After Primetime Hikers

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Successful thru hikers by age

February 12, 2016 — We’ve noticed a high number of “older” prospective hikers express anxiety in their social media posts.  They tend to worry about whether or not they are too old to hike from Georgia to Maine in a single year.  They doubt that their bodies will be up to the pounding 2,289 miles can inflict.  They sell themselves short as they mention their various age-related maladies.

This chart of successful thru hikers by age is a bit out of date, but I am told that even though the tally has increased, the ratio of the age groups is approximately the same today.  It says that the number of hikers over 60 isn’t a large number.  What it does not tell you is the comparative attrition rate, the more important measure.

Sisters and brothers, I am one of you.  I turned 65 during my successful 2014 thru hike. You can do this.  If you have the will, there is a way.

I have observed thru hikers of all ages.  My educated guess is that the attrition rate for hikers over 60 isn’t much different that the other demographics with the possible exception of the 20-somethings because extreme youth is a marvelous elixir.

Let’s start with the positive.  Maturity counts, and I’m not talking about wrinkles, arthritis and gray hair, though they may correlate.  By the time you get to our point in life, you’re done with BS. We’ve drunk our beer and partied harder than many of the youth today could imagine. What’s the saying?  If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there…

Think about it.  We’ve found love. We have won, lost and won again.  For us, we are done with the bogus and irrelevant in our lives.  Our proven ability to focus and achieve can be a HUGE (Sorry Donald) factor in keeping us on the trail.  You earned that gray hair!  Wear it like a medal.

On the downside, for those who did not take care of their bodies or lost the genetic lottery, the climb may be steep. Here’s what I mean.

Last March, as a ridgerunner in Georgia, I met a big guy. Not fat, just big. Nice guy.

He was a retired Philadelphia cop. He didn’t plan ahead, was inexperienced, and was lugging a pack that weighed more than me.  “I’m in way over my head,” were is final words to me after I helped him rehydrate and get moving again.

This guy was right.  He was in over his head.  So were a ton of 20, 30, and 40 year-olds.  It wasn’t his birth year that led to trouble.  He was not ready, and neither were a great many others.  That’s why the attrition rate in the first 30 miles of the AT is around one-third.  Some estimate half never get out of Georgia.

You don’t have to suffer their ignominious fate. Here’s what I have concluded about successful thru hiking.

Success has four fundamental components, especially apply to older hikers.

First.  Be prepared.  Do your homework.  Think through the challenge of a thru hike relative to your experience, knowledge and physical condition.  Read the books, blogs and talk to others who are similarly situated. Did you know that the ATC has lists of former thru hikers our age who are willing to help?  They are patient and not condescending. Email or call the ATC and they’ll make the connection for you.

Second.  Conditioning.  After climate/weather issues, the second most difficult reported challenge for hikers of all ages is physical conditioning.  I met a fellow last year who regaled me with his high school football stories.  Unfortunately for him, his 45 years as a desk jockey was delusional.  In spite of his prodigious memories, he hadn’t scored a touchdown or done any exercise since high school long ago. Needless to say, his hiking experience reminded me of toasted  Wonder Bread.  He didn’t last long.

It’s easy to overestimate your level of fitness, just as it is easy to underestimate the value of your determination.  Walk, hike, exercise.  It may better to consider delaying your hike a year than become a namesake on Blood Mountain.

Taking the time to get into better shape can make all the difference.  When the going gets tough, the strong do better then the weak.  There’s no doubt about it. Remember what Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Add, especially when it’s raining or bitter cold.

Here’s a blog I wrote about my thru hike conditioning program:  https://jfetig.com/2013/05/21/no-pain-no-maine-insane/  Among other things, it has a humorous take on the differences between younger and older bodies.

Another good read is  http://www.thumperwalk.wordpress.com “Karma on the Trail” You can see a thru hike unfold for real for a middle aged woman who demonstrated a tour de force in tenacity.

Third.  Knowing your stuff.  Having a zillion backcountry experiences under your belt isn’t necessary, but having been there and done that more than once helps a lot.  In other words, how do you get to Katahdin – practice, practice, practice.  Another reason taking the time to get in shape could pay off.

Good sources for learning trail craft aren’t in short supply.  A fairly diverse bunch of us established the AT Expert Advice Facebook page in hopes of being useful.  The ATC website, http://www.appalachiantrail.org, has a ton of resource material as does http://www.whiteblaze.net. Reading the blogs, especially in real time, at http://www.trailjournals.com, is both fun and enlightening. Don’t forget the hiking memoirs – too many to mention, but they are all available at the ATC website store.

My favorite muse is “The Complete Walker” by Colin Fletcher.  Any addition will do.  The only difference between the volumes is the technological improvement of equipment over time and the evolution of the Leave No Trace outdoor ethic.  Edition IV is the last one he did, but the technique he describes is eternal.  Read it and then, just get out there and try different things until you figure out what works for you.

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In practical terms it works like this.  My trail name is Sisu.  Sisu’s personal priorities developed by hard learned experience are these:  Sisu is never cold, never wet and never filthy.  I developed these priorities by trial and error. Then, over a lifetime, I figured out how to do it.

Your priorities may be different.  But you’ll never know what is right for you unless you get into the field and develop your skills.

Fourth.  Attitude.  Mental toughness counts. This is where more mature hikers excel because life lessons offer perspective.  We know how to make and keep a commitment.  Our purposes and objectives coincide. Once we start, we are going to hike our own hikes, walk our own pace and not be drawn aside by foolishness or trying to keep up and party with the Jones’s so to speak. Most importantly, our perspective tells us that one bad day does not a life make.

The upshot is this.  You don’t have to be Superman or Superwoman to succeed.  But, you do have to properly prepare.

If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, then it’s better to be “lucky” in that context than sorry.  Indeed!

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