The number of calories you burn while backpacking will vary from person to person and situation to situation. It’s safe to say, however, no matter your size or fitness level, you can expect to burn A LOT of calories hiking on the trail.
Why You Burn So Many Calories Backpacking
Compared to most conventional forms of exercise, backpacking burns calories at a slower, steadier rate. A run, for example, can burn nearly twice the amount of calories per minute as backpacking—but the average run usually only lasts between 15 minutes and an hour.
Even the easiest day out on the trail usually lasts many times the length and duration of a run. All that time on your feet adds up, and you may be surprised to learn how many calories you burn from a single day of backpacking.
According to Mayo Clinic, a 160-pound person spends 861 calories per hour running at a speed of 8 mph (about a 7:30 mile). So a single half-hour running session burns about 431 calories.
That same individual burns about 511 calories per hour while backpacking (again from Mayo). Five hours on the trail and you’ve already burned 2,555 calories — about 6 X the amount from the half-hour running session.
Of course, this is on top of the daily amount of calories your body expends to simply keep you alive, also known as your basal metabolic rate. For our 160 pound individual, that’s somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 per day. You can calculate your basal metabolic rate with the BMR calculator on bodybuilding.com.
Biggest Factors that Affect Your Burn Rate
So how do we calculate your personal “burn rate”? Not only does it vary from person to person, but your own burn rate will depend on the terrain you hike, the speed at which you hike, and the weight you tote on your back.
Your weight is an important factor in calculating your caloric burn rate. The general rule is, the more you weigh, the more calories you will burn per hour.
Are you hiking at a fast clip, or are you strolling along at a leisurely pace? Are you climbing a rocky summit or crossing flat, grassy terrain? The intensity of your hike plays a major role in your final caloric tally.
It’s not only your weight that matters. But, the pounds on your back also need to be factored in. The more weight you’re carrying, the more calories you’ll expend.
According to Livestrong.org, a light load (like a day pack) burns between 50 to 100 more calories per hour on the trail. Supplies for a long backpacking trip add roughly 200 more calories to your hourly burn rate.
Men burn calories at a higher rate than women, due to their higher muscle-to-fat ratio. According to Livestrong, a moderately active man needs about 2,500 calories per day to maintain his weight, whereas a woman at the same activity level needs about 2,000.
Calculating Your Backpacking Burn Rate
Calorie counting isn’t just for people who want to drop a few pounds (although it’s certainly useful for that purpose). To stay healthy and keep your energy up for the duration of your trip, it’s critical that you sustain your body with the right amount of fuel.
Having a general idea of your caloric expenditure helps you streamline the food you pack for optimal performance and health—whether your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, or simply to make it to the end of your hike without keeling over.
It can be a complex bit of calculation so we created this quick table to help you get an estimate of your own burn rate on the trail.
Of course, there are many other variables that factor into your burn rate - like muscle mass, age, fitness level and height. These general guidelines will help you get some idea of the calories you’re expending.
Hopefully, this information helps you get a general picture of how many calories you’ll burn on your next backpacking trip. You can then pack the ideal meal plan for your next trip, full of calorically dense foods.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.