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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

When it comes to tracking calories, your body is like that annoying guy in accounting who catches the tiniest indiscretion in your travel expense reports. Every morsel in the mouth is carefully noted on an internal metabolic balance sheet registering intake versus output. If you’re like the average American, then each and every day you end up at least 20 calories over budget. Which means—come December 31—you’ll weigh two pounds more than you did January 1. That’s a big number if you maintain the same rate year after year, putting on 20 pounds a decade after you stop growing taller.
For a backpacker, those extra pounds are doubly insidious, as they’re both bad for health and bad for hiking (you’ll get more mileage out of that ultralight pack if you’re carrying less around the middle). Fortunately, backpacking itself offers a ledger-busting solution to the accounting problem. Duration and intensity make our sport uniquely efficient when it comes to weight loss.   
On average, a 180-pound man  carrying a 40-pound pack across steep terrain combusts more than 600 calories an hour while backpacking. (Calorie-burn numbers are approximate, and go up and down with body size, pack weight, and exertion.) By the minute, you can burn nearly twice as many calories running at a 7:50 per mile pace, but the average run lasts slightly more than half an hour. Long after the hares have showered and grabbed a snack, backpackers will still be out there striding, and burning, along.

On the Fatpacking venture in west Texas, we hiked at an easy pace for five to six hours daily. I typically go harder and longer, but even still I was vaporizing more than 3,300 calories. Add this to the 1,800 calories a man my size needs daily to power basic functions like breathing, digesting food, and maintaining a steady body temperature—all part of what’s known as basal metabolism—then factor in another several hundred calories for fetching water, strolling to the latrine, and wandering to an overlook, and the “calories out” side of the ledger was pushing more than 5,300 each day.
Calorie burn on that scale lifts backpackers out of the ranks of recreational duffers and thrusts us into athletically exclusive company, according to Neal Henderson, M.S., director of sports science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. “Daily energy expenditure by a backpacker compares to that of elite cyclists, triathletes, and ultradistance runners,” he says. I’m not sure I’d want to see Dan or Jeff squeezed into spandex, but no one could deny they were Olympians at blasting calories.

The effects might not be obvious on a weekend trek, but play out a scenario of all-day backpacking over a week—or even months in the case of long-distance hikers—and the changes in body composition can be radical. That’s especially true when you maintain a normal diet on the trail. By Silberberg’s estimate, his clients eat about 2,500 calories a day. Which put me 2,800 in deficit—enough to burn 13 ounces of fat. Within days, I could actually detect my body geography shifting. My pants fit loosely in the waist.

Extended calorie burn alone doesn’t account for why backpacking is one of the ultimate pound-shedding, shape-altering activities. Our sport also taps body fat more efficiently than most alternatives. Runners, hikers, and other athletes all burn a mix of carbohydrates and fat. But the fuel mix is different. High-aerobic activities like running can burn an 80/20 blend of carbs to fat; the ratio varies widely for individuals, but in general your body depends on faster-processing carbs to sustain higher speeds. Backpackers, on the other hand, cruise along with about a 45/55 mix, our muscles consuming fuel at a rate more suited to slow-burning fats. In one study, researchers at the University of Birmingham found that maximal fat oxidation—28 grams an hour—is achieved, on average, at 62 percent of max heart rate. For optimum intensity, the university’s Asker Jeukendrup, professor of exercise metabolism, advises, “You should be able to talk without much effort.” Backpackers routinely operate in precisely this zone.  Most of us go hiking for the scenery, of course, but when you run the numbers, the weight-loss benefits sure look good.

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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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