What’s Different about Hiking after 50?
Even though the people you meet on the trail represent a wide range of ages, thru-hiking after 50 puts you in the minority. In fact, the annual Appalachian Trail thru-hiker survey shows the majority of hikers in 2018 were under 30, with a median age of 29.
The AT hikers who responded to the survey ranged in ages from 18-74. Pappy was the oldest hiker to attempt the trail, proving at age 87 that you’re never too old to tackle a long distance hike.
Young at Heart
Thru-hiking isn’t just for the young, but there are certainly advantages to being youthful. One benefit of being younger is the community of peers, which I didn’t have when I attempted my thru-hike.
I started on my 52nd birthday and I didn’t think much about my age at the time. Pretty soon I discovered that being 50+ could be a little lonely on the trail, especially for a woman. There were plenty of younger people and lots of older men, but ladies my age? Not so much.
Where Were All My Girls?
Maybe they were all still working, or home with kids and grandkids. The timing of my hike was triggered by the fact that my daughters were both out of the house, my parents were healthy, and my self-employed status allowed a sabbatical. Plus my husband was wiling to take on the responsibilities of running the household so I could go play in the woods.
Not everyone my age is so fortunate. Many of the women I meet who would like to thru-hike have family obligations that keep them home. Many of men I met on the trail were recently retired and often divorced.
I guess their single and untethered status made it easier to get away, although I suspect many aspiring female hikers are also afraid of, or at least are uncomfortable with, the idea of hiking alone. (I’ll tackle that issue in another post).
Gender Aside, What Should Older Hikers Know?
There are a number of things that making hiking after middle age a different experience than it is for the under 30 set. Some of these things are good, others are more challenging.
Here’s a non-scientific look at what I observed to be the major advantages and disadvantages of hiking after 50.
You’re Not a Kid Anymore
First and foremost, your body isn’t as young as it used to be. In my mind I’m still 25 but the calendar pegs me at more than twice that. My body enjoys reminding me of that fact, especially when I push it to hike 15 or 20 miles a day.
Older hikers often face physical challenges like prior injuries and longer recovery time for new aches and pains. It’s hard to complete a thru-hike if you need to take a few days off every week, so being in shape is important.
Younger hikers can easily train on the trail, starting from zero and quickly ramping up to big miles. That’s a lot harder for older hikers. Start with decent trail legs if you can.
Even if you are in great shape, you may hike slower than you’d like. If you top out at two miles an hour, you can still do 20 miles days, you just have to offset slower speed with longer hours.
Falling and Injuries
Age is frequently accompanied by a decline in agility and balance, leading to a greater likelihood of falling. I started my hike with a fresh diagnosis of osteopenia and (literally) doctors order to “Don’t fall down.”
Naturally, the prospect of falling was pretty scary for me and I slowed my pace out of caution. That hurt me in the long run, but it didn’t stop me from falling. My worst spills were on flat trails when roots jumped up to snag my foot or mud caused me to slip.
Falls can lead to devastating injuries for older bodies. Carrying a SPOT, InReach, or personal locator beacon (PBL) offers peace of mind. These devices let you summon help if you get hurt or have a medical emergency. I didn’t carry one, and after hiking alone for several days toward the end of my trip, I decided it’s a piece of gear I’ll add before my next long-distance hike.
Training with yoga can dramatically improve both balance and flexibility before you hit the trail, so I strongly encourage it for anyone planning a thru-hike. I also did “tent yoga” every day to stretch out sore muscles and joints. Downward Dogs turned out to be my secret weapon in combating Achilles tendonitis.
Diet is especially important. Food is fuel and good fuel keeps you going longer and stronger. I struggled a bit with some traditional hiker foods, especially tuna and tortillas, but I found good alternatives like cheese, walnuts, and pretzel sticks.
You might want to consider vitamins and supplements to address any nutritional deficiencies. Mail-order dehydrated food is also a good option, especially if you have dietary restrictions.
It’s tempting to chow down on burgers, fries, and other greasy foods in town. (Oh yes I did!). You might also want to use town stops to load up on veggies and other healthy foods. That made a big difference for me when I starting having recurring stomach issues, which are not fun at all on the trail.
Family emergencies can happen for hikers at any age, although if you having aging parents their health may be an ongoing concern as you hike.
My mom was quite healthy when I left on my thru-hike, so hearing she needed heart surgery was a bit of a shock. Fortunately, I was able to get off trail to visit with her before the surgery and my brother and sister were available to help during her recovery.
It’s a good idea to have a plan in place for how you’ll deal with situations that may arise while you’re hiking. If you’re an only child or would be the primary caregiver, will you get off trail? Can you line someone up in advance to check in with your family periodically and reassure you that everyone is OK?
Money, Money, Money
If you’ve done well in your career, you might be fortunate to have greater financial resources than younger hikers. More cash allows you to stay in town more often or pay for shuttles instead of hitchhiking. You can afford high-end gear and might even want to do a little trail magic for fellow hikers along the way.
Money gives you freedom, and it’s nice to be unencumbered financially. On the flip side, your mature financial status might also mean you have lots of obligations, like a mortgage or college tuition for your kids.
Unless you’re ready to sell the house and the car, some of these commitments will continue while you’re on the trail. If you can’t (or don’t want to) pay off your bills before you leave, you’ll need to arrange for payments ahead of time and check on things periodically while you’re hiking.
Online banking can be a big help with that, although it’s a good idea to have someone you trust as a backup. Ask them to check your mail for unexpected bills and give them access to accounts if you think that will be necessary.
The Mental Game
Thru-hiking is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. From living with pain and dealing with rain to more subtle things (like those crazy whip-poor-wills making noise all night), mind games can be your undoing if you’re not prepared.
Personally, I wasn’t ready for the feeling of inadequacy that would surface again and again as faster, younger hikers blazed by me. It took a long time for me to overcome the sense of being left behind that made me feel defeated even if I had been having an amazing day.
Other hikers I knew struggled with cold, being wet, and fear of bears. It’s hard to know what mental or emotional roadblocks you’ll encounter on trail, but doing a little pre-hike prep can make handling them easier. (Take a look at Zach Davis’s book Appalachian Trials for tips.)
Biases and Preconceptions
Life experience brings with it a host of preconceived notions about how things “should” be. We learn to make snap judgments and quick decisions, which can be an asset or a disadvantage, depending on the situation.
My daughters have accused me of “being judgey” sometimes and I didn’t want to bring that mind-set on my hike. I started the trail with a personal commitment to an open mind and that made a lot of difference in my attitude throughout the hike.
I credit my “take everything at face value” approach for allowing me to forge unique friendships on the trail without prejudging anyone. It also helped me adjust my definition of clean, both on the trail and in some not-quite-spotless hostels.
Biases go both ways and a few (not many) younger people looked right through me on the trail. It felt like they didn’t even see me because I wasn’t in their age group. That’s OK. I found friends in hikers of all ages.
If I had tried to stick to my own age group, I would have missed out on getting to know some really cool people. My hiking buddy, Mud Bug, was more than 20 years younger than me, but that didn’t hurt our friendship.
Party… or Not
There are plenty of opportunity to party along the trail, and it can slow hikers down if they’re not careful. Some younger hikers get stuck in “the vortex” of party hostels and fun towns, while older hikers tend to take their thru-hikes more seriously.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun (see Money, above). Party all you want, with whoever you want. If you choose not to, spend the time savoring the experience of trail life.
Enjoying the Views
I noticed a lot of younger hikers seemed to be in a big rush. Some had firm deadlines, like starting a new job or squeezing a thru-hike into a school break. Others simply wanted bragging rights for how fast they thru-hiked or how far they hiked each day.
Older hikers I met didn’t approach the trail the same way. They were enjoying everything the trail had to offer, stopping for views and town visits, soaking up the experience.
Tackling the trail post-retirement—or at least later in life—gives you the distinct advantage of being able to take your time. Do a flip-flop if you want seven or even eight months to hike the trail. There’s no rush. If you’re not retired, you can still be able to enjoy a more leisurely pace, if that’s your style.
All in all, thru-hiking after 50 can be an amazing, life-changing experience. Don’t let age stop you.
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