Bullying and trying to shame people into reducing their pack weight is relatively new to the backpacking community (Does pack weight come from fear?), but it has been commonplace in American culture as a way to try to motivate people to lose weight for decades. Though I’m sure (or at least hope) that the people who coined the term “pack weight comes from fear” were not intentionally tapping into the very sensitive issues surrounding size/weight-based prejudice, they stumbled into it anyway. Issues of bullying and weight shaming have bled over from mainstream America into my idyllic community in the woods and I don’t like it!
Americans obsess about food and weight.
I was shocked when I returned home from the trail and was immediately inundated with commentary about food, eating, and beauty. The culture I’d been immersed in on the trail viewed food and eating very differently from mainstream society, and I had forgotten the pervasiveness of our cultural programming about food and body image. On the trail, I lost count of the number of complete strangers that walked up to me and offered me Snickers bars or other kinds of food. On the trail, the Snickers bars and other unexpected treats were referred to as “trail magic,” and the strangers providing them were called “trail angels.” Meeting a trail angel and getting unexpected trail magic was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I still smile thinking back on those Snickers bars! On the trail I’d stopped being ashamed of my hunger. I’d stopped being ashamed of eating. I’d stopped being ashamed of taking food from strangers. If I went into a restaurant and ordered 2 appetizers, 2 meals, and then every dessert off of the menu my friends and acquaintances would look at me with approving surprise and say, “You go girl!” while the wait-staff would laugh wholeheartedly and say, “You must be a thru-hiker.” On the trail, the pervasive attitudes about food and eating were all very positive. No one ever said, “do you really need that candy bar?” or “You’d really look great if you just lost another X (fill in a number) pounds.”
According to Weight Watchers, a healthy weight for my height (5’10) ranges from 139-174 pounds, which is consistent with my internal metrics (I know that if I drop below 140 pounds, I become amenorrheic, which is a sign that I’m underweight). The CDC on the other hand suggests a normal range of 129-174 lbs. In the five months that I was on the trail I had gone from being over-weight (185 lbs and a size 16) to underweight (135 lbs and a size 3). When I returned to civilization I felt like a completely different person on the inside, and had forgotten that my outward appearance had changed too. My weight was often the first thing people noticed and wanted to relate to me about, not my experiences or my personal growth. I was surprised by how complicated my feelings about that were, both personally and culturally. Suddenly I had ‘thin privilege’… All of the women on TV looked like me, all of the food advertisements seemed to be saying that women should look like me, and people kept telling me that I was beautiful.
None of it quite felt right though. I definitely was not at a reasonable long-term stable weight for me. At first it seemed laughable to think that people would look at me and think that I was. It was ridiculous! But then I realized that I was the weight that the media was telling me I should be: I was the weight where everyone on TV looked like me. Suddenly I wasn’t laughing anymore. I was horrified. This was compounded by the fact that I knew I was underweight and people were already starting to shake their heads and make comments like, “You better start watching what you eat or you’ll gain it all back!” It was incredibly unnerving. Though I enjoyed the privilege and praise that came with being thin, the message that I needed to be careful if I wanted to keep my new found privilege was coming through loud and clear. Being a size 3 meant thin privilege, but would I get to keep that privilege at a healthier, more stable weight? I wasn’t sure.
What I do know is that whether I am underweight or overweight, what I was eat, how much, and how often is a topic of conversation whether I want it to be or not. Typically when I am heavier, the comments are more critical and less positive than when I am lighter.
Being heavy, overweight, obese or fat in America, “is associated with being ‘lazy, ignorant, hated, ugly, weak, and lacking in will-power.’ As a result, ‘fat’ isn’t a description like tall or redhead – it’s an indication of moral character: fat is bad.” According to the CDC, 35.7% of American adults are obese (having a BMI or body mass index greater than 30) and many more are considered to be overweight (BMI greater than 25 but less than 30). Given the stigma associated with weight and the large number of people that are considered to be overweight or ‘fat’, it’s not surprising that many people in our culture are sensitive about weight issues. Is it reasonable to be concerned about the health risks associated with being overweight or obese? Yes. Does weight discrimination help people evaluate and improve their health? No. Weight discrimination can make it even harder to navigate the health care system since doctors respect their patients less as their weight (BMI) goes up. Is weight shaming an effective way to motivate people to lose weight and to combat America’s obesity epidemic? No. “Weight discrimination, which is often justified because it is thought to help encourage obese individuals to lose weight can actually have the opposite effect: it is associated with the development and maintenance of obesity,” (according to findings published in 2013 on PLOS ) and discussed in the Huffington Post.
Hikers obsess about pack weight.
Just like Americans seem to have a pathological obsession with body weight, backpackers are obsessed with pack weight (See my previous post: “Does pack weight come from fear?”). Is it reasonable to be concerned about the weight of your pack? Yes. Should we adopt pervasive American attitudes about body weight and apply them to pack weight? No. Like body weight, there is no single number that you point to and say that it is an ideal weight that all people should strive towards in all conditions. However, we can use science to help define a reasonable range of pack weights that people can then tailor to their individual needs.
The upper limit of pack weight that you should carry is defined by human structural load carrying capacity. The US Army Science Board in a study suggests that 50 pounds is the maximum load that should be carried by a soldier for any length of time based on physiological constraints and musculoskeletal concerns. In addition to a cap of 50 lbs, the optimal backpack load for soldiers in combat has been determined to be 30% of their body weight. Research in recreational contexts suggests a similar threshold for pack weight of of not more than 30% of body weight. Based on these studies, the maximum pack weight you should carry is 30% of your body weight unless you weigh 167 pounds or more, at which point you shouldn’t carry more than 50 pounds (note that the % body weight calculations are based on an individual’s ‘fit’ weight or ‘ideal’ weight).
The lower limit of pack weight or “base pack” weight (defined as pack weight excluding consumables eg food, water, and fuel) is currently established by experienced ultralight backpacking enthusiasts like Ray Jardine (who pioneered the ultralight movement in 1992) who are able to get their base pack weights below 10 lbs. Food and water then get added to the base pack weight depending on availability and local resources. For most people, a reasonable pack weight is somewhere between 12 and 50 lbs, but will vary with personal experience, financial constraints, and the science of survival.
Knowing a “healthy” range of pack weights provides a rudimentary (at best) guideline about pack weight, but doesn’t actually help when it comes to figuring out what you should put in your pack when venturing off into the wilderness. When I pack my pack, I use scientific guidelines to determine the minimum that I need to carry for survival:
- Food (for glycoregulation).
- Water (for osmoregulation).
- Shelter/Heat (for thermoregulation).
In the next three posts I’m going to discuss how the science and privilege around these requirements influence the way I pack my pack and hike my hike.