Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne, the main contributor at MichiganTrailMaps.com, is headed for Alaska this summer and will be spending more than a month in Southeast Alaska exploring the region’s wonderful trail system. He promises to blog about his walks beginning in mid-June. We’re going to hold him to it.
I couldn’t help but notice the person next to me at my health club. He was shouldering a backpack and I’m pretty sure it had a few bricks in it. He had his treadmill elevated to level 10 as if he were scaling a 10,000-foot peak in Colorado and swinging his arms. All he was missing was a pair of trekking poles.
There was only one thing I could possibly ask him: “Where are you headed?”
This summer there will be hikers and backpackers hitting trails all across the country, but right now they’re prepping. That includes me.
The highlight of my hiking season will be the last week of June when I meet my son in Juneau, Alaska and then jump on an Alaska state ferry for Skagway to tackle the Chilkoot Trail.
The Chilkoot is unquestionably the most famous trail in Alaska and often the most popular as more than 3,000 people spend three to four days following the historic route every summer. It was the route used by the Klondike gold miners in the 1898 gold rush, and walking the well-developed trail is not so much a wilderness adventure as a history lesson. It’s a 34-mile walk that includes the Chilkoot Pass, a steep climb up to 3525 feet, where most hikers scramble on all fours over the loose rocks and boulders.
To fully enjoy it, I need to be ready. I need to do some serious prepping, especially at my age. I’m turning 56 years old this summer but there is no reason I can’t undertake a challenging walk like the Chilkoot.
Almost six million Americans age 55 plus go hiking or backpacking every year, making it one of the most popular sporting activities among older athletes. They’re out there to experience a slice of nature, to enjoy great scenery and for possibly the biggest benefit of all: aerobic exercise.
According to the Mayo Clinic, hiking, even on easy trails, burns more calories than walking or aerobic dancing, in my case 620 calories an hour. Throw on a backpack and I’m burning almost as many as cross-country skiing.
The key to older backpackers like me is to prep and once on the trail to follow a set of rules that were passed down to me years ago on Isle Royale National Park by a backpacker named Jim Preish. The North Carolina hiker didn’t carry the heaviest pack on the island nor did he have the fastest pace on the trail. Far from it. But Preish captured my admiration because at the age of 65 he was still out there backpacking and I had no reason to believe he wouldn’t be when he turns 70. He taught me to:
Ligthen the load. This is critical for anybody, young or old. Always perform a shakedown before every trip and evaluate every piece of gear in your pack. Do you really need a trailside espresso maker or that bulky solar shower?
Use the Right Gear. Even with required equipment you can lighten your load. Down sleeping bags are up to half the weight of synthetic bags. If you’re sleeping alone use a solo tent instead of a two-man dome. Measure your food carefully in advance and repackage it. Hauling uneaten food for four or five days is a cardinal sin.
Invest in gear that will make you more comfortable on the trail. For many of us it’s the extra thick, self-inflatable Thermarest pad for a better sleep at night. For Preish it was a small, folding stool so he didn’t have to sit on the ground after a long day on the trail.
Reduce your daily mileage. Plan your trip so you’re only covering 5 to 7 miles a day instead of the 10 or 12 miles you did in your youth.
Slow down the pace and stop often. The breaks don’t have to be long, just more frequent to give your legs a chance to recover throughout the day.
When faced with a particularly hard day, take ibuprofen in the morning before you head out. Preish believed ibuprofen in the morning and a cup of good whiskey in the evening were the most effective ways in preventing sore muscles or relieving them .
And finally my addition to Preish’s list of golden rules; if at all possible hike with somebody younger than you. There is nothing like strong shoulders and young legs to carry a good portion of the group gear across a mountain pass.
After all those years of hauling his stuff when he was much younger, I told my now 25-year-old son this was payback time and he had to carry the tent, stove, water filter and a majority of the food over the Chilkoot Pass. Naturally he protested, who wouldn’t? But eventually he agreed when I offered to pay for the ferry and train tickets needed to hike the trail and a night of lodging in Skagway after we’re done.
If you ask me, that’s a small price to pay for an adventure as grand as this one.