Eat Me! A Hiker’s Caloric Consumption On and Off the Trail

As we all know, long-distance hiking requires an absurd amount of calories; most Appalachian Trail thru-hikers claim they attempt to ingest between four and five thousand of them each day. For some, the task is welcomed with festive zeal. Others grow tired of eating the massive amounts of processed sugars, trans fats, and chemicals contained in the high-calorie “gas station” foods that are readily available on the trail.

Personally, I love to eat. Pizza, burgers, cheese fries, you name it. But I have grown tired of SAD (Standard American Diet) food on the trail—the pure excess of it has recently drawn me to the avocados, Bolthouse Farm smoothies, and the raw-nuts section of the grocery store when I get to a town. It’s difficult to explain the feeling of being unattracted to fatty, greasy food, but a month of stuffing myself on it (and not losing any weight, probably for the best) has me craving fruit like a pirate. Either way, let’s take a look at what a *typical* Trail-day’s caloric needs and consumption would be. Then we’ll see just how much a hiker can compensate for this upon arriving to a pizza buffet, McDonald’s, or one of the hundreds of Mom n’ Pop burger joints along our beloved footpath.

According to DietandFitness.com an average male (generally characterized as standing 5’11” and weighing 175 pounds—exactly my measurements) will burn 689 calories per hour hiking up and down mountains carrying a 21-42 pound pack. The average female will burn 591 calories per hour with this same pack weight. Obviously, the more weight you carry, the more energy you burn lugging it up and down the mountains, so we may deduce that these numbers are very generalized. The website does not specify what hiking speed will burn this many calories, but I know from personal experience the slowest hikers usually average 1.75-2 mph, while the fastest will pump out 2.75-3.25. Again, the faster you walk, the more energy you burn, and the more calories you require. We will assume the average male and female hikers calculated for  are also hiking at an average speed: 2.75 mph for our male and 2.5 for our female.

Personal fitness levels are also a large factor in your body’s efficiency and ability to burn a larger fat-to-carbohydrate ratio during exercise. More fit athletes will burn less calories (more efficient) and derive more of those calories from fat (because it contains more calories per gram. Again, more efficient) than their less fit counterparts.

An average male hiker, walking at an average speed, carrying between 21-42 pounds, doing a 15-mile day at 2.75 mph would require 689 calories/hour x 5.45 hours to equal 3,758.18 calories burned. That’s on top of the hiker’s basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the amount of calories  burned sitting completely still for a day. According to WebMD, the BMR for an average male is 2163 calories. Add his daily BMR to calories burned hiking, and our male hiker requires 5,921 calories to maintain weight.

An average female hiker carrying the same weight, hiking a 15 mile day at 2.5 mph, would require 591 calories/hour x 6 hours to equal 3,546 extra calories. Her BMR is about 1,605 calories, totaling 5,151 to maintain weight.

This caloric intake is much more than required by someone sitting in a cubicle or even waiting tables—you’re carrying weight on your back going up and down freaking mountains all day. Hence the term “Hiker Hunger.” I keep my diet very simple on the trail, mostly because I found something that works and don’t like to tamper with things when they’re not broken. Let’s see if my caloric intake is actually what I’ve been requiring every day.

Breakfast – Two Clif Bars smothered in Peanut Butter (about 2 tbsp each) = 876 Calories

One Clif bar alone contains 25 calories (43g of carbohydrates!)

One Clif bar alone contains 250 calories (43g of carbohydrates!)

I choose Clif Bars because I think they taste better than Powerbars and offer a plethora of vitamins and minerals essential to endurance exercise.

Mid Morning Snack – Snickers bar smothered in peanut butter = 484 calories (1,360 calories total)

Lunch – Tortilla with Pepperoni, two slices of cheese, grainy mustard, and Clif Bar smothered in peanut butter (hey, there’s a theme here…) = 938 calories (2,298 calories total)

Mid Afternoon Snack – Same as breakfast = 876 calories (3,174 calories total)

Dinner – One rice side with two handfuls of instant brown rice,  2 tbsp olive oil, two sliced hotdogs, one Velveeta cheese packet = 1,470 calories (4,644 calories total)

And usually looks like this:

Das alotta dank.

Das alotta dank.

Dessert – Snickers, Oreos, or some other candy bar smothered in peanut butter ~ 500 calories. (5,144 calories total).

Dang. Looks like even eating all that I am still short on calories. Perhaps this explains the great Huddle House Binge of April 25th. Or the McDonald’s Raid of April 6th. I have a “slower” metabolism in the real world, however, so this may explain my lack of weight loss. Again, it ain’t broke.

Perhaps my saving grace has been the epic town meals which I have begun to approach with equal amounts of fervor and disgust. Let’s take a look at just how many calories one can consume in this so-called land of normal people.

According to HealthGuideInfo.com, this epic display of foodbauchery from Huddle House contained about 4.500 calories. And that’s just breakfast.

Um, yum.

Um, yum.

Then we went to lunch. At a pizza buffet. The numbers on Pizza Hut’s Website are all over the place, but it looks like the average, smaller slice of buffet pizza contains about 250 calories. I had 16 of them. That’s 4,000 calories on the dot. We’re at 8,500 calories for the day. I think I’m beginning to see why I still weigh 175 pounds. Oh, wait, there’s still dinner, like this one I had at Fontana Dam:

Most people eat just one.

Most people eat just one.

According to some rough calculations from CalorieKing.com, this little round of indulgence afforded me another ~4,500 calories. That makes a solid 13,000 calories for the day. No wonder I wasn’t hungry for breakfast the next morning. And thank the Universe for Acidophilus, or my insides may more closely resemble the beach at Normandy than human intestine.

I will say, however, more often than not three solid meals such as these are not consumed when in town. From varying reasons such as “Near-O’ing” into town, or eating one huge meal and day drinking for the next 14 hours, perhaps only one or two of these meals will be consumed. 14 light beers, though, (hey, that’s only one per hour), still totals about 1,680 calories. And, however, empty they may be, there’s a saying on the AT that “calories are calories.” Obviously, nutrition seems to be only a slight consideration in the aforementioned meals, mostly because nutrient-dense foods simply contain too few calories for hikers. It is just isn’t feasible to consume pounds of salad and fruit every day, or even upon arriving to town.

As I mentioned before, I’ve begun to gravitate towards healthier foods once in town. I do attempt to find the higher calorie, nutrient-dense foods, such as nuts, avocados, and premade smoothies, or take any leftover peanut butter I have and smother it on anything slightly nutritious like apples, carrots, etc.

As accurate as I have attempted to make the numbers described here, I would like to reiterate that the metabolic requirements of individuals vary greatly due to height, weight, age, pack weight, walking speed, terrain, temperature, and probably  other variables I am unaware of. That being said, it may in fact be next to impossible to calculate one’s exact caloric needs for any given day on the trail, which would lead us to the conclusion that:

You should eat as much as possible, whenever possible. 

Yep, you heard it. I’ve mentioned in a few other posts that rapid weight loss while performing athletic activity is known amongst the fitness community as basically getting on your knees and pleading for an injury. In a case like long distance hiking, where the body gets very little rest and is constantly being abused, you are already extremely prone to injury. Do not add to your susceptibility. You will still lose weight during this experience because, especially in Virginia, you will be walking more than 15 miles a day, and consuming enough calories will become quite difficult. During weight loss our bodies eat our own muscles first, before our fat stores – imagine weaker leg muscles, tendons, and other connective tissues—the last thing you want when you’re trying to hike from Georgia to Maine. Again, eat whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want it, as long as you’re hiking. Then overcompensate in town.

Most hikers eat many different things from myself, and every hiker has his or her own favorite snacks, dinners, and meal “quirks” that make them unique. But I will say, “Damn, eating this much food is pretty freaking awesome.”

Happy trails!

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