Senior Hikers Scale the Heights

How to keep hiking through your golden years? Just do it.
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The pass had beat me up. The first day out, a big climb, a pack full of food: I could count my muscles by their individual, specific complaints.

Below me, two specks materialized, turned into bright colored dots, then sprouted arms and legs and became recognizable, first as humans, then as a man and a woman. As they climbed toward the pass, details emerged. Roped muscles. Wrinkles. Gray hair. The next thing I knew, I was being passed by a couple of folks who were at least twice my age and probably then some.

Now, I do not believe that the words backpacking and competition belong in the same sentence. Still, I couldn't help but wonder: How do they do that? When I've got gray hair and a few wrinkles of my own, will I be sitting in some rocking chair telling anyone who will listen 50-year old yarns about 20-mile days, 4,000-foot climbs, and winter temperatures that sound like Celsius but aren't? Or will I be rest-stepping my body up a mountain pass? I know what I want the answer to be.

The couple introduced themselves as Ed and Martha from Seattle. I wanted to ask their ages, but manners over-rode curiosity. As it turns out, I needn't have worried: most senior hikers are rightfully proud of how well their bodies are working. Some of them volunteer their age, whether you ask them or not.

Ed and Martha did; 72 and 67, respectively. Recently retired, they now had the time to take the longer trips they had dreamed of when they had been, as they put it, chained to a desk. This hike was a 200-mile trip through northern California. They did not seem to think there was anything unusual about their journey. To a wanna-be long-distance backpacker, struggling through the first climb of the first day of my first-ever 100-mile hike, they seemed positively larger than life.

When, some years later, I became seriously addicted to backpacking, I noticed that I often shared shelter space with fellow hikers who were my parent's peers, or older. Some of them were on long-distance hikes, living a lifelong dream and looking every bit as wiry, scruffy, and trailworn as their much younger cohorts. Others were out for a shorter distance: a week or a weekend. They hauled the same heavy packs, groaned just like I did with relief at the end of a day, and boasted the same blisters and bone-aches. But I'll never forget what I heard one senior say as a group of complaining scouts filled a lean-to on a rainy night."This is not work," he said. "Work is paying a mortgage, sending your kids to college, putting up with a boss. This—being here, being able to be here, the sense of accomplishment, the beauty—this is what we work for."

I needed a role model just then. I'd been through a series of family problems that involved spending entirely too much time in nursing homes and hospitals, and I needed to see another side of the future. "Yes," I thought, as the embarrassed boy scouts quieted down. "Now I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be just like that."

If active seniors are role models, we have more of them than ever before: According to the 1995 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, "Participation (in outdoor activities) among Americans 60 years of age and older is greater than in previous decades and includes senior participation in physically challenging muscle-powered activities."

Jean Cashin, who was for 25 years the information officer at the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, concurs. She once told me, "We seem to be getting an increasing number of calls from retired people, and many of them say they've had this dream of hiking for years and now they finally have the time to do it. Also, I think people are more active during retirement than they used to be. There are lots of hikers in their 70s and even 80s who have hiked the whole Appalachian Trail. The oldest was 86 when he finished doing the trail in sections." Recently retired, Jean's plans include travel, spending time with her family, and yes, hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Certainly, the most famous of hiking seniors (and one of the most famous hikers of all time) was Emma Gatewood, an Ohio farm-woman who went by the trail name "Grandma Gatewood." During her first hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1955 at the age of 67, the little old lady hiking in sneakers with a duffel bag slung over her shoulder became a familiar picture to Americans through articles in local newspapers, along with a profile in Sports Illustrated and an appearance on the Today Show.

Her hiking feats are the more remarkable because they hold their own not just among seniors, or women. After all, how many fit, fast, endorphin-charged twenty-something year-olds, male or female, can claim three completions of the Appalachian Trail; hikes of Vermont's Long Trail and Maryland's C&D Canal; miscellaneous unnamed rambles in Kentucky, Illinois, Pennsylvania, the Adirondacks, and eastern Canada—and a 2,000 mile-walk (averaging 22 miles a day) following the route of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon?

Of course, most of us can't chart a course based on the accomplishments of an Emma Gatewood, anymore than we can emulate the likes of a Michael Jordan or a Jackie Joyner Kersee. What about the average backpacker? What can the rest of us look forward to when the mortgage is finally paid, we've collected a gold watch and a retirement card signed by Bob from accounting and Stella in personnel, and the kids have cashed in their last tuition check? Retirement gives backpackers time to do the big trips they've always dreamed of, but there's no getting around the reality: hiking is physically challenging. And age sooner or later slows everyone down.

How much? Roland Mueser, himself a retiree, and Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, and the author of Long Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail did a survey of more than 100 hikers and concluded that thru-hikers over the age of 60 average 10 1/2 miles per day, opposed to the 14 1/2 miles per day averaged by younger hikers. This means that thru-hiking seniors are more likely to face adverse or even dangerous weather conditions at either the beginning or the end of their hikes.

But that's only a problem for the small percent of people who actually try to thru-hike a major trail in one season. For the majority of older hikers, lower mileage simply means, well, lower mileage. Like any other hikers, seniors need to set mileage goals that are consistent with their stamina, personality, and fitness. When asked, older hikers do admit to physical complaints, but they tend to be the same complaints cited by their younger counterpartsѿsore muscles, blisters, and knee problems predominating. And those problems can be ameliorated by preplanning and setting reasonable mileage goals.

"It depends on the kind of hike," 71-year old Ralph Molloy told me at a hiker festival in Virginia. He was taking a break between hiking a 300-mile section of the Appalachian Trail and heading out to California's John Muir Trail. (Author's note: Mr. Molloy passed away shortly after being interviewed for this article, the result of an allergic reaction to food in the Galapagos Islands.) "On a longer hike, my mileage now tends to be 10-12 miles a day. That's after I've broken in. If I'm going out for a short hike, say a weekend, it tends to be a little lower. I have to take into account that my body isn't used to the trail."

What about the effects of growing older?

"The pack gets heavier," he said with a smile.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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