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How to Start Backpacking at 65

This backpacking novice uses word like 'difficult, unexpected, peaceful and powerful' to describe her new passion

By Jean MacLeod

A year ago, I astonished friends and family by signing up for a three-day backpacking expedition on Michigan's North Country Trail. As a non-camper (and never-backpacker), my daily "hikes" were rarely more than walking my dogs around a local park.

A woman wearing a backpacking backpack while hiking. Next Avenue, how to start backpacking, older adults
The author hiking in Michigan  |  Credit: Courtesy of Jean MacLeod

COVID-19 was the game-changer. I enjoy traveling and when the pandemic forced me away from the airport, I began eyeing the world outside my back door with a different attitude. Why not travel by foot? I needed the exercise, I wanted a challenge, and I loved the idea of self-sufficient adventure. Figuring out how to start backpacking would be a step toward reclaiming normalcy in a world closed by COVID.

Preparation and Anxiety

Six months before my trip, I joined Facebook groups related to hiking and backpacking. I discovered a guided, women-only trip in my home state that included teaching campers basic outdoor skills: cooking in the wild, setting up a tent, and using a trowel to "leave no trace" of natural body functions. There is a technique to pooping in the woods, and I learned that some options are better than others!

I began eyeing the world outside my back door with a different attitude. Why not travel by foot?

Fitness prep began at the YMCA with a Silver Sneakers "Strength and Flexibility" class that met before work on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 6:00 a.m. My biggest concern was getting myself out in the wild and needing assistance to get back home, so I channeled "terror" as gym motivation!

Adding a couple of TRX Suspension classes to my schedule as I got stronger, I finally hired a personal trainer to build more muscle. Trainer Patty was a Boss. She introduced me and my cranky back to strength work and functional fitness, and I owe the seamless completion of my hike to the two hours of pain and dread that Patty put me through at the Y each week.

It was a precursor to the dread I felt as the trip approached. I had anxiety dreams. If I hadn't paid in advance and announced my backpacking plans to the world, I would have slunk happily back to my sofa, Netflix and chips.

Michigan: Backpacking Baby-Steps

I whine a lot about my workouts, but the physical preparation made my first backpacking trip a success — along with researching information online and listening to the advice of more experienced hikers. Exhausted and exhilarated, I returned home after camping along the bluffs of the Michigan's Manistee River and promptly signed up for my next dream trek into the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. The book "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed (and the movie with Reese Witherspoon) is about navigating the entire PCT, but I found a group hike concentrating on 32 miles of the trail near Mt. Hood. 

A backpacking backpack, sleeping pad and walking sticks against a forest background. Next Avenue, how to start backpacking, older adults
Jean MacLeod's backpack on the trail in Oregon  |  Credit: Jean MacLeod

Renting a tent, backpack and trekking poles from the guide company is a good opportunity to figure out your preferences before investing in expensive equipment. My first trip experience helped me decide to buy an ultralight one-person tent for the PCT. I sleep "cold" and knew I would be most comfortable with a low temperature-rated sleeping bag, even in the summer.

Deciding what to pack is part of the fun and scouring websites for sales on outdoor gear helped fill the months before I met up with my PCT group in Troutdale, Oregon.

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Oregon: Tripping Over Expectations

I spent four days hiking Section F of the Pacific Crest Trail, carrying a water-laden backpack with an upbeat band of women through bear country.

I shouldn't have worried about the bears — it was the heat that nearly killed me! We walked through old forest growth with stunning mountain views, but the 4500-foot elevation, forty-pound pack and unseasonable 95-degree heat made me question my choices. I would have cried, but I didn't have liquid in my body to spare.

Knowing that I can throw a pack on my back and be at home camping on a trail is new for me.

Although I began this hike with much more confidence than my inaugural trip, I quickly learned that nature has her own ideas and not everything goes as researched, prepped or planned. Respecting the heat and the need for flexibility, I jettisoned extra pounds from my pack by giving away unnecessary supplies and items of clothing.

Our guide declared she wore the same outfit every day on the trail (with a change of socks); I was determined to finish the hike, so I lightened my load. My months of Y-workouts prepared me for mileage, but it was strictly fear of failure and Liquid I.V. drink mix that kept me moving forward!

The nine other women in my group ranged from ages 25-65 and came from all over the United States. Despite the weather challenges, everyone maintained an open-minded, positive attitude, and shared a very important trait for the trail: a sense of wonder.

A woman and her daughter smiling while hiking on a trail. Next Avenue, how to start backpacking, older adults
Jean MacLeod and her niece Rachel in Michigan  |  Credit: Courtesy of Jean MacLeod

At Home on the Trail

It was all wondrous. And difficult, unexpected, peaceful and powerful.

Pitching my new ultralight tent, drinking filtered lake water, learning knots – it was like I was a kid at Girl Scout camp, except (unlike when I was nine) I now appreciated the experience. Seeing the night sky over the lake through my tent netting, smelling the pines, and swimming in clear, cold mountain water all helped offset the physical struggle and mental doubts.

Knowing that I can throw a pack on my back and be at home camping on a trail is new for me. And as a couch potato at heart, I may be more surprised than anyone: I really like the grounded person I become in the Great Outdoors.

Jean MacLeod
Jean MacLeod Jean MacLeod is a writer and social media specialist working in communications for the state of Michigan. She is busy prioritizing her bucket list of backpacking destinations. Read More
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