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Why don’t I have an Appetite on Backpacking Trips?

Packing Normal Food
Packing Normal Food

Have you ever been on a backpacking trip and not had an appetite? Even if you’re hiking 15 to 20 miles a day?

It’s frustrating because you know you should be hungry, and you know need energy to hike the next day, but you can’t bring yourself to dig in at dinner time.

[quote]We can never eat what I take…just not hungry. I eat more sitting at my desk at work than when hiking 15-20 miles a day on the AT[/quote]

Here are 3 reasons why I think you can lose your appetite on a backpacking trip:

  1. Different Eating Schedule
  2. Different Food
  3. Less Free Time

Different Eating Schedule

When I go backpacking, my eating and sleeping schedule is completely dictated by the time the sun rises and sets. Since I always get up early, the biggest scheduling change for me is when I eat dinner. For example, I tend to eat 1-2 hours earlier in the day than when I’m sitting down to dinner at home with my wife.

If you have a fixed routine of meal serving times at home, it could be that your body and mind are not acclimated to your new backpacking schedule, especially during the first few days of your hike. If you’re like most people, and you can only take short 1 and 2 night backpacking trips, you might never get used to the changed schedule. However, if you can stay out longer that a few days, my guess is that your body will eventually acclimate to the schedule change and you’ll be hungry again when dinner is served.

Different Food

When I got back into backpacking, I used to buy prepared backpacking meals or pre-package freezer bag meals. Those meals were very different from what I’d normally eat at home and I often found myself not finishing them. They tended to be larger portions than I could eat and had a lot more salt and preservatives in them than I prefer.

It might be that you prefer normal food over commercial backpacking meals or the kind that you prepare FBC style. Eventually, I gave up on buying backpacking food and started bringing the same food on trips that I tend to eat at home, like cheese, crackers, bread, nuts, granola,… just regular food, so there’s not any “adaption” required.

Less Free Time

If you’re sitting at work and munching on food, it’s because you either have free time or you can multi-task. Walking is far more active than sitting still and you might just need to take longer breaks to snack than you do today.

A couple of years ago, I would never stop for breaks during the day and as a result, I ate sparingly between breakfast and dinner Today, I make a point to load up the back pocket of my backpack with about 1,000 calories worth of snacks each morning before I leave camp. I take long breaks every few hours to rest and take in my surroundings and I feel relaxed enough to munch because I’m not in a hurry to get up and walk.

Do you ever lose your appetite on a backpacking trip?

What do you attribute it to?

Written 2012. Updated 2015.

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  1. I’ve often marveled at how little I want to eat on a multi-night trip. It’s actually somewhat frustrating, the wasted weight in my backpack. Maybe the moral is to take less food, but denser in calories, carbs, nutrients, protein (or whatever you think your dietary needs are). I’ve wondered if I could go a week on only GU. [shudder] blech.

    What’s even more puzzling to me, is that despite 1. more fibrous fare 2. more water consumption and 3. constant exercise, I am, uh… well… let’s say peristalsis seems to take a break. TMI. Sorry.

  2. This happens to my wife and I when we take a multi-day hike. We have to force ourselves to eat and it almost makes us sick. We buy top of the line freeze dry meals and it seems that dinner is the only time we are able to eat. Breakfast almost gags us and lunch is impossible. Everything seems to dry and amost impossible to swallow. We drink 2 – 3 liters of water a day (NW tempertures) and still seem dehydrated. We think it might be a electrolyte problem and the level of exercise carrying 20 to 30 pound packs 15 to 20 miles per day. We understand that after 10 to 14 days of this your can’t get enough food. The longest single hike we have done was 6 days and we still had food problems.

    • Hi Dennis – if you think it may be an electrolyte problem, you might want to try Alacer Corps Electro Mix. It’s non-sweet (i.e. non messy), and comes in portion powder bags of 4g is thus superlight — a lot more convenient than anything else I’ve found. I used this in desert hikes as a preventative measure, and to the best of my knowledge it worked just fine because we had no problems.

    • Dennis – I drink 4-5 – more often 5 liters a day. I think you might be going short on your water. But why do you keep trying to eat backpacking food instead of normal food? I suggest you give it a try. Even ramen noodles (which I still adore) seem better than what you’re going through.

  3. This happens to me all the time and I’m certain it’s the food. Your mileage may vary, but in my view the food is so monotonous, boring and downright bad compared to real life food that I just eat what I need and nothing more. The soon I do get back to civilization, I eat a fair portion, even immediately after the hike, so I don’t think for me it’s anything to do with the other factors you mention.

  4. I have these same issues. I think my inability to maintain a healthy diet at home is the root of my own issues. Case in point; I withhold from eating the day I’m due back in civilization. I just hold out for the fattest, greasiest, heaviest meal I can sink my teeth into. Increased exercise will always dampen my initial appetite. The hunger is delayed. Night 1 on the trail I can’t eat my own portions. Night 2, I can eat my own, your own, and then chew some bark off trees. My guess is that it’s about fooling your metabolism.

  5. This is a very contentious issue “at home” because when I walk, particularly when I’m on my own, I eat very little. My wife on the other hand needs to eat every three hours. We are always “discussing it” and interestingly when we drag others into the conversation it seems that non eating males are very common. I even know several who claim that the benefits of water are over-rated.

    Best wishes John

  6. I wonder if this is somehow related to the science in Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High by Mark Twight and James Mason.

    I am reading the trail journal of a thru-hiker on the PCT this year (and who did the AT in both ’04 and ’06) and she talks about “hiker hunger”. It takes her a while, a couple weeks maybe to want to eat on the trail. Once she does, she can eat whatever; controlling how much food she has based on resupplies, etc. She and her companion also eat like hobbits; breakfast, late breakfast, elevensies, lunch, late lunch, snack and then dinner.

    I know for myself, I am not hungry even when I day hike. However, I have found a couple beers after I get home seems to cure that. Of course, that is problematic, since I also seem to retain water when I hike and the beers have a fairly dramatic effect…


    • Hiker hunger really only applies, as you say, to longer hikes. It’s caused by a change to your metabolism which takes a while to retrain – sort of like flying between time zones – but slower.

  7. Well, those are all contributing factors to consider. Also, the exitement of hiking. This will generally last a day or two on the trail. Just being out in the woods will keep me excited for a couple days and not very hungry. I am worse than a kid…often skipping supper or having just a couple cups of cocoa for supper…I WANT to PLAY!

    On the NFCT or 6 weeks, that changes rather quickly, though. Few camp fires, mostly a little bitching about the miles I traveled (it never seemed like I was reaching my goal) and just plain old tired. The first week is always less than my food allotment for the day. After that, it was always a bit more. That is about 1.1 pounds per day for the first week or so, about 1.5-1.75 pounds per day after that.

    Anyway, fat reserves on your body can easily make up for any deficit for a couple days. On two day “quickie” outings, typically I will bring about 2 pounds of food. Often I return with some. I have noticed that with the longer trips I have been doing since I retired, I do not hit the “lack-of-apetite” wall or I overcome it far easier. My average trip is about a week or 8 days. I used to spend 3-4 days getting my apetite back, After the first couple outings, I spend closer to 1-2 days. A lot is dependent on your comfort level with the outdoors. Actually, on last weeks trip I didn’t notice it hardly at all, except for lunch. But, overall, I have been out 5 weeks and a couple weekends so far this year.

    Generally, hiking trips are goal oriented. Either a destination is in mind or perhaps the number of miles hiked in a weekend. This goal orientation leaves little room for stopping to eat. Climbing is especially difficult. As the exertion level goes up your apetite tends to falter a bit. I don’t eat when I am climbing peaks. I may much on a piece or two of candy, but it is rare to stop going. If I stop, I will get a bit stiff, after eating, I will get complacent. Not the best things in the High Peaks.

    There are a lot of different reasons for loosing your apetite. Sometimes it is a problem. But, your body can, and will, process fats during the night to replensh it’s “ready reserve” in the liver. It really is not a problem.

  8. I definitely eat less on the trail. I typically try to eat a good breakfast because I know I will not eat much more that a couple of handfuls of gorp through the day. Dinner is usually an hour or two earlier than normal. I have to constantly remind myself to drink water. All these changes in habits translate into a 5-7 lb weight loss for a three day trip. I don’t feel weak or lethargic and don’t seem to have any real issues from this, so I don’t see it as a problem.

  9. I always take breaks when I hike. Mostly to air out my feet, so I won’t get blisters. But also, as you say, to absorb the surroundings. I’m always rushing when I’m not hiking; I refuse to rush when I hike, which gives me added time to eat properly.

  10. I eat like a pig and lately I can never seem to bring enough food. I tried doing an overnight without trail mix once and I thought I was going to die.

    When I’m tired but not necessarily hungry I switch to Clif Blocks. Anyone that has hiked with me becomes a fan of these.

    If someone at camp has extra food I will find a way to eat it. My metabolism is already very fast but any activity just drives it through the roof. I haven’t raided anyone’s bear bag yet but I wouldn’t rule that out!

    If in the rare case I do have extra food it usually goes to the nearest Thru Hiker.

  11. I just finished my thru-hike of the AT and I can understand the extremes of hunger and not hungry. I found that the heat has a lot to do with it. After a week or so into the trail I was eating like a pig. It took most hikers 1-2 weeks to develop the ravenous appetite. Then as soon as the heat came on about northern VA & PA, I almost quit eating. I remember one night I had to force myself to eat dinner and felt sick to my stomach after most days. I was eating during the day like normal but I was too tired most nights to be excited to eat. The hunger plateaued and came back with a fury in new england. I was carrying 4 days of food and hiking to the next town in 3! It felt good to eat enough calories again. These may not be typical for everyone or on a non thru hike. Just my experiences.

    Stephen O.


  12. Really? I definitely can’t eat enough when I backpack. My meals are pantry style and I’m a good cook, so I make stuff I know that I’ll devour…pizzas, mac & cheese, couscous, quinoa, pancakes, hashbrowns, even pies if I can find wild berries. This includes carrying a full kit of spices, broth, and yeast. On a recent two week trip I took 1.8lbs food/day and I only had about 2 lbs total left over – this included stuffing myself silly on two different resupply days.

    On a 5 week trip before that at 1.66 lbs food/day I way hungry (or at least not quite satisfied) the whole time. It took me a couple days after the trip was over to regain my equilibrium.

    I don’t necessarily eat a ton on the trail (a little trail mix or something similar to keep myself going through the day) but breakfast and dinner are huge meals.

    On the two week trip one of my companions had a minor meltdown where she just couldn’t stand the thought of eating another mountain house/backpackers pantry freeze-dried meal.

    If you’re not hungry or eating enough I’d say the first thing to try is change up your meal system! Start dehydrating and cooking some real (greasy, fatty, fantastic) food!

  13. Everyone had some great thoughts. I fall into the “not hungry” on the trail list. I did change up our food items (more tasty) this last 2 weeks and had one noticable change: still hungry ON the trail, but not craving food when we got OFF the trail….which is different than before. I’ll keep working on the food portions and tastes. But it’s really good to know we are “normal” as far as hunger goes. Thanks everyone.

  14. Appetite is dependent on so many things,many of which have been mentioned. One thing that hasn’t been part of the discussion is that at a certain level of exertion your digestive system literally shuts down (well not ALL the way). That process is more definitive if you don’t have a little something in your stomach to keep it going. Hence the advice to eat 100 calories every 90 minutes. I suspect that’s a major reason folks don’t feel like eating– they are pushing hard and their body is putting energy where the demand is highest. Of course that can be counter productive. With thru hikers, 1) they are in such great shape from walking, their actual exertion level is lower per mile than a day hiker and 2) they are sometimes starving (consuming tissue to meet calorie demands) and that must override all other mechanisms.

  15. Remember that there are two components to hunger. One is behavior and pattern; if you’re used to eating on a schedule your appetite will kick in at those times. Change your schedule around and it needs time to readjust.

    However, there is a metabolic component as well. And there is amazing variety from person to person here as it depends on your personal metabolism and even how much fat you carry.

    Someone who carries more fat will actually have less appetite as your body will be in fat-burning mode after a couple of hours of hiking. Your body is burning fat and getting the calories it needs that way. You still need some sugar/carbs to help with that but for most people just small amount will do. This is my situation and I often find myself with no appetite on day hikes until dinner time comes around and my body starts screaming that I should replenish that fat I just burned.

    Everyone is different though and it can also depend on your pace. A faster pace means your body will burn off sugars faster and eventually start eating muscle (cardio). Eventually you’re appetite will kick in if that’s the case.

    If you’re trying to lose weight you can use this to your advantage. I lost 120lbs and hiking was a big part of that. Those long slow climbs are amazing fat burners.

    • So lucky..I eat clean and frequent the gym 3 times/week for an hour of cardio/resistance. Typically each weekend I climb a hill nearby abt 700 mts around 5-6kms in 2.5 hrs. I still cannot shake off that excess weight – I’m 85kgs & gaining more all the time instead of losing from all this activity.

      Its getting to be a bother, as I could be walking farther – with more water and food for longer hikes instead of all this body weight :(

      Am a vegetarian btw. Any tips will be appreciated.

  16. I section hiked the AT between Max Patch and Hot Springs, NC on a four day out and back last May 2014. My appetite was almost non-existent. In fact I was giving away food to thru-hikers. When I got home my appetite kicked into high gear and I ate everything in sight for a week. My feeling is that the exercise changed my appetite.

  17. I think its a physical response to exercise – a partner to the “I just ate 30 mins ago and now I’m freezing cold” phenomenon. When I was less fit and did 3+ weeks, I’d experience this for the first 2 weeks and then the food monster would hit. Now that I am more fit, I notice it much, much less and sometimes not at all.

    Your body has a finite supply of blood. When you are hiking and stop to eat, the blood is diverted to your digestive tract and that is what causes you to get cold (so I am told).

    For super endurance athletes (like Ironman triathlon or ultra running 50+miles) the blood need to the muscles is so great your digestion almost shuts down, and many many foods cause most athletes problems – the bulk of them experience nausea.

    I think hiker appetite suppression for the first 2 weeks of a hike s purely a physical response of the body that sees a huge increase in physical activity and it wants to reserve the blood for muscular usage and recovery. A hard workout raises your base heart rate because it needs more blood flow to the affected muscles for repair. Even though you may have stopped hiking, your blood requirements are higher because your heart is pumping more blood to begin that repair.

    Wear a Fitbit charge HR or other similar device that can measure your heart rate for a week on a charge and be prepared to be amazed how much your base HR stays elevated even while you are sleeping for the first week.

    The body is an amazing thing. Notice what kind of cravings kick in once the food monster does hit. If you have a calorie low diet, cheese and ice cream are like crack. If you are used to a vitamin rich diet hiking food tends to cause a craving for vegetables. I can’t tell you how many times I have craved a salad on the trail. Lettuce – not normally considered hiking food – is a powerful draw for me now. When I used to eat candy bars as snacks while hiking, I’d get the junk food cravings in town. I eat nuts and dried fruit for the most part now, and don’t get the ice cream craving any more. Unless its hot – ice cream tastes great when is hot. Mmmmmmmm, ice cream.

    Back to the endurance athlete thing again – since the digestive track is so stressed, they try to eat simple carbs with enough protein to keep the muscles going and very little fat. Fat, protein, and fiber slow down digestion, where they want to work the GI tract as quickly as possible. Digestion of simple carbs causes nausea in most people at some point (hallowween candy belly ache, and why Coke has phosphoric acid) so living of a diet of GU will make most people sick. Go watch an Ironman and see how many of them pop a cork half way thru the run – and they have trained for a YEAR or more to do this. Part of their training is not just the muscles, but they also train their GI tract to digest simple foods while under great physical exertion.

    I think if while hiking you consume simple carbs (candy bars etc) you are getting close enough to the threshhold of nausea to cause appetite suppression, Where if you ate fewer simple carbs and ate more fats and proteins or complex carbs (pasta/rice/bread things), you are farther away from that threshhold and might not experience appetite suppression as badly.

    Just my observations, I’m not a scientist or nutritionist.

  18. I don’t do multiday backpacking trips, but I’ve realized that I can’t eat normal food while on a day hike. It took a while to figure out what worked – giving me energy but not making me sick. Basically Gu, jelly beans and a little soggy pb&j. The night after a hike I’m not very hungry but I do crave salt, it’s only the 2nd day after that I can’t stop eating and am craving pickles like a crazy person. Then it evens out. I think the key is figuring what works for your body so you can bring the right things to eat.
    (and I really like it when you put links to older posts on Facebook, since despite having combed your archives there is invariably a great article that I missed.)

  19. I have almost no appetite on day hikes. Most hikes that I do last 8 to 10 hours. Also, although I love eating meat. On hikes I can’t eat any type of meat, even the sight of it makes me sick. Once back at home my appetite for meat returns. Never understood why.

  20. When I’m hiking, I don’t desire food nearly as much as when I’m at home, which sometimes works well for lightening the load. I have to force myself to snack during the day since I get focused on the hike and don’t really feel much hunger. Once I get off the trail, I crave a cheeseburger–and I don’t eat those normally. I’m sure it all has something to do with… something!

  21. I have experienced that freakish lack of appetite during and after a long day on the trail, for which I’m sometimes punished later with nausea and/or “puking for distance.” Since this is obviously unacceptable, I have since adopted a good technique to stimulate my appetite – I carry along Knorr bullion cubes and boil up a nice broth to sip on while I’m setting up for the night. Viola! Helps me hydrate and makes me hungry for a nice meal – every time.

  22. I’m plagued with this problem, it just seems to get worse, and I’ve discovered an effective solution.

    We go on multi day backpacks, primarily Grand Canyon, more recently Oregon’s Rogue River and Wallowa Mountains, Arizona’s Superstitions.

    I carry freeze dried dinners, granola for breakfast, an assortment of snacks. I can hardly eat after long, strenuous days and end up carrying excessive weight in uneaten food. I beg my hiking companion to finish my dinners.

    What to do?

    I hit upon the obvious solution this past outing in the Wallowas. Oregon legalized marijuana July 1st. Weed stimulates appetite, gives us the munchies. I tried it, “experimented” and took a few tokes while the Backpacker Pantry Beef Stoganoff (ugh) was soaking.

    It worked! The gruel didn’t taste any better but I was able to shovel it down.

    Yet another reason to legalize weed.

  23. Our 2 sons and I did 2 days on the AT and we were surprised we didn’t feel like eating. I lost 8 llbs.

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