Nothing beats the convenience of a tasty high-calorie protein bar on the trail. To be clear: I’m not talking about wimpy little granola bars here. I mean big honkin’ meal replacement bars that will meet your body’s nutritional needs and not leave you feeling hungry again in an hour.
As my outdoor adventures have grown more ambitious I’ve found that the typical Cliff bars, Lara bars, etc. just don’t cut it when I need something filling and calorie-dense in the backcountry. If it doesn’t have at least 300 calories, I’m not interested.
I’ve tried a lot of high calorie energy bars and protein bars in my search for good trail nutrition. Over time I’ve settled on a few favorites for their nutritional value, taste, and ability to pack a massive number of calories into a small amount of space.
Below I’ll show you my favorite bars for powering epic long days outside, whether on foot, bike, or however you like to move. I’ll also tell you what I think their pros and cons are, lay out key nutrition information, and compare them by the numbers so you can choose the best high calorie protein bar for your outdoor (or indoor) nutrition needs.
But first, what makes a protein bar good for hiking and backpacking?
The Best Bars for Backpacking Are…
High calorie. A strenuous backpacking trip is no time to go on a calorie-deficit diet. Backpackers usually have trouble carrying enough food to meet their daily energy expenditure anyway. The last thing you want to do is make a difficult trip even harder by depriving your body of the fuel it needs to get the job done.
Small and dense. When you carry all your food on your back, it matters a lot how much it weighs and how much space it takes up. Backpackers are always searching for ways to pack more calories into smaller and lighter foods.
High in protein. Our bodies need protein to build and maintain muscle while on the trail, but protein is often hard to find in classic carb-heavy trail foods like pasta and rice. A high-quality protein bar is a great way to supplement a backpacking meal plan with more of what our muscles need.
High in fat compared to carbohydrates. One gram of fat provides 9 calories, while one gram of carbs or protein provides only 4 calories. Since our goal on the trail is to pack foods that give us lots of calories but aren’t too heavy, we want foods with plenty of fat.
Tasty and easy to eat. Let’s not overlook this! We don’t always feel great when we’re hiking, running, climbing or skiing. Sometimes we’re too hot, too cold, or nauseous from altitude or exertion. The most perfect balance of nutrients won’t do any good if we can’t get choke it down when we need fuel the most.
Now that we’re clear on what we’re looking for, let’s dive in and compare the best bars for backpacking, hiking, and general adventuring.
Cliff Builder Bars
Let’s start with a classic: Cliff Builders Bars. They aren’t the healthiest or the highest-calorie bar in this list, but they go down easy and they’re available almost everywhere in the US. If you’re resupplying from stores on a long backpacking trip, you’ll probably end up eating these sooner or later.
My favorite flavors: Chocolate Mint, Chocolate Peanut Butter
Pros of Builder Bars:
- Darn tasty and covered in chocolate. For me, they’re always easy to eat even when I’m working hard or not feeling good.
- Quick energy plus plenty of protein.
- Reasonable balance of macronutrients.
- Reasonably priced.
- Widely available in grocery and convenience stores.
Cons of Builder Bars:
- Fewer calories per bar than others in this list.
- Can be hard when cold and melty when hot.
- Lowest calorie-to-weight ratio in this list
Key nutrition info (Chocolate Mint flavor):
|30g (22g sugar)
Buy online: Clif Builder Bars (Amazon)
Pro Bar Meal
Pro Bar Meal bars are one of the better “real(ish) food” options in this list, for when you finally get tired of feeling like you’re eating candy bars all day. I love them for their combination of varied natural ingredients and yummy but not-too-sweet taste. The flavors involving berries and greens are sometimes the closest we can get to fresh fruits and veggies on a long-distance hike. 🙂
My Favorite flavor: Superfood Slam
Pros of Pro Bar Meal
- Natural and healthy ingredients
- High ratio of calories to weight
- Lots of flavors
- Good texture, doesn’t get too hard when it’s cold or melt in the heat
- Gluten-free and soy-free
Cons of Pro Bar Meal:
- More expensive than some others
- Low protein compared to others in this list
Key nutrition info (Superfood Slam flavor):
|47g (23g sugar)
Buy online: Pro Bar Meal (Amazon)
Met-Rx Big 100 Protein Bars
I discovered Met-Rx Big 100 bars while resupplying on the Tahoe Rim Trail and have used them ever since. These tasty high-calorie bars resemble a candy bar more than a high-quality meal, but when you need tasty calories they get the job done like nothing else. Since I first discovered them, they’ve been reformulated with more fat and protein and less carbs, which I consider an improvement.
My Favorite flavor: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (it’s chewy and delicious)
Pros of Met-Rx Big 100:
- Tasty and sweet
- Soft texture, easy to eat even when cold
- Plenty of calories
- Highest ratio of protein to calories
- Widely available at grocery and convenience stores in the US
Cons of Met-Rx Big 100:
- Not the most natural or healthy ingredients.
- Can taste a bit too sweet and artificial sometimes, if I’m in a healthy-eating kind of mood.
Key nutrition info (Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavor):
|45g (18g sugar)
Buy online: Met-Rx Big 100 Protein Bars (Amazon)
Robert Irvine’s Fit Crunch
My first Robert Irvine’s Fit Crunch bar was gifted to me by some friendly motorcycle riders I met while bikepacking in Oregon, and I’ve been hooked ever since. They pack just as many calories and grams of protein as the above Met-Rx bars, but the macronutrient profile is shifted more toward fat and away from carbs and sugars. This makes them a healthier and more filling option. Plus, they’re delicious.
My Favorite flavors: Chocolate Peanut Butter, Cookies and Cream (I refuse to pick just one)
Pros of Fit Crunch:
- Great taste, not too artificial
- Plenty of calories, protein, and fat
- Lower in carbs and sugar than similarly high-calorie options
- Still soft and edible when cold
Cons of Fit Crunch:
- Not the cheapest
- Chocolate coating gets melty in hot weather
Key nutrition info (Peanut Butter flavor):
|26g (6g sugar)
Note that these bars also come in a smaller size, so be sure to check the calorie count before buying.
Buy online: Robert Irvine’s Fit Crunch (Amazon)
Range Meal Bars
A single Range Meal Bar packs 700 calories. 700 CALORIES! Finally, a meal bar that is actually a full meal. These epic bars, made by a small up-and-coming company in the pacific northwest, earned a place in this list for their burly size and nutritional profile catering specifically to calorie-intensive outdoor activities.
My Favorite flavor: Alpine Start (chocolate, peanut butter, coffee)
Pros of Range Bars:
- Simple and natural ingredients
- Highest calorie bar in this list, by far
- Great texture: soft enough to eat in cold weather, doesn’t melt in the heat
- Tasty without being too sweet
Cons of Range Bars:
- More expensive than others in this list, but considering the calorie count, you’re getting what you pay for.
- Limited store distribution currently; you’ll need to order these online.
- Not particularly high in protein as % of total calories
Key nutrition info (Alpine Start flavor):
|88g (42g sugar)
Buy online: rangemealbar.com
Rise Protein Bars
Rise Protein Bars are one of the simplest, and objectively healthiest, bars in this list. I find them to be a slower-burning fuel, better suited to meals or long breaks than scarf-as-you-go snacking. If you get tired of sugary snacks on the trail they might be just what you need.
My Favorite flavor: Chocolatey Almond
Pros of Rise Bars:
- Simple, natural, healthy ingredients.
- Great all-around balance of macronutrients if you’re looking to get more protein and fat with less carbs and sugar.
- High calories / weight ratio
- Gluten-free and soy-free
Cons of Rise Bars:
- Not a ton of calories per bar.
- Can be difficult to scarf down quickly at high heart rate, like a trail running race or climbing hard at high altitude.
- They get very hard – basically inedible – when cold. Best for moderate or warm temperatures.
Key nutrition info (Chocolatey Almond flavor):
|22g (13g sugar)
Buy online: Rise Protein Bars (Amazon)
Gatorade Whey Protein Bar
Another sweet and tasty high calorie protein bar that goes down easily, Gatorade Whey Protein Bars are good for fast fuel with a solid dose of protein. The “whey protein crisps” are a nice texture, different from most other bars. These aren’t the healthiest choice for regular snacking, but for long days on the trail they might be just what you need.
My Favorite flavor: Chocolate Chip
Pros of Gatorade Whey Bars:
- Good calorie to weight ratio
- Reasonably priced
- Widely available in grocery and convenience stores around the US
- Tasty and easy to eat
Cons of Gatorade Whey Bars:
- Chocolate coating can get melty in hot weather
- High sugar, very sweet, not the healthiest
Key nutrition info (Chocolate Chip flavor):
|41g (29g sugar)
Buy online: Gatorade Whey Protein Bars (Amazon)
Perfect Keto Bars
Perfect Keto Bars are my newest addition to this list, and a direct result of my personal experiment with a ketogenic diet to support endurance sports. It didn’t take long after transitioning to keto before I wanted to go bikepacking and realized NONE of the energy bars in my pantry were even remotely keto-friendly. So even though these bars are lower-calorie than I would usually bother with, I’m including them because they seem to be the highest-calorie keto-friendly protein bar around. If you’re trying to eat keto while backpacking, they should definitely be on your list.
My favorite flavor: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
Pros of Perfect Keto Bars:
- Keto and low-carb friendly with only 2g net carbs
- High calorie-to-weight ratio and high fat content
- Simple ingredients list
- Very tasty!
Cons of Perfect Keto Bars:
- Lowest calorie bar in this list
Key nutrition info (Almond Butter Brownie flavor):
|11g (1g sugar)
Buy online: Perfect Keto Bars (Amazon)
Bear Valley Pemmican Bars
I discovered Bear Valley Pemmican Bars when planning resupply food for my John Muir Trail hike years ago. Sadly, as of late 2019 it looks like these have been discontinued! RIP Pemmican Bars. 🙁 I’ll leave this here for historic reasons, or in case they come back. Previously available at mealpack.com.
Pros of Pemmican Bars:
- High calorie count
- Best calorie/size ratio (good if you have limited space for food, for example when packing 9 days of food into a bear canister on the John Muir Trail)
Cons of Pemmican Bars:
- A bit dry for my taste
- Relatively heavy on carbs compared to protein and fat.
Key nutritional info (Fruit n Nut flavor):
|58g (28g sugar)
Best Backpacking Bars By The Numbers
I can’t help myself, I love spreadsheets. I threw the nutrition facts for each of these bars into a spreadsheet and calculated the winners and losers in certain categories backpackers might care about. Drumroll please…
So which bar is the best bar for hiking and backpacking? It depends. I think they’re all solid choices for different purposes and I included them all because individual preference varies a lot. It doesn’t matter which one has the best protein to calorie ratio if you can’t manage to choke it down when you’re overheated on a hot day or nauseous at high altitude.
I currently rotate through most of these on backpacking and bikepacking trips. I like the variety of having a couple different bars per day and new surprises at the bottom of the food bag several days in. Sometimes I need solid nutrition and real food, and other times I just need a sugar bomb to get me to the top of the next hill. Try them all and see which ones work best for you.
Do you have a favorite I missed? I’d love to hear about it in the comments so I can try it out.
The Peanut Butter Trick
Let me leave you with one last tip: Any bar becomes a higher-calorie, higher-protein version of itself when slathered with nut butter.
On long-distance hikes and bikepacking trips when it’s hard to find true high-calorie protein bars in small stores, I pack a squeeze pouch of peanut butter or other nut butter to turn standard bars into high calorie protein bars. Yum!
More Backpacking Resources
If you found this helpful, you might enjoy my other hiking and backpacking resources, or these popular posts:
- Are Trail Running Shoes Good for Backpacking?
- Water Filtration Guide for Hikers
- Stretching Routine for Pain-Free Backpacking and Better Sleep
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