When you start learning more about long-distance hiking and longer-duration treks as an average hiker, you may hear people talk about how hiker hunger takes over.
This is something that isn’t necessarily bad but can be controlled as it is a leading cause of weight gain once off the trail as the habit gets built, so what is hiker hunger?
The feeling of near-infinite hunger when a thru-hiker has been hiking for a long time. Since most people consume 2-3000 calories and are burning 4-5000 calories, this can lead to consuming vast meals, including 5000+ calorie splurges, to help the body replenish missing or used nutrients.
While hiker hunger is remarkable, as you have almost no chance to gain weight while on the trail, you need to make sure you understand why it happens and how to properly maintain your health through this period of immense stress on your body.
Why Am I So Hungry After Hiking?
Let’s face it. It is primarily because you are burning far more calories than you are taking in for weeks over weeks.
The result is that when calories are in easy and quick supply, your body asks for everything you can shovel down, allowing you to eat just about anything.
This allows the body to refill used storage and to get as many nutrients back in as it can to handle the long road and recovery that never seems to come fully.
It’s been said that the approximate calories used by a normal-weight individual can be upwards of 500 calories per hour.
This means on a day of hiking, assuming a short 8-hour day, you would burn around 4000 calories in addition to your average BMR and basal metabolic rate.
There is almost no way for a hiker to carry, let alone eat, 6000 calories daily. This would equate to much more food and pack space than you have with all other gear.
This means after the day, a long-distance hiker is at a super large deficit which the body seeks to crave to fill as soon as the food is available or faces endurance and performance impact.
When Does Hiker Hunger Start?
For many, this hunger starts on day one, but for a day hiker, this is easier to get over as it is only for days worth of effort.
You don’t have the same amount of deficit built over a few days as what happens over 200 days, so recovery is more straightforward and less chaotic.
As the days grind on for a section hiker or thru-hiker, this hunger builds within, not the way you are hungry the whole hike.
The second thought is that food becomes fully available, your body will signal consumption of whatever foods give it the nutrition it feels it is missing leading to those mythic eating days.
While there is no “cure” to halting hiker hunger, it’s essential to take steps to help your body out by giving it some of the more vital nutrients as often as possible on a long stretch.
How Can You Fight Hiker Hunger?
A few things can be focused on to help support your body and nutrition from a quality standpoint, along with the use of supplements that provide your body some measure of help in the times away from a quality diet source.
While your diet may be mostly Snickers and M&Ms, you still need to provide as much proper fuel to your system as is viable from the standpoint of shelf life and estimated time away from civilization and food sources.
Building a Better Diet on the Trail
The best thing you could do is look to diversify your food more often throughout the entire hike instead of just when in town or not hiking.
I know this sounds easy to say when I’m inside my house next to my pc writing this, god it is simple here! What I mean is to look to find portable meat options like beef jerky, salami, or other more stable items.
Not that you need these to last 6 days, but at least for the first few days adding up the foods from various sources will ensure more nutritional value to your body, as Snickers isn’t a food group.
Supplements For Trail Use
I have a longer post on some supplements you should always look to carry to help. These are to ensure you maintain a good physical state to last as long and hopefully end your thru-hike on a roar and not a whimper.
We will stick to the core, and what you should be able to find in any town you come across while traveling. Each can help you perform at your best while being reasonably light to add to your pack.
This should be a non-negotiable for you on a longer hike, maybe not as bad on a day or even a week-long hike.
You need a much more considerable amount of protein while putting in hard hiking labor as protein help repair your body as well as help build up vital muscles, not break them down.
Figuring Out Your Baseline Daily Need for Protein
- Take your Current Weight and Convert it to kilograms
- Weight / 2.2 = kg
- Take kilogram weight and multiply by 1.1
- kg weight * 1.1 = base grams of protein
With a weight of 230 pounds, the calculation above helps you understand how to apply the math and get your number.
(230/2.2)*1.1) = 115g
You should aim for at least this level of protein grams daily for maintenance at a minimum. This ensures enough quality proteins are available to keep you in tip-top shape, and protein isn’t used for energy in almost all cases.
If it is challenging to bring this much actual meat, you may want to look at a protein powder that you could mix into a drink or food to help elevate your overall intake.
Next up is Creatine which can be used in the body similarly to carbohydrates and can help you power through when you are reaching burnout.
Better yet this will reach its max volume while needing little each day. As low as 3-5 grams daily will reach max volume within a month.
The phosphocreatine system is a supplemental energy system(source) that can use the creatinine in your body for energy which can be helpful on those long pushes up the PUDS.
Creatine naturally occurs in meat, but most hikers fail to eat much meat over vast lengths, leading to fatigue.
Numerous studies are showing that there are no ill effects from taking it daily for two years+.
One thing you don’t hear about is that adding a fish oil supplement to your day with a high omega-3 fatty acids level can help cut down on the high amount of inflammation that hikers face.
This can help cut or remove more of the need for regular ibuprofen, which isn’t healthy.
A solid investment for any long-duration activity causes heavy sweating as you lose valuable electrolytes, which can lead to cramps and headaches while on the trail.
Choosing to snack and keep up with body needs like hydration isn’t a choice.
Keep yourself safe and ensure you are staying hydrated and keeping your electrolyte levels in balance, as the worst thing that can happen is you need to pee some out later.
Final Thoughts on Hiker Hunger
Whether you are just out backpacking for a day, section hiking, or long-distance thru-hiking, you know when hiking hunger attacks, it comes on hard.
Couple this with the inability to feel full as your body continues to eat and replace the exhausted resources it uses.
I am still learning and developing a better plan for food restocking and how to approach it as it’s essential to focus on protein, then carbs and fat content for energy and calorie denseness.
I have read too much on people whose joints and bodies ache years after completing a thru-hike, proving that some prep could help you to perform better and longer.
Hopefully, this has helped you to make some changes to how you refeed and refuel while on a hike to ensure you can make it for life!