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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

“Anybody want to finish off this tabouleh?” Joan Hennes holds open a zip-top bag full of salad. We had just climbed down from the summit of Emory Peak, the highest mountain in the park, and rewarded our peakbagging effort with a lunch of wraps filled with smoked Gouda, tuna, and sun-dried tomato. A bag of beef jerky makes the rounds, but nobody seems much interested in last night’s leftovers.
Dan waves her off. “I’m trying to lose some weight here,” he explains.
“OK, what are you craving?” Susan asks the group.
“I wish I was craving something,” says Dan.

Despite our self-imposed calorie deficit, hunger has not become the trip killer some feared. Partly, that’s because altitude and extreme physical exertion can suppress appetite in the first few days of a trip. And trail food, even flavorful meals like Silberberg’s stir-fry, is usually a far cry from what most of us eat at home.

My lack of hunger while subsisting on Fatpacker rations makes me wonder if other factors are at play. My stomach growled some, but why wasn’t I ravenous? After the trip, I consulted Michael Lowe, a leading researcher in the psychology of hunger. He says your stomach alone doesn’t dictate hunger. Lowe, a professor of psychology at Drexel University, points to two overlapping controls in the brain that govern how much we eat: the homeostatic and hedonic hunger systems. Homeostatic hunger is plain old empty-tummy hunger, and is activated by a drop in blood glucose. Hedonic hunger is an overdrive system triggered by the presence of food itself, or the pleasure it promises. Anyone who’s overindulged on Ben & Jerry’s understands hedonic hunger. “The look, smell, and taste of delicious food; negative emotions like stress; what  people around you are doing—these are stimuli that evoke eating for reasons other than biological need,” says Lowe.

By extracting our group of Fatpackers from what obesity experts refer to as our “food environment,” by releasing us from work and home pressures, and by occupying our minds with a whole fleet of new sights and sensations, might Silberberg have tapped another benefit of backpacking that’s just as important as the calorie and fat burning? We’ve unplugged our hedonic hunger systems, leaving us to grapple with real, honest hunger and nothing else.

When I describe Fatpacking to Lowe, he sees its potential. “That could be an excellent way to lose weight. You have the absence of food cues, and the structure of eating has been handed over to a leader, so the decision to eat is less in your control,” he says.

Under the guise of backpacking with newfound friends in beautiful, remote locations, Silberberg puts into action all of the advice that Jane Brody, the Mayo Clinic, and countless other health nags wish we’d follow: limit portion size, dine on whole grains and vegetables supplemented with lean protein, drink plenty of water, avoid the empty calories in sugary beverages and alcohol, snack healthily, and limit sweet desserts. Add a mellow vibe, so it never feels like weight-loss boot camp, and you wonder when the reality TV show starts.  

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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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