How to Combat Weight Loss on Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails
“Why olive oil?”
“Because it has the highest amount of calories for its weight of any food.”
Calorie vs. weight. In summation, that is one of the direct challenges that the majority of thru-hikers will face on the two great national scenic trails, the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For those of you who have read my two trail narratives, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, and especially Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, you are aware that I struggled to the point of obsession with weight loss. Ultimately, I lost 33 pounds on the AT and 43 on the PCT. So me opining on the subject of fighting weight loss is a little bit like the captain of the Titanic giving advice on navigation.
But a few things are obvious. Your weight loss on a thru-hike is a direct function of two things: calories expended, vs. calories consumed. You can expect to expend in the neighborhood of 5,000 calories per day on a typical trail days. I don’t know anybody that carries that much food. If you did, it would increase the amount of calories you burnt. So it can–and often is–a vicious cycle. Your best ace-in-the-hole is your ‘zero’ and ‘near0’ days. These are days you either don’t hike at all (usually one every ten days) or half-days in and out of town. These allow you to bulk up on ‘real food’, as opposed to banal hiker food.
Those days help. But they aren’t enough to stanch weight loss, except for the most sturdy souls. So what’s next. The only thing you can do is try to carry food with the most calories and least weight. Peanut butter and blocks of cheese (which usually ‘keeps’ for a few days) rank high. So do pop tarts, although those of you who read my AT narrative know that I–along with many other hikers–eventually foreswore pop tarts. People kept telling me to try olive oil. But it sounded so wretched and improbable, I shook their advice off.
But then I got to the Pacific Crest Trail, and my hemoragging weight began to directly affect my bodily functions and ability to stay warm. Upon leaving Oregon and entering Washington State, I was down 45 pounds and desperate. At the last grocery store before crossing the Columbia River I broke down and purchased a flask of olive oil. I began pouring it on everything from Idahoan potatoes to candy bars. Immediately it felt like it had a body that other trail food were missing. In fact, when I finally got to Canada, I weighed myself and was only down 43 lbs. I had gained two pounds in Washington. Miraculous.
Of course, many readers probably are thinking, ‘What was this guy’s problem?’ Why wasn’t he cooking deydrated dinners? Indeed, I ate cold food most of the way on the PCT, hoping to save on weight carried (stove, fuel) . But objectively, it was probably a false economy. Cooked dinners would have probably helped stanch my weight loss, even if it did mean carrying more weight in the daytime. And they might have kept me better insulated in the evening.
In any event, thru-hikers can expect to be juggling these calculations all along the way. Good luck. And enjoy dinner!
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Enocounters on the Appalachian Trail, as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail.