Hiking is an often-overlooked form of exercise in our modern, tech-obsessed society. Most guys are far more likely to go for a run in their neighborhood, hit the gym for cardio and weights workouts, or head to the tennis or basketball court with a buddy. However, hiking offers a welcomed departure from the hustle, bustle, and connectedness to electronics that largely typifies our everyday life these days, immersing you in the serene natural soundtrack of Mother Nature and giving your eyes and ears a break from screens, programming, and manufactured stimulation. It’s also a viable form of cardiovascular and muscular exercise, enabling you to burn calories and stoke your metabolism like other forms of exercise.
Having a decent estimate of the number of calories you burn while hiking is helpful if you’re trying to lose weight, maintain your weight, or even put on mass, as your energy expenditure during physical activity factors into half of the ever-important “calories in versus calories out” truism of body weight manipulation. It also helps inform your fueling needs so that you can hit the trails with ample hiking snacks to power you up and down all the peaks you hope to summit without bonking from low blood sugar while you’re stuck thick in the woods.
Unfortunately, ballparking the number of calories you burn while hiking isn’t as simple as reading the calories readout on an elliptical machine at the end of your workout; rather, many factors affect your energy expenditure from hiking. However, as described below, it is possible to gauge calories burned hiking, so keep reading to see how hiking stacks up in your fitness and weight plan and what factors affect the number of calories you burn hiking.
The number of calories you burn on a hike depends on numerous factors, including the following:
As with all forms of exercise, the number of calories burned while hiking is largely dependent on your body weight. Simply put, the more you weigh, the greater your caloric burn for any given hike. For example, a man who weighs 160 pounds will burn somewhere in the neighborhood of 425 and 450 calories per hour hiking, while a 200-pound man will burn closer to 550 calories per hour on the same hike.
Less significant than total body weight as a factor in caloric expenditure but still significant is your body composition, or the relative percentage of lean body mass and body fat. Muscle tissue is far more metabolically active than adipose tissue (fat) — especially during exercise — which means that if you have a more sculpted build, you’ll burn more calories per hour hiking than someone with the same body weight but a higher body fat percentage.
The faster you hike, the greater the intensity of the workout. Your pace dictates the distance you hike in an hour, which ultimately determines how many calories you will burn. Moreover, much like the principle applied with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, if you hike at a vigorous enough intensity, you’ll stoke your metabolism so significantly that you’ll continue to have an elevated metabolic rate, or burn additional calories, even after your hiking boots have come off. Using trekking poles can also increase the speed, intensity, and muscular demand of the hike, and thus the number of calories burned.
One of the unique factors affecting the number of calories burned hiking — absent in controlled forms of exercise such as cardio machines like rowers, ellipticals, and spin bikes — is the terrain you traverse on the bike. Terrain refers to the topography in terms of uphills and downhills as well as the footing on the ground. Hikes over challenging and varied terrains, such as those with long or steep inclines or lots of rocky sections, burn more calories than flat hikes with even, smooth walking trails because the muscular work to power up hills or to stabilize when dealing with unpredictable footing burns additional calories. If you’re looking to torch some serious calories, take on that mountain peak you’ve been eyeing instead of the flat garden path that meanders around a small brook.
It probably comes as no surprise that carrying a day pack or backpacking with a heavy pack burns more calories. A heavier pack may increase your energy expenditure by 50-100 calories per hour hiking, while a substantial pack may boost the number of calories you burn hiking by upwards of 300 per hour.
If you’ve ever hit a weight loss plateau despite following your diet plan to a T and keeping up with your usual fitness routine, it’s likely your body has adapted to the workout and become more efficient. Unfortunately, as much as it’s a relief when what was once a brutal workout starts to feel totally manageable over time, this reduction in necessary effort is evidence of the progress your body has made and the fitness adaptations that have occurred from the same exercise stimulus. In other words, if you haven’t been working out and then decide to run five miles one day, your body is going to struggle to get you through the workout.
However, if you continue to run the same five-mile route at the same pace for the next six weeks, it will become easier and easier. Your muscles become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the blood, neuromuscular connections operate in a more coordinated manner, and your heart, lungs, and muscles become stronger. These adaptations improve your running economy and the number of calories you burn during the same run decreases. The same principle holds true for hiking. The fitter you are, and the more inured you are to the challenges of hiking, the fewer calories you’ll burn on your hike. With that said, this difference isn’t all that drastic, and certainly shouldn’t deter you from being a regular on the trails.
So, with all that said, determining the number of calories you burn on a hike doesn’t necessarily have an easy answer. Your best approximation will come from wearing a heart rate activity monitor. This will gauge your exercise intensity and the associated metabolic cost. If you don’t have a fitness tracker or an app on your phone, the metabolic equivalent (MET) formula can be used to provide a generalized estimate of how many calories you’ll burn hiking:
Calories burned = MET (6) * weight (kg) * time (hrs)
The MET value relates to the amount of oxygen used in the particular activity. It is generally between 6-7 for hiking. The more intense the hike (steep, fast), the higher the number you should use.
For example, if you’re a 180-pound (82 kg) guy hiking for 1 hour, you can expect to burn around 492 calories (6*82*1=492) for a moderate hike and around 574 calories (7*82*1=574) if you’re working a little harder. Of course, if you’re carrying a pack, you should add the weight of the pack to your body weight.
Though burning calories is certainly one of the perks of a challenging hike, even if you’re just out there to get some fresh air and move your body at a leisurely pace, you’ll reap plenty of rewards from any hike whether it leaves you breathless from exertion or breathless simply from the beauty of the nature surrounding you.
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