When you start learning more about long-distance hiking and longer-duration hikes 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.
What is hiker hunger? The feeling of near-infinite hunger when a thru-hiker has been hiking for a long length of time. Since most people consume 2-3000 calories and are burning 4-5000 calories. This can lead to consuming vast meals including 5000+ calories splurges which are to help the body replenish missing or used nutrients.
While hiker hunger is kind of cool since you really just have almost no chance to gain weight you do 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, honestly, it is in large part due to the fact that 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 that you can shovel down.
This allows for 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 fully come.
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 like 8 hours you would burn around 4000 calories in addition to your normal BMR, basal metabolic rate.
There is almost no way for a hiker to carry 6,000 calories per day as this would equate to much more food and pack space than you have with all other gear.
This means after the day is over you are at a super large deficit which the body seeks to fill as soon as the food is available.
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 simpler and less chaotic.
As the days grind on for a section hiker or thru-hiker this hunger builds within, not in the way that you are hungry the whole hike.
The second though 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 there may be steps you can take to help your body out by giving it some of the more vital nutrients as often as possible on the longer stretches.
How Can You Fight Hiker Hunger?
There are a few things that 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 out 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 actually hiking.
I know this sounds really easy to say when I’m here 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 a variety of 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 out over here. These are to ensure you maintain staying at as good a physical state as possible to last as long and hopefully end your thru-hike on a roar and not a whimper.
We are going to stick to the core and what you should be able to find in any town you come across while traveling. Each of these can help you perform at your best while being fairly 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 maybe even a week-long hike. You need a much larger amount of protein while putting in hard hiking labor as you want to be helping build up those muscles not break them down.
Figuring Out Your Baseline Daily Need for Protein
- Take Current Weight and Convert to kilograms
- Weight / 2.2 = kg
- Take kilogram weight and multiply by 1.1
- kg weight * 1.1 = base grams of protein
Here is the calculation above with my current weight of 230 pounds to help 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, protein isn’t used for energy in almost all cases.
If it is difficult to bring this much actual meat for you then you may want to look at a protein powder that you could mix into a drink or into food to help elevate your overall intake.
Next up is Creatine which can be used in the body similarly to carbohydrates and this 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 3-5grams 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 useful on those long pushes up the PUDS.
Creatine is naturally occurring in meat but most hikers fail to eat much meat over vast lengths which can lead to fatigue. There are numerous studies showing that there are no ill effects for taking it daily for 2 years+.
One thing you don’t hear about much is that adding a fish oil supplement to your day that contains a high omega 3 fatty acids level can help cut down on the high amount of inflammation that hikers can face, this can help cut or remove more of the need for constant ibuprofen which isn’t healthy.
A solid investment for any long-duration activity that causing heavy sweating as you lose valuable electrolytes which can lead to cramps and headaches while out on the trail.
Choosing to supplement isn’t a choice, keep yourself safe and make sure you are staying hydrated and keeping your electrolyte levels in balance as the worst thing which can happen is you need to pee some out later.
Final Thoughts on Hiker Hunger
Whether you are a short day hiker or a long-distance thru-hiker you know the hiker hunger attack when it strikes. The almost inability to actually feel full as your body continues to eat and replace the exhausted resources it used.
I am still learning and developing a better plan on food restock and how to approach it with a focus on protein, then carb and fat content and calorie denseness.
I have read too much on people whose joints and bodies ache years after completing a thru-hike which proves to me there is some prep that 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!