Posted by: James Wapotich | December 4, 2014

The Backcountry Gourmand: Raising the Bar

I’ll confess I have a love/hate relationship with energy bars. They’re an essential part of my gear. I bring them on almost every hike I go on because they can be the perfect mid-morning or mid-afternoon pick me up and provide that extra “traction” to press on. This is especially true when fighting the brush in the Dick Smith Wilderness, tackling the up and down roller coaster-like ridges in places such as Hurricane Deck, or fording numerous crossings along the likes of the Sisquoc River or Lower Manzana Creek. And yet, energy bars in all their various forms are also a food that one can easily get burned out on.

Over the years I’ve had many, many favorites come and go. Flavors that I couldn’t get enough like some new pop song, that then started to fade until I woke up one day unable to bear another assault on my taste buds. Here then are just a few of the ones I’ve sampled and cycled through.

Energy Bars Hiking Backpacking Santa Barbara Ventura

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The one that started it all was Balance Bar’s Caramel Nut Blast. In fact, I believe the first bar I had was free, given to me by a friend…at any rate I was hooked. I couldn’t go on a trip without stocking up. But it wasn’t long before my taste buds grew weary, and I had to branch out to other Balance Bar flavors such as Honey Peanut and later its close cousin Yogurt Honey Peanut. Another favorite was their Almond Brownie, which I used to bring on every trip – now I can’t stand it.

Balance Bar later came out with one they called Chocolate Craze which was the official energy bar for a whole backpacking season before I became burned out on it. Just recently I’ve come full circle and started bringing Caramel Nut Blast again on trips.

Hiking Backpacking Santa Barbara Ventura

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Needing to branch out further and diversify I started eating Luna bars even though a girl friend of mine insisted that these were strictly for women only. But by then the monkey had me and I didn’t care. I needed variety. Besides who’s going to see me out on the trails and care what kind of energy bar I’m eating? And so what if I feel like redecorating South Fork Cabin, fine. I was quickly hooked on Luna’s Chocolate Dipped Coconut, and at the time it was my new favorite – now I can’t stand it. I also tired several others for variety such as Nuts Over Chocolate, S’mores, and Carrot Cake, but now the only flavor I can still tolerate on a regular basis is Caramel Nut Brownie.

Most of these bars I was able to get at Trader Joe’s, but one day, after the Vons on Chapala closed, I started shopping at the Ralph’s on Carrillo…and for my sins I found what remains the largest selection of energy bars I’ve seen. About six feet wide and filled top to bottom with boxes and boxes of energy bars. Pure evil.

I dabbled at first with some of the old flavors I’d grown tired of and tried some different unheard of brands. And for a while I thought Zone Perfect had some great flavors to offer such as Dark Chocolate Almond, Double Dark Chocolate, Fudge Graham, and Chocolate Mint. Now I can’t stand any of them.

Then one day at Ralph’s I discovered PowerBar’s Double Chocolate Crisp and thought I’d found salvation at last. This seemed like the ultimate bar. I mean it had everything, chocolate, great texture, it was bigger than other bars, and it tasted good. I felt reinvigorated in my enthusiasm for energy bars and brought them on every trip, eating them almost exclusively – now, I can’t stand them.

Energy Bars Hiking Backpacking Santa Barbara Ventura Ojai

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Around this same time Clif introduced its line of Mojo Trail Mix bars, the most bizarre of these are the ones that have pretzels mixed into them, but I digress. The early favorite was their Dark Chocolate Almond Coconut. Not only did it have a good mix of ingredients, but was different enough from the other bars I carried to create the illusion of variety. About this time, I also discovered that if you’re truly obsessed about bars, you can buy them by the box at Whole Foods and get 10% off, which is basically like getting a free bar. And although my passion for them has since faded, I still bring them on trips, probably because they vaguely remind me of gorp and are the least bar like of the alternatives.

The latest flavor sensation to weigh down my pack is PowerBar’s Caramel Peanut Fusion. With its candy bar like texture it is somehow able to slip under the radar of gnawing on the obligatory energy bar for sustenance, and at times almost seems like real food. Alight, palatable food.

I keep telling myself that one day I’ll make my own energy bars that are portable and actually taste good. I even have a couple recipes, but for now I’ll have to just keep trying new flavors – fortunately we live in a consumer culture that is all about new flavors and so it’s unlikely that I will run out.

chocolate hiking backpacking santa barbara ventura

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While we’re on the subject of bars, another weapon in my arsenal against trail stupor is chocolate. And while I’m not a chocoholic, I’m am convinced that chocolate is some kind of miracle food. In addition to the lift from the caffeine and sugar, I often find myself feeling more focused and alert. I recently read that some people consider chocolate to be a brain food. All I know is that if it worked for the Aztecs and the Mayans in the jungles of Central America then it’s probably worth carrying in the wilderness.


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