Thru-Hiking Gave Me Body Dysmorphia

Many thru-hikers say the trail has changed their lives forever. I embarked on my first ever long hike back in 2017, and it truly did change me. Since then, I have gone on to hike almost 10,000 miles across the United States and Canada.

Thru-hiking altered my life in many ways — some of which I have hardly heard anyone discuss. For me personally, thru-hiking changed my life for the better. It made me a more confident version of myself and has opened doors that I never imagined.

But thru-hiking also caused me to have disordered eating. This is something I’ve had to deal with ever since my first long hike back in 2017.

Ed. note: The following article discusses the author’s personal experiences with body dysmorphia and is not intended to provide medical advice or diagnosis. The author is not a medical professional, and the information presented here should not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with body dysmorphia or any mental health condition, please seek guidance from a qualified healthcare professional.

Passing the 1,200 mile marker on the Appalachian Trail in 2023. At this point I was about 1,600 total miles into my ECT thru-hike. I felt like I was in some of the best shape of my life.

On the PCT for the first time, I discovered I could eat anything I wanted.

In 2017 I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, walking from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. Over the course of my hike, I got into some of the best shape of my life. I could eat anything that I wanted and continue to lose wight.

That’s a fact of thru-hiking. Typically, no matter how much you eat, it’s almost impossible to gain or maintain weight. Most people lose a significant amount of weight over the course of their hike.

When my hike was coming to an end in 2017, people repeatedly warned me about getting off trail and gaining weight afterwards. That was understandable to me. After spending months eating 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day and exercising 10 to 12 hours a day, I knew that I was in for a big change going home. What I didn’t expect, though, was how much my relationship with food would change.

Food as Reward

A massive burger from Yaks in Mt Shasta while I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2022. At this point my hiker hunger was major and I ate the whole thing!

Over the 90-some days that I spent walking along the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, I had reinforced a new relationship with food. Food was a reward that I got for hiking. When I got to town I treated myself to whatever food I was craving. I could never have enough. Even after stuffing my face, I was still typically in a caloric deficit.

When you are thru-hiking, food is one of the central focuses all day, every day. You eat while you walk. You eat when you take a break. At the end of the day at camp you treat yourself to a large meal. When you get to town, the first thing most hikers think about is where they are going to eat. At the time, I didn’t realize how much I was viewing food as a reward for exercise. 

After I got home, my relationship with food changed for the worse.

Sweet Pea from my AT 2023 tramily. We attempted the colossus pizza challenge at the Partnership Shelter in VA.

Everyone told me that I was going to go home and gain weight after my hike. This is the case for many people. After eating whatever you want for five to six months, it’s hard to shake those patterns back home. It’s very common to gain weight after a thru-hike.


This much food was intended to feed just THREE thru-hikers! At the Partnership shelter in VA along the Appalachian Trail.

But in 2017 after I got back from the Pacific Crest Trail, I actually had a lot of trouble eating. I was no longer exerting myself to the same degree, and it was as if my mind and body didn’t know what to do anymore. I didn’t crave food the same way I had for those months on trail.

Food had become a reward for 10- to 12-hour days of hiking, and some part of me no longer thought that I deserved to eat.

In the year following my 2017 hike, I actually wound up losing a lot of weight. I was the thinnest that I ever have been in my life. And sadly, I liked that version of myself. I felt like it was an expression of how hard I had worked on trail. 

I got back into a routine over time — only to disrupt it with another long hike.

My incredibly thin, toned, and tan legs while hiking the PCT in 2022. At this point I had been hiking for about 1,300 miles. I felt the strongest that I ever had in my life.

In the years to come, I had a mixed relationship with food. Over time I gained back weight and got into a better routine with eating. I didn’t thru-hike again until 2022, so I had a lot of time to work on my relationship with food. Life became routine again, and I would not have described myself as someone with disordered eating.

Then in July of 2022, I embarked on yet another long hike. This time I set out to thru-hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, primarily southbound. I had only done the first 1,300 miles back in 2017 and wanted to do the entire 2,600 miles in one year.

Being back on trail was even more incredible than I had remembered. I was at home once more. My thru-hike was an absolute dream, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I met some of the most incredible people and had the time of my life.

Fueling My Body for 18 Months of Thru-Hiking

Eating a danish on the ground in a motel room in Big Bear, CA toward the end of my PCT hike in 2022. Thru-hikers are always eating.

While I was hiking through the Sierra Nevada mountains on the PCT, I was in peak shape. My body was incredibly strong, and I managed 25-30 mile days even at the highest elevations. I had lost all of my body fat at this point and was the thinnest I’d ever been on trail.

I was fueling my body well, though, and had great energy. As I entered the desert, I was able to put back on a bit of weight thanks to the more frequent resupply stops. And by December when I completed the PCT, all I wanted to do was keep on hiking. So I decided to go home briefly and begin preparations for the next thru-hike. 

By February of 2023, I was back on trail with plans to walk from Alabama all the way to the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Those plans eventually grew, and over the course of 322 days I thru-hiked the Eastern Continental Trail, completing all 5,530 miles between Newfoundland, Canada and Key West, Florida.

The Jarring Transition Back to Civilized Life

For the majority of a year and a half, I was on trail, hiking almost every day. When I finished that long hike in 2023, I knew moving home would be a big transition. I was worried about my relationship with food and how I would adjust to being off trail.

I had just spent an entire year exerting myself every single day and pushing myself to my limits. Then, in the blink of an eye, my journey came to an end. I flew back home to see family and wound up moving to a new city to begin working again.

Deep fried deviled eggs at a restaurant in Damascus, VA along the AT. As if you had to make deviled eggs any more indulgent.

I didn’t fully realize how much thru-hiking had impacted my relationship with food until after I finished the Eastern Continental Trail this past year. Once I got back home, I was immediately filled with anxiety about falling into old patterns and gaining back weight.

In my eyes, my body was in its perfect form. When I met strangers they told me how good I looked and how strong my legs were. I had lost the majority of my body fat and was primarily muscle. I didn’t want to change at all.

But my body was that of a person who was hiking a marathon every single day. My expectation to maintain that form was unrealistic and damaging from the start.

Adjusting My Expectations

It is important to remember that there are multiple versions of yourself. The version of you that exists while you are thru-hiking can only truly exist while you are thru-hiking. Once you are off trail, that person only lives in your memories. You may forever be changed mentally, but physically, you are not a thru-hiker anymore. Your needs change and your appetite changes, among other things. And that’s OK.

I still struggle with seeing food as reward for exercise and other behavior. It is often something that I either deem myself worthy of or not worthy of, even though in reality, food is fuel that I require every single day — whether I’m lying in bed or on my feet all day.

In Tehachapi, CA along the PCT in 2022. I was about 1,300 miles into my thru-hike at this point. I had lost the greater majority of my body fat.

When I got home and I stopped walking 20-30 miles a day, my body began to gain some weight back. I filled back out in some places where I hadn’t had fat in over a year.

Looking at myself in the mirror, I saw a person who was “overweight,” when in reality, I was looking at a person who was in great physical shape. Someone who had simply gained a few pounds back because they were no longer in a constant caloric deficit.

“It’s become hard … not to miss the body of the thru-hiker I once knew.”

Thru-hiking has given me so many amazing things, but one of those things, sadly, is body dysmorphia. It’s become hard to look in the mirror and not miss the body of the thru-hiker I once knew. That is something I’ve been working on mentally as I transition into “normal” life after trail. 

Finishing a thru-hike is going to look different for every single person. There is a lot of discussion about so-called post-trail depression and the obstacles that you might face after a hike. You go through so many changes physically and mentally after getting off trail. After experiencing the adventure of a lifetime, you will truly never be the same.

READ NEXT – Post Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think

There is no way to know for sure what life will look like post-trail until you experience it for yourself. For some people, post-trail life may slow down greatly. It can be easy to fall into old patterns, stop exercising, continue overeating, and gain weight. Others, like myself, might have a drastically different outcome.

Be Kind to Yourself

The important thing to remember is that whatever your life looks like after trail is OK. Knowing that your thru-hike will likely impact your life post-trail is the most important thing to remember. Embracing those changes and challenges with understanding and self-love is the only resolution. Be kind to yourself. Be understanding.

In the words of René Daumal, “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

Despite all the challenges you will face during your thru-hike and after the fact, I can say for myself that it has always been worth it. The trail will change you, and all you can do is learn to adapt. 

If you or someone you know suffers from disordered eating, contact one of the following helplines:

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Comments 14

  • Patrick : May 7th

    I only day hike but I can so relate to this. I go out 3-4 times a week and often reward myself after a really challenging hike with something extra delicious and bad for me. Unfortunately I repeated this pattern often enough that I feel guilty even eating a single carb unless I’m hiking. In fact I barely eat anything on days I don’t hike because I don’t feel like I’ve earned it and my weight continues on a steady decline for quite a while.

    There’s also the tangible reality that every lb I lose is noticeable on the trail with regards to my agility and less stress on my joints and it reinforces the desire to keep dropping even though I don’t need to.

    The mind is a crazy place. Weird how easy it is to accidentally condition ourselves through repetition.

  • Rushmore : May 7th

    An EXCELLENT post, Peg Leg! When I followed you through the AT, FL trail, Canada, I was frustrated sometimes because even though you were doing great and saying good things, I questioned your intent. Here, I see what a good writer you are and what insight you have. AND I’m happy to see your work of adjusting to post-trail life.

    Oops, have to leave it here. May comment more later…

  • Joe fisch : May 8th

    Been reading ur blogs since April of 2023 loved ur story’s and the way you wrote them.the up’s and down’s of the trail.Sorry to hear about your struggles with eating and self image.i think ur a beautiful person inside and out.hang in there you are an inspiration for me and a lot of people.joe

  • Richard : May 8th

    You are an inspiration. I have injoyed reading your blogs. You should write a book on your experiences on thru hiking. I for one would enjoy reading it. The best to you in your endeavors.

  • Richard Smith : May 8th

    You are an inspiration. I have injoyed reading your blogs. You should write a book on your experiences on thru hiking. I for one would enjoy reading it. The best to you in your endeavors.

  • Dylan Bean : May 8th

    Thank you for your truth and vulnerability in telling your story.

  • VTaylor : May 8th

    Wow excellent post! I’ve been reading for about a year now and this one hits me big time. I’m a runner who has been told no more running by Dr’s and as a consequence I’ve been putting on weight and experiencing a lot of what you describe here! You are right, I can’t expect to have the same body I did when running 25+ miles a week! Thank you for helping me be more realistic!

    • Rushton Sedberry : May 9th

      25 is a lot!! I would walk and run 30 but not 25 all running. I am 42 in great shape. I can tell a difference in now and ten years ago. I can no longer do thousands of push ups. I am a extremely athletic person.

  • George N Sibley : May 8th

    I would like to chime in to also support the idea that you should write a book. 1) You have had some amazing experiences. 2) You have sensitivity and insight into the meaning of those experiences and the good (and bad) consequences of them in your development as a human being. 3) You write well. These three together are a rare combination. I’d buy the book in a heartbeat!

  • Henry : May 8th

    I’ve greatly enjoyed the positivity of all your posts. Even now, on a very difficult subject, and one that may have had you feeling anxious writing about. Although your specific experience might be atypical, that post hike change of physical fitness is so real. Thank you for sharing. And that was a great, thoughtful quote to end with

  • Rushton Sedberry : May 9th

    Start jogging!!! Jog a 10k twice a week. A tech executive told me to buy a bike and ride it to burn more with less stress on knees. I am on PCT now. I hope you can keep it up!!! Hike the Continental Divide next year.

  • Callie : May 9th

    Beautifully communicated wisdom. Thank you for your honesty. You are gorgeous no matter your weight!!

  • Candace : May 9th

    I enjoyed your adventures while you were on trail and am glad you have continued to blog post-trail. I’ve struggled with weight issues my whole life as a hyperactive person who can’t shed an ounce without extreme caloric deficits. Here’s hoping you find a happy level. 🙂

  • GKLott : May 9th

    Excellent, rush content post. Hope that your full body acceptance will eventually come. We are all perfect, right now. Thanks for sharing.


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