Don’t know me, and I don’t know you, oh, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you’re over 50 years old and wondering if it’s too late to start backpacking again. As an older man, there are things that I can’t physically do anymore, but I can also do things that I never would have dreamed of as a Young Man.
I never thought of myself as an old man until the morning of my 50th birthday. Saying I had a midlife crisis would be an understatement. Turning 50 hit me harder than I ever thought it would. I was no longer that immortal badass that I thought I was in my twenties.
My body just didn’t work the way it used to, but I tried not to let that hold me back. I decided to start backpacking again even though I hadn’t been on the trail for over 20 years. Just because I wasn’t as fast and strong as I used to be didn’t make me any less capable on a backpacking trip.
I could actually do things that I could never have dreamt of in my twenties. With two months of vacation time and a disposable income I could go on crazy trips that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago.
Can I Backpack After 50?
Hard to quantify just how much backpacking has added to my life. I’m healthier than ever and skinnier than I ever was in my 30’s and 40’s. Sitting in the office for 20 years of my life wasn’t exactly the healthiest lifestyle. My life revolved around work, kids sports/school, and a couple beers during the Cleveland Browns game.
Let me start off by saying before I started backpacking again I was afraid. My age was getting the best of me. Turning 50 was like a roadblock blasting me in the face. I didn’t know if I could physically handle backpacking again.
So I decided to take a different approach to backpacking. It was all about backpacking in a smarter way, but first I needed to get back in shape. I slowed things down, lightened my load and went out of my way to get back on my feet.
Why Backpack Later in Life?
For people that went backpacking earlier in life, this might seem like a stupid question. While others, need to really ask themselves why they want to start backpacking again? Starting as a complete beginner will require gear, physical preparation, and lots of mental motivation.
Hikes Don’t Need to Be Long
When I first got back into backpacking my walks were short and easy. I couldn’t walk for more than a mile before my knees were aching and my back was sore. Looking back, I can’t believe how far I’ve come.
After work, I would take my dog to the park and just go for a walk. I threw on a small pack(just for the added weight), grabbed some snacks a thermos and got out on the trail.
For the first 1-2 months, I was definitely eating more calories than I burned(don’t think I went over a mile). Over time that short walk got easier and easier. My knees started to feel better and I was getting stronger.
At this point walking for a half-day seemed like a marathon, but the finish line was in my line of sight. Over the next couple of months, my daily hikes got longer and my recovery got shorter. These half-day, full-day and weekend trips didn’t seem so ridiculous.
Here’s Why I love Backpacking
- Low-Intensity: Backpacking is a low-intensity exercise that I could do at my own pace. I could take lots of break(which I did), take time to recover and I didn’t have to worry about injury.
- Physical/Mental Benefits: Being physically active worked wonders for both my mind and body. Taking the time to walk through the forest was like emotional therapy. All that work/family stress seemed miles away(literally).
- Outdoors: After sitting in the office all week it’s so nice to get outside on the weekends. I finally had an excuse to ignore all so important weekend emails. You quickly realize that work will wait for you to respond.
- Easy to Adapt: Backpacking is a sport that can adapt as you age. It’s all about adapting to the physical demands and finding a way to succeed.
These are the reasons why I got back into backpacking. It’s all about finding a way to improve both your mental and physical health. At the end of a long hike you just feel that sense of accomplishment wash over your body.
Have You Gone Backpacking Before?
You can’t describe backpacking to somebody that’s never gone. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures that you need to experience to truly understand.
If you’ve gone camping or backpacking in the past you have more experience than the vast majority of the population. Luckily, for the inexperienced, it isn’t all that difficult to pick up.
Even if you have past backpacking experience you need to take your time to relearn the basics. Take it slow, get back into mental/physical shape, and set your training goals.
Things Beginners Need to Learn
There’s just something exciting about starting something new. I’ve always been the type of guy to dive headfirst into new hobbies. Luckily, as a backpacker, there’s plenty to learn.
- Walking Comfort: You need to learn how to comfortably walk for miles on unpaved ground. Although physical training is huge, you need to find ways to minimize the damage on your body.
- Gear: Finding all the right gear and figuring out ways to transport it will take time. Those little tweaks to your sleeping pad, shoes, clothes, etc, can make a huge difference. You’d be amazed at the difference quality hiking socks can actually make(these are my favorite hiking socks).
- Follow The Weather: Weather can and will change at a moments notice. When first starting out don’t be afraid to call off your trip when faced with bad weather. Keep your first trips local so you can make last-minute adjustments.
- Clothing: Finding comfortable hiking clothes isn’t easy. Focus on comfortable, warm, moisture-wicking clothes that will work in a wide variety of applications. On a long hike, there’s a fine line between being comfortable and miserable.
- Keeping Dry: Staying dry out on the trail is a serious challenge. It doesn’t matter if it’s 30 degrees or 80, it’s gonna be difficult. You have to figure out which material works for you.
- Physical Prep: You need to learn how to adapt your pace to match your physical limitations. Learn how to work around your physical limitations.
- Take Extra Rest: Learn to take extra breaks. Taking longers breaks than you think you’ll need. Rest longer, eat more and drink more than you ever would in your 20’s.
- Build a Comfortable Campsite: With a combination of both gear and location you can have a comfortable night’s sleep on the trail. Camping doesn’t have to be uncomfortable with modern gear.
Honestly, there’s nothing hard about backpacking. If you don’t choose the right sleeping pad/bag you might have a sore back and be out 50 bucks, but it’s not the end of the world. Anybody who’s prepared to learn and invest the time will be successful.
Be Realistic About Your Physical Status
Older backpackers need to take a serious look at their physical status. Personally, I think it’s more of a psychological barrier than physical. Getting out the door and taking that first step is the hardest part.
I’m not a doctor so I can’t say what you should/shouldn’t do, but I’ve never met a doctor that didn’t recommend low-impact physical activity. Backpacking is as low impact as you can get. You can walk at your own pace and take all the breaks you want.
Take a long hard look at your activity level and how you feel. Try to cat categorize yourself into one of these four categories.
- I feel younger than I actually am. I don’t have any serious long term ailments or injuries. I’m in great shape for my age.
- I feel younger than I actually am, but I have a few minor ailments. I’m an excellent walker, but I have a few health problems that are under control.
- I feel my age and it’s getting harder to get around. I’m overweight and I have some minor health problems.
- I feel my age and I have several ailments that I’m learning how to control. I’m having mobility issues and want to work to get healthier.
You probably won’t fit perfectly into any one of these four fitness categories, but understanding your current fitness level will help shape your short and long term goals.
Set realistic goals for yourself and try to hold yourself accountable. Our bodies are way more capable than we could ever imagine. You can go from barely walking 100 feet to walking miles in a couple of months.
My 85-year-old father went from having a heart attack and being unable to walk to the end of the driveway. To losing 100lbs and biking 5 days per week in less than a year. Getting back to a healthy fitness level shouldn’t take more than a couple of months.
Make Safe Informed Decisions Based on Your Fitness Level
Everybody backpacks at their own pace, usually in bursts when/where you feel motivated. You set your mind on a place you want to hike and find a way to make that happen. Whether or not you can safely make that trip will depend on your fitness level.
If you have serious health problems don’t head out into the wilderness alone. That would be crazy! Lose some weight, increase your activity level and get to a point where physical activity is fun and easy.
Backpacking shouldn’t feel like torture. Going out before you’re physically ready will cause more harm than good. It’s not only dangerous, you’ll learn to hate what should be a fun activity.
If you’re old sick and seriously out of shape you shouldn’t take off for remote periods of the world(that would be dangerous). However, if there’s a will there’s a way. With the help of a doctor, medication and a little work you can get to a point where backpacking is possible.
Set a short term goal to move up one fitness category in the next 6 months. Get out, get moving and you will quickly increase your fitness level.
Plan out Your First Hike
Preparing for your first backpacking trip is almost as fun as the actual trip. Browsing through gear, getting in shape, picking out clothes and planning the trip allows you to get into the right mindset.
Planning out your first trip months in advance gives you the drive needed to get through the rough patch. It’s the prize at the end of the journey. Running through the finish line and being able to look back at all your accomplishments. Before you can get to that end goal you need to plan out your trip.
- Season: Narrow down your season so you can effectively pick out gear. Beginners should aim for a 3-Season approach. Those 3-Seasons will depend on your climate. Try to avoid the winter(extreme-cold) in the north and summer(extreme-heat) in the south. Camping in the snow is both challenging and expensive.
- Expected Weather(Based on Location): Novice campers should start off camping close to home where you know what to expect. Once you have experience under your belt you can start venturing out and take advantage of your newfound skills. Plan your trips around the expected weather in the area.
- Altitude: High altitude hiking will require different gear and a whole other experience level. Remember that as your altitude gets higher oxygen levels and temperatures drop. Look up altitude sickness if you plan on traveling to extreme heights.
- Temperature: Avoid the extreme high and low temperatures as a beginner. Late spring and early fall offer the best beginner backpacking experience.
- Precipitation: Plan your trip expecting to get wet. Bring along raingear and throw it on before it starts raining(Frog Togg Rain Suits are durable, lightweigh and affordable).
- Length of Hike: How long your hike will take isn’t always easy to determine. Plan reasonable length hikes and limit your daily walking distance. Most people can walk between 2 and 4 miles per hour depending on the terrain.
Keep Your Pack Light
Everybody falls into the trap of buying way more gear than we actually need. For a short weekend 3-day(2-Night) trip all you need is a 40L-50L pack. Throughout most of the year I carry a small Kelty 44L pack. At 44L it’s the perfect size for short 2-3 day weekend hikes.
The young and stupid take pride in carrying heavy packs. Everybody else limits their pack weight to a maximum of 40lbs in horrible weather. Your average pack weight should be kept at around 20lbs. Remember that’s the maximum comfortable weight. Shorter trips should require less gear.
Backpacking Big 3
When talking about The Big 3 backpackers are referring to your Tent, sleep system and Pack. These three items account for the vast majority of your total pack weight.
Minimizing the weight of these 3 items will significantly reduce your total pack weight. Personally I try to keep my sleep system(sleeping bag/pad) under three pounds, tent under 2.5lbs and pack between 2-3lbs depending on size.
Work Around The Gear You Own
Backpacking costs can quickly get out of control if you aren’t careful. Lightweight gear isn’t cheap! Work with the gear you already own, check secondhand markets and try to limit your expenses.
When first starting out, spend the bulk of your money on a quality tent, sleep system and pack. You can slowly buy the rest of your gear over time. These are great options for most people.
- Kelty Salida Tent
- Kelty Cosmic 40 Degree Bag
- Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad (budget option Thermarest Z Lite Foam Pad)
- Kelty Redwing Pack (Amazon Basics is a budget option)
Make a Gear List
Setup realistic goals that are easy to attain and figure out the type of equipment you need. When first starting out keep your hikes short and stick to easy terrain. Short day/weekend hikes will require less gear and give you a wide margin of error. Plus you won’t be miserable for long if you absolutely hate it.
Before purchasing gear you need to have a destination in mind. At this point you should know temperature ratings, overall hike length, expected weather and have a realistic idea of the type of gear you actually need.
Here’s a Basic Gear List(In No Particular Order)
- Tent or Hammock
- Sleeping Bag(My Favorite 3-Season Bag)
- Sleeping Bag Liner(Optional Though Highly Recommended)
- Sleeping Pad(My Favorite Pad)
- Camping Pillow(optional)
- Clothes(insulating layers)
- Rain Gear(Frog Togg Rain Suit)
- Food and Water Supply
- Water Filters and Purifiers(Sawyer Water Filters are Affordable)
- Food Storage(Bear Canisters and Bear Bags)
- Stuff Sacks
- Hats, Gloves, Sunglasses, Bandanas
- Phone and External Chargers
- Compass, Maps, GPS
- Thermal Underwear
- Cooking Stove/Fuel, Pots/Pans, Utensils, Bowls, Cups
- Bug Spray, Suntan Lotion(check out my guide on sun protection)
- First-Aid Kit
- Footwear and Hiking Socks(Darn Tough Hiking Socks)
- Hygienic Supplies(toothbrush/paste, deodorant, soap or baby wipes)
- Toilet Paper
- Flashlights, Headlights etc.
How Fast Will You Travel?
How fast you want to travel will depend on your physical activity level, pack weight, terrain, how much time you have. Most of us have a limited time available for a backpacking trip(retired people are lucky).
The hikes you choose have to work within your time constraint. We need to be able to figure out how far we can travel, food/fuel needs and other factors that could potentially slow you down.
Traveling on flat terrain is much easier than dealing with sudden elevation changes. What looks like one mile on a flat map, could be 5 miles of hillside travel. No matter the situation, you need to be able to calculate your daily/hourly travel.
Most backpackers add 30 minutes for every 1000ft of elevation gain. Walking downhill is all about the slope. Descending steep slopes is often harder than climbing.
When figuring out your travel time be conservative about your estimates. Give yourself 2-3 hours at the end of the day to wind down or make up time. On easy flat trails most physically active backpackers can travel 10-15 miles per day. Plan for rest days and short hikes so you don’t have to push yourself.
Dealing With Pain on The Trail
We all deal with those aches and pains that just don’t want to go away. That minor knee injury that’s been nagging you for years will be amplified after a 6-hour hike.
It’s not uncommon for hikers to experience some level of discomfort. You’re not 20 anymore, you’ll have to deal with minor aches and pain. However, with a little bit of gear you can keep those aches to a minimum.
- Check Your Pack: So many people are carrying pack that don’t properly fit their body. Ask someone with more experience to check your pack for a proper fit. Then further adjust your gear so heavier gear is close to your body and lower on your back.
- Quality-Footwear: Knee, ankle and calf pain can all be reduced with the right footwear. Go to a podiatrist and get custom orthotics made(or you can go to cvs/walmart and buy those Dr. Scholl’s custom inserts)
- Dedicated Hiking Socks: Hiking socks will significantly reduce foot pain over a long hike. You shouldn’t have to deal with blisters with quality socks(these are my favorite).
- Reduce Gear Weight: Carrying a heavy pack can put a lot of strain on your knees/ankles. If you have pain limit your pack to 20lbs.
- Use Compression Sleeves: Compression sleeves can make a significant difference.
- Walking Sticks: If you’ve never tried trekking pole’s now’s the time. Walking sticks will significantly reduce the wear and tear on your body. I’ve been using black diamond poles for years and I love them.
- Change Your Diet: Losing weight will significantly reduce the impact on your joints. Lose 10% of your bodyweight and I guarantee you’ll feel better.