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You're Never Too Old to Hike: Trail Tips for Seniors

By , SparkPeople Blogger
You’re never too _______ to  ________.
There are countless ways to fill in the blanks. You’re never too slow to run. You’re never too heavy to do yoga. You’re never too weak to lift weights.
And you’re never too old to start hiking.
To the contrary, hiking is one of the most beneficial activities for seniors. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, men and women aged 65 and older who walked more than four hours per week were shown to have a reduced risk of heart disease than those who walked just one hour or less per week.
And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week, and strength training activities at least two days per week. Aerobic activity can be classified as anything that gets your heart rate up—and that includes brisk walking and hiking.
Jim Klopovic discovered backpacking after retirement and immediately fell in love. From the Appalachian Trail to the coasts of England, his adventures have led him to explore some of the world’s most beautiful locales, while also improving his physical health and connecting him with nature.
Along with his daughter Nicole, Klopovic wrote “The Honest Backpacker: A Practical Guide for the Rookie Adventurer over 50to inspire other baby boomers (and people of all ages) “to stay active, take the road less traveled and experience the wonders of the trail.”
Above all, Klopovic believes that the key to happiness lies in nature, and that by venturing into the great outdoors, seniors can remain vigorous and capable of living their golden years to the fullest.

Getting Started With the Essentials

One of the best things about hiking is that you don’t have to spend a fortune on fancy hiking equipment and apparel to start reaping the life-enriching benefits of the trail. Klopovic recommends starting with these basic essentials, from the ground up.
  • Foot gear: Make sure your hiking shoes are durable, comfortable, lightweight and made from a wicking material that will keep moisture away from your feet. On long hikes, a dry foot is a happy foot. Not only can moisture be uncomfortable, it can also cause blisters. If you purchase new shoes or boots for hiking, be sure to break them in before heading out on an extended hike far from home. If you already have a good pair of athletic shoes, you can start with those.
  • Hiking poles: Although it’s not a requirement, some older adults prefer to hike with trekking poles to help ease the strain on the back and knees. “Get a good pair and learn to use them—that is, be able ‘to have a conversation with them,’” Klopovic  recommends. “Use them until they become unconscious extensions of your arms.”
  • Hip pack: A comfortable hip pack provides a convenient way to carry essentials you may need on the trail, including water, healthy snacks, first-aid items and perhaps a map, compass or phone.
  • Broad-brimmed hat: Sun protection is smart at any age, but especially for older adults. Klopovic stresses the importance of staying well-covered with a broad-brimmed hat. “Some put a bandana on their head under the hat, so it falls over the neck,” he adds. A baseball cap will also suffice if you don’t have a broad-brimmed hat yet.

Setting Realistic Goals

While there’s no such thing as “too old to hike,” let’s face it: Our bodies change as we age. With all else being equal, most people in their 60s, 70s or 80s most likely won’t have the same strength or stamina as someone in their 20s (with some exceptions, of course). To hike successfully through your golden years, the key is to strive for goals that are suited to your body’s capabilities.
“Your overall goal should be to be vital and vigorous well into your 90s,” Klopovic says. “You want to be good at life, make memories and friends, have fun and make a difference.”
When setting a hiking goal, it should feel challenging and maybe a tiny bit scary, but it shouldn’t send you into a state of near-panic or serious self-doubt. For instance, if you’re new to hiking, completing the Appalachian Trail is probably too lofty a goal to tackle. It’s best to start slowly with an easy or moderate trail—it’s a lot easier on the psyche to ramp up the difficulty level than it is to admit defeat and scale back down from a harder hike.
Northwest Hiker offers this handy hike difficulty calculator to help you determine the toughness of a course. Enter the length of the hike and the total elevation gain (the steeper the incline, the harder it will be) and the calculator will rate the hike from easy to extreme, with varying levels of difficulty in between.

Keeping It Simple

At its core, hiking is a delightfully simple and undemanding activity. To keep it from getting complicated, Klopovic uses what he calls an S3 formula: simple, suitable, sustainable.
  • Simplicity: “Keep things to their basic elements,” he says. “Get the basic gear mentioned and gradually take longer walks on increasingly demanding trails. Hopefully you will be blessed with many accessible nature trails just outside your door.”
  • Suitability: Successful senior hikers should choose age-appropriate challenges. “It is a great thing to grow old gradually and gracefully,” Klopovic says. “It does not take extremes to be conditioned and healthy.”
  • Sustainability: “Look to the future,” he says. “It is best to tackle things that can be done for a lifetime. Hiking can be done by just about anyone for as long as they like. Stick with it and you will begin to crave it.” 

Safety Tips for Senior Hikers

To ensure an enjoyable and injury-free experience on the trail, senior hikers should adhere to these safety tips:
  1. Clear it with the doc. As with any new exercise program, it’s best to check with your doctor before striking out on the trail for the first time.
  2. Beat the heat. If you’re hiking in a warm climate, stick to early mornings or late afternoons to reduce the risk of overheating. (However, don’t start so late that you run the risk of hiking in the dark, which increases the risk of falls and other emergencies.)
  3. Always hike with a buddy. The best-case scenario is to bring along a companion. If you must hike alone, be sure to share your course with a family member or friend, and check in with them when you’ve safely completed it.
  4. Start with stretching. Stretch before hiking to loosen up your muscles, which helps prevent injury.
  5. Don’t push the pace. Start out at your normal walking pace. If it feels easy, gradually increase your speed to a point where you’re breathing slightly heavier but aren’t overexerting yourself. Take breaks as needed for rest and hydration.
  6. Stay hydrated and fueled. Bring plenty of water (at least two liters) and energy-boosting snacks, such as a protein bar, granola or almonds.
  7. Plan for emergencies. Pack a first-aid kit, safety whistle, trail map or compass and—if reception is available—your cell phone. In case of blisters or an unplanned trek through water, you might want to bring along a spare pair of socks.
It’s never too late to connect with nature while improving your fitness. With smart planning and precautions, hikers of all ages can discover the physical benefits, mental rewards and spiritual wonders of the trail.

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