While the internet is certainly not an authoritative source of information, I recently averaged estimates from multiple sites for what a hiker on an Appalachian Trail thru hike should expect to burn in calories. This turned out to be about 500 calories per hour of hiking. Now for the higher math – for my thru hike I figure on being out on the actual trail for 135 days doing about 10 hours per day of hiking. I will also be burning some calories for the remaining 14 hours in each day (figure another 1150 calories). That ends up being roughly 830,000 calories to get me from Springer to Katahdin. I don’t know about you, but to me, that seems like a lot of frickin’ calories to put down your pie hole.
Here’s my problem (or at least one of them). I suspect that my base “burn” rate for calories is actually significantly higher than the average hiker. Why do I suspect this? Well, as my wife and daughters would agree, the average portion size for the meals I eat at home under normal conditions tends to be rather large. Yet, I never seem to gain any weight. This both amuses and annoys them. What would be a serving bowl in most houses usually is what passes for my own plate at dinner time. A box of spaghetti or macaroni lasts a single meal in our house. A loaf of bread (at the same meal)? Same story. And I am the one overwhelmingly responsible. Everyone else is a bit player.
Many years ago, I “surprised” my sister-in-law by putting away 6 hot dogs at a family gathering. I wasn’t trying to prove anything. It was a nice day and they just tasted good. That was when I began to understand that my eating capabilities might not be really, well, normal. You might wonder what happens when we are invited over to friends for an evening meal. Do we warn them? The answer is no. One of the most carefully guarded secrets outside my immediate family is my food consumption. In public I try very hard to appear to be a normal person. I have several different approaches for this. One is what I call “pre-meal loading”. I sometimes have us stop at a restaurant before we arrive at a friend’s house to eat something to take the edge off my appetite. Another approach is what we have taken to calling “fourth meal”. At the end of an evening out with friends, I, well, have dinner, again, in the privacy of our own home.
One might think that this would have serious consequences for my waist line. Curiously, the answer, as I indicated above, is “no”. I’ve never weighed more than 165 pounds in my entire life and usually am around 155. If something happens, such as getting a bad cold and I lose my appetite, weight begins to slough off. Yet, from all outward signs, I am healthy – no signs of parasites, hook worms or disease (e.g., my A1C number is safely within the normal range).
So, I am a little worried about my planned Appalachian Trail thru hike. Past hiking trips reinforce this. A number of years ago, I spent a month hiking in the Himalayas. I went out weighing 155 and came back at 130. My wife thought I looked like a concentration camp survivor. This did not please her. What can I say? Altitude tends to dampen the appetite. Trying to preload weight before a trip doesn’t seem to work either. Two years ago, I tried to prepare for my climb of Aconcagua by gaining weight in anticipation of spending roughly 2 weeks at considerable altitude. For close to 6 months, I had chocolate milk after each of my twice daily workouts, religously ate “fourth meal” and the other 3 meals were up to my usual standards, if you know what I mean. The result? I gained a measly 10 lbs, topping out at 165 when I left for Mendoza. It just doesn’t seem to work.
All of this has serious implications for the type and quantity of food that I need to bring on the AT. I’ll say it here – portion sizes, as printed on the back of commercial prepackaged backpack meals are a complete joke. I love reading the nutrition labels. According to many freeze-dried meal labels, the serving size is “1/2 bag” meaning that they are intended to be shared with your hiking partner. In what alternative universe do the people who design these meals live? No way. Last summer, while on a 12 day backpack trip on the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier I pulled into camp one evening and started making dinner. I ate one of my own homemade dehydrated dinners while chatting with a few other hikers. About 15 minutes later I started “fourth meal” (what can I say? it had been a particularly long day on the trail), pulling out an emergency Mountain House Beef Stroganoff meal (serving size: ½ pouch) and proceeded to eat it (both servings mind you). I figured no one would be paying attention. But I was wrong. The next morning, one of my fellow camp mates, a woman, politely noted that I seemed to have “a healthy appetite”. While not a mind reader, I believe the translation for this is approximately, “Holy shit, you sure eat a lot, is there something wrong with you?” I came back from this 12 day hike having dropped 7 lbs.
So, let’s do some more math. If I drop 7 lbs per 12 days of hiking, over 135 days that means a total weight loss of roughly 80 lbs. One should pause here and ponder the implications. I could start my AT hike at the weight I have maintained for the past 30+ years (155 lbs), and come back from Mt. Katahdin weighing 75 lbs. Or, I could put on 80 lbs over the next 3 months (I’m not sure exactly how this would be engineered but we’re just speculating here), bulking up to around 235 pounds and come back at my current base weight of 155 lbs. Or, I could make up for my calorie deficit on my planned zero days (right now I am thinking of taking around 12 of them), by doing some pretty serious eating while in town.
AYCE establishments – you are forewarned. It should be interesting.