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Tips For Older Hikers

First Off, What Makes You An Older Hiker?

At some point in life, you have to grit your teeth and admit it: you’ve become an older hiker. Exactly when that happens is up for debate, but I reckon a good rule of thumb is that it’s when every backpacker on the trail seems younger than you!

I'm leaning over a large stone that marks the start of Offa's Dyke Path - making an idiot of myself

We’re all used to the 20 year olds haring about high on life, giving them a knowing (and genuine) smile as they pass, but most of them become ‘family adventurers’ soon enough, and backpackers in their 30’s and 40’s seem to tail off. Then come the teenage years: the hopeful parent striding off (carrying everything!) while the teenager lags behind demanding to know why they had to come (when they could be horizontal at home binging on Sex Education, obvs).

Did someone just say “age is just a number”? You’re 45 right, not a septuagenarian – sod off! You’re a septuagenarian? “Wow, I hope I’m like you when I’m a mature hiker”, yep you can sod off too! In fact, I think you only really become an older hiker when you realise you have to work a bit harder to achieve the things you never gave a thought to. And that could be any age.

I turn 60 later this year and finally, reluctantly, I think I’ve joined the club (woe is me).

Joining The Mature Hiker Gang

A big view out across the Teign Gorge to distant hills. My trekking poles are leaning on rocks in the foreground

It’s not a gang I want to be part of because in my head I’m still one of those 20 year olds eating up the trails in no time. But the physical changes are there: they’ve crept up inperceptibly over who knows how many years.

I don’t feel any different though – I carry a similar pack weight (though it’s getting lighter thanks to new equipment – although some of it is still 20+ years old!); I hike at the same speed; I have the same sometimes niggly knee I acquired in my 30’s (the first time I experienced it was on all those uneven steps on the Inca Trail); I hike the same distances…

So what exactly has changed? In a word: flexibility. It could be something enirely different for you of course, but over the last year or so I’ve noticed I have to give proper attention to stretching my legs. I was always natually flexible (and still am in most areas) but lately, after a good hike, it’s felt like someone’s cut a chunk out of my hamstrings and stitched them back together!

Gone are the days when I could forget to stretch out for months at a time and expect to be my bendy self again after a few weeks’ exercise. Nowadays I have to stretch my legs as part of the routine of walking: walk/ hike; get home (or into my tent), snack and drink, stretch. They’re all part and parcel of the same thing.

When I’m hiking at home, anything over 10 miles means a bath to warm the muscles and a 30 minute stretching session minimum (I do actually enjoy it). Any distance shorter than that and I’m happy with a few calf, hamstring and quad stretches – but how long will it before before I need to ramp that up?! Hopefully a few more years yet, but I’m not taking it for granted.

And that’s the nub of it for us older hikers: you can’t take any of it for granted anymore.

What Are The Benefits Of Hiking For Older Hikers And Backpackers?

An older backpacker? That's me sat in front of my tarp!

Hiking and backpacking have the same benefits for younger and mature hikers and alike!

These include

  • a sense of freedom and connection to the world around us
  • the love of exploring and discovering things meaningful to us
  • a sense of purpose
  • the simplicity of life
  • the friendships and community
  • the boost to physical and mental well-being
  • independence and self-sufficiency

But as mature hikers the physcial benefits are enormous:

There are of course so many more ways that hiking has a positive affect on older hikers, from socialising (“Loneliness can increase the risk of early mortality by 26%” Campaign to End Loneliness) to having a purpose (have a listen to this fascinating podcast Just One Long Thing from Michael Mosley).

All that aside, the big question is

How can we keep hiking into older age?

2 backpacking tents pitched on the grass in front of a bay

Here are some of my favourite tips For Older Hikers

Before You Hit The Trail

  1. Keep moving. If you want to hike, keep hiking! Walk every day. I don’t think it matters how far as long as you do it most days (based on my experience) – it keeps the muscles you use for hiking turning over, which means they stay strong. And if you can only fit in a short walk, add in some hills and make it a fast one – speed walking raises the heart rate and will build muscle strength.
  2. Build stamina. I think of hiking as an endurance event (especially backpacking) and try and train with that in mind. This means I regularly take longer distance walks and day hikes (at least weekly) and do more intensive training a couple of months before a trip. This is the time I go for long back-to-back days over more challenging terrain and carry weight that increases significantly the closer I get to leaving. It’s often recommended that you train for at least 8 weeks before the trip, but perhaps the older we get the more we need to increase the length of training, building up more steadily to avoid injury. I haven’t felt the need for this yet, but I can envisage the day I might (hopefully in the distant future!).
  3. Build cardio. Whether it’s regular running, cycling or hiit workouts, strong lungs are essential. A valuable way to build cardio strength for hiking is of course to vary the terrain you train on and ensure hills and steps are part of your routine.
  4. Stay strong. When you’re carrying a heavy weight on your back for days on end you need strong legs, glutes and a strong core and back. If you’re not in to going to the gym or classes, there are lots of strength training exercises on Youtube. You can use your body weight, weights and resistance bands, so you should find something you enjoy. (Try these articles too: How to Train for Backpacking from REI or this one No Gear Required Exercises from Backpacker)
  5. Keep flexible. This is the big one – for me at least! Build the habit of regular stretching by my making it part of the routine of walking/hiking. You may prefer yoga or pilates, but I’m a bit weird (maybe!) and love to do the stretching exercies I learnt at gymnastics waaaaay back when!
  6. Nutrition. As you know, a good diet includes a full range of fruit and veg, protein and carbs, but how you get that is a matter of taste. My biggest downfall is sugar and, as hard as I try, whenever I hit a low mood I reach for the sugar and carbs and very little else. I’ve learnt to combat this by batch cooking and freezing healthy meals, but the issues begin once I’ve run out – along with the motivation to cook any more. If you have any tips, I’d love to hear them because it’s a serious issue for people like me that suffer regular low moods and bouts of depression. Fire away in the comments!

Tips for Older Hikers On The Trail

An older hiker (me!) backpacking on the South West Coast Path on the rugged cliffs of Cornwall
  1. Lighten your load. Older hikers might find swinging 10 tonnes onto our backs more difficult than it used to be, and it’s probably not great for the joints. Luckily lightweight gear is far more affordable these days, so whenever you need to replace something go for the lightest weight you can afford. I don’t think there’s any need to replace everything all at once (for regular weekly or fortnightly trips at least) – my theory is that if you do it gradually you probably won’t notice you’re carrying less weight than you did 20 years ago!
  2. Walking/Trekking poles. Virtually everbody uses them whatever their age. They’re not just for older hikers or a sign of weakness or frailty, they’re just common sense and, surpisingly, have many uses. When you use them for walking they take some of the weight off your joints (up and down hill) and give your upper body a good workout too, and they’re also really good for balance on uneven or rocky ground and crossing water. Other uses include detecting the depth of snow, water, bog or mud and bashing back nettles and bracken on overgrown paths and pathless terrain. Finally, if you’re in the market for a new tent it’s worth considering one that uses your walking poles to pitch it rather than carrying tent poles as well – the perfect way to lighten your load. What would you add?
An older hiker with a large backpack hiking across a stream using trekking poles
  1. Regular breaks (pace yourself). Instead of taking a break when you feel you need it, try factoring them in every couple of hours. 10 minutes to rest your legs, air your feet and take in some calories (and views) for the next stretch means you’re pacing yourself to go the distance. There’s no point in racing ahead until you collapse in a heap and can’t go any further. True for everyone to be fair, older backpacker or not.
Sitting on a hillside eating, overlooking The White Horse chalk figure
  1. Hike Your Own Hike. It really isn’t a race and there’s no one way or right way of doing it. As an older backpacker you can hike thousands of miles as a thru hike or a section hike; you can carry your home on your back, stay in hostels or bnbs, or pay for a baggage transfer service – it’s up to you. If a baggage handling service is what it takes to get on the trail, then do it. If it’s a section hike that suits you physically or financially, then do it. It’s far better to get out there and experience the trail in whatever way is good for you than to sit at home lamenting the fact that you can’t do it like you used to.
  2. Nutrition. Lots of backpackers swear by prepacked dried meals that are light weight, nutritionally balanced and high in calories, but they are expsensive. Alternatives include dried noodles and pasta that you can decant from pots to smaller bags, or buy them in sachets. You can also make your own of course. If you do, you can add protein with dried TVP (great with a stock cube) and extra calories (as well as fibre) with nuts and seeds (ground flax seeds are great for thickening sauces too). (There are a few more ideas in this article for beginners who are heading out for their first bivvy or wild camp – when dried food isn’t so critical: Bivvy Camp Meals.)

    Eat Out – make use of cafes and pubs to lighten your load and fill up on large meals with fresh ingredients – it’s a real joy after days of dried noodles!
Older hikers should definitely take advantage of cafe meals like this on the trail! ( large foccacia sandwich and a smoothie for breakfast)
  1. Water and eloctolytes. Hydration is, as ever, highly important. Obviously you need to ensure you carry enough, but if you need a lot…it’s heavy. Check out the terrain of your planned route to see if you can filter water along the way, or plan your route around collecting fresh water. Collect fast flowing water (checking up stream first to make sure there’s no dead livestock in it), then filter and/or boil it (a rolling boil for 1 minute will kill most pathogens – it takes longer at higher altitudes) or use a water purifying tablet (the taste is pretty awful). If you’re sweating buckets don’t forget to replenish your electrolytes. You can buy them in tablet form to take with you or as sports drinks that you can pick up at stores along your route.
Collecting water from a rocky river
  1. Stretching. There’s no reason you can’t have a stretch on one of your planned breaks (I recommend it), but if I’m on a multi-day backpacking trip I sometimes carry a resistance band to use at the end of the day…followed by a foot massage with some relaxing lavender cream, of course!

After Your Hike

  1. Stretching. I prefer to stretch straight after a hike as I’m not good at attending classes, though you might enjoy regular pilates or yoga classes yourself (you can also follow along online if you prefer to do them at home). I was taught that a bath before you stretch helps warm up and relax your muscles, which works for me. A good soak in some bath salts then a session on the mat with resistance bands and foam rollers before getting into a warm bed feels lov. er. ly! If you want to do more dynamic stretching that brings you out in a sweat though, ensure you warm up your muscles first and have your shower/bath afterwards…obviously! (A nice way to start the day rather than finish it?).
  2. Nutrition/food. When your muscles have been working hard all day it’s important to feed them! Carbs and proteins are always recommended to help build and repair muscle – have a read of these two articles for more info: Protein and Exercise, British Heart Foundation and Glycogen, Cleveland Clinic (“Glycogen is a form of glucose, a main source of energy that your body stores primarily in your liver and muscles. Your body needs carbohydrates from the food you eat to form glucose and glycogen.”).
  3. Massage. A massage can help sore muscles recover well, but you don’t have to go to a professional. For example, if you’ve been on a day hike you can massage your legs with roller sticks and foam rollers. And don’t forget your feet – try rolling a golf or tennis ball under the sole of your foot (good for plantar fasciitis). If you’re on a backpacking trip you can use a water bottle in much the same way.
  4. And finally? Plan your next hike – it goes without saying right!

And, as a new(ish!) member of the older hikers’ club, I plan on hiking for years to come. How about you? What tips would you give to anyone that wants to keep hiking and backpacking as they get older, or to anyone that wants to take it up later in life? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments – let’s help each other out.

Thanks for reading.

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Happy hiking

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