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Does Hiking Make You Gain Weight? (Fully Explained)

Hiking has long been touted as a great way to lose weight. However, some people report weight gain in the days following their venture into nature. There’s a perfectly logical explanation for this common phenomenon, so it helps to understand why hiking might make you gain weight.

Hiking can make you gain weight. Factors like inflammation, water retention, and extreme hunger can cause you to gain weight after a hike. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve gained fat and your weight will likely drop again within a few days.  

There are many reasons for weight gain while hiking. The good news is you can usually avoid it. And if you do put on some pounds, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Continue reading to learn precisely why your weight is going up and discover what you can do to prevent gaining weight while on a hike.

Does Hiking Make You Gain Weight?

Hiking can make you gain weight. This is a common occurrence among hikers. It can be caused by several factors and it affects everyone differently. This weight increase is a frequent side effect of any strenuous exercise, not just hiking.

It can seem counterintuitive, and it can be very frustrating. After all, you’re constantly moving, using major muscle groups, and even carrying extra weight in a backpack. There’s no denying all that exercise burns a lot of calories. Many expect to be losing weight rather than gaining it.

Calories are only a small part of the equation. There are a few reasons why you could be gaining weight and understanding these reasons can help you prepare. However, the cause of your weight gain may not be immediately discernable. To understand the cause, you will need to learn your body’s needs.

A Matter Of Time

It’s completely normal to weigh more immediately after a difficult hike, but this isn’t “real” weight gain. It’s most likely water weight and should go away on its own within a few days. Things like stress, salt, and fluid intake can all cause your weight to go up temporarily, so you shouldn’t worry too much about a few pounds.

Sometimes, long-haul hikers still experience weight gain after fluid retention shouldn’t be a contributing factor. If you’re a thru-hiker wondering why your weight increased so much on a trek of several months, take your body measurements. If your measurements have stayed the same or have decreased, it is likely that you’ve gained muscle mass.

In some cases, seasoned trekkers start packing on the pounds after a hike. If you keep gaining weight when the hike is over, you could be taking in too many calories. A few things can cause this, but the most likely culprit is extreme hunger. Your body is fighting back against the caloric deficit it just went through by making you hungrier. When you eat to satisfy this hunger, you gain weight.

Why You Might Gain Weight Hiking

A bit of weight gain during or after a hike is usually nothing to worry about. However, part of staying in control is staying informed. It’s important to understand the exact reasons why you might be gaining weight, so you can take steps to avoid the situation altogether.

Water Retention

If you’ve gained weight after a hike, the most likely culprit is water retention. Even if you’re chugging plenty of liquids, extreme exercise often makes your body hold onto water for longer. That’s because of the way your body fuels the muscles necessary to undertake such adventures.

After you take in energy from food, your body converts the energy into glucose to feed your muscles. When you exercise more often, your body needs to store more glucose. This is sort of like your body’s backup plan, in-case you try to push your body’s limits without preparation. The glucose binds with water and needs to be stored in water within your cells.

Your body needs a lotof water for storing the glucose. You can hold onto excess water weight, ranging from two to five pounds or more, as your body fights to keep glucose available. You’ll see this reflected on the scale. Eventually, your body will become more efficient at storing the glucose, and your scale weight will drop.

Inflammation

Inflammation is a common issue these days. It’s true that inflammation can be uncomfortable, but when you’re hiking, it is part of a necessary process. When you exercise, you’re putting a lot of stress on your muscles. Even more leisurely forms of exercise still rip and tear the muscle fibers, breaking them down so they can essentially be built back up again. That’s how you build muscle.

However, it causes a lot of discomfort in the body. When you feel soreness after a long hike, it’s your torn muscles healing themselves. This can cause minor swelling and water retention, leading to weight gain. This is a good thing, as long as you rest appropriately and don’t push yourself to the point of injury. Your weight will go down as your muscles heal.

Muscle Building

A pound of muscle weighs the exact same amount as a pound of fat. However, muscle does weigh a bit more by volume. If you fill two bags full of fat and muscle equally, the bag of fat will only weigh about 80% of what the bag of muscle weighs.

When you exercise, you burn fat away and build muscle in its place. While you may look the exact same on the outside, it’s possible you could weigh a bit more because you now have more muscle than you did starting out.

Building muscle takes a long time, so it isn’t a likely cause of weight gain immediately after a hike. But if you’re a dedicated hiker noticing an upward trend in your weight over a period of months or years, it is likely you’re gaining muscle. This is positive weight gain because it will make you stronger.

Excess Calories

Hiking makes you hungry. We need to eat a lot while we’re on the trail, and many of us don’t have the time or desire to track our calories accurately during a hike. We tend to get hungry, stop, and eat as much as possible before moving on again. This could mean you are taking in too many calories without realizing it.

While you need the extra calories during a hike, it’s easy to overdo it. Popular hiking foods don’t help. Since we carry them over long distances, these foods are designed to have the most calories possible for the smallest amount of volume. This means that many hiking foods are high-fat, highly processed, and filled with sodium for flavoring.

They’re designed to give you immediate energy with carbohydrates and sugar, but often neglect more filling nutrients like protein. The excessive salt can make you hold water, and the lack of fiber can lead to constipation. Combine all that with a large number of calories, and you’ve got a recipe for weight gain.

Extreme Hunger

Though long-distance hiking is an incredibly rewarding pastime, it puts the body through a lot of stress. Much of that is food and energy-related, as your body burns through much more food than it normally would. For many thru hikers, it’s impossible to truly fuel the body adequately during a trek.

Hikers tend to lose a lot of weight on the trail because they can’t carry enough food to keep up with their caloric needs. Their bodies go through a state of famine, which begins the process of hormone dysregulation. When the hike is over, the body starts fighting back. Hunger hormones kick into overdrive, increasing appetite and causing extreme hunger.

During periods of extreme hunger, people consume a lotof food and gain weight rapidly. Suppose hikers get down to dangerously low weights from excessive energy expenditure. In that case, extreme hunger can actually save their lives. Self-preservation is why humans have this biological response in the first place. However, it’s rarely that cut-and-dry in the modern world.

Many hikers experience extreme hunger without getting down to ultra-low weights. If weight loss is your goal, extreme hunger is incredibly frustrating and can derail progress quickly. It’s vital to be mindful when experiencing hunger that seems excessive. To prevent yourself from gaining too much weight, track your calories and only consume what you need.

How To Avoid Weight Gain When Hiking

What you eat and drink while hiking plays an important role in exercise weight gain, as does your personal genetic makeup and environmental factors. The good news is, weight gain isn’t predetermined, nor is it set in stone. You’re in control and there are several strategic choices you can make to prevent weight gain from happening altogether.

Stay Hydrated

The first and most important thing you can do to prevent weight gain is to drink enough water. Gulp down more than you think you need. You’ll lose water through sweat, and your body needs even more for storing and delivering fuel to your muscles. To make sure these processes run smoothly during the hike, you need much more water than you usually do.

Additionally, staying hydrated will send your body a message that more water is coming in. When your body knows more water is on the way, it won’t retain so much. Staying hydrated also aids the process of muscle repair, reduces inflammation, and helps flush out sodium. These things all help get rid of water weight.

Watch Your Salt

Popular trail snacks like roasted nuts and beef links are packed with protein, but they’re also chock full of sodium. These highly processed foods can cause water retention, bloating, and swelling, so it’s a good idea to limit them or switch them out for low-sodium versions.

You don’t want to consume too little salt either. Hiking makes you sweat, and you’ll lose a lot of your body’s vital sodium as you exercise. Balancing your salt, potassium, and magnesium is very important on a hike. Bringing along some electrolyte packages to put in your water bottle can help you stay balanced and prevent bloating from excess salt.

Get Enough Rest

While it may seem counterintuitive to weight loss, resting is very important for muscle repair. You need to stop and take a rest occasionally, especially if you’re hiking long distances or for multiple days. Even if you’re just taking a day-hike, resting can make a huge difference in the amount of water you retain.

When you rest, kick back and elevate your feet. This will increase circulation and promote blood flow, which helps your body release water weight. Resting also decreases the inflammation in your body and reduces stress on your muscles. It helps you relax and gives you additional energy for the next part of your journey.

How To Manage Your Calorie Intake When Hiking

Your body may need a lot more fuel on the trail, but it’s still important to control your calorie intake for optimal health. Educating yourself and staying informed will help you make the best food choices. You will also learn to listen to your body’s natural hunger cues to ensure you stay energized.

Educate Yourself

You don’t need to take a nutrition class to educate yourself. However, you need to learn about your energy needs. These will be different when you’re hiking, as you’re expending a lot more energy than you would at rest. You’ll need more calories to keep up with the energy being used.

How many calories you need depends on what kind of terrain you’re hiking through, how much you weigh, and how heavy your pack is. It’s impossible to say exactly, but some sources cite caloric needs of up to 5,000 per day – that’s around twice the recommended intake for an average adult.

Sometimes a person can burn even more than that, while other times they might only need a few hundred extra calories to sustain themselves. Energy needs vary a lot, but you can usually find your personal calorie needs through trial and error.

Know Your Food

If you’re going to take food, make sure you know how many calories it contains. It’s perfectly fine to bring along chocolate, candies, or chips – all food is fuel. However, you need to be aware of its energy value, so you can measure this against your caloric needs when you eat it.

You don’t have to be strict about your calories. Having calorie information running in the background will help you make educated and informed food choices. It will prevent you from eating more calories than you need accidentally, and help you stay accountable for your choices on the trail.

Make Protein A Priority

Many people emphasize eating carbs for energy. While carbohydrates are important, they aren’t the only thing you should be focusing on when it comes to nutrition. In fact, we often overconsume carbohydrates in our quest for endless energy and neglect other important macronutrients like protein.

Protein is a slow-burner. It provides immediate satiation to help you stay moving and keeps hunger at bay for hours. Eating protein-packed food not only keeps you fuller for longer, but it provides much-needed muscle fuel for longer hikes.

Eat Low-Glycemic Foods

Low-glycemic foods are full of fiber, fat, and protein rather than carbs. Things like jerky are low-glycemic, whereas things like chocolate are high-glycemic. High-glycemic foods provide an immediate burst of energy, while low-glycemic foods provide slower, steadier energy.

Low-glycemic foods help regulate your blood sugar levels. They’re better for fueling muscle in the long term than high-glycemic foods because they replace glycogen stores more efficiently than carbs alone. This is especially important for endurance athletes like hikers.

Variety Is Key

Variety is key for good nutrition no matter where you are or what you’re doing. You need protein, carbs, fat, and fiber to get the best performance out of your body. The good news is, you can incorporate variety that includes all essential macros in simple ways that don’t take up a lot of space.

For example, instead of four pounds of rice, bring two pounds of rice and two pounds of lentils. Pack a few protein bars instead of a few chocolate bars and switch out some of your granola for soy granules. Add a powdered fiber supplement to keep yourself regular and consider a multivitamin for longer hikes. You’ll be surprised how much small changes like these can help you regulate your weight.

How To Prevent Weight Gain After A Hike

It is common for people to experience weight gain after a hike. Many hikers go through extreme hunger and even those who don’t can still gain weight. When you’ve become accustomed to a higher calorie intake, you tend to eat more even when your body no longer needs the extra energy. Luckily, you can combat this by being mindful and fueling properly.

Eat What You Need

Don’t cut calories drastically right after a hike. Your metabolism stays slightly elevated for some time after intense exercise, so you might need those calories. Cutting food intake abruptly can often lead to feelings of dissatisfaction that can result in overeating later. However, you don’t want to start eating an excessive amount either.

Instead of undergoing a rapid change in either direction, listen to your hunger cues and pay attention to your energy levels. Often, your body will tell you if it needs more food and you’ll be able to tell when you’ve had enough. Of course, this isn’t always the case. If you notice anything you deem abnormal, think about seeing a doctor to be on the safe side.

Focus On Nutrition

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of rewarding yourself for hard work with indulgent treats. But this can throw off your nutritional balance and make you gain weight. Instead of eating the things you crave for short-term satisfaction, focus on nutritionally dense, whole foods that taste great and help you achieve your fitness goals in the long-term.

For the best results, eat a balanced diet rich in low-glycemic foods. You won’t need as many calories as you did while hiking, so focus instead on getting in all the fiber you lacked on the trail. Fresh vegetables and fruits will be beneficial for maintaining weight, as these fill you up while providing a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals.

Replenish glycogen stores with low-glycemic carbohydrates such as whole grains, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. Lean proteins like chicken breast, flank steaks, and tofu aid in muscle restoration, and plenty of water helps you stay hydrated when the hike is done.

Take Active Rest

While you should give yourself a break, be careful not to fall into the habit of inactivity. Take active rest days following your hike to keep your body in motion. The gentle activity will ease you back into a more typical style of living while still burning calories at an accelerated rate. Going for walks or swimming is a great option, as are strength-training routines like Pilates or yoga.

Gentle movements will help keep your blood pumping and gradually work out kinks in your muscles, allowing you to stay limber for your next adventure. The activity also helps keep the fuel going towards your muscles for repair and regrowth after your strenuous hike.

Final Thoughts

Hiking can make you gain weight and is a common occurrence. It can be caused by water retention, inflammation, or muscle gain. You can prevent this weight gain by staying hydrated, resting properly, and managing your calorie intake. Determine your personal caloric needs to help manage your weight.