Maybe you’re like me and are a senior hiker. With being senior hikers there come some life-threatening safety concerns on the trail. Hiking is a fantastic solution to warding off the ravages of age. It is a great way to get back in shape. Firm up a few muscles. Lose a little weight. Take a mental break and enjoy the beauty and solitude of nature.
In addition, the socialization of being on the trail with other senior hikers brings new friendships. It helps ward off depression and brings a sense of well-being. Plus it is FUN!
But, being senior hikers have important safety issues that are rarely mentioned. These can even be life-threatening. Let’s look at how to stay safe on the trail as older hikers.
The Geez has either personally or through fellow hikers experienced each and every one of the following on the trail.
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Water Alone Doesn’t Necessarily Keep You Hydrated
1. Mix electrolytes with water in your hydration reservoir
The human body is made up of about 60 percent water. That percentage must be maintained or dehydration sets in.
Hiking affects that percentage. Because every time you exhale and sweat, you lose moisture. Therefore, it is important to hydrate properly when hiking.
As a general rule of thumb, you need to drink about a half-liter of water every hour while hiking.
However, the amount you need to drink must be adjusted in hot weather or on strenuous hikes. You may end up needing to drink a liter of water or more per hour if breathing hard and sweating profusely.
But water alone is often insufficient to keep you properly hydrated. When you sweat you lose electrolytes. The body is a complex organism and the balance between water and electrolytes must be maintained. Sweating flushes out salts and adversely affects your body’s ability to regulate liquids.
As a result, you must replace lost sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium in addition to water to stay properly hydrated. Adding electrolyte tablets or powder to your hydration reservoir is one way to do this.
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How do I know? I drank three liters of water from my hydration reservoir the first day of backpacking Rae Lakes Loop in Sequoia National Park. I had a splitting headache and was completely exhausted after eight miles of hiking.
As a result, we were forced to stop and set up camp because I could not go another mile. The second and subsequent days on the hike made all the difference in the world. I mixed electrolyte powder in my hydration reservoir. Scientific? Probably not. Real-world experience? Definitely!
Know The Symptoms Of Dehydration So That They Don’t Become Life-Threatening
One of the earliest symptoms is a headache. In addition, look at the color of your urine. If it is dark and you have or are getting a headache, there is a good chance that dehydration is a factor.
If not addressed in a timely manner, you are subject to increasing health-related issues. Body temperature, both hyperthermia (ie: heat stroke) and hypothermia (ie: low body temperature) can set in.
Dehydration can also cause confusion, disorientation, loss of appetite, nausea, and dizziness.
My buddy, Mark was hospitalized for 4 days after a hike, he was totally confused, delirious, and combative. In addition, he was actually strapped down with restraints due to a loss of electrolytes.
So, don’t wait this is a serious health issue! Especially for older hikers.
Senior Hikers: Diuretics Can Kill You When Hiking
2. Check with your doctor for the diuretic effects of prescription medicines.
Severe dehydration can lead to death. Hikers are acutely aware of this.
They take precautions on each and every hike to make sure water sources are available along the trail. In short, lack of water to rehydrate the body when hiking can lead to dehydration and severe dehydration to death.
But did you know that taking diuretics can also lead to dehydration while hiking?
Seniors are often prescribed a host of medicines for health-related issues. In addition, many of these medicines also exhibit diuretic effects.
Diuretics eliminate excess water from the body through urination. The combination of profuse sweating, rapid breathing, and diuretic medicine when hiking creates an unhealthy balance.
That is to say, dehydration can set in without warning. In summary, too much water is eliminated from the body too quickly.
I saw firsthand the devastating result of a fellow senior hiker taking diuretics and hiking. This occurred recently while backpacking to Garfield Grove in Sequoia National Park on a steady uphill trail in 90-degree weather.
Barely an hour into the hike, my friend and hiking buddy, John collapsed and tumbled down a thirty-foot ravine. He was incoherent and what he said didn’t make any sense. It took well over an hour for him to recover enough just to climb out of the ravine up to the trail.
John was fortunate nothing was broken, only scrapes and bruises. But, as a result, he could not continue and had to turn back and go home.
Check with your doctor before hiking to make sure one of the side effects of your prescribed medicine isn’t a diuretic. To summarize, taking diuretic medications when hiking or backpacking could put you in a life-threatening situation. Severe dehydration is a real possibility.
As Senior Hikers, Hiking Increases Your Risk Of Hyperthermia (HEATSTROKE)
3. Hike at a slower pace, take small drinks often, and rest often.
Hiking is not a race! Granted it is hard for this old geezer to keep up with my younger hiking friends, but I have learned that slow and steady gets you to the top of the mountain. Safely without heatstroke.
The common name for hyperthermia is heatstroke. The body is not able to maintain its core body temperature.
As a result, body heat rises to 102 degrees or higher. This condition is life-threatening if not addressed quickly.
Senior hikers over the age of 50 are at greater risk of heat-related health problems. Heatstroke is more common in older adults due to a variety of reasons.
- Active senior hikers do not adjust as well as young people to changes in temperature.
- The normal aging process causes changes to both the skin and the sweat glands.
- Seniors are more apt to be overweight or underweight. Hiking places greater stress on the body. Furthermore, adding the additional weight of a backpack, hydration reservoir, trail food, etc. increases the problem.
- Blood circulation can be compromised due to underlying medical conditions such as diabetes. Since the circulatory system is primarily responsible for moving core body heat to the skin surface to cool, poor circulation reduces that ability.
- Older people are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat. Diseases of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and cardiovascular system are more prevalent in senior citizens than in younger hikers.
- Senior citizens are more likely to take prescription medicines that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature or sweat. Taking certain drugs like diuretics, sedatives or tranquilizers, beta-blockers and other heart medications can cause you to get overheated more easily.
Dehydration and heatstroke often go hand in hand.
It is very likely that John, who I mentioned earlier, not only exhibited signs of severe dehydration but heatstroke as well. It took a full hour of him resting in the shade and cooling off before he was even able to get up.
You Don’t Have To Climb Mount Everest To Get Altitude Sickness
4. Talk to your doctor about a prescription for altitude sickness drugs if hiking at higher elevations.
Hiking and backpacking destinations run the gamut of coastal trails, desert canyons, and mountaintop adventures. Trekking adventures take place at all elevations.
But did you know that you don’t have to climb Mount Everest to get altitude sickness? For example, you can get the first stage of altitude sickness called acute mountain sickness (AMS) above 8,000 feet.
At higher altitudes, barometric pressure is less so there is less oxygen in the surrounding air. As a result, your body must adjust to the decrease in air pressure, and this takes time.
Hiking above 8,000 feet can cause you to develop uncomfortable or even dangerous symptoms from the change in altitude.
The Geez has been hiking for over 45 years and never once got altitude sickness until this year. It happened on the Rae Lakes Loop trail in Kings Canyon National Park at approximately 9,500 feet elevation.
I had a tremendous headache and had difficulty breathing. I mean, scary not enough oxygen breathing! Hiking as little as 100 yards required me to rest in order for me to catch my breath.
Fortunately, we scheduled a zero-day at Rae Lakes. So I was able to recover the following day. The guideline for altitude sickness prevention is to gain no more than 1,000 feet in elevation per day.
This hike required an 8,000 feet elevation gain in three days. Needless to say, I exceeded the recommendation and learned a valuable lesson.
Older adults must be proactive when hiking at higher elevations.
If you have experienced high-altitude sickness in the past and are planning to hike again at higher altitudes, consider contacting your doctor about taking a prescription drug. The ones commonly used are acetazolamide and the corticosteroid drug dexamethasone.
Keep in mind, however, that these drugs do not prevent the more serious forms of altitude sickness.
For example, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can be very dangerous. However, High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is the most severe form of altitude sickness and happens when there’s fluid in the brain.
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Knee Injury Can Occur Even If You Don’t Have Any Joint Issues
5. Wear a knee brace when hiking, especially on strenuous trails.
I took my car into the auto shop for a tire rotation the other day. My mechanic said my brake pads were worn out. He sounded a lot like my doctor. After being helicoptered out of the Grand Canyon, my orthopedist said my knees were worn out. That is not what this old geezer wanted to hear!
Prior to retirement I never experienced joint problems. I had had surgery to repair a torn meniscus twenty years earlier. But that healed properly and never gave me any problems. However, I also didn’t hike all the time. That all changed when I went backpacking in the Grand Canyon.
The availability of water on the trail was nonexistent on the Royal Arch Loop until the 3rd day when we reached the Colorado River.
Consequently, we started our adventure carrying eleven liters of water in our backpack. That is an extra 24 pounds of water in addition to food, clothing, shelter, etc.
Senior hikers must consider the additional stress placed on joints. A knee injury can occur even if you don’t have joint issues. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage are stressed in ways your body is not used to.
Hiking downhill, carrying extra weight, scrambling over rocks, and traversing uneven slopes all place additional stress on your knees.
I have been on many hikes with Steve, my weekly hiking buddy, over the past three years. He always wears a hinged knee brace. Not because he needs to, but because Steve says it makes him think twice before doing something stupid while hiking.
Take a tip from the Geez and look into purchasing a hinged knee brace if you are at all concerned. It is cheap protection!
Senior Hikers: Hiking Poles Can Literally Save Your Life
6. Use hiking poles on ALL hikes.
That is due in part to trails being uneven and obstacle-ridden. Hip fractures, broken bones, and ankle sprains happen more frequently as we age.
First of all, senior hikers generally don’t have the balance they once had. Therefore it is much easier to lose balance and fall while hiking.
Hiking poles act as a third leg to maintain balance and prevent falling while trekking through the woods.
Hiking uphill requires leg strength which has lessened with age. The ability to use hiking poles to help pull and push your way up steep trail sections is often needed.
This is especially true when climbing over boulders. For example, stepping up 6 inches to clear a tree root or boulder is generally no problem. But clearing a 16-inch boulder requires a lot more leg strength.
In addition, older mature hikers do not have the body strength of younger hikers. According to a Harvard study after age 30, we lose approximately 3 to 5% muscle mass with each passing decade.
Also, hiking poles help to break your forward momentum when descending steep trails. Senior hikers often have joint-related medical issues.
Using hiking poles to break forward momentum lessens the impact and stress placed on muscles, tendons, ligaments, and especially the knees.
A little-known but useful tip is to use hiking poles to protect you from wild animals. For instance, raising hiking poles above your head and waving them rapidly when encountering bears make you look larger than life. That alone may be enough to scare off a bear.
In addition, hikers often encounter poisonous snakes such as rattlesnakes. Extending hiking poles away from your body allows an additional three to four feet separation between you and the snake.
Lastly, hiking poles are essential for stream crossings. They can actually save your life when crossing swollen rivers and creeks.
Are you uncertain what hiking poles to get? Check out my post Hiking for Seniors: How To Decided What Hiking Poles To Get.
The Geez knows firsthand how hiking poles probably saved his life while crossing Woods Creek in Kings Canyon National Park.
The water level was thigh-deep due to the melting snowpack. Consequently, the pressure generated by the rushing water was at the limit for safe water crossings.
The water pushed me off balance in the middle of the creek while carrying a 40-pound backpack. It was only due to luck and a quick realignment of my poles that kept me from falling. Thankfully, I did not fall or get swept away in the rushing water. In short, I don’t know if I could have recovered had I fallen.
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Senior Hikers: Eating Enough Food Is Hard To Do
7. Carry nutrient-dense, high-calorie foods when hiking.
A common problem among older adults is a loss of appetite. Therefore, eating enough food is hard to do when hiking and backpacking.
As we age, the body’s ability to regulate many functions becomes impaired. Metabolism is one of these functions. Metabolism affects appetite.
This often leads to problems with energy levels.
Strenuous exercise burns lots of calories. The lack of caloric input leads senior hikers to be fatigued more easily. You become weak from lack of food. Therefore both stamina and strength suffer. Medical conditions can also affect appetite.
In addition, appetite can become compromised by medicines for treating those conditions. Seniors need to be aware of diseases that are more likely with advancing age.
These can include heart, pulmonary, kidney, liver, and others. Therefore, older adults who are on various medications for a host of chronic diseases need to be aware of their side effects.
Not all conditions affecting appetite are physical ailments. Emotional states such as grief and depression can also compromise the appetite. Senior hikers need to be aware of this and plan accordingly.
Most importantly, nutrient-dense, high-calorie foods are a must when appetite is compromised. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that a 154-pound person burns 370 calories per hour of hiking.
But this estimate can be significantly higher on strenuous trails or when carrying a heavy backpack. This means you must eat more to maintain energy levels. I have to force myself to eat when backpacking because I am just not that hungry.
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In conclusion, improper nutrition and eating too few calories leads to poor hiking outcomes. Senior hikers are much more likely to get hurt on the trail if their energy levels are depleted because of a lack of food.
To sum it up, these are the 7 most important life-saving tips that I have experienced on the trail as a senior hiker. Take heed my fellow hikers, be safe, have fun and hike!