Loc: Low Country of SC
Hello, just registered here after a few weeks of reading posts. I have enjoyed reading posts from the older crew.
I'm 69 and have hiked a great deal, in many places, foreign and domestic, but only a little of it has been backpacking. Mostly day hikes, though I did try to make them challenging and adventurous.
I stopped serious hiking several years ago for a variety of reasons and then, for no reason at all, decided to try the GA section of the AT this fall.
A lesson I learned in my youth from sports and the Army was to ignore pain and just push through it. Always worked before, but not now. Not being one to let facts get in the way of a goal I embarked on an ambitious conditioning program, ignored all the warning signs, and ended up with bad knees, bad Achilles' and blisters all over both feet.
So, any AT backpacking is off the schedule until next spring. As soon as I can walk again I will try to get into hiking shape with some restraint and begin day hikes.
Meanwhile, I am enjoying this forum immensely and welcome any tips on how to get into hiking shape in a responsible manner.
The first tip; consult your doctor (or better yet, a doctor who also backpacks and is familiar with what you’re up against.) Since you don’t mention it, I’m assuming your weight is not an issue.
After that, Colin Fletcher and Chris Townsend (a worthy successor to St. Colin) both said it best: the best way to get in condition to haul a load on a trail is to haul a load on a trail. As with any other training program, start light and work up (or down, if you choose the ultralight path.)
Seriously, if you haven’t already replaced your gear or selected a new set of gear, try to lean toward light gear. (It’s mostly identified as “fast and light,” but there’s no inherent link between the two. I’m slow and light, myself.) There really is some good stuff out there, and not all of it requires a second mortgage on the house. I’ve moved steadily toward a lighter pack over the last 5 or 10 years, and am pretty well settled on a set of gear that has me carrying about sixteen pounds for a two-night warm weather trip in Ohio, and eighteen or nineteen in weather down to about 35 degrees. (Since you’re hiking in the South - Georgia, I assume from your post - that’s essentially year around for you.) The lighter load should help prolong my knees, and allows me to hike all day without collapsing exhausted into camp. (Hiking toward exhaustion also leads to bad judgment, which combined with other physical ailments can put you in trouble before you realize what happened. I’ve written a short description of how I selected my current set of gear; send me a PM if you’d like me to email it to you. (Just remember: I can mislead you with the best of them!)
Also, remember that you don’t have to do “hero treks.” There are many other places besides the AT to hike. (I’ve got a 35-mile trail about 5 miles from me, in the midst of the Dayton-Cincinnati metro area, where I can spend two or three nights.) By choosing the off-seasons, you can even simulate a backpack trip at a state park, using the public campground when it’s not going to be crowded. At 68, I’m at the point in my life where getting out, hiking, and sleeping outdoors are enough; they don’t all have to be adventures with great scenery.
Hope this helps get the ball rolling. If there’s anything folks our age enjoy more than chasing those crummy kids off our lawns, it’s giving more advice than you need.
All of Glenn's suggestions are good ones, but none of them address the key factor you (and many of us) are now facing. Our bodies don't recover as quickly and pushing them harder usually ends up working against us rather than helping.
So yeah--try to get into condition. But that sore knee that took five days to heal when you were 28 will now take five weeks or more. So take it easy, smile at the young kids on the trail who are jumping over logs or hopping down steep slopes, and continue to hike in slow, measured steps.
One foot after the other, it's amazing how far you can go....
Balzaccom is right: you don’t recover as fast, so the key is to try to avoid doing things you have to recover from. (I was circling around it with the “hero trek” comment, but I like his more direct approach.) One thing I avoid is a heavy pack.
In my own case, I’ve found that 15 mile days are beyond me, especially if much elevation gain or loss is involved. I now typically plan for 8-10 mile days instead, in gentler terrain; I also don’t plan for more than 2 or 3 nights out - the cumulative wear and tear takes a few days to rest up. I’ve also found that I don’t react as well to the cold, so I stay home when the predicted lows are below 35; I also avoid prolonged rain or snow - mostly because I don’t enjoy it any more, and I’m old enough I don’t have to prove I can do it.
Loc: Portland, OR
I agree that carrying a pack on a trail is the best training for backpacking. But part of the trick is to understand that walking on a trail is a repetitive activity and therefore subject to repetitive stress injuries. The solution is to not overstress your body during your conditioning hikes/walks. Carry less weight than you will on the AT. Walk fewer miles, especially at first.
Try to get in a variety of terrain, especially uphill and downhill, because these two directions use different sets of muscles. Uneven ground, with rocks and roots, will strengthen your lateral-stabilizing muscles in your knees and ankles. Start slow, see how it feels, and work your way up the ladder of challenges. Injuring yourself is the exact opposite of what you're aiming for, since injuries totally screw up your conditioning schedule and can have long term effects you never heal from.
Above all, listen to your body. Constantly. It knows WAY more about what it needs than your brain does.
Loc: Low Country of SC
Thank you guys, all very helpful. One specific question.
I live in the low country of South Carolina, and that means my hikes are through swamps, and that means flat. I would rather be outside but do you think I should spend a few days training on a treadmill so I can get the incline walking in?
At least outside I get my feet and the rest conditioned for uneven ground, rocks, logs, etc.
Can't do much about the decline and walking down hill.
I wouldn’t be particularly concerned about getting a lot of elevation-change training if you’ll be doing most of your hiking on flat ground. If you do decide to do a hike with hills, I wouldn’t jump onto the biggest hills I could find for the first trip though. I’d do some training trips into the foothills first - and I would jump on that treadmill to train for the foothills.
For example, on that nearby trail I mentioned, there’s never more that a hundred feet of elevation gain/loss at a time (about 6 such gain-and-loss hills in a day.) However, if I know I’ll be heading to Kentucky, I’ll do some training hikes a bit southeast of us, where there are some real hills to climb. I’ll schedule an easy hike the first Kentucky day, and then adjust my trip plan as necessary.
Loc: Low Country of SC
I guess I didn't mention it but when I get healthy feet again I will be hiking locally only for training. I will travel a couple of hours in a westerly direction and do my trips in Great Smokey Mountain NP, the start of the AT in northern GA, and the foothills of SC around the Greenville area.
These will be just 2 or 3 days of day hikes, and then short 3 day- 2 night BP trips until I feel fit.
I dislike the treadmill and being inside but I will do the time to get some incline training.
My knees and Achilles are already much better. Its the blisters I have to worry about. These came from two pair of old boots that always fit me fine before. Guess my feet have changed size with age.
I don’t like treadmills, either. Are there any public buildings with stairways? You could always just carry a pack up and down them - of course, that’s not exactly the same as climbing a hill.
The foothills sound like the best bet. Alternatively, if GSMNP has some less rugged trails, you could camp at the park (or in a motel in Gatlinburg) and do dayhikes with a full pack on those trails.
I’ve heard, from a friend who’s been there, that the Roan Highlands isn’t too bad in terms of big climbs - I’ve never been, and I’m not sure he’s right.
If you take it slow, and have built up your legs on flatland hikes, you’ll probably be OK taking on some fairly rugged terrain without too much trouble. You’ll just find yourself stopping fairly often to catch your breath, but that’s not the end of the world.
Loc: Colorado High Plains
Lots of great advice already given. I would only add, based on your last comment about blisters, that yes, your feet do change. Old boots aren't going to work for you anymore. Get something new that fits your old feet, something perhaps lighter, with a good insole. Got to keep those feet happy! They are your foundation and if they aren't comfortable, you're not going to be. Don't try to push it too hard. As balzaccom mentioned, Our bodies don't recover as quickly and pushing them harder usually ends up working against us rather than helping. Good luck! Bill