Reflections of an Elder Hiker

“Lines form on my face and hands. Lines form from the ups and downs…
I’m in the middle, the middle of life. I’m a boy and I’m a man…”

I’m Eighteen ~ Alice Cooper

When I was a young lad I recall watching my father shave, fascinated with the process and his seeming lighting quick swipes of the razor removing the foamy, soapy mask and looking refreshed, smooth faced. With at least a decade to wait until I was to undertake this ritual of manhood, he indulged me with a splash of his Old Spice cologne, the fragrant indication that the task was completed.

Looking up at him, I asked, “Dad, what does it feel like to get old?”

Smiling, he looked at me and then himself in the mirror and said, “Terry, I really don’t know. If I close my eyes, I still feel the same way I did when I was eighteen. When I look at myself in the mirror, I know I’m not but inside, inside I feel just like you do right now.”

Hiking San Jacinto

Terry and his father on San Jacinto

His answer perplexed me, for I couldn’t imagine that time wouldn’t change me from within. But now, I understand all too well. Time seems not have altered my core, the being of who I am.  Thanks to my father, my love and joy of being in the outdoors, walking on dirt paths under open skies is just as fervent and fulfilling.  The feeling of discovery when seeing strange rock formations or catching a fleeting glance of a deer startled by my approach has not dampened after adding 55 years to the time when I asked him that question.

But as I enter my 60th year on this planet, I also understand that his answer was incomplete. Time does have an effect and not all of it in the minus column. Now when I view those unusual stone monoliths, I know how they were formed and the millennia it required for them to be how they appear to my more knowledgeable eyes. Native plants and wondrous flowers now are given names and I know when they bloom and the place to view them.  Through experience, I’ve gained the confidence and skills necessary to find my way on once mysterious trails using the sun, stars, maps and compass. And I’ve learned how to make myself comfortable and sated on the trail and in camp in ways that wouldn’t have been known to me without many trials, errors, splinters and unpalatable meals.

But Dad failed to mention that things do change. Time is certainly an unremorseful thief in many ways. The spirit within may remain strong, but its shell does record the days and nights and weeks and years.  What may have been an easy hike when I was a young hiker is now, more aptly categorized as “moderate.”  Climbs that required only a quick deep intake of air to recover now require a few more moments to collect the will to tackle the next.

Aches and discomfort are likely to be felt for an extra day or two before moving on.  Hiking times are extended to reach a destination and I don’t look quite as dashing in new hiking shorts nowadays.

Despite the transitory physical effects that hiking may have on my body, my appreciation for the mere act of walking in nature is greater than ever. There is less focus on accomplishment and more on the experience. The peak patiently awaits my arrival and though it may take me an extra hour to reach it, the nuances of the changing sky, the altering terrain encountered along the way and the sounds caught in the wind do not go unnoticed and are in reality celebrated because I was witness to it all. I am grateful to be there.

As an elder hiker I understand more fully the finite days allowed each of us to experience these riches of life. Smiles come more easily with each switchback and misty eyes happen more often when viewing a stretching landscape or firework hued sunset that defies all words of beauty.

I will hike until I can do it no longer and hope that it is one day shy of my final day among my fellow travelers of the beckoning trail.

Tips for the Elder Hiker

In general, all of the hiking tips you already know will apply. You know, the 10 Essentials, tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back and all that. But there are a few things to consider that maybe weren’t on the list when you were 35.

Hiking late in the dayTake your time and if you aren’t going to reach your destination because the sun is falling too quickly in the sky, finish the hike with a headlamp or turn around and be thankful that you got to be outside, walking on two legs.  You’re not a failure because you didn’t reach the damned peak; brother, you got to hike today and that’s an accomplishment in itself.

Your hike will likely take you longer than it used to. Deal with it. It’s a hike, not a race.

Use trekking poles or a hiking staff. If you’ve not used them, learn to love them. Going downhill is a bitch on the knees.

Carry an extra stash of your meds. If you need to spend an unplanned night on the trail, you’ll be glad you won’t need to worry about missing your blood pressure pills in the morning. If you wear them, do yourself a favor by carrying an extra pair of glasses, even old ones. Breaking or losing your glasses in the backcountry can be hazardous to your health if you can’t see the trail.

Toss in an ACE Bandage in your first aid kit. When those knees or ankles really start acting up, you’ll pay a thousand dollars for a little extra support halfway through the hike. Save your money and deal with the extra weight. Worth every ounce, my friend.

With age comes the tendency to have put on some extra pounds around the middle. Do the right thing and either get in shape to lose a few or stay in shape to avoid the trauma that weight can have on your continued enjoyment of hiking. If you’re returning to hiking after a long absence, be smart and don’t tackle Mt. Whitney until you’re ready, physically and mentally.

Be patient with the foolish youngsters on the trail. Unless they’re doing something life threatening, let them learn like you did. If you must intervene, put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it’s like to have an old codger lecture you so choose your words and delivery accordingly.

Invest in the best shoes and best backpack you can afford. Scrimping on either may lead to being much more uncomfortable because your body isn’t able to “shake it off” like it used to.

Wear a hat and cover your arms and legs as needed with sunblock or sleeves. Your skin is thinner than it used to be and sunburn could end your hike on a painful refrain.

Drink lots of water and keep yourself nourished. Organs don’t bounce back or handle trauma from dehydration as well as a younger person’s.

Know where you’re going and don’t argue with the map and compass. They are likely more reliable than your memories of being on that trail 20 years ago.

Have fun. Pace yourself.  Immerse yourself in the experience. Hiking is truly one of the most precious gifts you can give your life.

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Terry L. Tyson is an Envrionmental, Health and Safety Professional living in California with his wife, Susan. His love of the outdoors and walking on dirt paths under open skies is evident in his photography and writings. He is a neglectful blogger on his own site but enjoys guest writing on the outdoor blogs of others, which he finds very convenient since he doesn't have to maintain those sites. Terry is a former professional magician and mentalist who dabbles in these pasttimes now and again. Terry is also a published book and mixed media artist and instructor which promises to be his retirement job, perhaps just 4 years away.

  • I think these are some great tips! I’m definitely going to share these with my Dad who lives on the east coast and does most of his hiking there, except for the trips he comes out to visit with me in Tahoe.

  • What a great post, Terry. Your story is very heartfelt. Enjoyable. Love the use of words like, “salted” and “moderate”. ha. With my dad it was Brut. Always brings me back to being a kid.