What is hiking but little more than “a walk in the woods,” as Bill Bryson wrote in his best-selling book about his attempt at a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail?
A hike might be a walk in the woods, but it also can be a walk in a meadow, or along a brook, or on a boardwalk across wetlands. Hiking is walking, and many consider walking the best exercise, and almost anyone can hike at some level.
“Hiking is a wonderful way not only to participate in aerobic exercise, but also to clear your head,” said board-certified family physician Ray Sahelian (www.RaySahelian.com), who not only recommends hiking to his patients but also practices what he preaches by hiking regularly in the mountains near his Southern California home.
When seniors plan trips, they generally consider where to stay, what transportation is available and what restaurants are in the area. However, one group of seniors plans their vacations around another special consideration — the terrain. Senior hiking has increased dramatically in the last decade as the older generations are living longer and staying healthier (www.seniortravelhub.com).
Senior hiking is more than a fun attraction on a senior trip. Walking is the staple of living independently as a senior. If a person can’t get out of a chair or lacks leg strength, he or she might have to go into assisted living sooner rather than later. Starting a senior hiking regime early might prolong the move to a nursing home, and keep a person living stronger and healthier for years to come.
Steve Johnson, 53, a pastor in Hagerstown, hikes on the Appalachian Trail at least twice a week, generally six or seven miles.
“I get out on the Appalachian Trail for the exercise,” Johnson said, “and because on the trail there are no car fumes and traffic. It’s peaceful.”
“I see wildlife, deer and turkeys, and I like the views,” he said. “Today, I brought my Bible, and I will pray and prepare for a sermon.”
Even if someone has been hiking through most of his of her adult life, there are certain things that change when one reaches the title of “senior hiker.” For starters, the body is not in the shape it once was.
While it’s true that many seniors are healthier than in the past, there are still things one needs to be wary about on a senior hiking trip.
Here are some tips for your next hiking adventure:
Pace yourself. Stopping to take in the scenery, take pictures or catch your breath is more than OK — it’s encouraged.
Jim Reagan, 78, of Keedysville, hikes on the Appalachian Trail near Boonsboro with his dog, Max, at least once a week.
“When I walk on the Appalachian Trail in the woods, it’s a form of meditation for me,” Reagan said. “I feel that I’m part of the space. Sometimes I will reach out and touch a tree and feel a sort of energy.
Start early. Mornings are always cooler, and starting early means you have the entire day to enjoy your hike.
Wear comfortable shoes. Senior hiking shoes should have solid ankle support as well as be lightweight and have non-skid soles.
Bring a backpack. Make sure it is lightweight, and only pack it with essentials: water bottles, light snacks, a map and a cellphone in case of emergency. Any medications you take might be good to have a sealed bag as well.
Pack extra socks. Keeping your feet warm and dry is essential.
Use a walking stick or trekking poles. Walking sticks or trekking poles are necessary for people with knee, back or balance problems.
Hike with friends. No one should ever hike alone, but senior hikers especially need to be wary of losing their way or having an emergency. Hike with a buddy or join a senior tour hiking group.
Steve Mournigham, 64, and Jim Hall, 72, both of McLean, Va., are members of a group of eight men that hikes five to eight miles “every Tuesday, year round,” Mournigham said.
“The only thing that will stop us from hiking is a hard rain or weather conditions so bad that we can’t drive to the trailhead,” he said.
“We hike for exercise and health,” Mournigham said. “It keeps us in good shape.”
“It’s good for weight control,” Hall said. “And after we finish a hike, we all sit down for a couple beers and a good meal.”
Make sure you set mileage goals for yourself that are consistent with your experience, stamina and fitness. Roland Mueser, author of “Long Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail,” conducted a survey of more than 100 hikers and concluded that thru-hikers older than 60 average 10 1/2 miles per day, opposed to the 14 1/2 miles per day averaged by younger hikers.
Most common ailments of seniors hiking are sore muscles in the legs, neck and back; blisters; and knee problems. Starting with a smaller hike would be the best idea.