How to Avoid Post-Appalachian Trail Weight Gain

The following is an excerpt from Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail.  I have decided to release this as a stand alone post due to all the comments / questions I’ve seen from thru-hikers worried about keeping their hard-earned weight off now that 8-10 hours of hiking is not part of their daily routine.  If you’d like more information on how to ease the transition after a thru-hike, I strongly encourage you to check out the book.  

I’ve also added a few comments inline on how my thinking on this subject has evolved since the publishing of Appalachian Trials.  

When Miss Janet pronounced that we would get fat upon finishing the trail, I wasn’t surprised to see the lack of opposition to her prediction. Although my fellow thru-hikers looked like skeletons with beards, we had been shoveling multiple plates of comfort food into our faces.

As it turns out, Miss Janet was putting it lightly. I reached out to former thru-hikers after finishing the trail, and the feedback I got was rather interesting. Not only do a lot of hikers put on the weight they had lost over the previous five to seven months, many end up doing so twice as fast as they had lost it. A good portion even tack on more weight than they had originally lost. And this weight gain occurred even when people resumed normal, non-AT eating habits.

I found this to be curious. A half-year of endurance exercise and junk food must do something to a person’s system that creates this post-trail weight gain. If they’re determined enough to bust their butt for a six months, poor self-control post-trail seems to be an unlikely explanation for why many lose the battle of the bulge.

I researched this subject to learn what those who were able to keep their weight down after the trail were doing differently. To my surprise, I was unable to find any relevant information on this topic.

Unsatisfied with making only slightly educated guesses as to why this occurs and what thru-hikers can do to prevent it, I reached out to Nathan Daley MD, MPH. Dr. Daley practices integrative preventive medicine and performance medicine at the Leonardi Institute in Colorado. I specifically wanted to know if the weight gain was an inevitable consequence of going from extreme endurance exercise back to a more moderate activity level.

There is good news: Dr. Daley doesn’t believe that post-trail weight gain is inevitable. Staying at a healthy weight will take some work, however. The following tips are Dr. Daley’s advice on what you can do to prevent post-trail weight gain:

7 Tips to Avoiding Post-Appalachian Trail Weight Gain

1) Prioritize low glycemic foods on the trail.

Low glycemic foods tend to have moderate to high fiber, fat, protein and water content. Nonstarch vegetables are the classic example, but these are not easily packed for hiking. Drying anything (fruit or vegetables) increases the glycemic index/load. So reduce consumption of dried fruit, granola, crackers, candy bars and sweets, and increase consumption of nuts, whole fruits and vegetables, lean meat sources (jerky, etc.), and even a fiber supplement (a small pack of Metamucil). For hikers experienced in the local edible flora and fauna, harvesting some wild edible plants is a good way to consume low glycemic foods with fiber. Just be careful, many seemingly edible plants are poisonous.

It might be helpful to know that not ALL dried fruit is a problem. Dried apricots and dried apples have low glycemic measurements and are acceptable, but raisins have a high glycemic index and load and are not acceptable. Low glycemic bars made of nuts and dried fruit may be convenient to have on the trail as well.

Additionally, studies show that low glycemic foods are the best for maintaining blood glucose and replacing glycogen stores in endurance athletes.

2) Prioritize protein while on the trail.

This will help prevent weight loss and will help keep satiety mechanisms in place (protein, fat, fiber all contribute to a sense of satiety).

3) Let your return to civilization also be an entry into a new lifestyle.

Commit to a new nutritional plan. Retain a diet focused on low glycemic foods (vegetables, meat, eggs). This keeps insulin levels low and prevents fat storage. Have this as your plan before even starting the AT in order to avoid fantasizing about starchy comfort foods like bread, pizza, burgers, french fries, etc. while you are on the trail.

The AT changes people, but then civilization changes them right back. By committing to a better lifestyle once back from the AT, you remain in control and, in a way, your AT journey never really ends.

4) Prioritize protein, lean meats (fish, chicken, buffalo, elk, etc.), in addition to low glycemic vegetables upon return.

This allows lean muscle mass to return instead of body fat and satiety mechanisms can help control portion size.

5) Try very hard to continue being physically active at a high level.

By this, I do not mean maintaining a sixteen to twenty four mile a day regiment, but take a regular five mile hike, swim, walk, run, cycle, do yoga and so on. It is fine to take three to five days off at first, but have a plan to stay active and fit. Active recovery (even light exercise) is better than passive recovery (sitting). Taking light walks the day after you return can help you recover faster. High intensity exercise (intervals, etc.) is best for keeping body fat low and building back lean mass.

6) Begin contemplating or planning your next adventure.

Start planning your next adventure to avoid the post-Appalachian Trail blues. Start to dream. This will help you feel upbeat which will help get you in the mood to start exercising again.

7) Useful post-trail supplements.

There are a lot of supplements you can introduce into your diet to help you regain a healthful nutritional balance including fiber (acacia, psyllium, arabinogalactan/larch tree, glucomannan; all good options), probiotics (20+ billion CFUs of bifidobacterium and lactobacillus species), omega 3 fish oil (2-3 grams of omega 3 fatty acids daily), whey protein powder (Solgar Whey to Go- it is a non-contaminated brand-used to reach 70-110 grams of total protein a day depending upon body weight), and MCT oil (medium chain triglycerides; thermogenic fats which help maintain a high metabolism).

An example of a day’s diet under Dr. Daley’s plan would look something like the following:

Breakfast: 2-3 eggs, spinach, ½ cup lentils
Snack: Protein shake (30g of protein in 12 oz. water)
Lunch: Fresh greens salad with 6 oz. of chicken breast, ½ avocado, olive oil or balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
Snack: 1 cup of Greek yogurt with 2-3 oz. blueberries
Dinner: 8 oz. salmon, steamed greens

If you’re unfamiliar with the principles of a low-glycemic diet, three books I highly recommend are The South Beach Diet, The Paleo Diet, and The Four Hour Body . The first two are focused solely on diet, while The Four Hour Body covers a wide range of topics, including diet and exercise, but also sleep techniques, sex, and injury prevention.

Don’t underplay the value of eating a healthy well-balanced diet after getting off the trail. Eating nutritionally dense and low-glycemic foods will go a long way in improving your sense of well-being and to keep all those hard-earned pounds off.

There you have it- a bit of advice from Appalachian Trials on how to maintain your lean frame after returning home from the Trail.  Let us know if you’ve been able to keep the weight off after your thru-hike.  If so, what worked for you?

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