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Lighten Up: Losing Weight by Hiking

Make one simple resolution–to hike more in 2011–and we guarantee you'll lose that spare tire around the middle. Here's the proof, the plan, and the inspiration.

"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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