Ever since I’ve started walking with a twenty-five pound pack two or three days a week, I’ve been waking up extremely stiff and sore and wobbly even on non-hiking days. Apparently, that’s what I get for trying to build up my strength!
Still, I would have thought that increased activity would eventually translate to an increase in agility and and mobility, but that’s not happening. At my age, tendons and ligaments lose elasticity, muscles lose strength (at a whopping 30% per decade without high intensity workouts and additional protein intake to offset the loss), and joints can be painful even if there is nothing particularly wrong with them. (So if I weren’t trying to build up my strength, I’d probably still wake up stiff and sore.)
Once I’ve “oiled” my muscles and joints by moving around and stretching a bit, I am okay, but I worry about the night stiffness and early morning adjustment on the trail, so I’ve been researching the feasibility of long-distance backpacking for older adults. I know there are quite a few famous folks who backpacked well into their eighties, but some of them were life-long athletes, others seem naturally strong or obstinate. But what about regular folks like me who aren’t particularly athletic and who come to backpacking later in life? The prospect of a long distance backpacking trip, or even a short one, is daunting enough without adding the challenge of age to the mix.
Apparently, though, for someone in reasonable health, there’s no reason not to attempt such a trek, (though anyone with even the beginnings of heart or lung problems would need to check with their doctor before setting out). From what I can gather, everyone, no matter what their age, hurts on the trail. Older folks just have to be careful to stretch when possible, use trekking poles to save knees, elevate the legs when resting to redistribute the blood flow, and carry as light a pack as is feasible. (Feasible for an older person is different than for a younger one. Some hikers can get by with a tarp for a tent, or an almost non-existent sleeping pad, but not me. I need a bit of comfort or I’d never sleep, and if I never slept, I wouldn’t get very far.)
Of course, age is truly relative when it comes to backpacking. I recently came across a demographic survey of hikers, comparing the younger folks with the older folks, and the cut-off age was thirty-four. (The “young” group was under thirty-four, the “old” group was thirty-four and up.) And, in a forum discussing the advisability of older folks thru hiking, I came across a query from a fellow who said he was going to be turning thirty, and he wanted to know if he was too old to attempt a thru hike.
Interestingly, older folks who did long-distance backpacking trips after retirement seemed to have more fun than the younger ones because they knew what they wanted from a hike. Some wanted to go the distance, others just wanted to be out in the wilderness for five months. While a lot of the younger folks complained about the hardships, the older folks enjoyed all of it, even the rain and such because often they were fulfilling a lifelong dream. Some of the experienced older hikers did the same sort of insane mileage as the younger ones, but most seemed okay with going slower and savoring the journey, whatever the length. Older people are also more liable to enjoy the hike because after a certain age, pain and stiffness are a fact of life, so physical discomfort might not as much as an affront as it would be to a younger person.
If I were looking for reasons to give up my idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (more than the day hikes I have already done, that is), I didn’t find them.
So, this weekend I will add another pound to my pack weight for my conditioning hike and bring my impossible dream a step closer to possible.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Unfinished, Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.