Too Old to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

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.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

Weight Shaming

I’ve read a lot about ultra lightweight backpacking, and it makes sense — the less weight you have to carry, the easier it will be. Sounds good, right? But ultra lightweight gear is generally absurdly expensive, and in some cases, those who desire to go ultra light end up with gear that seems counterproductive. For example, some ultra lightweight backpacks are ultra lightweight because they leave off the hipbelt (making the shoulders take all the weight) or making the pack a lot smaller. (Small ultra lightweight packs hold as little as 35 liters, which makes me laugh, thinking about the fellow at REI who refused to sell me a 38 liter pack because it wouldn’t hold enough for a long trek.) And some people don’t carry important emergency items in order to make their packs lighter because they don’t think they will ever need them.

The real issue is the weight shaming that so many of these elitist backpackers indulge in. They look down on, and make fun of people who carry a heavier pack. Some go in for body shaming, too, mentioning the absurdity of heavy people trying to cut back the weight of their pack rather than their body weight, but most shaming goes toward the pack base weight. (Pack base weight is the total weight you carry including the pack but minus food, water, and fuel.)

Apparently, the motive for the ultra lightweight hikers is to chew up the miles. Their method is hike, eat, sleep, repeat. That’s it. They seem to believe there is no reason to take anything to read or to write with because they say if you have energy left at the end of the day, you’re not doing it right. (Apparently, although these folks spout the hiker’s mantra, hike your own hike, they don’t mean it.) The latest thing I’ve been hearing is the importance of cutting back on tent weight (for these folks, often a tarp is enough) and sleeping pad. They say it’s better to be comfortable walking than comfortable sleeping.

Even without checking to see who these folks are, I would bet they are youngish males. No older woman would ever consider the idea that being too uncomfortable to sleep is better than carrying a couple of extra pounds in her pack, even if it means she has to go slower.

The real issue with the weight shamers seems to be the same issue that shows up in any other inter-human relationship — the inability to understand that others might have different values than you. They don’t consider that maybe people are out there to do other things besides simply walk. Writers need to write about their experiences while the feeling is fresh. Photographers want to indulge in their artistry. Readers might find comfort in the familiarity of words in the vastness of the night. Aesthetes need time to appreciate. Nature lovers need time to commune with the world around them. Pilgrims have to search for spiritual meaning in the quest.

So many reasons to embark on a long hike. So many reasons to put other considerations before pack weight.

I don’t know what my base weight is since I have not yet gotten to that point, but the weight of my “big three” (pack, tent, sleep system) is a mere ten pounds, though it’s still considered heavy by some. Regardless, that weight is about as light as I can get it unless I want to invest in an ultra lightweight tent and a lighter backpack that together will cost about a thousand dollars. Even so, the most weight I can save by spending all that money is two or three pounds. (I can’t go lighter on my sleep system or there will be no sleep!)

And anyway, my goal is not to hike, eat, sleep, repeat. It’s to experience whatever I can as deeply as I can. And if that means carrying a bit of extra weight in my pack, so be it.

Actually, the biggest weight in anyone’s pack comes from food (some hikers eat four thousand calories a day) and water if there is no water source. (Water weighs a bit more than two pounds a liter, and we need at least that much every day.) If we could learn to get our food and water from the air, just think how light our packs would be!

Something to aim for?

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.