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This chart of successful thru hikers by age is a bit out of date, but I am told that even though the tally has increased, the ratio of the age groups is approximately the same today.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: http://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.
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!
17 thoughts on “After Primetime Hikers”
Preparation and persistence, two elements of success in most realms! Thanks for the overview. Good to read through the thinking.
I prepared this piece for Appalachian Trail Expert Advice, a Facebook page a bunch of us established to encourage success and counter some of the bogus advice out there.
I didn’t notice the link to the FB page. Did I miss it? Or did you? 🙂
The Facebook page has a different audience and is promoted on hiker fora. My blog automatically post elsewhere. Therefore I did not establish a link from my page.
Nice post! And thanks for the shout-out! 🙂
Jim gives good advice. He advised me to follow your PCT blog. I am looking forward to it.
It’s always great to read your blog! I hope you keep writing! Donna of Rangeley!
My thanks to one of my favorite trail Angels. Hope all is well.
Good advice for all, Jim. It would be very interesting to see the stats on attrition rate vs age. I’ll be following Karma PCT.
You have very wise words. There must be a balance between a person’s mental attitude and their fitness. You need both to make it. When one starts to fail, the other one needs to step up. I still remember literally crawling into 501 shelter. Felt like road kill and couldn’t move for awhile and my body was yelling at my brain ” What on earth were you thinking!” but felt mentally good for making it! We shall not be trail toast!!!
Was I surprised to see you guys! Let’s not mention the prescription grade pizza on the picnic table ready and waiting to be thoroughly demolished.
You make a great host!! I don’t care for cold pizza but I didn’t care that day! I’m finally back in the gym working hard. Might have to have a little procedure done on my knee but will have to have some tests. How’s your hand?
Each of them is steadily improving. The left one is still sore, but I’ll be ready to hike before my appointment with Denise Benson March 9 on Springer Mountain.
March 9th…that’s a great day….that’s my birthday !
Happy birthday in advance. I won’t have cell service that day.
At 64 I’m looking forward with some anxiety to start my Thruhike 3/17. Your sage advice has given this old man a dash of confidence. I’ve returned more gear after trying it than I can count figuring out what feels good on me, in my pack, and ease of use. My neighbors have been supportive during my jaunts around the country side testing rain gear, jogging pants, and a 26 pound pack. Workouts at the gym have given me a base to start, but learning what clothes to wear in different situations has been a learning process.
It’s all live and learn. I’m from the western US and learned lot from the east coast rain and humidity. Tip: GA averages 4,000 ft in elevation, NC, TN, and southern Virginia to Parisburg average 5-6,000. That means cold and snow. Wear loose layers made of stuff that dries quickly. Don’t forget mittens with waterproof/wind proof shells. I wore a base layer hiking pants and a wind shirt most of the time. Used my rain suit for extra insulation while hiking a couple of times.