Thru-Hiking To Lose Weight
“Why are you thru-hiking?”
This question is an on-trail favorite. People are drawn to long-distance backpacking for a myriad of reasons, ranging from the spiritual to the athletic. For some, though, the answer is completely practical.
To lose weight.
There’s got to be a better way, right?
Especially for those struggling with chronic obesity, traditional alternatives can get old fast. Bad habits are hard to break, good habits are hard to form. When you’re at the end of your rope, big commitments may not sound so crazy. Which would you prefer: an epic 6-month adventure or a Phentermine addiction?
There are considerations, however. Other treks require less life-altering commitment than the 2,000+ milers. There are gorgeous trail systems of varying lengths scattered across any continent you’re interested in exploring.
If you’re reading Appalachian Trials, though, you’ve probably got your heart set on a specific ultra-long trail. Although the AT is relatively hospitable, it’s important to know your limitations.
You’ve told friends, family, and co-workers that you’re about to hike for six months straight. You’ve had to face down doubt, maybe even laughter. You’ve spent a shocking amount on gear and travel. Finally, it’s time to conquer your nerves and set off from the terminus — and within a week, you’re back home with a messed-up ankle.
This scenario plays out for prospective thru-hikers every year. A comprehensive pre-hike training program is your best weapon against injury. Some advice can be found here, and there’s much more scattered across the web. Even if you’ve had trouble creating a workout routine in the past, your impending adventure might motivate you to train in ways that “losing weight” alone hasn’t. Anyone familiar with A Walk In The Woods knows what can happen when you start without preparing physically. Looking right at you, Bill.
Here’s my admission, though: The longest backpacking trip I’d undertaken prior to the AT was a day hike, and I was far from in shape. As long as you’re willing to move slowly and mindfully, you don’t need to be a Jennifer Pharr Davis. As the saying goes, the best way to train for the Appalachian Trail is to hike it.
To focus on our specific topic, I’m going to skip some very important prep steps – info on gear and logistics is available elsewhere (and so important that anyone serious about thru-hiking will find it).
If you’ve got the gear, made travel arrangements, read everything you can find about thru-hiking, and you’re getting butterflies, it’s time to check in mentally. Make sure you expect this to be hard. That may sound obvious, but it can be difficult to truly internalize the unpleasant realities. Know that there will be terrible days, sometimes many, and you may want to quit. Promise yourself you won’t. Know that you can get injured if you push too hard. Walk the line between realism and pessimism. You’ll need that obsessive, never-say-die mentality if you’re going to make it.
Once you’re on the trail, try to stop thinking about your fitness goals. You’ll have plenty to distract you, and physical changes will come with time. For those intent on speeding up the weight loss process — when you don’t get the nutrition you need, your body takes it from existing places, i.e. your bones. No one needs to tell you that you want your bones to be in tip-top shape for this undertaking, so ix-nay on the asting-fay.
There’s another side to that coin, though. The thru-hiker diet is clearly not sustainable. While you will make great use of the calories you eat, it’s quite easy to get into the high-school football mentality of, “I need this burger, man; it’s good for me.” Which, of course, nope. You will be ravenous. You will eat the scraps of strangers’ meals and thank them after. But in the back of your mind, remember that this is temporary, that it changes after the trail. It may sound like overkill, but it really does help.
It’s time for your amazing, emotional, empowering finish. Your life is now changed, even if you hated every minute. You have achieved a great feat. Now, it’s time to head home.
This, for many or most, is the hardest part. It will be especially hard for you, because your old habits have been waiting patiently for your return. You will still have your hiker appetite for several weeks, and you may feel depressed.
If you’re really serious about staying in shape, it doesn’t have to end here. You’ve proven to yourself that you can follow through, and you will have momentum. Use it, and make sustainable changes to your life. Sign up for that gym you were too embarrassed to go to. If you live near mountains, go out on weekends. Get on your bike. Join a running club. You’ve entered a brand new world, and you never need to go back.
A Closing Thought
It’s possible that other backpackers will pass judgement when you mention your weight loss goals. Just remember: there is no correct reason to thru-hike. Each is equally admirable. And if it helps, know that at the very least, one person supports you completely: Bill Bryson.
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