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It’s never too late to hit the trail

Tips for women on the trail

Safety: Women have different comfort levels about traveling alone. If you’re uneasy, find a buddy or a group. Don’t rely on the advice of other hikers who may have different skill and strength levels than you. And let someone know when and where you are hiking.

Train: With age, it can take longer to increase strength and stamina. Prepare appropriately for the challenge level of the hike you plan to take. Start on flat trails and move up to hills and uneven terrain. If you want to backpack, practice hiking with a weighted pack.

Hiking poles: They can provide stability on the trail, particularly when crossing streams or coming down hills. Pushing off the ground also reduces the load on the lower body. Learn how to use them efficiently.

Hydrate: Carry adequate water and electrolytes.

Susan Alcorn: backpack45.com

When Inga Aksamit of Kenwood first decided to take up hiking, she was already in her mid-40s. But she wasn’t about to settle for what amounted to the backpacker’s equivalent of the bunny slopes.

The now-seasoned 63-year-old hiker quickly headed for the hard stuff. Her first big hike was the Chilkoot Trail, a stretch of 33 often-punishing miles from Skagway, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, British Columbia, that would-be prospectors including Jack London trekked in the late 1800s on their way to the gold fields of the Klondike. At the summit is the infamous Chilkoot Pass, a hard scramble over heavy boulders.

“Even though it was only five days, it was a real accomplishment at the time,” she said.

Aksamit has logged thousands of trail miles since then, from the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes of Peru to the Tour of Mont Blanc, a 103-mile mountainous circuit that crosses three European borders.

But you don’t have to crave high elevations or endure days in the wilderness to enjoy hiking or even walking through nature. Aksamit is one of 32 experienced outdoorswomen profiled in a new book, “Walk, Hike, Saunter: Seasoned Women Share Tales and Trails,” by Susan Alcorn. The book is aimed at encouraging older women to get out into nature, even if they just want to take it slow and easy. The book focuses on women, but it is filled with practical advice and tips for any hiker, new or experienced.

Alcorn is 80. Like Aksamit, she started backpacking in her 40s and was dismayed by the dearth of women on the trail.

“I was just not seeing many women, especially older women, out there. And I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ ”

So she began collecting names from the Sierra Club of other women backpackers. That led to her writing “We’re in the Mountains, Not Over the Hill: Tales and Tips from Seasoned Women Backpackers” in 2003. She began creating a community on Facebook and through a website aimed at encouraging women to keep backpacking even as they got older.

Alcorn, a retired teacher living in Oakland, said a lot of middle-aged and older people approach her, lamenting that they used to backpack often in their youth.

“It doesn’t have to stop. I didn’t start until I was 45, and it’s just been a wonderful way of life,” Alcorn said. “And more people should know they can get back to doing it. They may have to adapt but there is no reason many people can’t do it.”

Even once-in-a-lifetime treks aren’t necessarily out of reach for older hikers. There are many places in Europe, the Himalayas and Peru where you can hire help or porters to carry or transport your packs, such as sections of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Stuff happens

Every hiker has stories of mishaps on the trail. Alcorn joined the Sierra Club in the mid-1980s after a divorce, going on 8- to 10-mile treks on weekends. After meeting her second husband, she determined to take her first major hike — up Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States.

When she tried on her heavy pack for the first time, she groaned, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to carry this for how long to what elevation?” Fate intervened to lighten her load, but not in any way she would have chosen. On their first night out, a bear nosed through their packs, even though they had hung them up, and snatched a chunk of their provisions.

“We had to debate whether we had enough left over to make the trip or not,” she recalled. “We did an inventory and decided we could still go for it. So we continued on, with two bite marks on the dry milk (the bear) didn’t seem to like.”

It took about eight days to get to the summit and back. “I would have crawled up that mountain if I had to,” she said.

But mishaps make for better stories to share around the campfire. And they pale in comparison to the triumphs and moments of amazement at the wonders of nature found along the trail.

“I love the peacefulness of it, the fresh air and finding out about new things, using curiosity to find out about plants and animals that live in any ecosystem I’m going through,” said Lorie Florence. The 64-year-old backpacker from Santa Rosa also is featured in the book, which surveys each woman for her experiences, challenges and recommendations.

On her first long hike with husband Mark “Snickers” Florence along one section of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, she learned the value of taking initiative. She deferred all major decisions, from food to gear, to him and walked at his fast and nonstop pace. “It was really his hike, and I was along for the ride,” she said. But by the time they reached the end of the trail she didn’t want it to end. The next year she helped in the planning, selected her own gear and made it her own hike.

Tips for women on the trail

Safety: Women have different comfort levels about traveling alone. If you’re uneasy, find a buddy or a group. Don’t rely on the advice of other hikers who may have different skill and strength levels than you. And let someone know when and where you are hiking.

Train: With age, it can take longer to increase strength and stamina. Prepare appropriately for the challenge level of the hike you plan to take. Start on flat trails and move up to hills and uneven terrain. If you want to backpack, practice hiking with a weighted pack.

Hiking poles: They can provide stability on the trail, particularly when crossing streams or coming down hills. Pushing off the ground also reduces the load on the lower body. Learn how to use them efficiently.

Hydrate: Carry adequate water and electrolytes.

Susan Alcorn: backpack45.com

Women often doubt their abilities. Florence recommends learning to trust yourself. If you’re new to hiking, she said, start easy and find a tribe, either a hiking partner or a hiking group to join. Borrow or rent equipment and find out what works best for you before you invest in expensive gear, she said.

You don’t have to fly or drive long distances to reach a worthy trail. Florence is a trail steward at Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, where she leads people on loops. She knows that after they become familiar with one trail or series of trails, they will be more likely to take on the next challenge.

She also is a part of a group that promotes a local camino — the Camino de Sonoma. The route starts at the mission in Sonoma and ends at the chapel at Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast. From end to end it is 75 miles and is broken up so it can be done in six sections, typically one-day walks of 12 to 14 miles. Check it out at caminodesonoma.com or on Facebook.

Section hiking

Many intrepid hikers routinely tackle trails in sections to make them more manageable. The popular Pacific Crest Trail is 2,650 miles long. But few people have the time or stamina to do the entire thing at once. Alcorn said it took her years to cover the entire length; she checked off portions during her vacation time when she was still working.

Another on the bucket list of many a backpacker is the Camino de Santiago, a series of ancient pilgrimage routes across Europe, all ending at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela on the northwest coast of Spain.

“We started the Camino de Santiago on 9/11,” Alcorn said, the date of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. nearly 20 years ago. “We were hiking on the most popular route, and we’ve gone back pretty much every year since then, doing other routes.”

Every distance backpacker has a holy grail hike. For Aksamit, a backpacking leader with the Sierra Club who teaches hiking classes at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, the ultimate high would be hiking the Himalayas, although she figures Everest, the highest peak in the world, is not in her cards.

Aksamit advises newbies to take a trail in sections. “Acknowledge your fears but don’t let them stop you.”

She recalled one journey that involved hiking the Chilkoot and ending with a 450-mile canoe trip on the Yukon River. She did that one in two trips.

Success in hiking is not just physical but mental, too.

“Hiking the Chilkoot Path was scary for me,” Aksamit admitted. “I wasn’t confident my feet would land where I wanted them to. But each time, I got over a hurdle that had been built up in my mind.“

Break down the trip to one day at a time and one step at a time, she said, doing what you need to do “at that moment, to put one foot in front of the other trying not to get consumed with all the things that could go wrong or are scary or bad.“

Lighter loads

People who may remember backpacking as laborious and laden with heavy gear can take heart. Gear has become better designed and significantly lighter over the years, making it much easier to carry, especially for women. Alcorn has chiseled hers down to about 20 to 25 pounds for backpacking and only 15 pounds for Camino trails.

Alcorn hopes to encourage and inspire women to keep going at whatever level or pace they can manage.

“Don’t feel like it’s something just for 20- or 30-year-olds. There is so much beauty out there and it’s good for your fitness and mental health to get away from all the chores and the negative stuff that might be going on.”

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