Hiking the Appalachian Trail from start to finish usually takes about six months, so it attracts people in transitional moments in their lives — those with the freedom to just "pack up and go." Accordingly, the majority of people who try to make the 2,200-mile trek have either recently graduated from college or recently retired.
But if you think younger hikers inherently have a leg up on the older ones, think again.
Warren Doyle — who has hiked the trail 16 times and now runs Appalachian Trail Institute, a program preparing hikers for the journey — believes the most important factor on the trail is your mental state. He's found that older hikers bring a discipline and an emotional strength to the trail that their younger counterparts sometimes lack. While a long-distance hike obviously requires you to be in peak physical shape, Doyle stresses that older hikers shouldn't let their age deter them. If you think you're ready to try it out, here are a few things to consider.
Realize you're not alone. Plenty of people hike the trail after 50; in fact, the average age of Doyle's last hiking group was 56. If you're interested in hiking the trail, reach out to people who have hiked it before and are willing to talk frankly about the factor that age played in their experience. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy can put you in touch with other hikers in your age range.
Don't hike strong — hike smart. Hiking the Appalachian Trail isn't a race. It's certainly not about competing with other hikers — or the trail itself. "After the first couple of weeks, it's much more of a psychological thing," Doyle says. "You have to learn how to flow with the trail rather than fight with it."
Know your limits. Be realistic about your physical conditioning. Take shorter hikes to prepare, and pay attention to what your body can handle. Being honest about your physical limitations can save you time, money and energy down the line. Doyle says at the end of his preparatory program some hikers decide it isn't for them, but most are glad they tried it anyway.
Read up on the trail. You can read about other hikers' experiences at Trail Journals, an invaluable resource for people deciding if they should attempt to go all the way or not. The writers provide honest insight about the everyday realities of the hike — from food to equipment to the emotional toll of six months in the wilderness. Reading their firsthand accounts before you start enables you to learn from other people's mistakes and their words of wisdom.
Go your own way. "Thru-hiking," or going from end to end, isn't the only way to experience the trail. "If you don't have the free time to do it as a thru-hike, I would encourage people to explore the possibility of day hiking," Doyle says. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy also has a comprehensive breakdown of all your different options. As Doyle tells his prospective hikers, the trail is anything but a one-size-fits-all experience: "It's really up to the individual to decide how they want to do it."