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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.

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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