I’m a bit of a connoisseur of energy bars. I’ve had the opportunity and motivation to try a lot of them: I’ve worked at an outdoor gear store for years and regularly stock and evaluate the energy bar section, plus working there I can buy them at a discount. As a result, several of them are a staple in my backpacking, hiking, and even day-to-day diet.
So what do I look for when evaluating an energy bar? Three things:
1) Calories per ounce (the more the better)
2) Sodium content (the less the better)
3) Good taste and texture
I’m tall, thin, and have a blazing fast metabolism. When I’m hiking or backpacking, my metabolism kicks into overdrive—I want the maximum number of calories I can stick in my pocket. When I evaluate backpacking food, I look for at least 100 calories per ounce of food (or 3200 calories per two pounds of food, my target ratio). Most energy bars hover around there, between 100-130 calories/ounce.
I also watch my sodium intake closely in order to keep it around the recommended daily amount: 2,300 milligrams (the equivalent of only a teaspoon of salt). Energy bars are all over the map in this category, with most hovering around 200mg. Why do I care about sodium content? For those prone to high blood pressure (that would be me), a low-salt diet helps keep it in check. (As an aside, most pre-packaged freeze-dried backpacking meals—Mountain House, Natural High, etc.—contain about your entire RDA in a single serving—and definitely in an entire package.)
I’m a fruit-and-peanut-butter kind of guy and tend to gravitate toward energy bars in these flavor categories. I avoid most bars that are heavy on flavors like oatmeal, vanilla, coconut, and just about anything with raisins in it. I’m not a huge chocolate fan, but am not anti-chocolate by any stretch; it just doesn’t figure heavily in my energy bar selection.
Here’s what’s in my current rotation:
Clif Nectar Line: Best thing about these: 0mg sodium. They are essentially just fruit and nuts with no added ingredients. Plus they are 100% organic. Drawbacks? They are small (1.6 ounces), don’t pack tons of calories (150 per bar), and on the expensive side (around $2-2.50). My two favorites in the four-bar Nectar line are Cherry Pomegranate (my overall favorite energy bar of the moment) and Dark Chocolate Walnut (great with coffee).
Honey Stinger Protein Bars: These substantial bars pack more calories than just about any other on the market. Why? Organic honey is the number one ingredient in these suckers (30 percent of the bar!), plus they add 20 grams of whey protein (20 percent of your protein RDA). The Dark Chocolate Cherry Almond Pro tips the calorie scale at 390 calories per 3.2-ounce bar (and only 55mg sodium). The Peanut Butta Pro offers up 350 calories in a 2.85-ounce bar and has been one of my staples for over a year now; if you’ve ever had peanut butter pie, it’s like that, but in bar form. Though on the expensive side ($2.50-$3), you definitely get your calories for the money.
You can only eat a certain bar for so long before you burn out on it, but many of my past favorites come from the original Clif Bar line, including Cranberry Apple Cherry, Chocolate Brownie, Blueberry Crisp, and Black Cherry Almond. Clif Bars all weigh in at 2.4 ounces and pack in around 250 calories per bar. They are one of the best values as well, around $1.50 per bar.
While we’re on the topic, there are a few other bars I’ve tried or would like to mention.
ProBar is pushing the limits of what consumers are willing to spend on a bar ($3-$4), using nothing but raw, organic, vegan ingredients. I was attracted to them because they’re calorie-rich (370-390 per 3-ounce bar) and low in sodium (less than 100mg). But I found them extremely twiggy and rather unpalatable—the ProBar Koka Moka in particular is my personal front-runner for grossest energy bar I’ve yet tried.
Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.