Senior Hikers Scale the Heights

Just Do It
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Medical Advice for Seniors

Two-time AT-thru-hiker and retired physician Dr. Vernon Vernier recommends a trip to the doctor as part of your pre-hike planning."Even if you're in good shape, you could have a hidden problem that might be exacerbated by the stress of hiking," he says. Women, in particular, should talk to their doctors about osteoporosis, which can be a problem because falls the uneven footing of a trail can lead to falls. Dr. Vernier recommends that women suffering from osteoporosis ask their doctors about a new drug called Fosomax, which improves calcification.

• Take ski poles.
According to Dr. Vernier, one of the factors affecting seniors in particular is that somewhere in the age range of 40-50, reflexes start slowing. "Balance becomes a critical factor, especially on steep mountains and narrow passes. At least carry a stick. Some people carry two ski poles."

• Stretch.
Hikers are athletes, and like any other athlete, they need to keep muscles supple. Stretching not only feels good (just ask your pet cat), it gives your body the flexibility to cope with backpacking's inevitable trips and falls. According to Dr. Ronald Lawrence, president and founder of the American Medical Athletic Association, stretches are particularly important for seniors, whose bodies lose some elasticity as they age. Dr. Lawrence recommends stretching 5-8 minutes before and after backpacking, and he stresses that it's important to hold the stretch position for a ten-second count.



"I think that life experience is a factor, too. I know that I know how to solve problems. So there's a sense of confidence, that if I get lost, if something goes wrong, I can use a book, or a map, and find my way out."

Like many senior hikers, Donna and Jim's trail activities include a big dose of volunteerism, and not the stuffing envelopes variety (valuable though that is). Their most challenging assignment: trail construction in northern Montana, which involved breaking rocks by hand. Donna calls it "the hardest work I've ever done."

If seniors are a noticeable part of the hiking community, they are positively dominant in the area of trail maintenance and volunteer work. One of the most successful trail organizations in the country is, not coincidentally, located in a state that has a high percentage of retirees. Ethel Palmer, President of the Florida Trail Association says, "Seniors are a great resource for us. There are so many retired people living in Florida, and many of them are interested in doing volunteer work. If we need someone with a special skill, say an engineer to help up build a bridge, we can usually find someone right in the area who has the skills and time to help us out."

Across the country in Colorado, 74-year old Gudy Gaskill heads up another successful volunteer project, the Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF). I first crossed paths with Gudy Gaskill on the Colorado Trail. Wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed "This body has climbed Kilimanjaro," she was leading a group of hikers, mostly senior citizens, going the other way. Winner of one of President Bush's "Points of Light" awards for her work on the Colorado Trail, Gudy believes that hiking trails are for everyone, not just super-fit young folks doing mega-mileage.

"Seniors are terrific hikers," said Gudy. "Sure, some of them have bad knees or joint problems, and they might be a little slower. But they plan for their trip, and they take the time to get in shape. A lot of the younger people do everything at the last minute, and of course, you can't get in shape at the last minute. Another thing, I don't have to worry about seniors getting lost, because they pay attention to what's going on around them, and they'll notice—and stop—if something looks wrong. Meanwhile, the younger people are chatting away."

Although Gudy herself is perfectly capable of mega-mileage, climbing a mountain, or snowshoeing into a remote Colorado canyon in the dead of winter, she realizes that other hikers, particularly beginning backpackers and seniors, might take more readily to a kinder, gentler experience. To this end, the Colorado Trail Foundation (as well as the neighboring Colorado Mountain Club) runs educational hiking trips of various lengths and durations along the 500-mile trail. The trips are supported by a vehicle that carries tents, water, sleeping bags, food, and cooking equipment, and meets the hikers every night. Leaders are knowledgeable about flora, fauna, and environmental issues; one of the goals of the trips, according to Gudy, is to teach participants about the region's ecology. The result is a hike that is more rugged and challenging than dayhiking and far more comfortable than traditional backpacking.

"You see all kinds of people out there, especially senior citizens, some of them much older than I am," says Charlotte Briber, age 73, who completed the Colorado Trail three years ago by taking a series of CTF trips over a period of several years. A CTF volunteer, Charlotte says she hikes whenever she can, even though cartilage problems in her knee and hip have recently slowed her down. "I'd have to say I've been walking all my life. It was three miles one way to school. And three miles to church, too, on Sundays, since we had to give the horses their day off. And I'm still walking, all these years later! I think the way to be able to keep walking is to keep walking."

A simple truism, perhaps, but it gave me the answer to the question I'd pondered years ago sitting atop that California pass. "Will I be able to do that?" I'd wondered, watching Ed and Martha start down the switchbacks, slowly and steadily disappearing from view into the rocky wilderness below. The answer, I've learned—from them and from the many senior hikers I've since met—is I will if I do.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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