It’s a popular subject and in some cases the main motivation for people to do a thru-hike. Weight loss. It’s a common question – will I lose weight on a thru-hike? How much will I lose?
While everybody is so incredibly different when it comes to weight loss – in any situation – I can pretty much assure you that if you embark on a journey that involves at least eight hours of hiking on uneven terrain with anywhere from 10-40 pounds on your back… every day for 5 months straight, you will lose weight. Whether that loss is a few pounds or 100, however, obviously depends on the person and so many factors like gender, metabolism and diet, to rattle off a few. But I’m not going to even pretend to be an expert and try to get into any of that in detail. What I will share with you is the experience I had on my 2013 thru hike.
A quick history about me and my weight/health:
I was always a bit overweight growing up. I lost a bunch of weight my senior year in high school and got down to 145 pounds from about 175, but it didn’t last long. I went to college and gained the “freshman 15” – times two. Then I got sick with Aplastic Anemia and was on heavy medications (including Prednisone) for a whole summer that caused me to gain at least 15-20 more pounds. By the time I graduated college, got married and started my career I was over 200.
I maxed out at about 235 – that’s how much I weighed when I decided to thru hike the American Discovery Trail in 2005. I joined Weight Watchers and got back down to about 175 before the hike, and after 9 months and 4,700 miles of backpacking I only lost about 5 pounds overall. I ate like crazy on that hike because I freakin’ love to eat… and because I could get away with it. Fried chicken, giant calzones, candy bars, pizza, burritos, milkshakes, milkshakes and more milkshakes! But I still came out five pounds lighter!
Between the end of my ADT thru hike and the start of my PCT thru hike (about 5 years), my weight bounced back and forth within a 15-pound range. I’ve never been one to keep a steady weight. One day I’d be 160, and two days later I’d be 168. The next week I’d be back to 160. I always had to have a couple sizes of blue jeans to wear, depending on where my weight was that week. My exercise was good, intense and consistent, so I figure the fluctuation was due to my diet being all over the place. I knew how to eat healthy, but actually doing it only happened in streaks. If only I could get myself to consistently eat healthy! Damn pizza, beer and delicious popcorn! And ice cream!
I’m 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weight charts seem to think I should weigh 140 pounds, but over the years I’ve found that I feel my best around 155. Before the PCT my weight’s fluctuating weight range was usually between 160 and 170, but I exercised 5-6 days each week. I ran, hiked, went to cardio kickboxing, muscle conditioning and spin classes at the local YMCA. I felt as though I was in really good shape, but I just couldn’t break out of the 160’s while still enjoying my favorite foods and weekends out. I was doing a pretty darn good job at maintaining, though, so I couldn’t beat myself up too hard about that frustrating scale reading.
So what happened to my weight on the PCT? I weighed myself about a week before I started and weighed 172 pounds. I found myself eating more pre-hike this time with the mentality, “I’m gonna’ be hiking like crazy – it’ll come off.” And it did.
I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to step on a scale during the hike, but after the first couple of weeks I noticed my hiking skirt getting loose. I was able to continue wearing it by rolling the waist band over and yanking it up a little, with my backpack’s hipbelt acting as a belt to hold it up. I carried on like this until the early Sierras. Then I had a seamstress take it in while I zeroed in Mammoth Lakes. Any actual weight loss was usually noticed by how my clothing fit. It was somewhere in the middle of the Sierras when I really started to notice other hikers thinning out, too. Faces were thinner and clothes baggier. Some were really noticeable while others just slightly, but this shows just how everyone is so different.
And oh, the strength. I remember noticing how awesome I was feeling somewhere in the Sierras. I felt strong, healthy, and I had the energy I needed to hike up and down the passes with a smile on my face. I was just feeling… really, really good. This feeling lasted for the rest of the hike, too.
The first time I stepped on a scale during the hike was northern California – 150 pounds. I honestly didn’t really care what that number was at that point – meaning it wasn’t going to change the way I was doing anything – but I sure was curious. And here’s the funny thing – I weighed 150, but after a day in town it was easy (and sometimes necessary) to eat so much that I probably put on 5-7 pounds before getting back out on the trail! With my history of bouncing weight, this wasn’t a challenge – this part was fun. Eggs, bacon, toast and biscuits and gravy for breakfast? If it fits in my tummy, then why not!?
I learned from other hikes I’ve been on that a multi-day hike was no time for a diet. Skimping on calories just doesn’t work if you want to feel good thru hiking, because your body needs that food energy to move 20+ miles day after day. I ate when I felt hungry, which actually didn’t happen as often as you’d think because I was snacking so often to keep my energy up throughout the day. It wasn’t too far into the hike when I could sense what my body was asking for. If I was starting to feel just a little lethargic, maybe I just needed a little snack, a sip of water, a break, or a combination of the three. It’s fun and incredibly satisfying for me to be in a situation in which I can push my body to exhaustion, test myself and my strength, endurance and attitude… and in return learn, feel and know what I need to keep going while feeling good doing whatever it is I’m doing.
I would guess that my weight fluctuated between 150 – 160 pounds during the hike, but from start to finish I came out 15 pounds lighter. Some hikers figure how many calories their body will burn backpacking, then count, calculate and carry how many they need from one stretch to the other, and I commend those that do all that work. It seems like a smart way to go about things. For me, however, I’ve had to count calories for a lot of my life to maintain a healthy weight, and this was my chance to not think about that for five months. I needed that break, and it’s one of the things I miss most now that I’m home. I ate a little smarter and healthier on this hike compared to my ADT hike, but I still always felt well-fueled. I think my key to a happy hike was that I continuously fed my my body on the trail, gave it what it craved in towns (strangely salads and cottage cheese), and adjusted both as I felt my metabolism speed up the further north I got.
So… how about now? What happened to my weight when I suddenly stopped hiking 20+ miles every day? Well, it started coming back on pretty easily, so I immediately cut my portions once I was off the trail – not an easy thing to do! I did okay for the first couple of weeks and was able to maintain my weight at about 160 pounds. Then the holidays hit and all of a sudden my jeans no longer fit comfortably. Maybe I had too many consecutive days in my pjs. Maybe I just ate too many mashed potatoes, beers and cookies… but I got up to 168 again. I was actually starting to feel lethargic and slightly sick to my stomach on a pretty consistent basis. Not cool! And this was just a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been working pretty hard at feeling better. I’ve been annoyingly watching my calorie intake (temporarily – I very much dislike counting calories), watching portions and exercising daily, if only for 10 minutes. If I lose a few pounds, that would be a bonus, but I’ve already noticed my tummy feeling better and I’m feeling mentally stronger – and that’s what it’s about. I feel good again…
…but I don’t know that it’s possible to feel as good as I did when I was hiking the PCT. Unless, of course, I hike again. It is BY FAR my favorite way to keep my weight stable, eat for fuel and fun, all while feeling totally healthy… and unstoppable. Confident. Strong. Healthy. Happy.
A fellow cross-country hiker and good friend of mine, Gimpy Geezer, really said it best as we discussed long-distance hiking and weight:
“I just set it aside for six months and found it again when I got home.”
I just love it – that pretty much says it all!
Tonight I love sparkling water. It’s random, but it’s one of my new favorite things.
Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!