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Chocolate: A Guide for Backpackers

Cocoa packs high energy and healthy antioxidants, and our testing revealed the best-tasting, most-meltproof varieties for the trail.
chocolate

Photo by russellstreet/Flickr

Bars

Best for On-the-go snacking; cool weather 

Beta Darker bars with a higher proportion of cocoa solids are healthier and less likely to melt; in testing, some didn’t soften until temps hit the high 80s. Thicker bars (Cadbury’s Royal Dark was the heftiest at 1/3 of an inch) held up to pack abuse best.

Packing Keep bars above freezing and below 75°F. Store in plastic in your pack’s center. 

Buying tip Our testing revealed that gourmet brands showed less chalky-looking “bloom” after extreme temps—the fat and sugar residue looks bad, but is edible. 

Top pick We love Dagoba Organic’s New Moon Bar, with 74 percent cocoa ($3; 2 oz, available at Whole Foods). It’s the sturdiest bar we tried, and the least bitter for the high cocoa content.

Spreads

Best for Hot weather; boosting calories

Beta Cocoa-infused, nut-butter spreads are packable and calorie dense (averaging 180+ calories/ounce), and chocolatey enough to kill sugar cravings (the lowest percentage of cocoa in spreads we tried was 12 percent). Because they’re already gooey, warm temps don’t increase mess potential. They’re also high in protein. 

Eating Top apples, crackers, breads, and pretzels, or mix into oatmeal and grits.

Buying tip Several brands (like Justin’s Nut Butter, Nutella, and Jif) make no-mess, individual-serving-size packets.

Top pick Testers favored Justin’s Chocolate Almond Butter ($1; 1 oz.), which is not overly sweet, and has more protein than others we tried.

Drinks

Best for Nightcaps; calming the kids

Beta With twice the antioxidants of a glass of red wine, plus comfort-food nostalgia, hot chocolate is an ideal camp drink. We hit the sweet spot for most brands by adding 20 percent more powder than the package directions suggest and using milk (instead of water) when possible.

Prepping After dissolving mix in hot liquid, allow it to steep for up to 10 minutes for richer taste and silkier texture. 

Buying tip Opt for mixes made with milk powder. Bring marshmallows!

Top pick Testers favored our own recipe, but Land O’Lakes Cocoa Classics Supreme Mix ($26 for 36 packets) stood out for its richness and strong, chocolatey flavor.

Trail-Friendly Craving Killers

» Nibs These Grape-Nut-size pieces of actual cocoa bean (shown above) have the highest antioxidant levels and lowest fat of edible cocoa. They don’t melt, so you can add them to trail mix in any season. They can be bitter to newbies, so initiate friends with a sugar-coated version like Nativas Naturals Sweet Nibs ($7; 4 oz.).

» Energy gels Low-fat, chocolate-flavored blends of clean-burning sugar are mess-free stand-ins for a candy bar. “Like brownie mix, but better for you,” say testers. Bonus: They won’t freeze solid in the cold. Try Gu’s Chocolate Energy Gel ($1; 1 oz.).

Cocoa’s Superfood Cred

Ounce-for-ounce, dark chocolate has more antioxidants than red wine or blueberries—a daily 30-calorie dose is enough to offer benefits. Studies link it to everything from vascular health to a strengthened immune system to improved mood and cognitive function. Milk and white chocolate varieties have less cocoa, ergo fewer health perks. To balance good health but still indulge, keep daily servings below 50 calories (unless you’re making up for a trail-day deficit), and opt for bars with between 60 and 75 percent cocoa. Higher cocoa content makes bars bitter, but lighter chocolate is fattier, less healthy, and liquefies at lower temps. 

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix

3 cups powdered milk

5 oz. chocolate pudding mix (non-instant)

1/2 cup powdered nondairy creamer

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/3 cup powdered sugar

Dash of salt

At home Sift ingredients together and store in an airtight 

container for up to three months. Package trip-size servings in a zip-top bag.

In camp Dissolve one heaping tablespoon of mix into one cup of hot water, steep, and serve. Optional: Top with marshmallows, stir with a peppermint stick, or add an ounce of spirits. 

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