should be in your trail mix is dependable on what activity you’re doing.


The activity level for athletes who require trail mix is pretty much always going to fall into the endurance category, predominantly used by trail and fell runners, adventure racers, cyclists and the more outdoor savvy tri-athlete.

Shorter distances are better fuelled by carbohydrate, so gels and sports drinks are more suitable.

There are lots of various ‘off the shelf’ trail mix available, but it is so easy to make your own out of readily available ingredients that it is hardly worth it. Plus you can cater your mix to your individual taste and nutritional preference.

Nutrient Considerations

Before we start, let’s take a look at the nutritional requirements that we are looking for in a trail mix for endurance...

Sugar

Sugar ingredients are going to give you the rapid energy supply needed for sprints. This is best catered for using sweets or dried fruit. If using sweets, then be sure to avoid the hard boiled variety and instead opt for soft gelatin based sweets.

Complex Carbohydrate

I’ve separated the two carb sources because you should address them differently. Don’t make the mistake of only using sugars as your carb source, without backing them up with more complex carbs or fats.

Fat

Less important on shorter races, fats provide an important prolonged energy source for longer distances. Again, don’t use fats without a carb source as they take too long to digest and will not provide an immediate rapid energy supply for sprints.

Protein

Like fats, this is less important for shorter distances. Protein will not only provide an energy source during activity, but will also help with reducing the post event recovery time.

Popular Trail Mix Ingredients

So we’ve looked at the macro nutrients which we need to address in our trail mix, so now lets look at some ingredients which we can use to meet our goals.

Jelly beans

These provide a readily available source of simple carbohydrate which is easy to chew whilst breathing hard. I personally prefer jelly babies. Be careful to not get them wet as they will start to dissolve, so keep them in a sealable bag.

Pretzels

A good source of more complex carbs. Crush them inside the bag to make them smaller. Careful not to add too many as the crumb dust can be a problem whilst hard breathing.

Figs

A chewy, moist form of simple carbs with added potassium to help with keeping cramps at bay. You may prefer to chop them into smaller pieces to aid chewing.

Nuts and Seeds

Both offer a good source of fats and enough protein to meet your modest requirements during endurance events. Break brazil nuts into smaller pieces, and avoid small seeds such as poppy and sesame as you’ll end up dropping most of them (or choking on them).

Jerky

Suitable high protein sources are in short supply for trail mix. If you require additional protein on long, lower intensity expeditions then jerky is perfect for adding to trail mix due to its preserved nature. Cut into smaller pieces to ensure it mixes ok. Can prove an interesting taste when combined with jelly beans!

Chocolate Raisins

Another old favourite. Chocolate raisins combine fat and sugar from the chocolate with the slower release carbs provided by the dried fruit, plus trace elements from raisins assist with cramp prevention.

Chocolate Coated Coffee Beans

Here’s a secret weapon for you. Chocolate coated coffee beans provide a great caffeine hit along with the sugar and fat content of the chocolate. Great mixed with jelly beans for a rocket powered trail mix combo! Caffeine will not only give you that mental edge during a race, it’s also been proven to improve carbohydrate absorption when combined with simple sugars. (Source)

Chocolate Coffee beans are not as easy to obtain as the other ingredients here, but can be ordered from Amazon.

Trek Bits

A new favourite, Trek Bits are small blocks which have been formed from cold pressed fruit and cashews which provide carbohydrate, a little fat and a modest amount of protein. These are perfect for trail mix and can often be used as a sole ingredient for a simple trail mix. Obtainable direct from Natural Balance Foods website or from Amazon, or check my review of Trek Bits.

Finding What Works For You

Finding the best trail mix which works for you can involve a little trial and error. Try using some mixes on your long training runs before using them during a race or ultra. You wouldn’t want to find that your mix causes nausea or additional toilet breaks during your event.

Also, remember to back them up with fluids and a fast hitting energy source (such as gels) if needed. The benefit of trail mix is that you can take small handfuls frequently which should keep your energy levels stable and reduce the need to use a fast acting energy source such as gels.

Do you have a favourite trail mix combination or unusual ingredient which you add to your mix?
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