How to Start Backpacking in Your 60s
The natural world awaits if you take some simple steps.
When you hit the age of 60, a budding senior, the uncertainty of life hits you square in the face. You can probably count on another 20 or 25 years of life but what will they be like? Will your world begin shrinking as you shut down activities or will you look at those awaiting years with enthusiasm for the chance to explore the world?
In my case, I decided to take up backpacking and carried 35 pounds up a mountain for the first time six months after I entered my seventh decade. Let me tell you how I did it.
I Have Never Been Much of an Athlete
I have always been chubby. Throughout childhood, a good book and a comfortable chair were my favorite entertainment. I had a bike but rarely rode it. I despised gym and especially track and field day on a humid June day when everyone could hear me groan as I sweated through the long jump. Forget trying to make it over the hurdles.
Some people are born natural athletes. Not me. I have had to fight against inertia and natural laziness to gain the confidence I finally have a half-century later to hike up giant mountains and enjoy it.
Half-hearted Exercise Through Mid-life
I started exercising when I was still in my 20s, jogging around the block a couple of times before returning home to a cold beer. I upped my game for a few months when I moved closer to a track and could jog four to five miles after work. Then I stopped. My heart was never really into it.
In my thirties I practiced step aerobics a couple of days a week. After having children and advancing in my career, my exercising was reduced to strolls to the playground on my days off.
When the children were older, I started walking a three-mile loop almost every day. I loved the stunning views along my route and I believed the ads about walking as a sure path to weight loss.
Choosing to Explore the American Wilderness
After a decade of these walks, my legs were strong and my heart ticked along at a calm rate. Then my husband and I got the idea to sell our house and go mobile, exploring the great outdoors while living in our souped-up van. We would visit National Parks, remote canyons and mountains and get close to nature by sleeping under the stars.
For the first time in my life, at age 60, I would carry a backpack big enough to hold a tent and sleeping bag for overnight camping, then climb into the Teton Mountains and the backcountry of Yellowstone with our gear.
Training to Become a Senior Hiker
I was nervous and spent the months before our departure preparing to get into better shape. First was the cardio. I found the steepest hill near my home and hiked straight up it several times a week, timing my performance each try.
Better cardio endurance would increase my hiking performance but I worried about my poor balance. I decided that climbing skills would help me crawl over boulders with more grace. I hired a trainer at the local rock climbing gym to help me build my strength. He drilled me though a dozen exercises but he never told meto climb a rock wall, that wasn’t my goal. I wanted to hike up mountains, not claw my way up a rocky cliff.
At home I exercised with small weights and resistance bands. I filled my backpack with books and heavy objects and practiced deep-knee lunges in a circle around our house.
Put Your Skills and Training to the Test
After three months of on-again, off-again training, we hit the road. We headed for Wyoming’s Grand Teton Mountains where we got a camping permit and loaded up our backpacks. The campsite was on a mountainside, some 2,500 feet up from the start of the trail head. We would be sleeping at an elevation of 9,000 feet. The thinner air meant I would have to work even harder to keep enough breath as we climbed.
I was ready. The mighty Tetons were etched against a cerulean sky, the sun shining brilliantly. My husband and I made our way up slowly, stopping whenever necessary to catch our breath. It was hard to climb with the extra weight on my back but I was determined to succeed, called by the vision of a night on a mountainside under the stars. When we finally arrived at our campsite, I collapsed, tired but ecstatic. The mountain view the next morning was well worth the hike up.
On our next overnight we hiked across much flatter, marshes and streams in Yellowstone National Park. I used my hiking poles to keep my balance when I crossed log bridges.
At our campsite, we rose in the morning to frost and the steam rising up from the river. It was heavenly!
The hike out to our campsite was easy but on the return trip my back began to get sore. I vowed to focus on strengthening my back during future gym workouts and kept going through the discomfort.
Since then, I have challenged myself with longer and steeper hikes all around the country, from the red canyons of Utah to the gravel-covered mountain of Alaska. My strength has grown, and so has my confidence.
Advice from a Senior Hiker
I’ve also had my share of tumbles, as well as muscle and feet aches that I have learned to prevent. If you want to try hiking and experience up close the beauty of nature, start with a discussion with your doctor about what you intend to achieve then consider all of these tips that I have found useful.
After I tripped on a root and fell flat, scraping my hands on gravel, I vowed to always hike with my hiking poles. Poles are great to break the impact on downhill hikes but they can also keep you erect if you stumble on a rock or root. They help you maintain balance on rocky trails and crossing streams.
Good-fitting boots with a roomy toe box help avoid blisters and toe jamming. I have hammer toes and often wrap two toes together with medical tape before hiking. This helps reduce the friction that can lead to blisters.
Boot inserts. I have inserts in all my shoes to provide better arch support. The padding on the bottom of your feet thins with age and the inserts give you an additional layer of protection.
Backpack & Gear
When you select a backpack for your new life of hiking, be sure to ask for assistance in fitting the pack to your shape. Backpacks come in different sizes and each one can be adjusted to best fit the contours of your upper body. Look for gear, including a tent and cookware, that is lightweight and versatile. I carry a small Jet Boil stove that boils water for coffee and cooks oatmeal. The lighter your pack, the easier your hike will be.
Be sure to drink plenty of water while hiking. Dehydration can strike seniors more quickly so carry water and a water purifier to resupply when you pass a lake or stream. I use an ultra-violent wand that purifies your water in seconds and weighs next-to-nothing.
You can make it to your goal but take it is easy. Don’t try to compete with younger hikers who will pass you on the trail. Go at your own pace, taking as many breaks as you want to drink water or snack on nuts or an energy bar.
After three years of hiking, I have experienced spectacular views that are only possible from a mountain top and climbed over huge boulders wedged between narrow canyon walls. I still go to a gym whenever I can to tone my upper body muscles, stretch and run on cardio equipment.
If I made the transition from childhood couch potato to alpine hiker at this late date, you can, too.