Issues with being over 50 on a long distance hike

Backpacking

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 Jr’s: new car at 16, two dui’s before 17, a new iPhone at every release, excess data usage charges every month, 2 prom night’s including limo and hotel room, a therapist to determine why Jr. isn’t fulfilled, college education (which Jr. shows his/her appreciation by flunking out of school 3 times before hiking the AT or PCT to find himself), and a complete set of ultra-light backpacking setup. 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 2 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 6 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 5 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 healths haven’t deteriorated to the point that they can’t function. My parents have entered an independent living facility to ease up their work load. Bunny’s parents come in 5 & 8 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 2 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 2 SFTs. We did the GR10 (Pyrenees traverse in France) in 78 days when all guide books 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 take medications, we still see a big increase in recovery times. We sleep a lot on the trail. A whole lot. We average almost 10 hours a night compared to 7 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 10 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 ultra-light. I do try to keep her pack weight under 28# while my pack might end up weighing as high as 52# 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 4000 miles in the last 2 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 20 something. 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 your are at full odor. We now wear Merino wool shirts. (We also carried Febreeze and spritzed our packs periodically). 

Any regrets?

It’s a simple life. We sleep 10 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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