Confessions of a thruhiker

It has taken me a long time to come to grips with this but I am finally ready to say it: thruhiking has ruined my relationship with food.

First of all, I just want to start by saying I’m not writing this post to garner pity or receive assurance about how I look. This post is about my mental health above all and how your relationship with food on trail can bleed into your real life. Of course, on some level my aging body and changing metabolism and recent struggle with self esteem plays into this story. I probably wouldn’t care that my relationship with food has changed if my new eating habits hadn’t led to visible changes in my body – but in the end I want to fix my relationship with food, not so that my body can go back to the “way it used to be” but so I can feel in control and healthy.

When we first started the AT I didn’t really know what to expect from hiker hunger. I had heard the term, heard of the insatiable black hole I was about to become, but I had never experienced anything like it. It hit me fast and hard. I think it was only day three or four when I was suddenly so hungry I couldn’t think about anything else other than sandwiches. I hiked along in a sandwich filled haze, imagining all the different kinds of sandwiches I loved. But when we got to break all we had was a cliff bar to split and some dried fruit to munch on. From there my hunger only grew.

My hunger allowed me to do amazing things! On our first town stop I ate an entire pizza by myself. I had never done anything like that before. I am a pretty petite human, but the satisfaction of it was bliss. Town became a symbol of relief. A chance to fill the void. We would eat our own Ben and Jerrys, our own pack of Oreos, and our own bag of chips in a horizontal binge. It was like you were trying to tip the scales on your calorie deficit, hoping that when you hoped on trail it would take more miles before the hunger hit you again. But it never took long before the bottom had fallen out of my stomach and I was dreaming of hamburgers and tacos and pasta.

When we returned from the AT we had so many goals – to stay in shape, to run a ton, to keep hiking. We stayed active but normal life is not a thruhike – unless you are a professional athlete you do not have the luxury of moving for ten hours a day. I was “lucky” to spend the winter months in restaurants where, yes I was surrounded by amazing food, but I was also on my feet for six to eight hours a day. Then in the summer I worked conservation, battling invasive plants and building trails for a living. My life was still fairly active but my eating habits didn’t revert nearly as much as they should have. More than anything Kyle and I still considered food the ultimate reward, like we had on trail.

We started climbing mountains after the AT. Of course you are burning calories while you’re climbing and you have that same exhausted, beat, utterly spent feeling when you are done but you are not on a thruhike. You aren’t about to go back out the next day and do it again and then again and again. But we still acted like we could eat anything we wanted when we climbed. We would begin to daydream about the restaurant we would go to after the climb, building up the perfect chicken pot pie or milkshake into a herculean treat.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to the PCT was because of the food. I couldn’t wait to experience that extreme hunger again because satisfying it was so sweet. But if I thought I had known hunger on the AT I had been wrong. The PCT took hiker hunger to a whole new level, probably because we were hiking so many more miles a day and we would often hike up to fourteen hours at a time. On top of that we didn’t want to carry as much food. In the desert with the heavy water carries it was hard to motivate oneself to bring enough snacks to really power one through the day. When we got to the Sierras and had the added weight of a bear can we were splitting starbursts in half in order to make our snacks last all the way to the next resupply.

We would eat and still be hungry. I would wake up at night with hunger pangs piercing the inside of my stomach. And so when we got to town it was the same story as on the AT – we ate like we would never eat again.

It is a strange thing to choose to be hungry. When all the world over people are facing actual shortages of food we have put ourselves, twice, in a situation where we have all the resources to be full, but we are working out so hard and hiking so light that we are empty. Not only do we choose to be hungry but I would go so far as to say many of us enjoy it. On trail we say “hunger is the best seasoning” meaning nothing will ever taste as good as that Mountain House at the end of a 25 mile day.

After the PCT ended Kyle and I had the same goals as before – stay in shape. Just as before “staying in shape” proved a very biased thing because trail in-shape and normal life in-shape are different. We have certainly settled for what we can take between our jobs and our friends and our love of good food. But as I have settled into the first desk job of my life I have noticed something worrisome. I tend to pendulum between too much self control and no self control when it comes to food.

Over the months I have “tried” to be healthy with my eating, since I know it is impossible to work out 24/7. But slowly I have become aware of the fact that I will starve myself for hours, just so I can enjoy whatever I am going to eat later. I now think it’s because I miss the joy that food brought me on trail. The place it had in happiness.

I am not okay with this. There are so many other things to be happy about in life. So many other ways to find joy. Eating this way – making myself extremely hungry just to eat ten cookies later in the day – is unhealthy and making me unhappy on so many levels. So finally I decided I needed to do something about it. I needed to take control back over my eating habits and my relationship with food. So I chose something and I chose the Whole30. I chose it because I simple need someone else to tell me how to eat for a while so I can hit restart. So I can take all the bad habits we built on trail and say – I don’t need these anymore. I am building new habits and they make me feel better. We are on day 10 and while my body doesn’t feel any different my mental state already feels stronger.

I welcome any questions people might have about the Whole30 (although the web might have better answers, I’m not an expert) or food while thruhiking. I also hope that this confession can act both as a warning to future thruhikers to keep an eye on their relationship with food or a wake up call to thruhikers who are wondering what is wrong in their daily lives.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

23 thoughts on “Confessions of a thruhiker

  1. This is great! My husband has prepared me for hiker hunger on the PCT and has told me about his relationship with food after the AT. I’ve been planning to hit up Whole30 after the PCT to control our food quality and amount. I’ve done Whole30 before and loved how I felt after it. I think it will a great plan to do after trail to stay in control of hiker hunger. Sounds like a smart move on your part! Good luck with your round!

    1. I think that’s a really really good idea – I think we will do the same thing after the CDT, do the Whole30 right away to kind of detox after the trail! When do you leave for the PCT?

  2. On the topic of what food to fill your pack with, I’ve done lots of reading that points to food very high in good fats gives you more sustained energy than calories from carbs. I wonder if slathering coconut oil (for example) on everything would be something to try?

    1. Yes, I think you’re on to something there and I certainly think we weren’t really aware of how important fats are in our past hiking diets. They sell coconut butter in little packets which would be great for trail. After the whole30 I have been thinking a lot about what we can change in our diets when we hike and how we can get more fats in and more protein – just making sure we have balanced snacks instead of just a handful of dried fruits. Haha! Let me know if you come up with other ways to get fats into your hiking diets.

  3. Would you have changed how you are on the trail? Asking because I’m Hiking the AT this spring. I want to avoid this cycle. But it kinda feels inevitable?

    1. I think it feels kind of inevitable but I think there are things you can do better. The first one is making sure you diet on trail is balanced, nutritious, and doesn’t involve TOO much sugar. I think that doing at least a few mail drops with your own meals packed in is a good call. Also, when you go into town try to avoid just binge eating a ton of really really crappy food – try to get some good veggies and fruits in there and some healthy fats. And then when you get done with trail consider doing something like the whole30 to help you detox and restart your food habits. I think those are the kinds of things we will be doing differently next time around!

  4. I love your post. Hiker hunger is AMAZING! Dusting off (barely) food off the ground and licking the inside of flavored chip bags, and thinking nothing of eating a half gallon of ice cream before “dinner” upon arriving in town was like an out of body experience, and completely foreign to us before doing the PCT. After doing the PCT, it (hiker hunger) lingered for quite some time, unfortunately we didn’t wrangle it in soon enough, and (for us) sadly gained back a good portion of the weight we lost, as our calorie output in “normal life” was not like that of a thru-hike. We have since regained “control”, and changed our eating habits to a more healthy/whole food approach, and now make a conscious effort to implement it into our various “shorter” adventures. This is not to say that Peanut M&Ms are not still my snack of choice on a multi-day trek, but “everyday” life is mostly devoid of sugars and ALL processed foods. We have “re-wired” our brains to think of food as fuel as opposed to reward for activity…with the exception of Peanut M&Ms of course.

  5. I will confess – the trails also destroyed my relationship with food. I think for me, the feeling of satiation turned into some type of addiction. In the “real world” between hikes, I have struggled to control my appetite after even a moderate amount of exercise. When people ask why I do these hikes, I respond, so I can eat…sad. My last long section hike was in 2013, and I am just now starting to control the “pangs,” but I know I will always have to wrestle the cravings. Great post!

    1. Thanks! I have definitely struggled with much of the same for the past couple of years, but I think being on whole30 has helped. Now we just want to see if anything we have practiced will stick afterwards!

  6. Thanks so much for writing this! I’ve never thru hiked but as someone who went from training 16 hrs a week for gymnastics and then track & field to – as you put it – a normal life without all that activity, I can absolutely relate. It was something I struggled with for a long time as well, but I was never brave enough to share my struggles like you have. So thank you for helping people like me see that we’re not alone. Unhealthy food relationships is something that we as a nation don’t talk about in such an honest fashion nearly as much as we should.

    1. I totally agree! Even writing about it felt so weird to me – like should I be saying this? Am I admitting to something more than just an unhealthy relationship? But being on the whole30 these past weeks has definitely driven home for me that I am still in control if I give myself permission to be!

  7. I have felt the same thing. I have not thru-hiked but done week-long section hikes, which I know is not the same thing. But we did experience a little of the food deprivation on the trail and then the huge reward you could give yourself off the trail. But it messes with my mind too. When I was very careful about what I ate before the section hike, during the hike I was able to eat whatever satisfied my craving (normally not on my diet at home) and in larger quantities. It was really hard to go back to the old way of thinking at home. It really messes with me. So people wonder, doesn’t hiking help you lose weight? Of course it gets me in better shape, but intense hikes often mess with my mental state about food, and I can be off track with my healthy eating plan for a long time afterwards. Anyway..the struggle is real! Lol. Of course being in my 40s makes it more difficult as well. But I’m working on it! Maybe I’ll research the Whole 30 as well. Thanks so much for being honest about this, since its been a big issue for me as well, and I’m sure many others!

    1. It is really good to hear other people expressing the same concerns about their relationship with food. Let’s me know that I’m not making this up or blowing it out of proportion! Thank you!

  8. So connect with what you are saying. Probably how a person who is starving begins to view food. I will look into this whole30 it maybe what I am seeking as far as my food being my source of health and at my age it is smart to have that perfect balance.

  9. I haven’t done a thru-hike but I also struggle with a weird relationship between activity, food and the trail. It’s refreshing to read such an honest piece about it. Good luck on whatever changes you need to make to be happy. <3

  10. I love the honesty of this post. As someone who has had issues with food/eating for a long time (even though I am mostly fine now), I can definitely relate. I’m not a thru-hiker, but it is hard still for me to find that balance of what to eat everyday vs. what you “allow” yourself to indulge in after a long hike, and not start obsessing about it all in an unhealthy way.

    1. Absolutely! And it is amazing how long it took me to accept that what I was doing was unhealthy. It is funny how we can trick ourselves into thinking everything is normal.

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