The Uncomfortable Truth About Thru-Hiking and Weight Loss
“You’re so skinny. Did you even bring food with you?”
“I can feel your bones when I hug you—let’s get you some pasta!”
“Man, I should consider thru-hiking. You look INCREDIBLE!”
I could go on and on and on. Thru-hiking and weight loss go hand-in-hand for most of us while we’re on the trail. There’s no denying that burning upwards of 4,000 calories a day will have that effect, no matter what your on-trail diet may look like.
For some, losing weight is part of the overall thru-hiking goal and that’s GREAT. Walking from point to point while carrying all you need can motivate you to implement permanent healthy life changes. However, losing excessive amounts of weight and receiving praise for our trail bodies can also take a damaging psychological toll when the hike is over.
Why do we lose so much weight?
Well, we’re burning a shit ton of calories. And often not eating nearly enough, nutritionally and calorically. Aaron Owens Mayhew, creator of Backcountry Foodie, shares how “traditional hiker diets, including highly processed foods, don’t provide the amount of nutrition needed to keep up with the increased demands.” As a result of this, our bodies can begin to lose muscle and fat while on trail. The physical impact of a 4-6 month thru-hike is unmatched in nearly any other sport, hence extreme weight loss becoming the norm.
What happens after the hike is over?
When you spend months on end in a caloric deficit, your body begins to crave calories wherever it can get them. This explains the “hiker hunger” that results in eating gallons of ice cream, piles of fries, and inches of pancakes when in town. However, once the hike is over your body won’t need as much food to recover as it did on the trail. It can be incredibly difficult to manage a post-trail diet because most people experience lingering hiker hunger. Even once you’ve stopped walking, your body may still be screaming for calories. Adjusting back from this ravenous appetite can take a few weeks after a multi-month thru-hike.
If your post-trail diet doesn’t adjust to match your decrease in activity, Aaron notes that “excessive weight gain can occur.” Furthermore, after physical activity as intense as a thru-hike, our bodies naturally store fat quickly once the activity stops. Combining these factors while trying to break junk food habits that may have developed on trail can make maintaining your hiking weight impossible.
Approaching post-hike fluctuations in weight objectively is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship with your body. This means that weight loss and weight gain are two natural consequences of starting and ending a hike. Neither one is “good” or “bad.”
How can this affect our mental and emotional well-being?
Let’s circle back to those opening comments about thru-hiking and weight loss. Unsolicited opinions about how fit you look or how much weight you’ve lost after a hike can insidiously affect post-trail behavior. Marissa Kleinsmith, a Registered Dietitian who uses an intuitive eating framework, shared her thoughts on how hikers can learn to listen to their bodies.
“Sometimes, recognizing hunger cues during physical exertion can be a bit scary for folks that have previously been restrained eaters because they feel like they ‘shouldn’t’ be hungry yet. It can be tough to set this judgement aside and feel that the body deserves more nutrition… Responding to this need for fuel will not only translate to a better hiking experience in mind and body, but it will also promote body respect. Making an effort to carry nutrient and calorie dense snacks with various flavors and textures can also add to the satisfaction factor of eating.”
Though weight loss on trail can catalyze a healthier lifestyle for many hikers, it’s important to proceed cautiously with intentional weight loss. Marissa noted that “at least some of the trail-related weight loss would be lean body mass.” This lean muscle is what powers us through long uphills and 30+ mile days. Also, losing muscle makes it much harder to recover quickly. Rapid weight loss on trail can be exciting, but it’s imperative to prioritize your caloric and nutritional needs.
Former Thru-hikers on Body Image, Thru-Hiking and Weight Loss
“When I came home from the John Muir Trail, a lot of my family and friends told me how good I looked. They were complimenting my body, and that made my own insecurities with gaining weight back that much worse. I actually fantasized about doing another, longer thru-hike the next summer just so that I could look that way again and be in that kind of shape.” – Alex K.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a thru-hiker who doesn’t have something to say about body image and weight loss. These long trail veterans share their insights on the promises and pitfalls of thru-hiking and weight loss. Their stories shed light on how diet culture can sneak into the outdoors.
Responses lightly edited for length and clarity.
Becca Bergstrom | Little Skittle
Becca, as you may recall from The Trek’s YouTube page, thru-hiked the PCT in 2019. Though she did experience a fixation on weight loss while on trail, she did her best to focus on the miles rather than on her weight.
“Weight loss is such a common topic. For instance, post-trail Q&As always touched on how much weight was lost and also gained back once I stopped hiking 30-35 miles per day. It was also common talk on trail, especially during town stops when a scale was available. The publicity of my YouTube videos also compounded the fixation, because it became pretty common for people I didn’t even know make comments about how my body was changing with the miles I was putting in.
All of this was especially problematic for me. I had struggled with eating disorders and body dysmorphia for over 10 years before I even stepped foot on the PCT. I had long romanticized that the trail would be this great escape for me to heal and become friends with my body, but it just wasn’t that easy.
After the trail, I experienced newfound respect for what I could put my body through, both physically and mentally. I focused my new post-trail routine on being as active in the outdoors as possible, because that’s where I come to love myself the most and felt the strongest and most capable version of myself.
It’s important to note that diet culture is a trend, much like fashion, and is always evolving, thus, always pointing out ways to be better and look better. There is no end game because it’s always changing so we’re constantly never good enough. It’s an endless cycle that only feeds us stress and negativity for not meeting the new standards. Why subject yourself to that, just to try to conform to what someone else labels “beautiful” or “ideal,” when it’ll be changing again anyhow. Every body deserves to be celebrated, instead of cycling through periods of when a certain body type is considered ideal.”
Luke Pearsall hiked the Colorado Trail this summer after 117 days of committed COVID quarantine. With what he called “a little extra love to hike off,” he started the CT after the disappointment of a 2020 PCT NOGO. Weight loss was “by no means” his goal.
“For the first couple of weeks after the trail, I felt really proud of myself and the transformation that took place with my body. I saw the results of all the hard work, and it has helped me maintain a consistent level of physical fitness and nutrition. After a couple of weeks of being back, I stepped on the scale (like I said, I wasn’t concerned with weight loss as much as I was being healthy and feeling better on a daily basis). I weighed in at 218 lbs. That’s a total of 54lbs lost over the course of the 36 days of hiking on the Colorado Trail for an average of about 1.5lbs of weight loss per day. I was actually pretty surprised.
I think one of the most useful psychological tools for me getting back home was to wake up and walk every morning. Keeping that little routine in my life that I have gotten used to is very helpful. It’s been challenging coming back after the 5 months quarantined with my Photography and Video having been closed for over half a year due to COVID. But… the hustle required to adapt my business so it can survive this time has been enough to keep my mind busy. I think staying busy helps fight the post-trail blues a lot, although admittedly some days that are slower I find myself daydreaming about the carefree days on trail with all the amazing people I met along the way, and the nostalgia hurts the heart.
If you think you can’t do something because you are out of shape or a little overweight, don’t let your mind be the thing that defeats you before you even give yourself a chance. I woke up earlier and hiked later than my group every day because I needed the extra time, and that was OK. Even after the days that I struggled and just kept walking, I would often repeat this in my head: ‘You can do anything for another day, or another mile, or even another 100 feet.’ I’ll never be a super hiker like many of my friends such as Legend, The Prodigy, Rabbit, or the slew of other inspiring people I have in my life, but every single one of them will continue to inspire me to put one foot in front of the other, as long as my body will let me.”
Alex Kereszti | Big Gulp
Alex hiked the John Muir Trail last summer and the High Sierra Trail this summer. After the JMT, she battled thoughts of wanting to get back on trail purely for the exercise. On the HST, she quickly re-learned how beautiful the outdoors make her feel.
“On trail is probably the only time that I don’t fixate on weight loss. During the JMT, I definitely noticed the fact that I was losing weight. My legs were leaner, and less of my stomach fat bulged over the straps from my pack across my abdomen. But I wasn’t fixated on it in the same way I’ve felt constantly preoccupied with it in the past.
Recently on the HST, I felt self-conscious about my body before hitting the trail. I had gained some weight through quarantine and felt ‘out of shape,’ but within one day of being on the trail, I hardly thought about it. I truly feel my strongest, most beautiful self when I’m backpacking. If I’m hiking all day long, pushing miles, and challenging my physical limits, I don’t even have the energy to be preoccupied with weight. I’m just SO HUNGRY, and all the food in my canister for the next five days doesn’t even seem like enough to satiate me at that moment.
Something that I struggle with as an athlete is blurring the line between “being in shape” and being skinny. It feels AMAZING to crush long, hard days with lots of mileage and elevation gain on the trail. A huge part of that comes from eating enough to keep you fueled and for your muscles to recover quickly. On my next long thru-hike, I just need to be more aware of how unsustainable the caloric deficit is. Also, it is impossible to maintain that kind of routine in your regular day-to-day life. If you have a full-time job, you can’t backpack 20 miles a day as well. So just giving myself forgiveness and the ability to see ahead once I’m off the trail will help a lot.”
Julia Sheehan | Rocket
Julia thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2019. You may have seen her on YouTube, where she shared vlogs, a full-length feature video, and lots of advice. As a woman with an eating disorder, she did her best to focus on how strong she got on trail, not how much weight she lost.
“On trail I was more concerned with my body’s ability to complete the tasks at hand. I also realized that I was losing fat and inches, and it was being replaced with muscle and strength. A lot of people who maybe had more weight to lose were more fixated on their weight loss. Most men had lost 20-40 lbs by the time they reached Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile, most women had lost 0-15 lbs by then. It was common for non-thru-hikers to ask how much weight we had lost. I was proud to say that I had technically gained 4 lbs by the time I had reached Katahdin.
As a woman with an eating disorder (ED), anxiety about gaining weight is always present. This was especially hard after the trail. I received many compliments about the shape of my body after returning. This made it that much harder to regress to my pre-trail body, which was inevitable. I experienced relapses with my ED when returning home. But I sought treatment and therapy to help keep me on track.
What can we do about it?
Implementing intentional strategies to fight over-fixation on thru-hiking and weight loss/gain can be crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship with your body. Bear in mind these tools are from hiker to hiker and do not replace therapy or counseling. There are resources at the end of this article if you think you may need extra help.
- Be mindful of the photos you take and post. It’s easy to over-fixate on a particularly flattering picture of your bona fide hiker-bod, but consider what this may do to you once trail life is over.
- Ask your friends and family to keep their comments to themselves. When you get back from the trail, it’s common for the thru-hiking and weight loss comments to start rollin’ in. While it may feel flattering and complimentary, it may reinforce the desire to keep the weight off.
- Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Becca shared how rejecting diet culture and practicing intuitive eating helped strengthen her relationship with her body. “For me, there is no “good” or “bad” food. Or food that must be earned (i.e., ‘I hiked 12 miles and 4500’ so it’s OK to have a bacon cheeseburger’).” Another example of this language is a comment like “I’m going to be naughty and have a slice of cake.” Eating food does not make you bad or less worthy. These labels can be harmful.
- Rest, and then set small athletic goals once off-trail. When I finished the JMT, I thought it was a good idea to go for a nine-mile run. And then spin class. And then a HIIT class. My body completely rebelled and eventually took WEEKS to recover fully. In the future, I intend to rest fully for an entire week. After that, I’ll set small goals like running 10 miles a week or doing yoga every other day.
- Give yourself a daily dose of gratitude. Becca shared how each night, she would thank her body for its strength. “Feeding yourself self-love and gratitude is equally, if not more important, as feeding yourself the right fuel to power through 2,650 miles.” Marissa also noted how important this gratitude is. “When we consider how resilient and amazing our bodies are, it can generate a sense of respect and compassion.” In turn, this motivates us to give our bodies adequate fuel both on and off-trail.
- Engage in physical activity that you actually enjoy. If you get off trail and don’t feel like hiking for six months, don’t. Don’t run if you don’t actually enjoy it. If HIIT workouts aren’t your thing, find something else. Once off trail, Marissa recommends thinking through this question: “Am I moving my body in a way that is pleasurable and fulfilling, or is it simply to burn calories? What do I get out of joyful movement?”
- Seek professional help. If you’re experiencing anxiety or dread about weight gain or body changes after a thru-hike that interferes with your daily life, there are resources available for you.
Learn more from these people
Aaron Owens Mayhew of Backcountry Foodie
- Follow Backcountry Foodie on Instagram
- Subscribe to Backcountry Foodie on YouTube
- Check on Backcountry Foodie’s Website
- Find a therapist near you.
- Options for individuals without insurance. The National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline offers a variety of services for free.
- Help for eating disorders crises. The National Eating Disorders Association has a crisis helpline, screening tools for eating disorders, and a variety of other services on their website for free.
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