The Burren, Eire. 2022.
This year I celebrated my seventieth birthday and became a ‘silver hiker’. My mother died when she was seventy, and my father not long after, aged seventy five. So it felt like a dangerous milestone. Does everyone look back at their parents when assessing their own life chances?
Luckily, the goal posts have moved. Women in the UK can now expect to live eighty three years on average; slightly less for men. The downside? On average, nineteen of those eighty three years are spent in poor health.
On the other hand, there’s plenty of inspiring examples of silver hikers who didn’t let age hold them back: eighty year olds who have completed the gruelling 2,653 mile Pacific Coast Trail in the United States, or successfully taken part in the UK Long Distance Walkers Association 100 mile challenge, completed in 48 hours.
I don’t aspire to those heights, but I’m not yet ready to settle back in an armchair with my knitting. Still, it’s taken me a few years to come to terms with the fact that my body is no longer as strong and resilient. There have been a couple of warning incidents: shingles and then sciatica. Both kept me off the trail for far too long. I’ve had to learn patience and perseverance.
There’s plenty of advice on the internet for the older hiker, but here’s the three lessons I’ve learnt.
Lesson one: Keep up regular exercise.
I did little exercise in my twenties, and was woefully unfit when I set off to walk the Pennine Way long distance trail. The first few days were murder and by day four, I was so stiff I could barely make it to the pub in the evening. But my body quickly recovered and by day ten I was striding along, all aches and pains forgotten.
I can’t do that any more. I find exercise classes boring, and local walks on cold grey winter days uninviting. But I know how important it is to maintain my level of fitness.
Lesson two: Get trekking poles. Lighten your pack.
I only use one pole, but it makes a tremendous difference in reducing the impact on my knees and improving balance. And I can no longer carry a heavy pack, so buying lightweight gear is a no-brainer. Much more enjoyable too.
Lesson three: Linger over lunch.
More rest days, more breaks, shorter distances. Be gentle on yourself and give your body a chance to rest.