All blog posts

How Many Calories Do You Burn While Thru-Hiking?

Yes, hiking burns a lot of calories. But everyone has a different body weight and hiking style which impacts the number of calories you burn. This blog post considers different body weights and hiking styles to provide a better estimate of the number of calories you will burn while backpacking.

Paul Bodnar       Educational       6/23/2020

What is Your Metabolic Equivalent Task (MET)?

Different daily activities burn calories at different rates. These metabolic differences in activities are classified as metabolic equivalent tasks or MET values. Hundreds of different activities have corresponding MET values as illustrated by the referenced physical activities. The more strenuous the activity the higher the MET value. Below is a short list of MET values.

Metabolic Equivalent Task Values


Calculating Calories Burned

To calculate the calories burned multiply the MET value by your weight in pounds times 0.4536 (conversion factor from pounds to kilograms). For example, to compute the calorie expenditure for a 154.3 pound person, backpacking (7.0 MET) for 8 hours would result in 3,920 calories (7 x 154.3 x 0.4536 x 8 h).

Calories Burned = MET value x Body Weight in Pounds x 0.4536 x Duration in Hours

As you can see from the above Metabolic Equivalent Task Value chart, calorie consumption is also dependent on pack weight when climbing hills. The MET value increases as the pack weight increases. I used the MET value of 7.0 for general backpacking which considers both climbing hills and descending with a moderate pack load for the calculations below. The chart below shows the calories burned per hour for three of the most common hiking activities: backpacking, sleeping, and resting.

Calories Burned per Hour by Activity


To determine the number of calories burned in an entire day, each activity during the day should be considered along with how long that activity occurred. For estimating the daily calorie rate, the daily activities used were the number of hours backpacking, and eight hours of sleep and rest. It was calculated that a 150-pound person will burn about 5,062 calories while backpacking for eight hours in a day.

Calories Burned in a Day = Calories Burned Backpacking + Calories Burned Sleeping + Calories Burned Resting 

Daily Calories Burned & Trail Hours


Daily Calories Burned While Backpacking is Staggering!!

The difference between backpacking with a heavy pack and a light pack is substantial. But most people do not consider the impact of carrying a heavier pack in terms of calories or energy consumed. Below is a chart comparing the estimated calories burned to hike for five months using a light pack versus a heavy pack.

Estimated Calories Burned on a 5-Month Thru-Hike

Graph of how many calories you burn while thru-hiking.

Understanding your calories burned while hiking will make it easier to plan your next backpacking trip.  Most long-distance backpackers do not eat enough while in the outdoors but make up for the calorie deficit when they return to town to resupply.


More Thoughts on Nutrition

Dahn Pratt

We can infer some pretty fascinating insights from this analysis, including both the importance of calorie-to-weight ratios and nutrition while on trail.

For instance, the final graph indicates that carrying a heavier pack leads to a much greater amount of calories burned. Which gives credence to the people who champion lightweight and ultralight backpacking — when examined purely from a caloric perspective, lightweight backpacking is actually a more efficient hiking methodology.

Although an extended backpacking trip, such as a thru-hike, is a low impact activity, the extended active time it necessitates leads to a massive net calorie deficit. This is an especially important insight when considering nutrition, which is often an after-thought to people planning and executing a long hike. Because our bodies burn so many calories while out for a long walk, the general orthodoxy is to maximize calories per weight. This is intended to maximize the amount of calories we consume and minimize the amount of weight we have to carry. A great idea in theory, when only thinking about pack-weight relationship to calories burned, but not always the best approach to thru-hiking in practice. Nutritionally rich food is crucial to keeping energy levels stable, avoiding injury, and not compromising on long-term health, but isn’t a mutually exclusive relationship to a calorie per weight consideration. One can have nutritional rich foods that are calorie dense, like minimally processed nut butters (those without sugar, palm oil, and other preservatives are best), dried fruits, dehydrated beans and other legumes, even the occasional fresh fruit or vegetable can go a really long way!

“Anecdotally, while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2014 there was a story going around about a hiker who came down with scurvy (Yes, the 16th century disease that pirates got from lack of vitamin C). Apparently this hiker would just eat very nutritionally poor food, that was calorie dense, e.g. ramen, mashed potatoes, chocolate bars, etc, and when in town would go straight for the burgers and beers. Although this hiker was maximizing calorie to weight, he did not take into consideration nutrition and suffered greatly! We see this all the time on long hikes, people getting overuse injuries because their bodies are not able to recuperate from the long repetitive tasks of thousands and indeed millions of footsteps.”

All of that being said, the important things to consider when planning your diet is not just the amount of calories you will need to replenish but the quality of those calories as well!


References

2011 Compendium of Physical Activities: A Second Update of Codes and MET Values by BARBARA E. AINSWORTH1,2, WILLIAM L. HASKELL3 , STEPHEN D. HERRMANN1,2, NATHANAEL MECKES1,2, DAVID R. BASSETT JR.4 , CATRINE TUDOR-LOCKE5 , JENNIFER L. GREER1,2, JESSE VEZINA1,2, MELICIA C. WHITT-GLOVER6 , and ARTHUR S. LEON

A lake reflects a nearby wildflower meadow and trees.
Download our popular hiking and biking guides!

Trail guides that get you to places you’ve dreamed of.

As the makers of Guthook Guides, Bikepacking Guides, and Cyclewayz, we help you navigate the most popular trails around the world on your smartphone. Our hiking guides and biking guides work completely offline. Let Guthook guide your next adventure!

Showers Lake Vista, Tahoe Rim Trail
Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association
A lake reflects a nearby wildflower meadow and trees.
Showers Lake Vista, Tahoe Rim Trail
Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Trail guides that get you to places you’ve dreamed of.

As the makers of Guthook Guides, Bikepacking Guides, and Cyclewayz, we help you navigate the most popular trails around the world on your smartphone. Our hiking guides and biking guides work completely offline. Let Guthook guide your next adventure!

Download our popular hiking and biking guides!
About the Author
A man wearing an Arizona Trail baseball cap stands in a field in front of a mountain.

Paul Bodnar

Paul has always liked hiking and thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 1997 after college. After years of working in chemistry, he wanted to create a career involving the outdoors, so he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail again in 2010 to do research for his guide book Pocket PCT. He realized that creating a smartphone app for navigating the outdoors would make it easier to keep the data current and provide a better way to navigate. While hiking with Ryan (aka Guthook) in 2010, they decided to work together to create the first comprehensive smartphone guide for the Pacific Crest Trail. Now with the help of a team of great people they have created over 50 guides for trails around the world.