A Long Distance Eating Contest: Hiker Hunger
Hiking appetites are like pregnancy appetites….they are constantly evolving, craving new and weird things, and what once was your favorite you now detest.
Recently, I have had several folks write to me requesting information on trail food. In fact, one of the first questions people always ask as soon as they learn that I have thru-hiked is “What did you eat?” I always have to laugh at that question. The truth is that food was a sore subject for me and for reasons some may not understand. So for now, I will ask you to think of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail as a long distance eating contest.
An eating contest? Yes! And one that I lost on a daily basis. I remember it like it was yesterday (I hate to sound cliche, but it’s true!). We had just crossed into Virginia; we were feeling so triumphant. Damascus was in our sites and we had a zero day planned for resupply, bathing, beer, and much needed laundry. Our little stay in Damascus was quite profitable and the next day we left just as quickly as we had ushered in. What followed in the days after we came into VA was to become a problem of monstrous proportions. Slowly, but surely, my appetite started to slip away.
At first it was unnoticeable. I figured that I had just gotten used to burning so many calories all at once. 6,000 calories each day to be exact. It started at dinner time; one pack of Ramen was just too much and I would quickly pass my leftovers off to Spoon (he was always happy to eat leftovers!). Of course, I was never big on breakfast. Ever since I was a child, I hated to eat breakfast. The trail was no different–I would just start walking until several hours had passed. Okay, so lunch would arrive and I would be sort of hungry. Nothing a few spoonfulls of peanut butter couldn’t cure. It never occurred to me at the time, but I had started to consume less and less calories each day. My body never said “I’m hungry” quite the way it used to, so I never responded with food.
This habit went on for quite some time, but eventually, all bad habits reveal themselves as the true monster they are. I was almost to the Shenandoahs when it really started to hit. I was consuming less than 1,000 calories a day and getting slower and slower by the minute. Every step, every hill became more and more difficult. I was losing energy by the second. Tiger Lilly was growing more concerned; “I’m just not hungry” I would tell her. My appetite was gone. I had no desire to eat. Eating was horrible.I’m told that some people experience this same lack of appetite after performing athletically for sustained amounts of time; I just figured it was normal. But it wasn’t. I watched my fellow hikers partake in every food contest along the trail like the half-gallon ice cream challenge and the Mahoosuc monster 8lb pizza. Why wasn’t interested in eating? It got to the point where I was in such desperate need of calories and fat that I would buy cans of sesame tahini and eat spoonfulls of it for dinner; two tablespoons contains 15g of fat and 170 calories.
So here’s a little statistical info for you:
- Hikers burn 7,000 calories per day (an average of 20 miles)
- Hikers should try to consume as much as 6,000 calories per day to maintain a healthy body weight
- I am 5’9″ and weighed 160lbs at the start of my thru-hike.
- I weighed 115lbs at the end of my thru-hike and had roughly 6% body fat (not okay for a woman!)
My body was suffering and so was my will to continue on the journey. Lilly would force me to eat cheeseburgers and ice cream whenever we would come to towns. Gross! I’m not hungry! To get slightly graphic (sorry men folk), my percentage of body fat had dropped so much that I experienced amenorrhoea–the absence of periods. Of course, I never really complained about that! I experienced dangerous weight loss, not the cool 10-20 lbs that ever hiker loses. I can’t remember when it happened, but sometime around the New England mark I started feeling more hungry. By the time I summitted Katahdin, my appetite had come back some, but I still wasn’t eating the way the other hikers were. I never could.
When I was partly through the Shenandoahs, I met a hiker named “Will.” He had just finished up a 36 miler and came strolling in like it was no big deal. He told me that he had previously thru-hiked the PCT and, he too, struggled to maintain a healthy weight. He offered me some of the best advice I ever got on the trail. He said
“Don’t think of the AT as a long distance hike; think of the AT as a long distance eating contest. Take your time and eat as much as you can, when you can.”