Senior Hikers Scale the Heights

Hiking With Soule
Advice from the Seniors

Most of the seniors interviewed thought that the only real difference between themselves and younger hikers was a number. So not surprisingly, when we asked them to share their trail-tested wisdom, their advice turns out to make good sense for anyone. Their message: Anyone can backpack, but taking the time to do a little preparation and planning can multiply your enjoyment of your backcountry adventure.

1) Break in before you go on the trail.
You can lessen some of the inevitable aches and pains with a little pre-planning. Take out your equipment for a test day-hike before you head out to the wilds. Most importantly, make sure your boots are broken in, even if you're wearing ultra-lightweights.

2) Keep fit between trips.
This applies especially to weekend hikers. Hikers going out for longer distances"break in" once and then get to enjoy the benefits of an acclimatized body. Weekend hikers have to break in again and again. Keeping in shape between hikes means a more pleasant experience on the trail.

3) Take it slowly.
Keep your mileage goals modest. If you're a long distance hiker, take the time to break in with short days. If you're planning a weekend trip, go on a couple of day-hikes to get a feel for what kind of mileage you're comfortable with. Remember: mountain miles with a pack on your back feel different than flat walks with a daypack. You need to adjust your goals to the difficulty of the terrain and your capabilities.

4) Hike with a partner.
This advice applies to everybody, but it goes double for seniors. Even you feel that your heart and bones are as strong as they ever have been, a hiking partner adds a measure of safety in case of illness or injury. Make sure your partner knows about your medical condition and medications.

5) Hike at your own pace.
Number 4 notwithstanding. Some seniors say that they actually prefer to hike solo simply so that they don't have to constantly argue about pace with a hiking partner. A better solution: Agree to disagree about the walking pace, but stop to wait for each other at prearranged meeting places throughout the day.

6) Abandon linear thinking.
A backpacking trip does not have to be a straight line. Try packing out to a lake or a canyon basecamp, and then spend a couple of days exploring and dayhiking in the area.

7) Join a local hiking club.
You're likely to find kindred spirits of all ages. Many hiking clubs offer trips designed especially for seniors, which offer older folks the opportunity to try something new in the company of their peers. Most hiking clubs also rate their trips by difficulty, so if you'd just as soon mix in with younger people, you can try a trip at whatever level you choose.

8) Share your hobby with non-hiking friends and family
You don't have to go on an organized trip to enjoy a couple of days of "slack packing." Many seniors enlist the aid of a non-hiking spouse or friend to shuttle their gear around to a road crossing down the trail. Non-hiking friends and family can camp out with the hiker, or just stop by with treats like fresh fruit and a home-cooked meal.



Many seniors find that, in the words of Grandma Gatewood, hiking takes "more head than heel." Whether you're going 20 miles or 2,000, motivation and consistency is as important as mileage and speed. Sometimes more.

Take Verna Soule, a retired clerk from Michigan Center, Michigan, known in long distance hiking circles as "Gran-ma Soule." (There is a noticeable trend in the trail names, if not the spellings, selected by older hikers. The tradition of "trails names," which are the hiker equivalent of CB and trucker "handles," started on the Appalachian Trail, where hikers trade their real-life identity for more descriptive appellations: say, "Ratman" or "Stinko.") Gran-ma Soule's hiking dossier includes the AT, the Long Trail, Michigan Shore to Shore, Susquehanna Trail, the Grand Canyon, and many shorter trails, along with time spent as a trail volunteer and lecturer at schools and community groups. Looking a good 10 years younger than her 73 years, the spry great-grandmother fits in easily among her younger hiking peers, and she keeps up with them too, despite her lower daily mileage. How is that possible?

Simple: in a past life, Gran-ma Soule might have served as the model for one of Aesop's more famous fables.

"I go slowly, but I keep going," she says. "Some of the younger people will do these big twenty mile days, but they tend to take off a lot of time in town. I don't do that: I'll just stop in town to resupply and then I'll go right back out again."

She doesn't deny that hiking is sometimes hard: In fact, her last two attempts at thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail ended mid-hike, first because of a back injury, and second because of the illness of her sister. "I'm not sure I'll be able to do another entire thru-hike," she says. "I'd like to, but you never know if you're going to finish. Not even the younger folks can say for sure. But it doesn't matter whether or not it's a thru-hike. I'll just see how I feel. The important thing for me is to be out there."

Why? What motivates a 73-year old to kiss her husband goodbye, put on a 40 pound pack, climb a mountain, and sleep on the ground for days, or even weeks, on end? After all, many younger folk have long since hung up their packs and locked away their dreams.

"Because I can," says Verna, giving the senior hiker's answer to Mallory's "Because it's there."

"Some of those mountains down south—I start climbing them and after a while I wonder if I'm ever going to get to the top. And then I make it and I think, "Wow! I did this! I can still do this!"

Of course, the sense of accomplishment that comes from finally making that pass or summit is not unique to seniors. But seniors seems to take special pleasure in the realization that being able to do something so difficult and so wonderful as stand on a mountaintop is not to be taken for granted.

"There were times when my hiking partner and I would wonder, "What the hell are we doing out here," says Keith Douglas, a 72- year old hiker from El Dorado, California, of a week-long hike in the High Sierra. "Then we would come over a rise and another beautiful vista would come into view and we would think, ah, yes, this is what it's all about. This is what we struggle day after day to see, what no one else can see without the effort that we have gone through."

And some hikers, like 68-year old Donna Tovey from Ladson, South Carolina, simply love everything about backpacking, from the muscle-wrenching climbs to the sound night's sleep that follows. The diminutive hiker and her husband, Jim Tisdale, 58, go by the trail name The Cheerios, and nothing could describe this couple better. Having taken up backpacking shortly after retirement from the real estate business, Donna and Jim have jumped wholeheartedly into a lifestyle you might associate with someone half their age. When asked for an address, they give an itinerary—volunteer trail work in one state, a hike in another—and then conclude that maybe it's best to send mail to a relative for forwarding. There's no promise that their mail will catch them anytime soon.

"I never felt I had any talent or skills with sports in school. I couldn't swim, I couldn't bike, I couldn't do anything like that," says Donna.

"She grew up in an orphanage," interjects Jim.

"I was delighted to learn that I could hike," Donna continues. "I like the physical exertion. I love the feeling at the top of the mountain, that I have accomplished this thing. And at night, I go to sleep so well. I like that you can eat whatever you want. And I like the comradeship. In this community, you're just another hiker, no matter what age you are."

When asked about whether being older makes a difference, Donna, like most seniors, downplays the aches and pains. Instead, she comes up with a list of advantages: "People look at you and think you're frail and they want to look out for you," she laughs. "Like one time, I hurt my back, and younger people came back to check up on me and offer to carry my pack. Or people want to cheer you on—they say I remind them of their grandmother, only she's sitting back home on the porch, and I'm carrying this big pack up the trail.

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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