Issues with Being Over 50 on a Long Distance-Hike

There aren’t a lot of hikers in the post-50/pre-retirement age group. In fact, our age group is probably in the minority of thru-hikers, and for good reason. This is one of the toughest periods in life to get freed up because of careers, family responsibilities, and health issues. Let’s look at a few of the issues in detail and why this group of hikers are MIA. 

Why Aren’t 50-Year-Olds Out Here?

For most people, this is the height of the earning curve. If they were foolish enough to have children, they haven’t been able to plan ahead for retirement because they spent all their excess money on junior’s new car at 16, two DUIs before 17, a new iPhone at every release, excess data usage charges every month, two prom nights, including limo and hotel room, a therapist to determine why junior isn’t fulfilled, college education (which junior shows his/her appreciation by flunking out of school three times before hiking the AT or PCT to find himself), and a complete set of ultralight backpacking gear. Once the kids are finally out of the house (don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on them while we’re on the trail) there tends to be a mad rush to save as much money as possible before retirement to make up for the lost time. 

There are people out there our age, just not a lot thru-hiking. GR10 2017

This also tends to be the time when elderly parents start to deteriorate and need extra care (paybacks for the above listed expenses for kids can be hell). It’s a fact of life; bodies eventually start breaking down. When a person is in their 50s, this process starts but it’s not as noticeable because the body’s backup systems are able to pick up the slack. By the time our parents are in their 80s, those backups are now starting to fail. 

 

West Highland Way 2013.

When the average person makes it past these hurdles, they are so close to retirement that they say “just two more years and then I’ll finally have the time and money to hike the AT (or PCT).” Then the day of retirement finally arrives. If luck is on their side, they don’t die within six months of retirement (which tends to be a bummer on the trail—in 2018, a recently retired man had a heart attack and died on Springer Mountain). If all goes well, though, more than likely your wife will say, “Are you serious? Sleep on the ground for five months! No way in hell! You go without me.” This is why there are so many retired men and so very few retired women thru-hikers. Post-65-year-old women thru-hikers are just as rare as 50-year-olds on the trail. 

Appalachian Trail 2018.

So How Did We Do It?

We quit. After 30 years in careers we didn’t really like, we said “uncle.” We may (probably) have traded future financial stability in order to have enjoyment now. With any luck, we’ll have dementia so bad we won’t notice how lousy our retirement is. 

We can always count on running into someone older than us along the way.

Even though both of our parents are nearing their 80s (both of my parents are 86 but in pretty decent shape), their health hasn’t deteriorated to the point that they can’t function. My parents have entered an independent living facility to ease up their workload. Bunny’s parents come in five and eight years younger and are in slightly better shape. We have an elder-window of opportunity. 

In for a penny, in for a pound. If we’ve quit our jobs to hike, we’re going to enjoy our time on the trail to the fullest. Most young thru-hikers are obsessed with light pack weight and how fast they can hike the trail (there are always exceptions—some kids get so stoned that after two months on the AT, they’re not even sure if they are past Damascus). I’m disgusted with the emphasis placed on FKTs (Fastest Known Times). We are shooting for an SFT (Slowest [email protected]#&ing Time). 

First sight of Katahdin 2018.

So far, since we started the hiking portion of our life, we have set two SFTs. We did the GR10 (Pyrenees traverse in France) in 78 days when all guidebooks point to 51 days as the average time. And just last year, we hiked the Appalachian Trail in 252 days. Numerous young hikers that found out how long we had been on the trail would respond with, “At least you’re out here,” not understanding that we were intentionally hiking slow or why we’d want to.

The Downside of Hiking in Our 50s

As I mentioned before, in your 50s, your body starts to fail in subtle ways. Even though we are outliers in the fact that neither of us takes medications, we still see a big increase in recovery times. We sleep a lot on the trail. A whole lot. We average almost ten hours a night compared to seven off trail. That’s over a 40% increase each and every night. 

Appalachian Trail thru-hike 2018.

Another concern for us is injury. Because we quit, we don’t have health insurance. A senseless injury could be devastating to us on multiple levels. This works well with our SFT objective, though. We walk slowly and carefully. We set very reasonable goals for the trail. For the PCT, we only need to average 12.5 miles per day while we are on the trail. Our average on the AT was less than ten miles per day. We take a lot of zeros along the way. 

Camino de Santiago 2017.

Part of how I got my wife to agree to hiking was that we will take a zero day at least once a week. If we were working, we’d normally have two days a week off. Hiking is our job. I’m not adverse to one or more days a week off. Plus, I married up. I was a nerd in high school while my wife was a cheerleader. If we had met in high school, we’d never have gotten together. As a former cheerleader-cum-thru-hiker, I’ve got to make some concessions. 

GR10 2017.

She wants/needs more luxuries than the average 20-year-old. Luxuries cost weight. Therefore, we have no desire to go ultralight. I do try to keep her pack weight under 28 pounds, while my pack might end up weighing as much as 52 pounds at times. With this much weight on our backs, trail runners are out. Another “mistake” we make, according to the current experts of hiking. So far, we’ve hiked over 4,000 miles in the last two years, so I’m not too worried about being wrong. 

Tour du Mont Blanc 2017.

Hygiene is another issue. While hiking the Appalachian Trail last year, we were continually identified as section hikers by thru-hikers we hadn’t met. Why? Because we exercised a tad bit more hygiene than the average twentysomething. I shaved, bathed, and laundered at least once a week. My wife carries extra wet wipes to clean up every night. I’m sure a lot of other hikers follow the same regime, but the real game changer for us is to avoid polyester. Once polyester gets an odor to it, it doesn’t matter how many times you wash it, as soon as you sweat, you’re are at full odor. We now wear Merino wool shirts. (We also carried Febreze and spritzed our packs periodically). 

Any Regrets?

It’s a simple life. We sleep ten hours a day, eat, walk, try to figure out where we’re going to sleep the next night, and admire the beauty around us. I don’t have a boss (not entirely true, I am married—happy wife, happy life… quiet life, quiet wife?). My job is walking. No schedule other than get done with the trail before the snows get bad in Washington. I don’t have to listen to news. 

There’s always some birds of prey following the old people on the trail. GR10 2017

We just decided we couldn’t afford to wait any longer. My wife was a nurse practitioner, watching people younger than us die. If we waited, we might lose the opportunity to thru-hike because of our bad health, or worse. Plus, I’ve heard death has a harder time finding a moving target. We left no forwarding address. 

We’ve got this!

EFG

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Comments 51

  • Tom b. : Feb 9th

    Luv it my fellow walkers / hikers / vagabonds. Live your best life and enjoy every step and view along the way.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 9th

      Happy travels

      Reply
      • Mohamad Redza : Feb 9th

        Happy Hiking… I’m in my mid 50s..still doing hiking around my country(Malaysia) as always my group of hikers are much more younger than me…

        Reply
        • Easily Forgotten : Feb 9th

          We’d love to make it to Malaysia some day. We have dreams of hiking all over the world. I’m afraid our money and legs will give out before our desire will. Our age group should be considered a fine red wine—much better with age.

          Reply
  • UltraNomad : Feb 9th

    It’s awesome that you two have found the outdoor adventure life! And even more so that you found your Way…the SFT way. With that said, I wish you weren’t “disgusted” by others who choose to travel faster (or hike differently) than you do. I’m 52. I’m an avid ultra-runner and thru hiker. I find my bliss moving light and fast through the wilderness. Mother Nature has a way of appealing to each of us in her own personal and unique manner. Please don’t judge.

    Happy trails, buen camino, and maybe we’ll run into each other someday.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 9th

      I don’t begrudge anyone moving fast. What bothers me is that only speed demons get attention. The media emphasis in the USA is do more faster, increase efficiency, or set a new speed record—anything else doesn’t merit attention. Trail running is a much different sport than backpacking and I admire you fitness and tenacity.

      Reply
      • RobertOregonHiker : Feb 9th

        Great read. I agree with most of what you wrote, but take mild exception with your point about fast hikers. I’m 63 now and an avid camper / hiker. Once upon a time I was fast and strong enough to hike 12 hours @4mph for days on end without breaks, while carrying an external frame pack, 6lb. sleeping bag, 8lb. tent, food, 2 litres of water, etc. What could I have done with modern ultralight technology? Possibly what these fast and furious men and women are doing today.

        In truth I resent them because growing old sucks and my ego is fragile (laughing!!!). But I’d be lying if I didn’t admire their feats of strength, competitiveness, and endurance. Good for them! Or as my mother always said, to each their own.

        Now that I’m an oldster I simply celebrate my slow, meditative state. Why? Because slowing down has enabled me to enjoy the scenery more, develop sustainable friendships on the trail, take better photos, and keep hiking way past the age I ever thought possible.

        Fast hikers, I love you. Just don’t call me old on the trail because one day you will be just like me. And nobody wants to admit they’re old.

        Reply
        • Easily Forgotten : Feb 9th

          I wasn’t trying to denigrate fast hikers. If I were able to go a lot faster, though, I probably wouldn’t. We spent 2017 hiking several trails in Europe and people really tended to act like backpacking is a competitive sport. My point was we just want to spend as much time out and consume as much of the trail as we possibly can. Too much emphasis in publications is placed on being fast, going further, and covering as much ground in the shortest time possible rather than placing value on going slow and enjoying the experience above other variables.

          I agree with all you said except I call myself old before the youngsters get a chance to.

          Thanks for your feedback. Enjoy the trail!

          Reply
          • Grateful : Feb 10th

            52…..20+ miles a day….33lb pack…..stopped to smell the roses when I wanted…..so happy we get to hike our own hike 🙂

            Reply
            • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

              It’s great that there are people in our age group that still outdo the trail kids and let them see not everyone is a snail like my wife and I are.

              Reply
          • Kibs : Feb 10th

            “Hike your own hike” my best advice. I am one of those slow moving dinosaurs and love to take in Mother Nature as often as I can. I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, so I must stop walking when I’m gawking!

            Reply
            • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

              Two things at once! Keep reaching for the stars. I am at the age that pretty much have to not breathe so I can concentrate on walking without falling.

              Reply
      • Sharon Barnes : Feb 10th

        I absolutely love what you are doing. I am 57 and have been a “slow” hiker for years. (Until a Parafoil Stunt Kite grabbed me around the neck and caused injuies-no I didn’t even have a kite) I prefer slow hiking because I also love photographing everywhere, and just about every little thing. I say more “power to you”! Hopefully, I will be back out hiking soon!

        Reply
        • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

          A stunt kiting sidelining injury…talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wish you a speedy recovery.

          Reply
  • Bob T : Feb 9th

    The PCT and I were established in the same year, 1968. I plan to start my thru hike on or about my birthday in 2020.

    Great read, see you on the trail!

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 9th

      Congratulations, you will have the time of your life.

      Reply
  • Ross : Feb 10th

    A 64-year-old here, gradually replacing my backpacking with canoeing (you can take a chair!). I love this article, especially the emphatic advice that if you want to go slow, then have fun and go slow! Every time I step aside on the trail to let youngsters pass, I get to rest for a few seconds, say hello, and wonder how fast they will be hiking 40 years from now.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      Stopping to take a picture is another useful trick. Enjoy the canoeing as well.

      Reply
  • Gina Dennis : Feb 10th

    Congratulations on being able to hike together and make it work!! I am also older and will be doing my thruhike of the AT this year solo with my husband at home to send me packages as needed. Maybe I’ll see you out there. Which direction are you going?

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      We’re going nobo on the PCT this year starting in late February. Care packages are always fun even if you pack them yourself. When you don’t know what’s in them, it’s like Christmas morning on the trail.

      Reply
  • Special K : Feb 10th

    Really enjoyed this. I’m 56 and can relate to just about everything here.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      Age is just a number. In my case, a much bigger number than I ever imagined I’d see.

      Reply
  • tripledip : Feb 10th

    Well said! I did the AT at 54 and the PCT at 55. Those young punks out there are still trying to figure out what we already know. haha If you lined up 100 hikers at the start of the AT and had to pick the 20 or so that make it all the way, you would never get it right because you can’t see someone’s internal motivation. Happy trails. Now get off my lawn.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      Well said. The success rate of senior hikers is almost 90% on the AT if they make it to Hot Springs. It’s still just 50% for everyone else from that point. Overall the success rate is 25%. The rate was slightly lower in 2018 on the AT because of the weather. Obsession with speed leads to avoidable injury.

      Reply
  • Vince : Feb 10th

    Love your attitude towards this crazy ride we call life! Started on Katahdin in early June of ’16. Tendon issues. In ’17 hiked from the beginning of the 100 mile wilderness to Bennington, VT. ’18 from there to Wind Gap, PA. Starting again in June. At your pace, at your speed. I’ll turn 59 on the trail this year. Just have to listen to your body. Buena suerte in your quest.

    Vince, aka The Dude, SOBO, ’16-’19

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      Best of luck to you as well. Being out there and enjoying it are all that matters. Happy 59th.

      Reply
  • Brian : Feb 10th

    Thank you for continuing to chronicle your hikes. As one who loves the trail but is bound to the aforementioned occasions of family, I appreciate your allowing me to share in the adventure and comradery through your posts. Safe travels my friends.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      We love to share our experiences. We do try to keep a daily blog of all the stuff we do at 4luvofhiking.com if you are interested. I know it’s difficult to break away which is why we feel so fortunate to be out here. I guess I never grew up and took responsibility.

      Reply
  • Redwing : Feb 10th

    Love this post! Currently full-time caregiver for two infirm and invalid family members, but still have a thru-hike in my dreams. Meanwhile, will be 69 this month and staying in the best shape I can.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      Don’t forget that Pappy hiked over 1500 miles of the AT in 2018. He was 87. It’s never too late to get out and backpack.

      Reply
  • detail : Feb 10th

    And to think you called me “dainty” for heading to the Big Walker Motel ! 😉 Good article and good to see you’re still out there! Hope you’re doing well. Peace, Detail

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      Detail, I remember you well. We spent the night at Jenny Knob Shelter when Gnome and I were out without Bunny. Glad to hear you’re still kicking.

      Reply
  • LAshmore12 : Feb 10th

    What a great plan, best if luck to you both. Keep posting tips, they will help me if/when I take the plunge to do the same. God bless.

    Reply
    • BobB : Feb 10th

      Thank you! You’ve help to expedite my decision. I’ve waited long enough…thank you!!!

      Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      If you’re ready from theTrek.co already, the question is when not if. You’ll be ready and ahead of the curve when you start. Good luck.

      Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      Don’t wait for the perfect time to go, it doesn’t exist. Even if it’s only a half day, get out and hike whenever you have a chance.

      Reply
  • Gerard Saint-Pierre : Feb 10th

    I’m 53 and getting reading to hit the AT next month. It’s not my first long-distance hike as I’ve done the Colorado Trail and Ozarks Highlands Trail already, but it will be my longest hike so far. I too quit and want to do these things while I still can. I frequently hear of people younger than I pass, so I feel like there is no better time than now. Who knows what the future holds and I don’t want to look back with regrets for not doing the things I want to do.

    I’m not the fastest hiker and don’t want to be. I want to see the trail, blue blaze some side trails for the sites, and just enjoy my time on the trail (well, enjoy it as much as possible as I know there will be days). My pack is a bit heavier than some, and not as heavy as others. I don’t care; it’s not a contest to see who can get to the lowest base weight even if it feels like that at times.

    Great post and I’m glad to know I’m not the only 50-something out there!

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 10th

      You have a great attitude and will be successful. Don’t fall into the speed trap. Especially early on, take it easy. We didn’t do a 10 mile day our first week on the AT. There will always be someone further down the trail that matches your pace. Enjoy the AT. It’s one of the best experiences of my life.

      Reply
  • Tony Bell : Feb 12th

    Great post and example. Just a question out of curiosity: now that you are without a residence or ‘home’ address, do you have a mailbox where you receive occasional mail or a physical address to give businesses, such as mobile phone service carriers, and such? Also, do either of you have grown children, are you empty-nesters? How do people stay in touch with you and you with them?

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 12th

      We do have a permanent address at a UPS store which we use for those cases that require an address. In all cases of bills and miscellaneous accounts, we have elected to go paperless. If we have any bills, we have them automatically charged to our credit card so we only have one bill a month that requires our attention. This bill, I pay electronically through my banking app.

      I was fortunate (just received slap from Bunny) to not have children of my own (other than dogs which are no longer). She does have 2 grown children. They text daily if signal is available and talk at least once a week. We both talk with our parents weekly but they follow our InReach tracking so always know where we are. They also keep up with our blog at 4luvofhiking.com which we update daily when we have internet access. Feel free to read along. The content there is different that what I write here.

      Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  • J Pono Nakoa : Feb 12th

    Happy to see this article, thank you and glad to hear how you enjoyed your slow pace and good hygiene

    but,

    I am 72 and interested in extended hiking but having difficulty finding books that include tips and hints for the older hiker. Much to read, for example, hiking the AT but nothing much about those of us way past 50; anyone with links or suggestions.

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 12th

      I don’t have any suggestions for further reading for us elder hikers. The only advice I have is go slow and don’t get caught up in the more speed/more distance frenzy. Believe me, you will find someone that matches your pace if you don’t try to force it. We hiked with Vagabond Jack lasy year who was 72. He paired up with another guy named Curb before they even made it to the Smokies.

      Reply
    • Crash : Jul 10th

      You can get “Thru-Hikers’ companion 2019” Appalachian Trail at book store or Appalachian Trail conservacy. To learn details about the trail.

      Reply
  • anthony behrens : Feb 12th

    Nice article…I started it thinking it didn’t apply to me…I ended it knowing that you’d given it some pretty deep and honest thoughts. Thanks guys…

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 12th

      Thanks for reading. I always say go slow. Enjoy.

      Reply
  • Fran : Feb 13th

    Listen to your body! As others have said “hike your own hike.” In my late 60’s, I was section hiking the AT with a partner 8 years younger than I. We both succumbed to senior peer pressure (self inflicted) after listening over and over to the ever present trail question “how many miles did you hike today?” Our hiking plan was 10 miles a day—oftentimes more than enough for me. So this is how it goes—“We did 10 today, we can do 12 tomorrow, and so it went until I hiked 16 miles, and was absolutely exhausted—-and my body let me know that. So, for me, the 10 mile a day plan went back into effect. Enjoy your hike, however YOU want to do it!

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 13th

      It’s very easy to fall prey to trail peer pressure and not hike the hike you planned. As we get older,recovery takes longer. If we do 20 mile days, we end up paying for it with extra zeros to recover—it’s just not worth it. Enjoy your hiking however you choose to hike.

      Reply
  • Susan Carey : Feb 14th

    I love this. While I don’t aim to do a trail such as the Pacific or in our case, the Trans Canada, I do a lot of trails in my home province of Nova Scotia and I have often wondered-what’s the hurry?
    I thought with two knee replacements I wouldn’t be at the end of every guided hike-guess what I still am. And I don’t think I am all that slow.
    http://www.helloweekend.ca

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 14th

      Slow trumps not walking or being a couch potato. Lots of people hike with pain, it just depends on your tolerance. My wife, Bunny Tracks, has hip pain which is why we limit her pack weight. I have no tolerance for pain. Just keep plodding along. I’ll bet you’re faster than we are. Like I’ve said, it’s the enjoyment that matters. Happy hiking.

      Reply
  • Ramon : Feb 25th

    I love your SFT philosophy!

    Reply
    • Easily Forgotten : Feb 25th

      We are definitely outliers of the current set of thru-hikers when we come to SFT. The American obsession with speed is still very dominant on the trail.

      Reply

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