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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.

AFTER BURN: THE WEEKLY PLAN
Learn how to keep off what you've hiked off with this weekly plan.

THE BIGGEST WINNER: HOW BACKPACKING BURNS FAT
Your body is an engine. It runs on a mix of carbohydrates, fats, and a very small amount of protein

As a fitness guru, Silberberg plays against type. There’s not a hint of Richard Simmons in his permanently tousled brown hair, crooked grin, and laid-back style. And his soft sell, online and in person, provides a relief from the infomercial diet du jour. Silberberg doesn’t regale with tales of personal redemption. He’s never been obese, although he did tote an extra 25 pounds on his 5’10” frame when he logged cubicle time for a Boston software firm. “I’d go backpacking for my vacations and notice that my clothes fit better and I felt better when I returned,” he says.
That realization gave rise to an entirely new category of backcountry guiding, and after a tough 2009-2010, Fatpacking’s lineup has rebounded to 18 trips this year. Silberberg will hit some of the world’s premier hiking destinations, including Israel’s Negev Desert, and he’ll scrape a modest salary doing what he loves: planning backpacking adventures and turning clients on to the outdoors.
He professes no magic formula or patented nutritional method. He goes light on lifestyle advice and eschews touchy-feely “love-ins,” as he refers to teary sessions of group psychotherapy. You hike, you camp, you eat. In fact, Silberberg encourages clients to eat as often and as much as they like. “I don’t run a sufferfest,” he tells me at our first night’s campsite, while whipping up an appetizer of fresh guacamole he’ll serve with blue corn chips. “Depriving someone who’s been largely sedentary and just hiked all day isn’t going to win any converts.”

That philosophy relieves my anxiety about Silberberg’s menu. Like many hikers, I’ve always believed that walking all day is a great excuse to chow down. But his initial signals suggested a backwoods version of The Biggest Loser. First, he discouraged us from packing our own snacks, not a single Fig Newton. Then, at a prehike dinner, he nibbled a plain lettuce salad and sipped unsweetened iced tea. And when I hoisted the group food bag? Well, let’s just say his groceries to feed seven hikers for three days felt lighter than what I’d carry on a two-person overnight.

Savoring a garlicky bite of avocado, I realize I won’t starve. In fact, I think, a bit of hunger might do me good. I’ve been fighting my own battle of the bulge, trying to shed a stubborn roll that’s accrued through overeating, too many late-night glasses of daddy’s little helper, a busted-ankle stretch of inactivity, and more writing about backpacking than doing it. Like many busy hikers, I hit the trail for a weekend here and there, too infrequently and fleetingly to realize the fitness gains Silberberg touts.

The cruel reality is that despite several decades of vigilant exercise (and an early ’90s job at BACKPACKER), I’m suddenly ballooning into average-American territory. According to the latest government research, the typical adult male in this country now weighs 195 pounds, up 22 from 1974; the average woman goes 165 and 21. From a low of 175 pounds, I’ve reached my all-time high and would love to lose 10 to 15. I can imagine a lot worse ways to get started than backpacking high above the Chihuahuan Desert on an oak- and pine-covered sky island.


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READERS COMMENTS

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 1200.....my 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 Livestrong.org site....it was an eye opener to me.

Catch
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?

Mitch
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.

Leonard
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.

Fred
Mar 25, 2011

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

seamus
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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