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My pre-AT hike trail journal entries Appalachian Trail photos Hiking Isle Royale National Park Homemade Gaiters
Open Letter to Sally -- Why I Hike the AT Climbing Katahdin Hiking the Manistee River Trail Homemade Tent
Ups and Downs of Section Hiking the AT Food resupply on the AT Hiking the Jordan River Pathway Homemade Backpack
Old Man Walking -- Info for Older Hikers The Hiker Diet Hiking the High Country Pathway

Old Man Walking (slowly)

Participants in a 2009 Pew Research Center survey were asked: “At what age does the average person become old?” The average of all their responses was 68. [1] According to John Shoven, an economics professor at Stanford University, “the threshold age for being considered old for men increased from about 55 in the 1920s to 70 today.” [2]

By either measure, I am old. It’s a fair characterization, I think. After all, I have been alive longer than 85 percent of the current U.S. population. My life expectancy is down to 14 years. [3] No one looking at me would conclude I was young or even middle-aged. I have my share of age-associated conditions. During my annual checkup, my doctor now asks “Have you fallen in the past 12 months?”

“Yes,” I answered two checkups ago. “While squeezing through a tight passage under some boulders in the Mahoosuc Notch, my foot slipped on a wet rock. I ended up on my back with both feet in the air and bloody lacerations on the back of my left hand.” I recounted this incident as if it were no big deal and showed my doctor my recently healed hand.

At the time, I was hiking with James (“Bisquick Man”) and Sada (“Moose Tracker”), a couple in their early 30s. James pulled me to my feet, got out his first aid kit and cleaned, treated, and bandaged my hand. Then we continued on our way.

In my mind, the fall had nothing to do with being old. Less than an hour earlier we had passed a 30-something man traveling in the opposite direction who had fallen and dislocated a shoulder. He was being escorted out by fellow hikers, including a superwoman who was hauling his pack in addition to her own. The Mahoosuc Notch is reputed to be the toughest and slowest mile of the Appalachian Trail. It is a chasm, the bottom of which is a jumble of huge boulders and slabs of rocks, some the size of a house, that one must clamber over, under, around, and between. It takes one or two or, in my case, three hours to traverse and is a place where anyone who is careless for a moment or has a bit of bad luck can fall.

If one hikes enough miles, particularly in rugged terrain or on slippery surfaces, an occasional fall seems inevitable. A study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that hiking is the third most dangerous outdoor recreational activity (behind snowboarding and sledding). [4] Falls are arguably the most common cause of death and serious injury accidents while hiking. (Definitely not bears or crazed humans as many believe.) [5] [6] [7]

As best I can recall, I’ve fallen around 20 times in 5,000 miles of hiking. Fortunately, I’ve never suffered anything worse than cuts, bruises, and ripped clothing and have always been able to get back up and keep walking. But now that I’m old, falls are a bigger concern. I am both more likely to fall and more susceptible to injury if I do.

According to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of injury and death from injury among Americans 65 and older. [8] Even seemingly minor ground level falls, such as slipping on a wet floor, can be fatal or result in a debilitating injury that has long term, life-altering consequences. An analysis of 57,000 trauma patients found that adults age 70 or older are far more likely than people under 70 to experience serious injuries from a ground level fall and are three times more likely to die as a result. [9] [10] As Dr. Julius Cheng points out, “An 80 year old often can’t tolerate and recover from trauma like a 20 year old.” [11]

While the increased danger posed by falls is one effect of aging that elderly hikers must deal with, it is by no means the only one.

I began hiking the Appalachian Trail at age 58 and spent three months that first season carrying a 35 pound pack almost 1,000 miles up and down mountains and over rugged terrain in wildly varying weather conditions. Ten years later I re-hiked 150 of those miles -- the southern half of Maine, one of the most beautiful, and most difficult, sections of the AT. It quickly became apparent I was not the middle-aged man I used to be. I was weaker and got cold more easily. Even though my pack was 10 pounds lighter, I was slower and had less stamina. About halfway through, my knees began to ache, which was a new (and unwelcome) development.

Although the decline in my physical condition increased the challenge of the hike, I never felt like I had taken on more than I could handle. The arduousness did slow me down, however, and the Maine (and main) part of my trip ended up taking four days longer than planned. Towards the end I was running low on food but James and Sada once again came to my aid. We just happened to be hiking together on the day James’ mother met them at a trailhead parking area with a carload of food and other supplies. They encouraged me to take whatever I needed.

So everything worked out okay and I had a great time. But I was pretty beat up by the end. My shins were covered with abrasions from crawling up and down rocks that young hikers took in stride. And I was tired to the core; a deep weariness that went beyond fatigue. I have been exhausted before but this was different. I felt — old.

Normally (even now), I don’t feel old. Neither do most of my contemporaries. In general, people over 40 feel twenty percent younger than their chronological age. [12] The average male in my age bracket (65-74) feels like he is in his mid-fifties. [13]

Overall, that appears to be a good thing. Older people who feel years younger than their actual age are less bored, have higher self-esteem, better health, life satisfaction, and cognitive abilities, and live longer. [14] [15] [16]

On the other hand, the illusion of “felt age” can blind us to the realities associated with chronological age. Statistically, after age 60, physical fitness (strength, endurance, agility, and flexibility) decreases significantly and the number of falls increases by 35%–40%. Aerobic capacity declines 0.5%–1.0% per year after age 40. [17] One’s skeleton and joints deteriorate with age. [18] The elderly are less able to stay warm in cold weather and remain cool in hot weather. [19] Increasing age is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. [20] There are also changes in mental functioning associated with age. For example, older adults are less likely to change their beliefs when faced with undesirable information and more likely to underestimate the probability of negative events. [21] The specific effects of aging vary among individuals, of course. But everyone’s biological clock is ceaselessly running forward. A 70 year-old male may feel like he is 57 but the reality is that his mind and body have aged 13 years since he was that young.

The takeaway for us older hikers? Our diminished vigor reduces our ability to handle the physical demands of hiking and puts us at higher risk of injury. Age-related cognitive biases incline us to overestimate what we can accomplish, underestimate how long it will take, and downplay the risks. The consequences of these misperceptions can range from being inconvenienced to turning what could have been an enjoyable outing into an ordeal to getting into serious trouble.

Hmmmm. Sounds familiar.

Less than a week into my 1,000 mile AT hike (12 years ago), I took a break at White House Landing in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness where I met “Slow Walker,” a 61 year-old northbounder. He had been section hiking the AT for four years and was just days away from completing the trail. I plied him with questions seeking to benefit from his experience. “Always keep in mind,” he emphasized, “that it’s doable. Parts of the trail are extremely difficult, especially for us older hikers. There may be places that seem impassable or which look like more than you can handle. But there is a way. You just have to figure it out.”

I heard the words but did not fully appreciate them until much later, after I had overcome my share of obstacles. And their essential truth has been reinforced since then. Over the past decade, I have met a fair number of hikers my age and older (the oldest, “Gut,” was 79) backpacking long distances over the most rugged terrain the AT has to offer and having a marvelous time. They have been an inspiration and a reminder that, if the stars align and one persists and adapts, it is possible to enjoy hiking well into old age.

Within the limits imposed by old age, of course. The aging process is inexorable, albeit gradual and subtle. Daily changes are invisible and the effects from one year to the next may be barely noticeable. There are things one can do that may delay the inevitable, such as a healthy diet and exercise. But eventually, the cumulative effects take their toll and affect both what we are able to do and how we do the things we can.

On various occasions I’ve met a total of five older AT hikers who had abandoned their attempt to hike a certain stretch of trail because it turned out to be beyond their physical capabilities. Later, I encountered four of the five again. They had skipped the part that had stymied them and kept on hiking. While disappointed, they accepted the nonsuccess as a bump in the trail that comes with age.

Their experience, I suspect, offers a glimpse into my future. As I get older, the going will get subjectively tougher and impediments that I once would have considered difficult will become insurmountable. There will come a day when I will only be able to manage easier trails. Then only shorter trips. And so the regression will continue. I’m okay with that. Given the pleasure I get from walking in nature (not to mention all the physical and mental health benefits), [22] it’s enough that I can keep hiking in some form until I can’t.

My FWIW advice to older hikers:

-- Use hiking poles. Among other things, they reduce the load on lower limbs and joints, can reduce muscle and cartilage damage, and help maintain balance. [23] [24]

-- Watch your footing. Falling is bad. Be especially careful when walking on rough or slippery surfaces (e.g., wet rocks, roots, and boardwalks; muddy trail and creek banks).

-- When confronted with a difficult obstacle, don’t just bull ahead. Pause for a moment and figure out the best way forward.

-- Wear the lightest footwear with grippy soles suitable for the terrain and conditions.

-- Avoid getting too fatigued. That increases the likelihood of accidents and poor decisions.

-- Pay attention to your caloric intake. There is a substantial decline in food intake with advancing age, in part because of reduced muscle mass and a decline in physical activity. [25] If your physical exertion on a backpacking trip is significantly greater than your norm, you will need to consume more calories than usual to maintain your energy and strength. Some hikers experience a decrease in appetite. That may be a concern if it continues for more than several days.

-- Take a sleep system that allows you to get a good night’s rest. Older people are less able to stay warm when it’s cold, so make sure your sleep system will keep you warm enough. An inflatable pad is much more comfortable than a closed cell foam pad. A backpacking pillow may be worth the weight.

-- Reduce pack weight as much as is practicable. Unfortunately, older backpackers may still end up having to carry a heavier load than their younger counterparts. (Yeah, life is not fair.) Their pace is usually slower so it takes longer to travel a given distance. More days on the trail means more food/fuel/consumable weight. And they typically get cold more easily which makes it is necessary to carry more insulation weight in the form of clothing and/or sleep system. Possible adaptations – Hike in moderate temperatures to minimize insulation weight. Do shorter hikes or arrange for more frequent resupply to keep consumable weight down. Invite your big, burly son-in-law/sherpa to come along and carry some of your stuff.

-- Guard against both hypothermia and hyperthermia. Older adults are especially vulnerable to both. Hypothermia can occur at 50*F (10*C) or even higher temperatures in wet and windy weather. In hot weather, older people are more likely to die of heart-related problems than heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or dehydration. That’s because, to cool off, the body routes more blood to the skin. But older people's blood vessels don’t dilate as well, so their heart is strained by the effort.

-- Start with a conservative schedule then add some slack time and identify bailout points. The elderly tend to be over-optimistic. Feeling compelled to keep to a tight schedule can turn what could have been a fun hike into an ordeal. It can also lead to bad decisions that have serious consequences. Bailout points provide additional options if your schedule must be revised.

-- If on medications, take several extra doses in case of delays.

-- Consider hiking with a partner. Two hikers helping each other can make travel over difficult terrain easier. There is someone to assist or go for help in case of trouble. Pack weight can be reduced by sharing common items and dividing their load. The value of moral support and mutual encouragement should not be underestimated.

-- At the very least, leave your itinerary with a responsible person who understands the uncertainty inherent in a backpacking trip. You want that person to seek help if necessary but not overreact if it is not. If you subsequently alter your plans, make a good faith effort to inform that person of the change. On long trips, it’s advisable to check in periodically. If there will be cell service, even if it is only sporadic, one option is to take a cell phone. If cell service is not available, consider taking a satellite messenger (SPOT or DeLorme) or a personal locator beacon (PLB). Each has its pluses and minuses. If you choose to take a communication device, please don’t use its availability as an excuse to save weight by skimping on essential gear or to undertake a trip that is beyond your abilities, thinking you can always call for help if you get into trouble.

-- Train before a backpacking trip, especially one that will be demanding. Even if you are in good shape for your age, training can improve your physical condition enough to make the trip safer, easier, and more enjoyable from the start.

Copyright 2018
David Guenther

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