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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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