Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dan Crane: Backpacking Through Middle Age

Facing middle-age is a traumatic prospect for many people, more so for those who enjoy exploring the Adirondack backcountry. During this period of life, the wear and tear of many decades begins to erode the physical abilities of youth. This physical erosion puts increasing demands on the body from backpacking, making enjoying the backcountry more arduous, but not impossible.

Backpacking, with its heavy lifting, long hikes over aggressive terrain and precarious stream crossings, is typically regarded as an activity of youth. There is no reason this must be the case though. With a little determination, some minor adaptations and a sizable portion of luck, it should be possible to continue exploring the backcountry throughout middle-age and beyond.

Many changes within the aging human body negatively impact the ability to backpack through the backcountry. Collagen fibers within muscles and tendons become less supple, cartilage in the joints wears down and becomes more brittle, and back issues, such as degenerating disc disease, are just a few of the changes brought on with age. Although it may be impossible to reverse these negative changes (for now), there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects.

Training is important for anyone engaging in strenuous exercise, and especially important for older hikers. Preparing the muscles for the arduous physical activity accompanying backcountry exploration is a necessity for exploring the backcountry, as much as map and compass skills, properly fitting hiking boots and prodigious amount of mosquito repellant.

Regular aerobic exercise (such as running, cycling or swimming), combined with weight training (especially those strengthening the core and legs), should be performed for months before lacing up the hiking boots. Although these activities prepare the muscles for physical activity, there is no substitute for getting on the trail and doing some day hiking. If coming off a long down period, start out slow with shorter distances and lower backpack loads, working up to farther distances and heavier loads over time.

Stretching before exercising is increasingly important as the years advance. Stretching prepares the less supple muscles and tendons for the rigorous activity required on the trail. It is especially important after spending hours riding in a car before reaching the trailhead. Concentrate the stretching effort on the legs but do not forget other important area such as the back, neck and arms.

Another important way to deal with the negative physical effects of middle-aged involves reducing the weight of the backpack. The weight of a backpack places an enormous amount of stress on the joints of the hips and legs. By reducing its weight it is possible to reduce the amount of stress placed on these joints so they stay healthier over the long haul. Plus, a lighter pack is a major advantage when trying to outrun a hungry bear.

We are living in an age of technological proliferation, and the backcountry products industry is not immune. Many of the improvements include a reduction in weight, due to stronger and more advanced materials. Anyone who owned a backpack from the 1980’s and 1990’s can attest to their impenetrable yet weighty materials, like carrying a tank on one’s back. Although these heavy materials prevented the occasional rip or tear, they put a lot of stress on the back and knees. Today, the trend is using more advanced materials to reduce the weight of equipment including clothes, sleeping bag, tents, and backpacks.

Despite the best effort to train, stretch extensively and reducing backpack weight, issues pertaining to middle-age can persist. Middle-age is accompanied with some inevitable slowdown, which can manifest itself in a slower speed on the trail, a reduction in the distances traveled per day or greater weakness in carrying heavier loads.

All the squatting, stooping and crawling associated with backpacking takes a serious toll on the back and joints of middle-aged backpackers. Crawling in and out of a tent or other shelter, cooking hunched over a small stove and squatting while answering natures call are just a few of these activities leading to back, neck or leg strains. And there is nothing worse than losing one’s balance due to a muscle cramp while squatting over a cat hole.

Sleeping on hard surfaces such as hard-packed ground found in heavily used areas and inside lean-tos becomes more difficult with age. Anyone waking after a restless night without the ability to stand up straight is familiar with this pain. Thankfully, this pain can be ameliorated with the addition of a couple different sleeping pads. Camping in areas rarely (or never) used by others may be helpful in providing a more comfortable sleeping experience due to thick layers of leaf litter and other detritus not highly compacted by many years of use.

In addition to the physical changes accompanying middle-age, there is the inevitable decrease in eyesight. This decrease in performance due to age is called presbyopia. Presbyopia is a perfectly normal loss of close focusing ability due to hardening of the lens inside the eyes and usually begins occurring around age 40. Just in time to accompany the other physical limitations brought on by middle age.

Presbyopia can be compensated for by initially holding reading material further away but over time requires wearing reading glasses.

Presbyopia affects backcountry enthusiasts mostly through the reading of topographical maps. The faint print on these maps, especially the elevation numbers, are often difficult for even youthful eyes in the best lighting, let alone those in middle-age. The print on many handheld GPS units often proves difficult to read as well.

Reading glasses are useful for compensating for the effect of presbyopia. Unfortunately, transporting reading glasses through the backcountry is often difficult due to their fragility. Folding reading glasses are useful in compensating for this fragility.

Middle-age is definitely a difficult time for backcountry enthusiasts with its many physical changes. If you are dreading the coming of middle-age or frustratingly dealing with its impact on the ability to enjoy the backcountry, take heart, there is some hope as backpacking during old age is going to be much more challenging.

Photos: Middle-aged trees at Sand Lake by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




12 Responses

  1. Mick says:

    But John Sheehan claimed that he can walk into any Wilderness designated area for recreation, with gear, food, and a boat…

    This is exactly why Forest Preserve acquisition is wrong on so many fronts; no one can reasonably access the deep wilderness areas without a vehicle (and outboard motor for that matter).

  2. Dan Crane says:

    Mick,

    You are barking up the wrong tree if you think for a second my article in any way, shape or form was advocating New York stop acquiring property in the Adirondacks.

    I would like to see as many acquisitions and additions to the Forest Preserve as are possible in New York State. In fact, I would like to see more and more of these acquisitions not only be added to Wilderness Area but the new acquisitions remain trailless like the Pepperbox Wilderness or large portions of the Five Ponds Wilderness. If you want to drive into forests then try any of the many miles of road through forests that already exist.

    And in no way has being middle-aged stopped me. I spent eight days in the Five Ponds Wilderness last summer where I carried all my gear and food on my aging back. I planned on doing so again this upcoming summer too. Check out my blog for the full story of my epic trip to Oven Lake and ponds to the north.

  3. catharus says:

    Yeh, it’s not the same as when we were young, but it’s still worth every minute of it, isn’t it?! And your point is well taken, we just need to pay more attention to our bodies in care and training, and it often means taking a bit more time. Thanks!

  4. Mick says:

    Dan,

    You just made my B.S. meter redline.

    FP is a failed experiment.

  5. Dan Crane says:

    Mick,

    That is your opinion and you are entitled to it. I just happen to totally disagree with it. Your response implies that your opinion is more important than my own. THAT is the reason your BS meter is redlining.

  6. Editorial Staff says:

    Mick,

    I deleted your comment. We will not tolerate personal attacks and I will not hesitate to ban you entirely.

    Disagreement has always been the norm here, but be civil, or be gone. This is your only warning.

    John Warren
    Editor
    Adirondack Almanack

  7. Mary says:

    Dan,
    When I saw the headline I hoped your article would note some backpacking areas that are kinder and gentler to aging bodies. In my 20s, I was all over the High Peaks. In my upper 50s, I’ve grown to love the flatlands like Five Ponds and Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. I’m always looking for reports on nice flatland trails to explore. And I couldn’t survive the camping without my Big Agnes inflatable air mattress.

  8. Dan Crane says:

    Mary,

    I know exactly what you mean. I think I’ve only been to the High Peaks once since I finished my 46 peaks. I have always preferred the flatlands. Maybe that’s why my 47 year old knees still function really well.

    I don’t do as much trail hiking as I use to now that I’ve fallen in love with bushwhacking.

  9. maxjames says:

    Dan

    Nice article. Well written and good direction. I was completely lost when Mick took it 180 degrees in another direction. Loved the way you turned the BS meter remark around. Good job

  10. Paul says:

    Dan, I totally agree with you, and with your Adirondack exploration style. I am actually a few years older than you, but still enjoy backpacking (with and without a Hornbeck canoe) in the deepest, mostly flatland wilderness. I too have spent much time throughout the Five Ponds and the Pepperbox, visiting those far off trailless ponds time and again. I keep in shape by doing just that, and also by canoe racing. I teach traditional backcountry land navigation techniques to scout leaders and SAR groups.

  11. Dan Crane says:

    Paul,

    Are you a licensed guide? I’ve been thinking about becoming one and have been wondering whether it was worth it or not.

  12. […] are marked as large dashed lines, making reading the map easier in low light conditions, an important quality for middle-aged hikers. Trail mileages, included along trail segments, are marked in red. Although highly useful while […]