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Backpacker Magazine – March 2011

Lighten Up: Losing Weight by Hiking

Make one simple resolution–to hike more –and we guarantee you'll lose that spare tire around the middle. Here's the proof, the plan, and the inspiration.

by: Jim Gorman, Photos by Tomas Zuccareno

Hike it off: Jeff Belanger Leads the Pack in Big Bend.
Hike it off: Jeff Belanger Leads the Pack in Big Bend.
Silberberg (left) promotes healthy eating, not deprivation.
Silberberg (left) promotes healthy eating, not deprivation.

Learn how to keep off what you've hiked off with this weekly plan.

Your body is an engine. It runs on a mix of carbohydrates, fats, and a very small amount of protein
"Does this pack make me look fat?"

Sarah Sexton is playing it for laughs as she tightens the hipbelt on her backpack. Now that she mentions it, the cinched nylon webbing does create a visible belly roll. I keep that observation to myself. 

“Yeah, and how about my thighs?” chuckles Dan Shattuck as he hikes the hem of his shorts to expose a generous—though muscled—quad and hamstring. He does an abbreviated runway strut for emphasis. “Are they flabby?”

Modesty is an early victim on most backpacking trips, but the group I’m hiking with in Texas’s Big Bend National Park has taken over-sharing to the extreme. We’re way beyond hat hair and funky feet and off into discussing taboos like thigh rub, secret food binges, and body image. If it’s connected to being, ahem, weight-challenged, it’s fair game. What else should one expect from an outfitted adventure billed as “Fatpacking”?

Five of us have trudged to pine-shaded Boot Canyon, in the lee of 7,825-foot Emory Peak, in the care of Fatpacking owner and head guide Steve Silberberg and his assistant Joan Hennes. We’re on a weeklong November backpack tour of the national park and neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area. And like most of America, we’re on a mission to lose weight.
Not that Dan and Sarah look, well, really fat. Neither do the other paying clients: Jeff, a military contractor from  Washington, D.C., or Susan, a financial analyst from New York City. They look husky maybe, or full-figured, but on the whole kind of average. The numbers tell a different story. At 5’4” and 167 pounds, Sarah, a surgical nurse from Des Moines, Iowa, meets the medical definition of “overweight.” With a body mass index of nearly 29, she’s a short step away from obesity. (BMI calculates  healthy body weight based on height and weight. A BMI of 25 to 29 is defined as overweight; 30 or greater is obese. Check yours on page 77.) Dan is already there. At 5’8” and 206, he has a BMI of 31. He runs, hikes, and lifts weights, yet this Bradenton, Florida, property manager is clinically obese. They may look “average,” but Sarah, Dan, Jeff, and Susan have gone flabby. An astounding 68 percent of adults in the United States are now either overweight or obese—which explains why none of us should be satisfied with looking average.

Exasperated, each of my tripmates had decided it was time to change. Instead of resorting to Jenny Craig or South Beach, though, they’d sought out Silberberg’s six-year-old Fatpacking program. The Massachusetts-based outfitter runs treks in national parks and wilderness areas coast to coast, and he claims results that Canyon Ranch, Camp La Jolla, and other weight-loss centers would gladly promote. (And at a fraction of the cost: the tab for Big Bend: $1,050. A week at Canyon Ranch: $6,920.)

On average, a man my age, height, and weight (48, 5’11”, 186 pounds) sheds about three pounds of fat during a week of Fatpacking. That might seem modest, but a heavier, more out of shape version of me—let’s say I tipped the scales at 225 pounds, with a BMI of 31—might drop twice that amount of body fat, the equivalent of a standard two-person tent. But Silberberg does not make specific weight-loss predictions, and opposes the fixation on numbers. More valuable, he says, is what I’d gain: added muscle, a healthier body composition, an improved metabolism, and an easy, inexpensive weight-control routine that I can enjoy for the rest of my life—no gyms, barbells, or high-colonic cleanses required.

It’s a tantalizing promise: fun, adventure, chiseled legs, and a permanently lean midsection. But will it work for out-of-shape wilderness newbies? That’s what I’d come to find out. That, and whether it could shrink the new spare tire around my own baby boomer belly.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Sam Iwamoto
Apr 22, 2012

You are not eating enough.....your body shuts down when it doesn't get enough food to calories burnt. I had a hard time learning this when my exercise coach increased my calories.....I was sure I could only loose weight at weigh fell off fast! Make sure you factor in your burnt calories and add it to the calories recommended for your daily intake. Try looking over the was an eye opener to me.

Jan 22, 2012

Question, EVERY time I go on hiking camping trips, anywhere from a weekend to 2 weeks, I always come back weighing about 5 lbs more. I don't eat that much, and always eat healthy meals. I drink adequate water, and hike an average of about 12 miles per day. If car camping I may have 1-2 beers at night. Is this just water weight because I'm not eating enough?

Jul 26, 2011

I really enjoyed this article. I am currently at 250 lbs and 5'9". I am trying to get in shape but the gym doesn't hold my attention. After reading this article I feel the desire to get outdoors and appreciate life. I know if I don't do something soon about my health, I won't have much of a life to appreciate.

Mar 27, 2011

A thru hike on the AT is not a good solution for you if you're a new hiker and are not in shape. You need to do more to prepare for a physical activity like that.

Dan K
Mar 25, 2011

I don't think dieting while backpacking is a long-term solution to over-eating - or even a good short-term way to lose weight. You NEED lots of calories on long hikes.

Over the last 4 years, I lost 80 pounds with lots of exercise - day hikes 2 to 4 times a week, and neighborhood walks just about every other day - and by eating better - make better decisions about what to eat and what not to eat. Eating healthy while hiking doesn't prepare you for eating well at home and at work. I will admit I had the time for lots of exercise - and I discovered something I loved - hiking - definitely NOT working out in a gym.

Like Jake, hiking (probably - hopefully!) saved my life.

Mar 25, 2011

Wow, I am glad you have learned the benefits of seeing the outdoors with your feet and not the car.

Mar 25, 2011

Good article. Could have delved into Silberberg's recipes.
Kudos to the hikers and to John T and Jake.
As a neophyte backpacker I'm attempting a thru hike of the AT starting April 3 for just the reasons cited in the article.
Thanks BP

John T
Mar 20, 2011

Really good article. I have sent it to my entire family and my "hiking buddies." I have lost 40 pounds hiking in the hills behind my house here in CA; at 68 years old.

Jake (TheTaoistHiker)
Mar 14, 2011

As a testimony to hiking's fat burning powers: in the summer of 2009 I started at the approach trail of the Appalachian Trail on June 1, weighing in at 210lbs. I'm 5'5 and I have a medium build. At that time I was (by the BMI scale) clinically obese. On October 1 when I got off the trail in Connecticut at Cornwall bridge I weighed 143lbs of lean mean muscle. I gained weight over the time I came back up to a more balanced 150lbs, and then a little more over the long winter. But by summer I was back in hiking shape and stayed healthy ever since. I've found a 3-4 days of overnight hiking/camping will help clear your system and regain a healthy weight just through a more controlled diet and water intake. Honestly folks, hiking has saved my life.


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