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

Why Don't I have an Appetite on Backpacking Trips

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.

“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”

There are 3 reasons why you can lose your appetite on a backpacking trip:

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

Different Eating Schedule

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 if you eat at a different time, 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. If you can stay out longer than 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

It might be that you prefer normal food over commercial backpacking meals or the kind that you prepare FBC style. I’ve largely given up gave up on buying freeze-dried or dehydrated backpacking meals and bringing the same food on trips that I tend to eat at home, like cheese, crackers, bread, nuts, granola, tuna fish, rice… 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?


  1. Yes! My trips tend to be a week long or less, and I make myself eat simply because my body and brain need fuel, especially in the morning. What has helped me, ironically, is to eat more of what I see as ‘backpacking food’ in off trail life. It helps that I have a physically active job that starts early in the day, so cold instant coffee and a protein bar with peanut butter is perfect. For what it’s worth. (But your way makes more sense.) Thanks!

  2. I appreciate this topic! I eat so little in general and even less when I hike. Multi vitamins are a must for me as well as things that are just straight lipids and proteins. I honestly have no idea how most hikers make it through the day with the crap they eat. Sugar and carbs are so short lived and the crash afterwards is worse for me than just being hungry. Hiker nutrition is something I would like to see more education on. Hell, general nutrition is something I’d like to see more education on.. It blows my mind what I see people buying at the grocery store. No wonder we are all so sick!!

    • I so agree with you. I tried very hard to eat well while bikepacking this Summer. I did well with breakfast. Sometimes I ate well at lunch, but often by the time I reached my destination at night, I just wasn’t hungry. I would drink what ever was in my bottles and maybe something light. Fortunately, I took a Friday night to Sunday morning rest at various friends where I ate real food. As to what so many eat- I see so many patients with Type 2 Diabetes. I actually teach not only nutrition, but often, how to prepare foods so they taste good.

  3. I have no desire to have meals at “normal times” when I’m on the trail. A big breakfast 20 minutes before I start hiking makes me sick and having a big(ish) meal at night after the tent is set up is unappetizing though I often force it simply for calorie intake. My preference is for larger trail snacks throughout the day. Sort of like your approach of “long breaks every few hours”. Depending on my itinerary I might not get the breaks in but sometimes walk eating a slice of pizza or part of a sandwich.

    In any case its easy to understand how long distance hikers lose so much weight over the span of weeks that they’re out there.

    • I find myself walking all day and eating sparingly over 2 to 3 days AT section hikes. I use Nuun tablets in my water which keeps me going after 15 miles. Cashews sporadically during the day as a snack. Always have eaten little but consumed more water regardless of temperature as well

  4. There’s also a fair amount of research indicating that intense and prolonged and, or intense exercise can suppress appetite. For me I deal with a lack of appetite early in a trip by consuming a fair amount of calories in liquid form particularly in the first half of the day..

  5. High altitude, say over 10,000′, also tends to suppresses appetite.

    • I live at 175 feet above sea level. Even hiking at 5,000 and above kills my appetite. I have to force myself to eat and usually go with a handful of mixed nuts every now and then to get calories in me.

  6. I also attribute it to altitude. I usually hike around 10,000 feet or higher in the Rockies. This year I was in the Sawtooths, at a lower altitude, around 9,000 or lower and my appetite was remarkably better. Also, I come from a low altitude home.

  7. This has mostly been covered in other comments, but three appetite suppressants not mentioned by Philip are: heat, altitude, and exercise. I’m a fan of eating through the day, and eating an early-ish dinner with more hiking afterwards. I think liquid calories are awesome. And while I appreciate Nate’s comments about a healthy diet I know there is not one all-encompassing answer to this question. I am generally mindful of what I eat, but hand me a Pringles can at the end of the day and then try to take it away. I double dog dare you!

    • I appreciate the posts on this topic. I hike 3-4x year for 7 day hikes at 11-12K feet in New Mexico Pecos Wilderness. I have experienced this dilemma every time. I am not trying to diet or restrict calories but have to push food to get 1500-2000 calories a day while burning much more. I usually lose 3-4 lbs in the week. I have attributed it to altitude and exertion (I’m 67) but change in what I eat makes sense too. I have continually reduced the amount of food taken over the years to avoid the mass extra at the end of a hike.

    • Your practice of eating before setting up camp appeals to me, Bunny! Last March on a four night section hike on the Florida Trail, I made it a point to stop a few miles from my intended site every afternoon. Cooking a pouch of ramen or rice and adding a chicken or tuna pouch forced me to actually eat when not particularly hungry. By the time I decided to stop for the night, I tended to be more relaxed because the “chore” of cooking and eating was out of the way. An added benefit was that my utensils were already cleaned and trash was secured in my canister so my campsite was free of odors that might attract scavenging critters.

  8. I did a Pemi Loop a couple of weeks ago and ate only a small amount of the food I brought. I stopped in Lincoln for a large Gifford’s chocolate and peanut butter frappe to make up for the massive calorie deficit in the most enjoyable way possible.

  9. To add another: loss of appetite is often a symptom of dehydration. Even if I’m not experiencing other symptoms, a lack of appetite at the end of a big day is my clue that I need more water.

  10. I get out on 7-10 days section hikes. I’m pretty routine, get up early and eat some granola and milk. Then take the time for a nice big cup of coffee. Load up snacks for the trail, one big stop half way through the hike with some PBJ and some chips with a little flavored water just to keep the taste buds fired up. I like a good meal after camp is set and everything is ready for the night, a candy bar for desert.

  11. I tend to have 2 lunches 11amish and 2pmish — even Ichiban when it’s cold and wet! I never do those things at home. And, yes, exertion causes lack of appetite .

  12. I don’t get out for more than four days and find no problem eating whilst hiking. However once I stop for dinner I often take a look at my large evening meal and think no way. However, if I force down the first five spoons of it then I finish it easily. My understanding is that after two to three weeks most thru hikers are eating everything they can.

  13. Ditto to all; this phenomenon has gotten me in trouble more than once. But I found a solution that has worked REALLY well for me. As a warm-up to dinner I make a mugfull of Knorr broth to sip on while I get organized and set up. Relaxes the bod, relaxes the brain. Appetite is seriously back. Try it.

  14. I go thru the exact same thing although I like a breakfast and a small lunch but I like pulling snacks from my pockets as I hike. I’ll “graze” throughout the day as I hike. I’m guessing my body is asking for calories as it needs it. I do the same with water, a little at a time as I hike throughout the day through a tube connected to my water bottle. I’m rarely hungry by the time dinner comes around.

  15. Everyone is different, as well researched in endurance sports coaching. Most bodies will shut down their digestive systems when the energy is needed elsewhere, like for climbing steep terrain. My solution is evolving, but involves avoiding fats (especially trail mix type foods) and instead consuming easier to digest carbohydrates. But I only have two meals a day: one early before activity and one late – two to three hours after activity. During the day, when moving I focus primarily on water, supplemented with Maltodexrin or more recently maple syrup. You don’t want to bonk, so you need rapidly digestible sugars at regular intervals and in the correct amounts. I find powdered Maltodextrin is a bit messy, but light weight – much lighter than gels and has less garbage to deal with. Lately, I am focussing on maple syrup, which goes a very long way for a small quantity. Last 8 day backpack I only needed a pint, which was effectively all of my lunches.

  16. It’s pretty well known amongst endurance athletes that most people can only digest ~200cal/hr. Too much of that in simple sugars can also lead to nausea. Fats require water to hydrolyze and digest so keeping well-hydrated is an absolute must if you are eating calorie-dense foods, otherwise it sits and keeps you feeling full. Protein is the least calorie-dense of our macros and also takes the most time to break down into component amino acids.

    • At my “best” for ultra endurance activities I was able to process roughly 250 kcal/hr. Substantially more consistently caused GI distress, so 200 kcal/hr probably is a useful baseline for most people. At the time I was burning >600 kcal/hr which, compounded over the course of a 12- or 24- or 48-hour event, was a pretty significant deficit. At the speed I hike, the ups and downs in Colorado mean I burn about 300-350 kcal/hr on average. Also, I have about 2,000 kcal available as muscle glycogen. Once that’s burned up I will bonk unless I’ve been adding more fuel (max 200-250 kcal/hr). Knowing all this and dialing in your macros makes eating for performance a fairy straightforward math problem. So, do you hike to eat or do you eat to hike?

  17. Great article! Thanks for bringing this to the front of the conversation because I think it happens to a lot of people and no one really talks about it (including myself).

    BUT, food is critical on a trip–not just for the obvious benefits of energy and nutrition, but I also think it plays a huge role in your mental state and overall experience. I think the food is a big reason some people get turned off to backpacking (especially if it’s a really bad half-hydrated trail pouch).

    Food is our respite on the trail–a reward for a long day of earnest work. A celebration of your your accomplishment of being out there, making it this far. A ritual. To me, preparing a good backcountry meal is as much a part of the endeavor as the hike itself. Without it, I think there’s something missing from the experience.

  18. Any of this possibly have to do with ghrelin?

  19. This is an area in which my experience staffing aid stations in 100-milers have helped. (At 2:00 a.m., even the most seasoned hundo runner can have a toddler-ish meltdown and insist they don’t want to eat.) I distinctly remember yelling at myself once “I don’t care if you’re not hungry, you’re going to eat!!!” — yes, out loud, in the backcountry. To anyone who may have passing by at the time, I apologize.

  20. An interesting topic indeed! I recall my first trip to Lapland in the early 1980s when we ran out of food/calories and got weak and lightheaded for the last few days. An iron ration of pemmican kept us going. On my next trip a few years later, I carefully planned with 3000 food calories (kcal) per day per person and was fine. So my rather basic maths worked out.

    By now I have realised that the number of calories required per day depends on parameters such as age and body weight. Now, in my 60s, I definitely need less. Having said this, I’m also somewhat overweight with a slight paunch (83 kg at 174 cm) due to a desk job with too little exercise. My body weight gets reduced when I backpack, approximately at a rate of a few pounds per week. So I reckon that I currently get away with 2000 kcal/day. (I have known people doing hard-core expedition style hikes or similar who advocated to actually gain weight (40-50 pounds) before their trip, to be used as an extra store of calories.)

    Back in my 20s I was thin as a stick, and on the “hunger trip” to Lapland I actually lost muscle tissue, which clearly isn’t a good thing. Similarly, my 14-year-old son is currently growing like hell (now taller than me, but much slimmer), and on the last backpacking trip it was difficult for us to carry a sufficient amount of calories to stop him from feeling hungry. So I’d put him at 3000 kcal/day at a minimum.

    Personally, when backpacking, I’m having cereal for breakfast, bread and sausage/cheese for lunch, and some pot noodle kind of stuff for dinner. The latter I make rather “brothy” as my body seems to crave for salty fluids to compensate the loss of minerals. When I was younger, I could carry two weeks’ worth of food, but now I only do one week.

  21. Yes, to the point where I’m doing a big rethink of my caloric intake strategy: bringing a variety of choices in the hopes that something will catch my interest doesn’t really work and just results in me carrying pounds of food I end up not eating, and it’s definitely starting to feel like packing at least 2k calories per day because that’s the minimum I “should” be consuming is just another version of packing fears – I just don’t eat that much on shorter trips and I obviously don’t need it. For my next trip I’m going to go for a much more limited number of options and aim for fewer calories per day, with a primary goal of taking in enough at the right times to not bonk rather than consuming a certain number in a 24-hour period.

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