trader joe's pumpkin display
(Photo: Grayson Haver Currin)

How to Make Your Leaf-Peeping Hike Taste Like Fall, Too

The best seasonal fuel for the trail, ranked

trader joe's pumpkin display

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The global supply chain is wounded and limping, but it seems nobody bothered to warn the world’s pumpkin-processing plants. During a recent road trip from the continental United States’ northwest corner toward its southeast tip, I was gobsmacked by the food aisles of grocery stores and gas stations, all wrapped in an orange glow.

Coffee and cookies, chocolate and chips, scones and samosas, beer and brioche, popcorn and pasta: every imaginable item seemed to have been infused with pumpkin puree or some blend of seasonal spices. Meanwhile, my Instagram feed was lined with requisite photos of fall hikes. It was time to marvel again at the aspens and larches in the West or the kaleidoscopic swirl of maples and oaks in the East.

How, I wondered, could the country’s two favorite fall themes merge—that is, what were the best foods to take on a leaf-viewing hike so that you actually felt like you were tasting fall, too? During the last few weeks, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time prowling grocery stores, looking for the prime answers to that question and sampling so many seasonal products I’ve started hoping for a nutmeg-induced hallucination.

And the results? Well, they’re often delicious. I’ve divided a day of hiking into six categories, stretching from breakfast to dessert. State fair-style, I’ve named a blue-ribbon winner for each meal, plus some backups. So take your leaf-gazing hike, and take along a taste of autumn, too.

Breakfast

big spoon apple pie spice
(Photo: Courtesy Big Spoon)

Blue Ribbon: I’m sorry to start with the most ostentatious option, but here’s the truth: there is no fall flavor as scrumptious and subtle as Big Spoon Roaster’s Apple Pie Spice nut butter. For years, the North Carolina company has been making top-shelf butters and dense energy bars, earning the attention of Oprah and Bon Appetit alike. Its new harvest-time collaboration with pantry-supply connoisseur Spicewalla is perfect, with the spice of green cardamom and ginger offering the supreme foil for chunks of sweet apple and maple syrup. That’s all held together with almonds, pecans, and fancy salt supplied by Jacobsen. It’s pricy, as a ten-ounce glass jar will cost you just under $14. The flavor is so rich, though, it lasts. Pack it into a plastic tub with a screw-top, and take it to trail with an apple, banana, or perhaps one of Trader Joe’s decent but chewy “pumpkin bagels” for a breakfast as crisp as autumnal air. This can double as lunch or even an alternate s’mores topper.

Red Ribbon: Yogurt companies have recently taken up the pumpkin-spice spirit, too, and the results are as varied as the colors of a maple stand in fall. Noosa’s is too sweet, while Icelandic Provisions’ traditional “skyr” is too sour and thick for starting a long hike. But Seattle company Ellenos makes a pumpkin-pie yogurt so good it’s got its own sweatshirt, not to mention the braggadocious slogan “the yogurt that makes pumpkin pie jealous.” That might be hyperbole, but Ellenos does find the same sugar-to-spice ratio that makes the pie so nice. If you’re only doing a day-hike, or if you’re car camping with a cooler, this is a decadent way to begin the day.

The Rest: Pumpkin-spice oatmeal abounds, of course, from expensive artisanal brands to Quaker instant. The unfortunately named brand Mush even makes delectable pumpkin-pie and apple-cinnamon “overnight oats,” though you could always prepare the same at home for less cash. And so long as the world spins, there will always be Pop-Tarts.

Energy Bars

(Photo: Courtesy Bobo’s)

Blue Ribbon: For your money, there’s no better hiking bar than Bobo’s, baked in Boulder for nearly two decades and now available in major grocery stores nationwide. Easy to devour and digest, they are maddeningly simple, with oats, oil, and sugar baked alongside a mild flavor like coconut or lemon poppyseed. Their latest entry—called Pumpkin Spice, of course—avoids the sensory aggression of so many of its peers. This pumpkin bar is more flavored seltzer water than sugary soda, so it tastes more like a memory of Fall rather than a direct invocation of it. When the season ends, I’ll be scouring the clearance aisle, looking for a yearlong supply.

Red Ribbon: Like a lot of the best bar companies, Lärabar takes pride in its ingredient minimalism. To wit, its seasonal Pumpkin Pie bar has just nine ingredients, and nearly half of them are the customary fall spices. That simplicity means that the cashews and almonds—chopped and then ensconced in a puree of dates, apples, and pumpkin—stand out here in little chunks that give the bar a welcome bit of crunch. It doesn’t have the same heft as a Bobo’s, but it’s a nice, fast snack nevertheless.

The Rest: Clif has its own “Spiced Pumpkin Pie” bar, which seems redundant, as does RXBar. But they’re both too chewy—tough, even—to make their potent flavor very enjoyable. They turn eating into work. For a lighter alternative, try 88 Acres’ cinnamon maple bar, which includes pumpkin seeds of its own.

Lunch

butternut
(Photo: Viviana Rishe, Unsplash)

Blue Ribbon: If cooking intimidates you, there may be no easier time to learn than squash-roasting season. Grab a butternut or pumpkin from the grocery, peel it, half it, and scoop out the seeds. Then, while your oven heats to about 400 degrees, cut each side into half-inch cubes. (Sound terrifying? You can buy these pre-cut, too.) Cover the cubes with olive oil, salt, pepper, and whatever spices sound best. Spread them on a baking pan, slide it into the oven, and pull it all from the oven when a fork begins to slide through the cubes. Now, the fun begins—cover the squash with whatever sounds most seasonally decadent to you, from pecans and maple syrup to cranberries and pumpkin seeds with honey. Stir it and slide it back into the oven for a few minutes. This stuff would cost you $10 per pound at Whole Foods, and it will stay relatively fresh in your backpack for at least two cool days.

Red Ribbon: Chips are a wildly underrated trail food, especially for a short lunch break. They’ll restore the salt you’ve lost through sweat, and their complex carbs will keep you on the move for a while. (Just remember to keep the chips on the top of your pack, or you’ll be drinking crumbs.) Good for me, chip companies have now entered the Fall-flavor fray. Trader Joe’s has a nice pumpkin-laced tortilla chip, and most of Terra’s bags—Sweets (Potatoes) & Beets, Sweets & Apples, Stripes & Blues—fit the season fine. But if you can find Kettle’s new, limited Apple Cider Vinegar chip, pack out plenty. The vinegar’s natural sting and sweetness capture that blessed last bite of Thanksgiving lunch where all your favorite foods blend together into one euphoric feeling you’ll want to repeat.

The Rest: If you’re going to invest in Big Spoon’s Apple Pie Spice nut butter (or their Maple Cinnamon or Fiji Ginger), consider having it for lunch, too. It makes an excellent sandwich with, naturally, an apple jelly or 88 Acres’ subtle and delightful roasted pumpkin seed butter. Or if you want to keep hiking as you eat, throw some of Trader Joe’s pumpkin-spiced pumpkin seeds (not a typo, just ridiculous and hilarious) into a bag of trail mix, and march on.

Dinner

pumpkin ravioli
(Photo: Courtesy Trader Joe’s)

Blue Ribbon: My love of the versatile Vargo Bot—a water bottle and cook pot in one—is well-documented here at Outside. And now, I’ve found another use: perfectly boiling pumpkin ravioli for dinner. Trader Joe’s pumpkin ravioli looks more like a lobster mushroom you might find in the woods, what with its deep orange top and its bright yellow underbelly. Inside, the store stuffs ricotta, molasses, mozzarella, eggs, and honey-roasted pumpkin, a mix that brings out the earthiness of the season’s most conspicuous squash. To cook it camp-side, just bring a liter of salted water to a boil and drop in six pieces at a time. After a few minutes, they’ll float to the top and you can carefully dish them out with your spoon.

Red Ribbon: If you don’t want to contend with the hassle of fishing pasta from boiling water or roasting your own vegetables, there’s a much simpler option: Food for the Sole’s dehydrated-and-bagged blend of sweet potatoes, kale, and quinoa. One of the best culinary camping companies around, Food for the Sole was founded by a mother and son after she resupplied him on the John Muir Trail. The sweet potatoes here retain their texture, a relative rarity in the world of mushy bagged meals, while pumpkin seeds and lemon give it both bite and kick. And if you’re looking for a bagged fall breakfast, their “Pumpkin Apple Pecan Oats” satisfy.

The Rest: Want to stick with your distance-hiking dinner staples—rice packets, Knorr Sides, noodles—while having at least a drizzle of fall? Dried gravy packets are a wildly underrated trail addition, an instant upgrade to the blandness of what we sometimes squeeze into our bags. Absurdly cheap and easy to prepare, they’re a touch of Thanksgiving largesse that adds only 24 grams or so to your kit. If you want to get extra-extravagant, pack a few dehydrated porcinis, too.

Dessert

pumpkin spice blondie
(Photo: Courtesy Greyston Bakery)

Blue Ribbon: There is, of course, no end to the cookies, pastries, and confections into which companies have poured fall spices during the last decade or so. But as far as I have tested, there is one wonderfully decadent winner: Greyston Bakery’s Pumpkin & Spice Blondie. Straight out of the wrapper, the vegan treat is as soft as though you’ve just slid it from the oven, with a crust that is lightly crunchy like a muffin top. The fall flavor only amplifies the pure luxury of this 270-calorie extravaganza. Hey, you worked hard to see those leaves, right?

Red Ribbon: If pumpkin desserts have a flagship that’s not ice cream, it would be Trader Joe’s seasonal Joe-Joe’s, so addictive that their zealots have been known to buy them by the case. There are pumpkin-spice Oreos, but Joe-Joe’s hold a generous dollop of pumpkin-spice crème between their two pumpkin cookies. It is ridiculously rich, perhaps even cloying, but it’s also hard to eat just one.

The Rest: A hit on the paleo scene, Evolved Chocolate likes to say of its products, “It’s food, not candy,” due in large part to the low sugar content. Right on, but also its Pumpkin Spice Coconut Butter Cups taste like really good candy. Rather than a burst of sweet or savory, Evolve keeps everything at a low hum, so the chocolate, coconut, and cinnamon never interfere with one another. If they’re around, I eat them like, well, candy. And if you’re looking for a cheaper option, Whole Foods’ new Dark Chocolate Caramel Apple Cups put all that and a little almond butter inside a little green wrapper.

Drinks

harvest brew
(Photo: Courtesy Big Boss)

Blue Ribbon: I regret if this is news for you, but there are few hiking pleasures better than a mid-trail beer—a little celebration of what you’ve done so far that makes the second half flow like a slipstream. And your pack is lighter on the way out, now that the can is empty. Unfortunately, many of the best pumpkin-fueled beers come in bottles, so find one you love in a can—Big Boss’s Harvest Time, for example, or the terrific Autumn Harvest from Reuben’s Brews. And if you’re too cool for pumpkin brew, it’s also Märzen season, and they travel even better.

Red Ribbon: There’s been a recent boom of dehydrated drinks for hikers, especially coffee, so it’s surprising there are so few night-time alternatives. But the aptly named Alpine has been making spiced cider packets for decades now, and it’s become a backpacker favorite for its versatility. (Try mixing it with your morning oatmeal, for instance.) They’ve even got a pumpkin-spiced apple cider, should you need to double down on that fall feeling. For extra warmth, take along a little Fireball.

The Rest: If you really need your pumpkin spice latte fix, Starbucks now sells it in instant form through its VIA line. Just remember: you’ll be back in the land of drive-thrus soon enough.

Lead Photo: Grayson Haver Currin

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