For most people, working involves being on call, being on the job, for so many months each year. Apart from three or four weeks’ vacation every summer, a job ties you down for at least five days out of each week. For those who love the outdoors, a quick weekend camping trip and an annual two-week sojourn hiking through a park (or car camping with the family) will have to suffice.
Overseas Long Distance Hiking Areas
Once you retire, however, you have a chance to tackle those non-job-related lifelong ambitions. For outdoor lovers, that might include long-distance hiking: months on the trail. There are possibilities all around the world; the Pennine Way follows 270 boggy miles of hill country from the English midlands into Scotland. Tack on long-distance trails in Cornwall and Wales at the southern end, and through the Scottish highlands at the northern end, and you can traverse the island of Great Britain from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.
If you want to bone up on your Italian, the Sentiero Italia (“Grand Italian Trail”) follows that nation’s mountain ranges for more than 6,000 kilometers, from Trieste, across the arc of the Italian Alps, then south along the spine of the Apennines, finally traversing both Sicily and Sardinia. Japan boasts at least ten footpaths with lengths of more than 1,500 kilometers. And, in the United States, the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail wind through the country’s western mountains, each trail going border to border, Mexico to Canada.
The Appalachian Trial and the Many Footpaths
But for most American long-distance walkers, the Appalachian Trail is the ultimate goal. This nearly century-old footpath runs for 2,181 miles, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine; almost all through-hikers walk south to north, beginning in early spring and following the warm weather northward. The trail takes five to seven months to complete; some speed hikers and runners complete the trail in less time.
The first documented through hiker to complete the trail was Earl Shaffer, in 1948. Fifty years later, Shaffer completed the trail again, at the age of 79; he is the oldest to pull off the feat. However, a Virginia man, Earl Zook, is currently on a nearly three-year quest to complete the trail in an effort to raise money for the American Institute for Cancer Research. Zook was 88 years old when he started walking in April 2010, and he plans to finish by the end of 2012, in time for his 90th birthday.
Given these inspirational stories, if you’re only in your 50s or 60s, there’s no reason you can’t accomplish the same goal. But it takes a great deal of planning. First of all, are you fit? Make an honest assessment of your physical condition by doing practice hikes: load a pack with 40 pounds of anything at all and, if you live near a wilderness area, make eight-hour treks up and down mountains, repeatedly. Failing that, join a gym and hire a trainer; aerobics will build up your lung capacity, weight lifting will enable your legs to climb for hours on end, and stretching will keep you limber. Get started on this program early; you want to be in good shape when you start walking, so as not to lose heart within the first few weeks.
Plan Your Schedule
Even if you’re in the best of condition, plan out your walking schedule to start slow and build up strength. Many walkers start out walking only 8 miles a day, working up to 15-mile days within the first few weeks. Many walkers are up to 18 or 20 miles a day after a month or so. Try to map out your walking schedule beforehand to the extent possible — you’ll need to descend often to purchase food and supplies in towns along the way — but obviously any day-to-day schedule is going to get out of whack as various intangibles start coming into play.
Food Along the Way
The Appalachian Trail is not a full-service route; there are shelters along the route, but most nights you’ll need to pitch your own tent, and you’ll always need to cook your own meals. Because you have to carry everything — there are no porters as there are in Nepal — think about food that packs the greatest amount of energy in the least amount of weight. Freeze-dried meals are a great option; you can prepare seven months’ worth of freeze dried meals for yourself and mail them to yourself, c/o General Delivery at posts
offices en route. If you can carry ten days’ worth of meals, then make post office drops ten days apart, or have a friend back home make staggered mailings for you. This way, your meals aren’t sitting in some strange post office for months on end, waiting for you to walk up that far.
Of course, towns en route cater to hikers, so you can simply purchase food as you go, but you might not always find what you’re looking for, especially at weights you’re comfortable carrying. Typical locally purchased foods include pasta, minute rice, oatmeal, dried fruit, trail mix, powdered drink mixes, snack bars, and the like. And there is usually plenty of spring water available along the trail, though in some areas you may need to carry a few pounds of water. A water purification device is a good investment, and worth the carrying weight.
If you’re even mildly considering a retirement trek along the Appalachian Trail, you most likely have at least some experience in wilderness backpacking and know about boots, packs, appropriate clothing, packing strategies, tents, stoves, and all the paraphernalia that goes along with a wilderness trek. If it’s been decades since you last headed out, do research and spend time in camping supply stores; you may need to upgrade some of your gear!
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a milestone experience, and for many it’s life changing. If you’ve had the urge for this kind of adventure since you were a teenager but have never had the time for it, now that you’re retired, you indeed have the time. Don’t let the fact that you’re in your 50s or 60s put you off.