What Makes a Story Wuxia? The Grace of Kings vs. The Black Trillium

Cover of The Grace of Kings

I recently read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. I enjoyed it.

I was thrown off by this blurb from Wes Chu “Ken Liu wrote the Wuxia version of Game of Thrones.” As far as I could tell, The Grace of Kings is not wuxia at all. Wes Chu is entitled to his opinion, but because I read the blurb before I read the novel, I was looking forward to some wuxia elements, and was disappointed when I did not find them. That is unfair to the novel, because it is very good on its own terms.

To me, The Grace of Kings is a Western epic fantasy which is heavily influenced by ancient Chinese history. And it seems that Ken Liu himself agrees with me. In interviews, he says that The Grace of Kings is ‘Western epic fantasy’ with a ‘silkpunk’ aesthetic, which I think is accurate, and would have given me a better idea of what to expect.

I did not know the premise of the novel before I read it, but I figured out pretty quickly that Emperor Mapidéré = Qin Huangdi, Kuni Garu = Liu Bang, etc. – it is obvious to any reader who has the slightest clue about that era in ancient Chinese history. My classmates in my middle school would have made at least some of the connections, and most of them were not history buffs. (By the way, if you do not already know the history of the early Han dynasty and plan to read this novel, FINISH THE NOVEL BEFORE YOU DO ANY HISTORICAL RESEARCH, because the historical research will spoil the plot of the novel for you).

This was the textbook we used in the middle school history class where we covered the Qin and Han dynasties – though our teacher taught us a bunch of extra stuff about Qin Huangdi, I guess she was really interested in him.

But being influenced by Chinese history does not make a story wuxia, just as the fact that George R.R. Martin was influenced by the War of the Roses does not mean that Game of Thrones is an Elizabethan history play.

To be sure, wuxia is one of the creative influences on The Grace of Kings, but so is Homer’s epics. In my opinion, it would make just as much sense to say that The Grace of Kings is the ‘Homeric’ version of Game of Thrones.

In wuxia, things which stretch or even break the limits of nature as currently understood are quite common – such as a character with superhuman skill – but blatantly magical/supernatural/divine stuff is off-limits. For example, in The Romance of the White-Haired Maiden, the protagonist was raised by wolves, she is so shocked by her lover’s betrayal that her hair turns white overnight, and the only way to restore her original hair color is a flower which only blooms once every hundred years (or was it sixty years – it’s been years since I read the book). Improbable, but it does not require a magical/supernatural/divine explanation. There is just barely enough fantastical elements to separate wuxia from historical fiction, but no more than that (Simon McNeil discusses this in greater length).

In The Grace of Kings, there are gods who are bickering with each other and manipulating mortals. This does not happen in wuxia. As soon as gods are active characters in a story, it is no longer wuxia, it is xianxia or xuanhuan or some other genre. The bickering gods act like they came out of the Iliad, so that is an example of Homeric influence.

This is a scene from a famous wuxia story which takes place in Russia.

Another thing which makes The Grace of Kings ~not wuxia~ is the fact that it is a secondary fantasy. Wuxia (theoretically) takes place in our world, usually in China between the Tang and Qing dynasties, but it can also be set in Vietnam, Russia, Joseon-dynasty Korea, Kazakhstan, 1930s Chicago, 1980s Changhua, etc. Honestly, I am slightly surprised that I have not found an wuxia story set in California, though I am sure it exists somewhere. However, if it is secondary fantasy i.e. set in a world other than ours, it is xianxia or xuanhuan or some other genre.

Cover of The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

Let’s talk more about that wuxia story set in Toronto, The Black Trillium which I blogged about. The characters are all thoroughly Canadian (except the characters from Seattle). Yet it is a story I recognize as wuxia. Aside from the fact that The Black Trillium is set in our world and refrains from blatantly magical/supernatural/divine stuff, what makes it wuxia?

There is a mounty and a hockey player in the Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. Mouty: You are a threat to the Wulin. Young martial artists watch so much ice hockey they no longer train. I must stop your corruption of our tradition by force, sorry. Hockey Player: I will beat you with my Star-Thwacking-Hockey-Stick Skill, sorry.

This is Canadian wuxia (actually, The Black Trillium is nothing like this, I just wanted to have fun with stereotypes).

Another essential element of wuxia is the development of the characters’ specific skills, or at least how they use their specific skills. Usually this means their martial arts skills, though it could be something else, such as making/deploying poison (I read an wuxia novel where the protagonist has to become a master poisoner and then win a tournament where the various poisoners engage in duels where they try to out-poison each other). We see this in spades in The Black Trillium. We do not see much of this in The Grace of Kings. Yes, the characters get wiser, but we do not see them perfecting their techniques. (In great wuxia, the techniques are used as metaphors to give the story a deeper meaning).

For me, one of the most essential parts of wuxia is the opera. A lot of wuxia stories, if you strip away the swords and the kung-fu and the training, are practically soap operas, i.e. ‘someone murdered my dad, and I fell in love with this girl/boy, but her/his dad is the dude who murdered my dad, and if I kill her/his dad for vengeance I won’t be able to marry her/him, oh woe is me’. The personal relationships of the characters come first in the story, even in the wuxia stories which have an obvious political message. While I had some complaints about how The Black Trillium did this, I do recognize that it was at least trying to do this. By contrast, The Grace of Kings puts more focus on the course of history than on the personal relations of the characters.

The Grace of Kings does have a lot of themes in common with Datang Shuanglong Zhuan by Huang Yi. Just as The Grace of Kings is about taking down the Qin dynasty Emperor Mapidéré’s empire and establishing the Han dynasty the Dandelion dynasty, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan is about taking down the Sui dynasty and establishing the Tang dynasty. Just as The Grace of Kings has a protagonist of low-class birth who aspires to become the emperor of China Dara, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan has a protagonist of low-class birth who aspires to become the emperor of China. Just as The Grace of Kings features two sworn brothers who eventually find themselves in bitter conflict because they have different visions for the future of China Dara, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan features two sworn brothers who eventually find themselves in bitter conflict because they have different visions for the future of China, and so forth.

Book cover for Datang Shuanglong Zhuan.

Why is Datang Shuanglong Zhuan wuxia even though The Grace of Kings is not? Pretty much everything I explained above. Datang Shuanglong Zhuan is set in our world (specifically Sui/Tang dynasty China), there is a lot about how the protagonists develop their martial arts techniques, the absence of divine/supernatural beings, etc.

Most of all, in The Grace of Kings, the political upheavals take center stage, and the relationship between the protagonists feels like an incidental part of the story, almost forced. The protagonists consider their brotherhood disposable, so when they have to choose between their relationship and their ideals/dreams, the choice is easy. You could take away the brotherhood in The Grace of Kings, and though the protagonists would have a bit of a change in their motivations, the story would still be basically the same.

In Datang Shuanglong Zhuan, the relationship between the brothers is the heart and soul of the story. Unlike the protagonists in The Grace of Kings, the protagonists in Datang Shuanglong Zhuan do NOT consider their brotherhood disposable, so when they are forced to choose between their relationship and their ideals/dreams, they are really between a rock and a hard place, which is the most compelling part of the novel (if they treated their relationship as disposable, one would simply kill the other, and the novel would be about 4000 pages shorter). Taking the political/historical content out of Datang Shuanglong Zhuan would be a HUGE change, but taking away the relationship between the male protagonists would totally and utterly gut the novel.

This reflects a broad difference between wuxia and Western epic fantasy. Yes, the conditions of the world / the tides of history can be important in wuxia, and personal relationships can be important in Western epic fantasy, but in general, an wuxia story is going to emphasize dealing with intense personal problems, and a Western epic fantasy is going to emphasize saving the world, or at least the nation.

To me, just about everything in The Grace of Kings feels like Western epic fantasy. Even the use of inspiration from non-Western cultures feels like Western epic fantasy; there are plenty of other Western epic fantasies (the works of N.K. Jemisin or Ursula K. LeGuin for example) which do that too.

In spite of being written by a white dude in English and set in Canada, The Black Trillium feels way more like wuxia than Western epic fantasy.

Of course, I’m not the official arbitrator of what is real wuxia and what is not real wuxia. After all, I disagree with some parts of the TVTropes descriptions/definition, and you have no reason to trust me more than TVTropes. The post reflects my very subjective idea of what wuxia is. An wuxia fan who does not care so much about whether there is a limit on magical/supernatural/divine elements, whether there is skill-building, or whether there is an emphasis on personal relations, but DOES care about whether there are allusions to classical Chinese history/literature, might recognize The Grace of Kings, and not The Black Trillium, as wuxia.


Do Flavored Tobacco Products Cause Significantly More Youths to Get Addicted?

In June, San Francisco voters will vote on Proposition E, which would ban flavored tobacco products in San Francisco. Here is the Yes on Prop E campaign and here is the No on Prop E campaign.

I’m not going to state my opinion of Prop E in this post. Instead, I’m interested in the question – do flavored tobacco products cause significantly more youths (in this post, I will define ‘youth’ as someone who is less than 18 years old) to get addicted to tobacco than would otherwise happen?

The proponents of Prop E claim that the answer is ‘yes’. Their evidence is that most youths who use tobacco started with flavored products, and that a high percentage of youths who use tobacco used a flavored product within the past month. However, it’s possible that, in the absence of flavored tobacco, they all would have just been using unflavored tobacco instead.

Though flavored tobacco products have been around for a really long time, tobacco flavored with anything other than menthol has only been widely available in the United States recently
(because there already is a ban on flavoring cigarettes with anything other than menthol, and the popular alternatives to cigarettes are fairly recent). So if these new flavored products are causing lots of youth who would otherwise not use tobacco to start using tobacco, I would expect to see a spike in tobacco use among youth.

Based on the information I could find, the percentage of youth in the USA who smoke cigarettes at least daily has dramatically decreased since I graduated from high school (I don’t want to reveal what year I graduated from high school; suffice to say, it was a year when a lot more youth were smoking cigarettes daily than in recent years). There is less information on e-cigarettes because they have not been around very long, but the percentages they report … look roughly like the percentages for daily cigarette use when I was in middle school and high school. Except they count any youth who used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, whereas only cigarette smokers who used on a daily basis were counted.

With these numbers, it does not look like flavored tobacco products are actually increasing tobacco use in youth – it looks like it’s just substituting the use of unflavored tobacco with flavored tobacco. That is consistent with what I remember from high school. A lot of my classmates in high school were cigarette smokers – in fact, I suspect my high school had a higher percentage of cigarette smokers than what that link reports. There were certainly a lot of smokers in my peer group, though maybe not all of them smoked every day, or maybe some teenagers do not answer these surveys honestly. Some of my peers in the 12th grade also went to hookah bars and got flavored smoke – but only if they were 18, because otherwise they could not get in the hookah bar, and they had been smoking cigarettes before their turned 18.

However, this is just the surface. I’m far from an expert on any of this, and it is possible that there are important factors that I do not know about.

There is a study (Villanti AC, Johnson AL, Ambrose BK, et al. Use of flavored tobacco products among U.S. youth and adults; findings from the first wave of the PATH Study (2013-2014)) which found that “81 percent of current youth e-cigarette users cited the availability of appealing flavors as the primary reason for use” but since I have not seen the study itself, I’m not sure how to interpret this. Do these youth mean that the main reason they use e-cigarettes INSTEAD OF CIGARETTES is the appealing flavors, or do they mean that they would not be using tobacco AT ALL if ‘appealing flavors’ were not available? I don’t know.

I know little about e-cigarettes. I suppose they may be way more horrible than cigarettes in some way, but that is not the case that the Yes on E campaign is trying to make. Based on their arguments, e-cigarettes are bad because they are a ‘gateway’, they are not claiming that e-cigarettes are worse than cigarettes in any other way.

The one piece of evidence I have found that leads me to think that flavored tobacco products may actually induce people who would not otherwise use tobacco to use ironically comes, not from the proponents of the ban, but from the opponents. Specifically, it the fact that storekeepers are so adamantly opposed to Prop E, and that the opponents of Prop E emphasize that banning flavored tobacco would hurt small business. I understand that the small-business storekeepers have a tough time making a living in San Francisco, and that tobacco products are an important source of revenue for them. The fact that they are so vehemently opposed to me indicates that THEY think that a significant portion of people will stop buying tobacco if flavored tobacco is no longer available (or does flavored tobacco have a much higher profit margin than unflavored tobacco? Or do they think they will just lose all of their customers to the internet? I do not know). It is also possible that this will primarily influence adults, not youth.

In short, based on the evidence I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that flavored tobacco products lead to significantly higher usage of tobacco among youth than would otherwise exist, but I admit that it is possible that flavored tobacco products are hooking more youth than unflavored tobacco products would hook.

My Most Physically Demanding 27 Hours of Hiking Ever

That mountain with snow on it is San Jacinto, the second highest mountain in southern California.

During my 400+ mile (640+ km) long hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in southern California, I went south, which meant that I was hiking from Interstate 10 -> San Jacinto, rather than San Jacinto -> Interstate 10.

This may not seem like a big deal if you do not know the terrain. However, countless hikers told me that, when they were going north from San Jacinto to the Interstate 10 freeway, they thought to themselves “gee, I’m glad I’m going north and not south.” Then they met me, the hiker who was planning to go south. One hiker, once it dawned on him that I was going south into San Jacinto, immediately told me that he could put me in touch with people who could give me rides so that I could go north through San Jacinto instead of south. I rejected the offer. Though I sometimes go northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail, this was a ~southbound~ hike, and for the sake of continuity, I wanted to go south through San Jacinto too.

Hikers take a break under Interstate 10. The local trail angels left water, cold drinks, and some snacks under the bridge – but most importantly, the bridge was the only place a hiker could get shade for miles in either direction.

If you are wondering what the fuss is about, let me explain. Interstate 10 is 1335 feet (407 meters) above seal level. Going south, the trail then dips down to 1251 feet (381 meters) above sea level over the next 2-3 miles, which is easy in terms of elevation, but it is through a hot sandy desert with no shade. Then, going south over the next 21 miles (34 km), the trail rises to 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level at the tributary of the San Jacinto river. That is a 7696 ft (2346 m) change in elevation. After taking into account the dips in the trail (because the trail is not entirely smooth), between Interstate 10 and the tributary of the San Jacinto river, I had 8883 ft (2708 m) of elevation gain in the space of 30 hours.

For those of you who do not hike, let me put that into perspective. Going from the 5th station on Mt. Fuji to the summit via the Yoshida trail (the most popular way to hike Mt. Fuji), there is an elevation gain of 4824 ft. (1471 m). Thus, going south from Interstate 10 to the tributary of the San Jacinto river is almost the equivalent of hiking up Mt. Fuji twice in a row – without going downhill. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (i.e. excluding Hawaii and Alaska). Hiking from Whitney Portal to the top of Mt. Whitney (the most popular route) takes 6,100 feet (1,860 m) of elevation gain. Thus, Interstate 10 -> tributary of San Jacinto river requires more uphill hiking than hiking to the top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

And it gets worse better. There is a water source at 1721 ft (525 m) above sea level, and then there are no more water sources until the tributary of the San Jacinto river, which is 19.5 miles (31.2 km) south on the trail, and 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level. That means I had to carry enough water to get me through that stretch, including the 10 miles (16 km) where there was little shade and it was surprisingly warm. And this 19.5 waterless stretch also includes Fuller Ridge, one of the most notorious stretches of the entire Pacific Crest Trail, notorious because far more hikers have disappeared/died on these 4 miles (6.4 km) than any other 4 mile stretch of the entire 2650 mile trail (even Old Snowy/Knife Edge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, which is notorious for killing horses/mules, has had very few human deaths. Meanwhile, Fuller Ridge seems to kill a lot more humans than horses/mules). On top of all that, the risk of being stung by a bee or encountering rattlesnakes was very high, but since I did not have any adverse encounters with bees or rattlesnakes on this stretch, that was not a problem for me.

For a southbound hiker (like me), this faucet was the last water source before the 19.5 waterless stretch to the tributary of the San Jacinto river. That giant rock was pretty much the only source of shade in the area this hot afternoon, though one hiker (not in the photo) did something creative with an umbrella to make more shade.

The more water I carried, the more weight I would have to carry very far uphill. The less water I carried, the greater my risk of dehydration. It was a tough tradeoff.

I’ve heard from the local people that they hear rescue helicopters several times a day, and that at this time of year, helicopters are generally sent to rescue PCT hikers. I also kept on hearing stories about how such-and-such hiker had just been rescued. This is the only part of the Pacific Crest Trail where I heard about hikers needing rescue with such frequency.

I left Interstate 10 at around noon. I left that last water source before ascending San Jacinto at around 3pm. I reached the tributary of the San Jacinto river at around 6pm the following day. That meant it took me 27 hours to get from water source at the base of the mountain to the to the tributary of the San Jacinto river.

Looking down at the private community of Snow Creek (that’s where the trees are growing) and the valley where Interstate 10 runs.

Of course I camped overnight on the trail. I definitely was not going to do the entire ascent in a single day. I camped 4.6 trail miles (7.4 trail km) south of the water source, at 3339 ft (1018 m) above sea level. That meant my next day was going to be physically intense.

The first stretch hiking up San Jacinto was just about the hottest hiking I did during this entire trip. It was not fair that it was so hot when I was doing a steep uphill carrying so much water, and that there was so little shade, even though I had made a point of hiking this part in the evening/morning. On the other hand, I was very motivated to hike so I could get to a higher elevation. I could see there were trees on top of the mountain, and I was eager to get to an elevation that was high enough for trees to go.

Finally, I reached a place where there were dead trees – the dead trees didn’t help me much, but at least I knew I was at a high enough elevation that I might find living trees too. And sure enough, shortly after I reached the dead trees, I reached a place which had living trees, and that meant I had REAL SHADE! Awesome! Also, the temperatures were significantly cooler around the trees, which was also very nice. I was still hiking uphill a lot, and had no water source, but at least I had shade, it was no longer hot, and my pack was less heavy because I had drunk quite a bit of water. Hiking became much more pleasant.

Trees! It’s amazing! I’ve never been so happy to be among trees in my life!

I reached the Fuller Ridge trailhead, which was the beginning of Fuller Ridge for me. And there was a water cache there! Usually, my policy is to disregard water caches. However, when I was at the faucet, I had to compromise between having more water and carrying less weight uphill, which meant I was rationing my water. I could have continued to ration my water all the way to the tributary, but that meant only drinking what I needed, not drinking enough to satisfy my thirst. Thus, I took some water (about 1.5 liters) from the water cache so that I would be able to drink as much as I wanted. It feels so good to be able to drink freely instead of just drinking the minimum to hold off dehydration. I also got to take a break at a picnic table in the shade and hang out with a couple of hikers.

Fuller Ridge sometimes holds snow well into May. When it is covered with snow/ice, a lot of people get injured, and some even disappear/die. Fortunately for me, even though it was April, Fuller Ridge was totally dry. The trail takes a bunch of weird little turns in the rocks in one part of Fuller Ridge, and I could totally imagine people getting lost in that stretch when it is covered with snow, or slipping off the rocks if it’s icy, but since it was dry, I could keep track of the trail as long as I paid attention, and I was at little risk of sliding down.

I’m surprised I don’t have any photos of Fuller Ridge. I guess I was too focused on hiking to take photos.

And then finally, I reached the promised land. Or rather, the promised tributary.

The tributary of the San Jacinto river.

I ran out of water just when I got to the tributary (though I had been drinking freely ever since I left the water cache – if I had continued rationing the water, I would have drunk less). The photo above does not do justice. This tributary was a series of little waterfalls cascading down the mountain and across the trail. It was a lot of water – a glorious sight for a hiker who had been worried about water for a day. There were a lot of hikers at the tributary who were busy filling up, since all of them were going north and thus would not have reliable water for 19.5 miles.

I was practically jumping for joy at the tributary. Reaching this water source was more exciting than reaching the Canadian border when I hiked the entire Washington PCT.

I would have liked to have gone to the summit of San Jacinto – but by the time I reached the turnoff (which was just pass the water source), I could feel that I had pushed my legs to the limit, and I was afraid that ascending an extra 2000 ft. (which does not seem like much after ascending 8500+ ft.) might push my legs past their limit, and I could get an overuse injury. I did not want to risk an overuse injury, so instead, I just hiked another two miles past the water source, and set up camp (though the fact that I was able to hike another two miles after all that shows you just how much energy I had).

This is where I camped in San Jacinto.

Strangely, though this was my most physically demanding day of hiking ever, it was also my giddiest. Here is my diary entry for the day I reached Fuller Ridge and the tributary (which I wrote at the campsite above):

This has been one of the most exhilarating days on the PCT ever. I made my legs do so much work, but they were up to the task. From hot exposed chaparral to cool pine forest. The views! And the knowledge that I did a mostly uphill 19.5 mile waterless stretch! (w/ a little help from a water cache).

Part of the euphoria was probably caused by endorphins flooding my body. It also helped that the worst part was the beginning, so it just kept getting better. And I think the fact that I was attempting something so ridiculous increased the giddiness.

I have no regrets about doing this segment of the trail southbound. Going south through here is definitely harder than going north, but I do not think I would have found it as memorable – or enjoyable – if I had gone north.

I Love My Homemade Backpacking Quilt

In a previous post, I discussed my homemade tarp. Now, I introduce my homemade camping quilt.

A picture of my quilt from the first trip where I tested it.

My love for my new quilt is without reservation. I have discovered that I am one of those people who strongly prefer quilts over sleeping bags, and barring unusual circumstances (i.e. I lost my quilt in the middle of a long distance hike and a sleeping bag is the only replacement I can get in a hurry) I don’t see myself going back to sleeping bags ever. Yes, one has to adjust a quilt more than a sleeping bag – but that is actually an advantage, since it is POSSIBLE to adjust a quilt, whereas with sleeping bags I am stuck with an awkward fit. There is a reason why people tend to use quilts rather than sleeping bags when they sleep indoors, and that reason also applies outdoors.

My quilt performed beautifully during my recently completed 400+ mile hike in Southern California. There were some cold nights when I had to boost it with accessories – but I would have had to boost a sleeping bag with the same temperature rating too. The issue was that my quilt is only rated to approximately 30 degrees F (approximately 0 degrees C), not that it was not a sleeping bag. And I was carrying those accessories because I knew that it might fall below freezing for a few nights (which it did).

Another photo of my quilt.

My quilt turns out to be a champion in the wind. This was important, because I was not using an enclosed shelter. First of all, the outer shell of my quilt is wind-resistant, and since the outer shell is oversized, I could drape the loose fabric to block drafts. Even on very windy nights, I only felt it on my face.

Furthermore, my quilt does not have a zipper. First of all, that means less weight, and second of all, zippers are my least favorite part of sleeping bags, because they seem to either jam when I want to get out of the sleeping bag, or they refuse to zip when I want to tuck in. It turns out I am happier without the zipper.

Speaking of weight, this quilt is only 19 oz., which makes it lighter than any sleeping bag with an equivalent warmth rating. On a long distance hike, less weight is always appreciated!

It is so nice not to have a hood attached to the quilt. The hoods on sleeping bags never seem to be in quite the right place for me, which is why I tend to not used them and use separate hoods anyway, and if I’m already using a separate hood, the hood built into the sleeping bag is useless weight/bulk.

See, there’s no hood.

Also, I sewed this quilt by hand. I even designed it myself, since I could not find a ready-made design I liked. Even though I was total newbie to this, I still managed to make a new quilt on my first try. Due to the lack of organized information on making a quilt available for free online, especially making one by hand, I posted the instructions for making my quilt here.

The cost of this quilt? Approximately 60 USD for materials (buying this type of quilt at retail prices costs about 200 USD). I also had to spend labor, but I was listening to podcasts as I sewed, and this did not take nearly as much time as sewing a tarp by hand.

And there is the additional satisfaction of having made this quilt myself. I even made it in my ‘bed’ in my own bedroom.

There is my partially sewn quilt lying on my rolled up mattress on top of the goza mat where I sleep at home.

There is a comforting continuity in that my quilt, which I slept in during my hike, was made in the very same place where I sleep at home.

I could keep on gushing about how much I love my quilt, but I think you all get the idea by now. And I have never had a sleeping bag this awesome, and definitely not just for 60 USD.

Metabolism on the Pacific Crest Trail

According to the book Where the Waters Divide: A Walk along America’s Continental Divide:

On a long-distance hike, food is fuel, and human bodies are gas-guzzling automobiles. Carrying a pack at high altitude and walking at a fair pace over difficult terrain, a hiker uses up about 300 calories a mile. To walk 15 or so miles per day requires at least 4,500 calories just to keep going.

I suspect that 300 calorie/mile figure is based on male hikers, and that averages for female hikers are lower. Men tend to have significantly higher metabolism rates than women, though this is based on averages – there are individual women who have relatively high metabolism rates, and men who have relatively low metabolism rates.

Based on all of the accounts of long-distance hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail that I’ve heard and read, men hikers do seem to lose weight faster and be more vulnerable to malnutrition than female hikers. I haven’t scientifically proven that this is because male hikers tend to have high metabolism rates, but it’s the most plausible explanation that I can think of.

Reduced vulnerability to malnutrition (and being able to get away with carrying less food) are benefits to hiking with a lower metabolism. However, a higher metabolism rate reduces vulnerability to hypothermia, especially during sleep. Men tend to be ‘warm sleepers’ (i.e. they can get away with less warm bedding), and women tend to be ‘cold sleepers’ (i.e. they need warmer bedding), though, once again, not all women and men are average.

Though I don’t know for sure, I suspect I have higher than average metabolism for a woman, but lower than average for a man. I eat more food than a lot of people (I’m used to people commenting ‘wow how are you going to eat all of that food’) and I think I sleep warmer than a lot of women.

However, if a hiker needs only 200 calories per mile, and they hike 15 miles, that’s still 3000 calories in a day just for hiking. The highest mileage I did in a single day was 23 miles, and some hikers, especially thruhikers, do more than that on a regular basis. My average pace when I was hiking through Washington – including my zero days (when I did not hike on the trail) – was 14.2 miles per day. A lot of hikers, especially thruhikers have a higher average mileage/day.

In my big hike in the summer of 2017, I generally only carried enough food to eat at a rate of 2500 calories per day, and since I usually arrived at my next resupply point with leftover food, that meant most days on trail I was eating less than 2500 calories/day in food. Therefore, even though I don’t know what my exact metabolism rate was, I am certain that I had sustained calorie deficits.

I did not measure my weight before, during, or after my hiking, but the weight loss was obvious enough that I could tell it happened without measuring myself and I think returned to my pre-hike weight about a couple months after the end of the trip.

There are various reasons why I prefer section hiking over thruhiking, and (not) having to deal with months of calorie deficits is one of them. Even though I would be unlikely to reach an dangerous level of malnutrition, I would rather not go there.

Of course, when I was in town, I ate a lot. Towns meant lots of food which I did not have to carry with me. I especially remember really eating it up in White Pass (it helped that the Kracker Barrel Store had surprisingly good food). In Snoqualmie Pass, I remember pushing myself to eat much more than I felt like eating because I knew, intellectually, that I had regular calorie deficits, and I wanted to compensate for that (though I will say that Commonwealth, a restaurant in Snoqualmie Pass, offered me the best meal I ate during my entire Washington PCT hike). By the time I was in Stehekin, I was less concerned about cramming the calories because I was so close to Canada, so I just ate in accordance with my appetite.

I am happy to say I never experienced ‘hiker hunger’ during my 36-day-long hike. I also was not particularly hungry when I was in Manning Park, or when I was on Denman Island.

Then I went to Vancouver (the city, not the island).

When I was in Vancouver, I was eating 4-5 full meals per day. I did not feel desperately hungry, but one meal was not quite enough to make me feel full, so I ate another one two hours later. And I was gorging on restaurant food since it had been over a month since I had regular access to a variety of restaurants (as opposed to 1-2 restaurants in a small town). I have never spent so much money on food per day as when I was in Vancouver.

Did I eat so much food in Vancouver because I was on the edge of hiker hunger? If so, why did it manifest a week after I had stopped hiking, and not in Manning Park or on Denman Island?

Then, during the first month after my return to San Francisco, something strange happened.

If I delayed/missed a meal at all past my habitual time, I would feel painfully hungry. It was hunger unlike anything I experienced during my trip.

My best guess is that I ended my hike just around the time I exhausted my fat reserves. In Manning Park / Denman Island I was probably eating about as many calories as I was burning, so I was no longer in calorie deficit, but I was also not rebuilding my fat reserves. In Vancouver, I started to rebuild my fat reserves (and probably compensating for other nutritional deficiencies with the greater variety of food). But because my fat reserves remained low for the entire month after my hike, any disturbance in my eating schedule was enough to make my belly scream with hunger.

I’m not sure that my conjecture is correct. But I am just as motivated as ever to try to avoid getting hiker hunger while I am on trail.