Backpacking on Creaky Knees
Follow this sound advice, and you may never be too old to pick up your pack and hit the trail.
By Greg Breining
Last year I got it into my head to tackle the Superior Hiking Trail.
Why I did isn't important. What is important is that I hadn't backpacked in ages. And I had just turned 50.
Over the years I'd stayed in pretty good shape. But my knees hadn't. When I squatted, they sounded like a bowl of Rice Krispies. Years ago I had had an operation for a cartilage tear in my left knee.
Then, two years ago, when I had walked a long downhill grade, my right knee had been so inflamed and legs so wobbly from fatigue and pain that I had given my pack to someone else and had thought briefly of begging him to carry me piggyback down the mountain. A year ago, I had a second arthroscopic surgery to trim cartilage in that knee.
And now I wanted to backpack again. Was I nuts? How should an aging boomer go about backpacking again? I talked to doctors, fitness experts, and old backpackers. Here's what they told me.
Jump Off the Couch.
Dr. Eric Alan Weiss, associate director for trauma at Stanford University Medical Center and author of Wilderness 911, says preparing to backpack isn't "anything different from anything you would do for any other athletic activity." But how you prepare differs from what you might have done in your 20s. "Young people can jump off the couch and do something without stretching, but older people need to stretch," he says.
Weiss advises would-be backpackers to spend most time on the obvious-the legs. Bike riding provides a good aerobic workout with low impact. Training with light weights also helps.
Even so, an over-the-hill backpacker can expect blistered feet, aching knees, sore shoulders, and perhaps even tender hips.
"Things that are much different from what you normally do are going to cause discomfort," Weiss says. "That's why it's good to put a pack on and make that a part of your training regime."
What happens to our bodies as we age to make them more vulnerable to aches, pains, and injuries?
"The collagen fibers in our muscles and tendons become less supple," says Robert LaPrade, knee and shoulder specialist at the Sports Medicine Institute at the University of Minnesota. "This means we need to warm up before exercising or run an increased risk of muscle sprains or ligament or tendon tears." In addition, the cartilage on the ends of bones-the same spongy material that breaks down to cause arthritis-doesn't heal once it's injured, he says. It continues to wear. High-impact activities such as running and jumping wear it out more quickly than low-impact activities such as swimming or cycling. Few joints are as vital and vulnerable as the knee. Menisci, crescent-shaped pieces of cartilage that absorb shock between your tibia and femur, become more brittle and fragile with age. Sudden jolts can damage them, LaPrade says. Deep squats and heavy lifting can also tear them.
Menisci are also subject to minor tears from longtime use and abuse. The tears irritate the surrounding tissue and can cause burning pain, especially on long downhill treks. A torn meniscus might be a candidate for surgery.
Your back may also be vulnerable, especially if you've had a history of back pain from degenerative or herniating discs. Bending under a load puts pressure on the front of the vertebrae. Herniated or bulging discs can push against the spinal canal and nerves, LaPrade says. Heavy lifting or bending can cause muscle spasms and pain.
How to avoid problems out on the trail? "Avoid a lot of bending, squatting, or twisting," LaPrade says. "If you start to feel sore, take a rest. Enjoy the view."
Practice With Pack.
"You need to build into it the way you would any kind of exercise," advises Jim Sloan, author of Staying Fit Over Fifty. "For backpackers, that would mean doing some hikes and then doing some hikes with a backpack and systematically increasing the weight you carry. It's a training effort." Practicing with the pack will also give you a more realistic view of your limits and weaknesses. Says Sloan, "You don't want to get stuck 10 miles into the back-country with a heavily swollen knee."
Sloan's advice for aging backpackers:
- Add weight to the backpack until you can comfortably carry 10 pounds more than you'll carry on your trip. Don't forget to include downhill practice. "Often it's the downhill that leaves people sore. That's because you're stretching the quadriceps muscle at the same time you're contracting it."
- If weather is bad or no outdoor trails are available, log miles indoors for aerobic fitness and leg strength. Around the Sierras, where Sloan lives, "it's not unusual to see people in full backpacks on a StairMaster."
- Stick to a comfortable walking stride. In your exuberance, don't overstride, which can aggravate your shins. Go faster by picking up the pace.
- Lift weights to gain strength and stave off the normal loss of muscle mass from aging. Sloan said the average male will lose 15 pounds of muscle by age 50 if he does no exercise at all. As well as legs, work your upper body. Sloan recommends dumbbell curls and lifts to strengthen arms and shoulders. Also exercise your abdominal and back muscles because they assist in nearly every movement.
Lighten Your Load.
It may seem obvious, though you wouldn't guess it by the bloated packs some aging boomers carry: Reducing the weight of your pack reduces the strain on your joints and muscles. Extra weight increases the chance of injury, says Christopher Larson, orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and director of education at the Minneapolis Sports Medicine Center.
Rod Johnson, owner of Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, began backpacking in 1969, burdened with a flannel-lined rectangular sleeping bag and other ponderous gear. "My pack was so heavy that when I put it down, I felt like I was floating," Johnson recalls. "Gee, I thought, this would really be fun if it weren't for this heavy pack."
Since then, shaving weight from his pack has been a matter of necessity as well as pleasure. "I have a herniated disk in my back, torn cartilage in my knee, and some torn ligaments in my ankle," he says. "Being able to go light is the only alternative."
Because each step multiplies the force of your weight and the weight you carry, and transmits that force through your aging joints, shedding pounds pays dividends.
Despite his ailments, Johnson, accompanied by his wife, Sharon, and friend Hans Arlton, hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail in California, which crosses several mountain passes from Yosemite Valley to the summit of 14,500-foot Mt. Whitney. They finished the trip in 13 days. Then Johnson wrote a guide to ultralight packing.
"You don't have to sleep on rocks and eat wheat berries," Johnson says. "You can eat good food and sleep in comfort."
If you're already equipped for camping, you don't need to rush to an outdoor store and ruin your credit, Johnson says. Instead, invest a bit at a time, concentrating on purchases to save the most weight. And after you lighten what you carry in your pack, you can lighten your backpack. Replacing a heavily engineered pack of 6 pounds (designed to carry a heavy load) with a 1- to 2-pound pack, you will need less support for your feet and ankles. Then you might be able to swap stiff leather waffle-stompers for trail-running shoes.
Going light is only partly a technological fix. Mostly it's an attitude adjustment.
For example, Johnson takes quick-drying clothes he can wash along the way so he doesn't need extra clothes. He brings a tarp instead of a tent-and sometimes only a space blanket-if rainstorms and bugs are unlikely (not often in Minnesota!). He takes a sleeping bag no warmer and heavier than he figures he'll need. If it turns cold, he sleeps in his down jacket. He doesn't take extra food; if his trip takes longer than expected, he plans to ration.
Johnson's pack, complete with a tent he shares with his wife, stove fuel (Sharon carries the stove), and an umbrella, weighs in at just over 15 pounds. Even figuring food at an added 2 pounds per person per day, there's not much weight on those aging joints.
Hit the Trail.
After getting arthroscopic surgery to clean up my torn meniscus, I was curious: Would my knee hold up on the Superior Hiking Trail? Was I in any kind of condition to try backpacking again?
My wife, Susan, is a good sport about these things, and I recruited her for a four-day trip-despite her surgery on a disc a few years ago.
We both worked out in preparation for the trip. My routine included aerobic work on stair machines and weight work on my legs.
We made key investments in lighter gear. We bought lighter packs, tent, stove, and raingear. I applied a simple formula-dollars spent per ounces saved-to judge which purchases made the most sense.
hen we set out, we were packing pretty light-not ultralight, but not bad. I carried the tent, stove, and a few other ditties, including fly-fishing tackle; that brought my total to 32 pounds. Susan's pack weighed 22.
We started from Silver Bay and immediately climbed a series of rocky domes with beautiful overlooks. Our trekking poles-one for each of us-bit reassuringly into the packed dirt and even outcrops, taking stress off our knees and helping us balance in tricky spots.
The next day we descended to the Baptism River, then headed back up into high hills. The heat was beastly, with 100 percent humidity in the morning and record-high afternoon temperatures. Realizing we were falling behind our schedule but still wanting to see Manitou River and the country beyond, we hitchhiked to cut off a short loop. Four days after we set out, we reached Caribou River, averaging about 10 miles a day.
In retrospect, we could have carried less food. And we probably should have spent more time training with packs. Otherwise, all was OK. Aspirin and ibuprofen took care of minor aches. Knees and backs held up. Freeze-dried food was better than anyone could have expected.
I feel as though I have a few decades of backpacking in me still.
Aging trekkers-from Biblical prophets to Lord of the Rings' wizard Gandalf-carry walking sticks. And for good reason: They take the strain off knees and other lower joints. That's especially important on downhill hikes.
The modern incarnation of the walking stick, the trekking pole, resembles a cross-country ski pole, with a wrist strap to bear weight and a sharp, hard end to bite into the ground. The poles adjust for length, and some are spring-loaded to absorb shock. Using one helps a lot; some hikers use one in each hand.
PACK LIGHT BUT RIGHT
Cutting pounds cuts aches and pains. Lightweight backpacking proponent Rod Johnson hoists the 11-pound, 11-ounce pack he carried on a seven-day, 93-mile loop in Mount Rainier National Park. Food added 2 pounds per person per day. A hiker (left) crosses the Manitou River with ease, carrying a load weighing barely 20 pounds.
Get realistic about your ability to gobble up mile after mile of rugged ground. You may want to hike the entire 205 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail, but if you haven't backpacked much, you'd be wise to limit yourself to just a few miles a day, especially over the most rugged portion of this up-and-down route.
Even better: Choose easier terrain. Several state parks have walk-in or backpacking sites and level or rolling trails. Good candidates include Afton, Itasca, Maplewood, Savanna Portage, Lake Bronson, St. Croix, Wild River, Glacial Lakes, and Bear Head Lake. Parks with more rugged trails include Jay Cooke and George Crosby Manitou. For details, go to Minnesota DNR State Parks.
Author Greg Breining, St. Paul, will tackle the mountains of South China with his daughter this year.