Introduction: Backpacking Food Bars 2.0

About: After spending 2 years traveling my wife and I have lived in 8 different cities across the United States. Among other things we've had the privileged of visiting nearly half of the national parks in the US. …

Even though it was posted over a year ago, I’m still receiving a surprising amount of interest in my Backpacking Food Bars.  I’ve refined the recipe a bit and taken it on another trip, so I thought I’d share an update.  This new version is significantly more nutritious and tastier than the previous iteration.

The purpose of these bars is to provide a concentrated form of nutrition (specifically calories, carbohydrates, and protein) in a low weight, low volume package that’s easy to carry and stable across a wide range of temperature and moisture conditions.  The overall cost is lower than most commercially available food bars, and the recipe is infinitely customizable, allowing you to create bars that suite your own palate and nutritional requirements.

Step 1: Tools and Ingredients

• Half cup measuring cup
• Food processor or cutting board and knife
• Bowl
• Spatula
• Jellyroll pan
• Grease for pan
• Oven

• Protein Powder
• Glutinous Rice Flour (may have to hunt through local Asian grocery to find)
• Dried fruit (I used raisins)
• Nuts (I used walnuts)
• Peanut butter
• Sweetened condensed  milk
• Water

Step 2: Prep and Mix Ingredients

All ingredients are in half cup measurements.

Chop dried fruit and nuts.  You want fairly small pieces so they spread more thoroughly through the bars

Mix a half cup of each ingredient into a large bowl and stir until everything is mixed evenly into a smooth batter.

Step 3: Baking

Preheat oven to 250F

Spread batter on to a thoroughly greased jellyroll pan (I used vegetable oil) and bake for one hour.  This baking time is for bars that have been spread out to 1 inch thick.

Step 4: Packaging

Remove pan from oven and allow to cool completely.  Bars should be an even golden brown color and be firm to the touch

Once cooled, carefully lift the bars out of the pan.  No matter how well you greased things the bars will stick a little.

Cut the bars into the desired serving size, and wrap individually in plastic wrap.  This prevents the bars from grinding against each other and creating crumbs, which was a significant problem with my previous version.

Now you're ready to go out hiking.  I used a double batch of these bars as about one-third of the total food volume I packed.  They make an excellent quick breakfast or snack and are easy to eat while you walk.

Step 5: Nutrition

This new version of the bars has 25% more calories, 52% more carbohydrates and 7% more protein per cup.  This is thanks to a more streamlined ingredients list and the inclusion of the glutinous rice flour.

The glutinous rice flour was an important addition to the bars.  It offers over 1500 calories per cup and despite the name I don’t think it actually contains any gluten, in case you are allergic like a couple of my friends.

Once again I didn’t give much attention to vitamin, mineral, or fiber content, all of which are very important if you’re going to be on the trail for any length of time.  I’m still looking for ingredients to make up this deficit.  Wheat germ and quinoa have been suggested to me as possible candidates.

(see attached file for nutritional breakdown)

Step 6: Flavor

This time around I tried to pay more attention to flavor and palatability, so here are a few of my observations in that regard:

I used vanilla protein powder instead of the chocolate flavored and got rid of the baking chocolate, both of which contributed to a burnt taste in the previous version.

I found that the peanut butter is absolutely critical for a decent flavor as it covers up the slightly off taste of the protein powder. 

Where the previous bars were dry and crumbly, the glutinous rice flour helps the new version bind together with a more pleasant, moist texture that makes them easier to eat without large amounts of water.

I tried using dried cherries in the recipe but they turned the whole batter pink and gave it a strong flavor of bad cherry candy.  Not recommended.

Overall the bars taste a lot better, but now I find them to be too sweet.  I tried adding a few seasonings like cinnamon, and even salt and vinegar to mellow it out (it actually helped more than you would think).  The prime culprit is the sweetened condensed milk.  I may have to look for a substitute in a later version.

Step 7: Follow-up

It's been two weeks since I baked my batch of bars for this instructable, so I thought I should provide some follow-up on a couple of experiments I ran.

Open-Air Stability: I left a bar on the counter for about 12 days and nibbled on it periodically to see if it was still palatable.  It dried out somewhat, but didn't reach a point where it might be considered inedible. 

Packaged Stability: To my great disappointment some of the bars I kept wrapped in plastic began to mold after only a week.  This is a major step backwards from my previous version, and entirely unacceptable based on my stated purpose of supplying a stable food for backpacking.  My goal is at bare minimum a two week shelf life.  (I can't see anyone packing more than two weeks of food at one time.)  I believe the culprit is the addition of water.  To make the current recipe more stable it should be baked longer.  I suggest bumping the time up to 1.5 hours at 250F, or baking at 250F for one hour then dropping the temp to 100F for an additional hour.  Alternatively, you could try mixing the recipe with less water, or no water, from the beginning.  Of course you could always just forgo the plastic wrap too.

Hot Breakfast Application: I suggested to someone in the comments section that if the bars get inedibly dry and you have a camp stove on hand you could make a kind of porridge.  I tested the application with reasonable success.  With a little encouragement from a fork the crumbled bar dissolved nicely in hot water and thickened to a pleasant consistency.  Surprisingly the mix was a little bland and could benefit from some salt and sugar.

Notes for the Next Iteration:
  • Solve the molding problem by reducing or replacing water content.  I may try using an oil instead.  Coconut oil, for example, has been suggested to me as a nutrition-dense candidate.
  • Solve the sweetness problem by reducing or replacing the sweetened condensed milk.  Again an oil like coconut oil may suffice.  Finding more savory ingredients like roasted nuts or dried fruits that aren't as sweet may help too.
  • Experiment with peanut butter alternatives.  Enough people asked about a peanut-free variant that I figured I should give it a try.  I'm eying Nutella as a prime candidate.  The thinner consistency of Nutella may also help produce a softer texture without needing to add water.
  • Track and optimize a larger spread of nutrition values.  Next time around I plan to track fiber, sodium, and some of the bigger vitamins and minerals.  I'm also toying with the idea of developing a mathematical model to optimize the nutrition within volume constraints.  As I mentioned in the comments it's hard to add or change ingredients without radically altering the per cup averages, so I want a better way to visualize that process.