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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

Our group’s discipline never wavers. Even when we stop at a convenience store in Terlingua while shifting venues from national to state park, they resisted the hiker’s sacrament: cold beer and Doritos.

Their perseverance pays off. When the Fatpackers line up for “after” measurements at trip’s end, the scale and tape reveal a lighter and tighter crew. Jeff, the military contractor, is the biggest loser. He dropped 10 pounds and reduced his body fat by 4.5 percent. Dan lost more than six pounds and shrunk his waistline by nearly four inches and his hips by two. Weight loss for Sarah and Susan was less pronounced, consistent with studies of thru-hikers showing that women are metabolically thriftier, but their bodies were reshaped nonetheless. Sarah, the nurse from Des Moines (and a former runner), has melted away more than four percent of her body fat while nudging up lean muscle mass. Her thighs are 3.5 inches slimmer and her waist more than three inches narrower. Susan, the New York financial analyst, shrunk her body fat by three percent while adding more than two pounds of muscle.

Jeff is all smiles and full of optimism: “What I did here isn’t the solution, but it may be the start of something.” Sarah is both hopeful and realistic. “This will help me. If I can hike with a pack for a week, I should be able to go out and run for three miles,” she says.

The Fatpackers will need all of that resolve and more to hold on to their hard-won gains. According to the National Institutes of Health, “most or all” lost weight is typically regained within five years. In fact, the more aggressive the initial weight loss, the likelier the rebound, says sports dietitian Nancy Clark, R.D. “Losing all that weight that quickly might seem like a great idea in the short run, but it’s counterproductive in the long run. The body is semi-starved, so once you gain access to food it will overcompensate. You’ll regain lost weight and even some more,” she says. 

If the Fatpackers regress, they wouldn’t be the first backpackers undone by the withdrawal response. Online thru-hiker forums are filled with testimonials from lean, mean hiking machines who saw their weight loss wiped out in short order after reaching Katahdin, Manning Park, or some other personal mountaintop. There’s an obvious limitation: Backpacking all day doesn’t pay the bills. Sooner or later, you must reenter the world of convenience food, big-screen TV, and overbearing bosses. But leaving the trail needn’t mean saying goodbye to your trail-honed body. With some creativity and discipline—and regular return trips to the backcountry—the principles of Silberberg’s Fatpacking program can work at home (see “After Burn,” left).

My Fatpacking companions are proof of that. When I checked in with Dan, Jeff, Sarah, and Susan six months after Big Bend, their experiences were heartening. The trek had jump-started their efforts and given them a model for healthy eating and exercising. Sarah was running again and training for a 12-mile race. Jeff gained back only a few of his 10 lost pounds. Dan held steady at his new Fatpacker weight by stepping up his activity level through running, walking, and canoeing. Then he and his wife purchased a home in need of remodeling, a task he threw himself into. He dropped another four pounds. Plus, he rediscovered his love for backpacking and long dayhikes, and was making plans to join Silberberg on another adventure.

Susan’s was the standout story. She went on to lose almost 20 additional pounds after returning to New York, thanks to regular workouts and a meal delivery service that drops healthy, 400- to 600-calorie meals at her doorstep. “Before Fatpacking, I was starting to convince myself my metabolism had slowed down so much I would never lose weight again,” she says.

So how did yours truly fare? While I could only join the Fatpacking trek for five days, I still dropped one pound from my 186-pound frame while lowering my body fat by 1.3 percent, meaning I gained muscle while losing close to three pounds of fat. “I’d attribute your situation to a phenomenon I’ve seen in other fit athletes; they really don’t have too much room to improve,” explains Silberberg. (Yeah, right. Call me a “fit athlete” and I’ll believe anything you say.) 

In the months after leaving Big Bend, my weight continued to drop as I practiced the portion control I learned from Silberberg and skipped the nightcaps. I reached 182, within sniffing distance of my target of 175, before the wheels came off. I ate nervously during a big deadline, then summer barbecue season arrived and, well, I’m back where I started. Fortunately, I already know the solution: I need to go backpacking.

Contributing editor Jim Gorman no longer packs energy bars, but won’t give up vitamin W around the campfire.

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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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