What You Need to Know About Hiking for Weight Loss
Should I train to climb a big-ass mountain (or trek across Nepal, or hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim, etc.) in order to lose weight?
That’s a very common question I get on this blog.
And I totally love that. Because as someone who has always struggled a bit with weight and body image and will probably never have 10 percent body fat, I totally feel you.
My answer is, it depends.
On one hand, hiking, backpacking, and non-technical mountaineering can be awesome long-term weight-management strategies. This is especially true if you love your sport and plan to stick with it.
On the other hand, these are definitely not the most efficient ways to shed extra pounds.
Seriously, if you’re just looking to get super ripped for cousin Suzy’s spring wedding so you can wear a clingy dress and Show Those Bitches, there are easier ways.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of hiking for weight loss, plus some best practices to follow.
Benefits of Climbing and Hiking for Weight Loss
If you love being outside, and if you’re willing to commit to big lifestyle changes, climbing and hiking for weight loss can totally work for you — and bring much collateral awesomeness to your life. Some of the advantages of this approach:
You can set big, sexy goals
I don’t know about you, but I’m a hell of a lot more motivated when I’m training to trek across Nepal than when I’m training to fit into some skimpy dress for Suzy’s lame wedding.
If I fail at the dress thing, I’ll just wear a different dress.
But if I fail at the Nepal thing, I’ll suffer for two weeks, slow down the group, and could possibly miss out on seeing some amazing, life-changing shit. Also, I’ll be totally burning that $2,000 plane ticket I just bought.
Training for a big goal lights a fire under your ass like few things can.
Badass mindset and the law of attraction
When you commit to a huge physical challenge like a Nepal trek, you’ll immediately start seeing yourself differently.
You’ve just told the universe that you believe you can do The Thing. (Even if no one else believes it.)
By committing, you’re already acting like this fit, lean, athletic badass you want to transform into.
This sets up your subconscious to make the right choices and behaviors. Which drastically increases your odds of actually becoming a fit, lean, athletic badass.
Lifestyle change v. fitness project
You can go to Crossfit every day for a month until you hit your goal weight for Suzy’s wedding.
But then what?
Experts agree: the best way to lose weight and keep it off is to develop healthy, lifelong habits.
And long-term training (like you’d do for Nepal) gives you plenty of time to establish those habits and see monster benefits. Which makes you more likely to keep them over months and years.
The fun factor
Seriously, how much would someone have to pay you to slog along on a treadmill for eight hours?
That would suck. Those hours would feel like years.
But when you’re hiking, backpacking, or mountaineering, you can go out for 8–12 hours and enjoy every second of it.
There’s beautiful scenery all around. You’ll feel the elation of hitting your goal. And of course, you can take friends along to distract and entertain you.
Really, no gym exercise gives you that kind of payoff.
Limitations of Climbing and Hiking for Weight Loss
Hiking, climbing, and mountaineering are all endurance sports.
In order to kick ass at them, you need to build up a solid base of high-volume, low-intensity training (also known as your aerobic base).
Now. You may have heard that aerobic exercise burns fat. Which is true … while you’re actually doing it.
But when you stop running and sit down at your desk, the burn stops. That’s all you get.
By contrast, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) keeps your metabolic engine revving for hours after you hit the showers. So you can burn more calories overall with less exercise volume.
Now HIIT does have its place in hiking and mountaineering training.
But the bulk of your hiking and mountaineering workouts are going to be in the less efficient aerobic zone.
Think of it this way. You could run a marathon to lose weight for Suzy’s wedding. But unless you really love marathons, it would be overkill.
It’s the same way with hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering for weight loss. Do them if you love them and can commit to months and years of training.
But if you just want to lose weight as quickly and efficiently as possible, focus on HIIT and strength training. They’re actually a lot of fun, and you’ll see results faster.
Hiking for Weight Loss Tips
So you’re super stoked about hiking for fitness and weight loss.
First let me give you the double high-five of bossness. You’re going to kick ass at this.
To get you started, here are some handy guidelines to follow.
Get a “long hike” in at least once a week
Good endurance training involves one long workout where you stress your body with exercise volume (but not intensity).
Your long hikes can range from one hour (if you’re new to hiking or currently in your off-season) to over 12 hours (if you’re at your training peak or tackling your goal).
Increase your long hike by no more than 10 percent each week.
And every couple of weeks, cut your long hike back by 30–50 percent. This allows your body systems to strengthen up. (Yes, well-timed resting actually makes you stronger.)
When possible, do your long hikes on exciting trails that motivate you. Put aside some time to do some research and come up with your hiking bucket list.
For optimal fat burning power, hike at low intensity. This means you can breathe easily through your nose and carry on a conversation with a friend.
Resist the urge to hurry or keep up with faster hikers. It can put you in the cardio “black hole” where you’re going too fast to burn fat and too slow to get any anaerobic benefits.
One good way to gauge intensity is to wear a heart rate monitor. (If you need shopping ideas, check out my review of the Wahoo TICKR, which I’ve been loving for the past two years. It’s the one I used to train for Mount Rainier, Bolivia, and Mexico in 2017.)
Your aerobic (fat-burning) zone will generally be between 60–75 percent of your max heart rate. You can set most workout apps to alert you if you’re out of your zone. For detailed instructions on finding your target heart rate for aerobic training, check out my post: How to Find Your Aerobic Threshold.
Train smart during the week
Unless you live in a cabin in the mountains (lucky you), you won’t be able to hike and climb every day. That’s OK. You can still train for your sport.
For cardio, that means more low-intensity aerobic workouts. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes 3–4 times a week. Once you’ve got a solid aerobic base, make one of those workouts a HIIT workout.
The best cardio exercises for hikers are weight bearing (on your feet) and force you to step uphill. For extra resistance, wear a backpack. Some ideas:
- Running, especially on an incline or hilly terrain
- Climbing stairs (real ones or on a stair mill)
- Walking uphill on a treadmill
Pump some iron
Strength training benefits all hikers and climbers, and it’s especially helpful if you want to lose weight.
Muscle is an excellent fat burner. Lifting weights 2–3 times a week will also slow down muscle loss while your body is in a calorie deficit.
In the early stages, there’s no magic program you need to follow. Just work your major muscle groups, including your core. Group fitness classes like Les Mills Bodypump are a great way for beginners to ease in.
If you’re training for a big mountaineering goal, you’ll want to add strength and endurance phases to your training. These should be 6–8 weeks each.
- Strength: 6 sets, 4 reps, heavy weights
- Endurance: 2 sets, 15 reps, lighter weights
Eat a healthy, balanced diet 80 percent of the time
Those of use who struggle with weight issues and emotional eating (raises hand) know that being super restrictive can backfire.
It’s important to be flexible and find ways to enjoy healthy eating.
Unfortunately, outdoor athletes seem to be especially susceptible to food woo and rigid eating rules.
So forget everything you’ve heard about paleo diet (google “paleofantasy” to learn why that’s mostly crap).
And don’t listen to anyone peddling a cleanse or elimination diet. For most people, they’re totally unnecessary and add needless stress to your life.
Here’s what to do instead.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet 80 percent of the time.
- Get plenty of fiber through fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains.
- If you must track a macro, aim to eat 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. Or just focus on adding more protein to your diet.
- Clean eating (v. packaged food) will usually give you more nutritional value for the same caloric intake. So aim for at least one clean meal a day.
- That said, don’t go overboard with the clean eating thing. If you’re stressed and short on time, it’s fine to use frozen veggies in your recipe or pop a Weight Watchers meal in the microwave.
- The other 20 percent of the time, eat what you want. Have a waffle. Drink a beer. Eat delicious comfort food with people you love.
Track what you eat (at least in the beginning)
Use an app like MyFitnessPal to set calorie and protein goals and track your intake. The idea is to get a rough idea of how much you can take in during your weight loss phase.
(The app limits you to losing a pound a week, which is probably the max you want to shoot for.)
Be consistent with your food tracking, but don’t be a total perfectionist. If you eat at a restaurant, just estimate.
Tracking gets old fast. So once you’ve got your new, healthy diet mostly wired, ease off the app.
You can always bring it back if you’re struggling or need to recalibrate. Because often as training ramps up, you will need to eat more. And you’ll also want to increase your intake when you hit your goal weight.
Don’t restrict or track calories on trail days
Instead, this is a great time to practice intuitive eating. Tune into your body and its sensations.
- When do you feel hungry?
- What are you hungry for?
- Are you hungry or thirsty?
- Which foods/frequency give you sustained energy?
- (As you’re eating), what’s enough?
Chances are, your body will ask you for food OFTEN on the trail. It’s totally natural when you’re working your ass off for hours and hours. So just focus on eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re satisfied.
That being said, don’t go off the deep end, either. Eating delicious, clean, balanced snacks will help you keep your mood and energy up. Think 80 percent turkey sandwich on artisan bread and 20 percent peanut M&Ms. (Mmm.)
One of the best things about hiking for weight loss is that it’s inexpensive. You don’t have to join a pricey gym or buy a $2,000 road bike to get started. In fact, you can start with very little gear, a lot of which you can borrow or pick up secondhand.
Here’s are the hiking essentials I recommend for beginners:
- Boots. To enjoy hiking, you absolutely must have happy feet! So this is where I’d invest most of my budget. If you plan to do day hikes (no overnights), a simple fabric and leather boot should do the trick. Shop for comfort first and foremost. Your boot should also have a grippy sole (lots of deep lugs).
- Socks. Keeping your feet happy on trail also means investing in good wool or synthetic hiking socks, preferably with a bit of cushion. My personal favorites are made by Darn Tough Vermont. They’re super comfy, incredibly durable, and guaranteed for life. (Yes, guaranteed socks.)
- Backpack. For short hikes, just about any comfy pack will do. If you’re going into the backcountry, shoot for one with a capacity of about 35L with plenty of padding, ventilation, and a hip belt.
- Survival Gear. There are a few important safety items you should take on every hike. For more into, check out my blog post on the 10 essentials.
- Appropriate Clothing. Your hiking clothes don’t need to be fancy. But they should be made out of synthetic material (no cotton) to keep them from soaking up sweat or precipitation. Wet clothes are uncomfortable and can even cause hypothermia.
Need more ideas? Check out my recommendations page to see the gear I use for every hike, plus some of my favorite online retailers.
Weight loss can put a lot of stress on your mind and emotions.
It’s totally common to overthink things or feel defeated.
So if you fall down a giant rabbit hole of shame because you binged on junk food in the break room or you gained a pound this week, sit with that for minute.
Acknowledge the feelings. Notice the thoughts that go with them. Then change the thoughts. (Because honestly, you can thing and believe whatever you want.)
Above all, realize you don’t need to be perfect to do this.
When I look back at my favorite climbing seasons, they weren’t the ones where I had my nutrition and training dialed in best.
They were the ones where I had did the most awesome trips with the coolest people. And most of all, I had fun.
So take a moment and look at the gorgeous scenery. Appreciate the cool people who came out with you. Honor yourself for committing to this crazy, life-changing adventure.
Think about how much fun you’re going to have trekking across Nepal while everyone else is suffering through Suzy’s wedding. (‘Cuz you totally skipped it to go travel.)
For a lot of people, the outdoors are a like a temple. And you get to spend massive amounts of time just soaking in all that awesome energy.
Seriously, who else gets to do that? Like, 0.009 percent of modern humans.
So there you have ’em. My best tips on climbing and hiking for weight loss.
I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions, tips, or success stories, definitely jump in the Facebook Group to share.
Now go forth and kick ass on trail! Treat yourself like you’re already a fitness god(dess) and amazing athlete. Because you will totally get there.