Hiking is a feast for the senses. There’s nothing quite like the experience of a spectacular sunrise in the bush, a spider hanging from a dew-clad web, the call of birdsong, or watching a kangaroo drinking from a bubbling stream.
There is also a host of benefits for mind, body and spirit, and if you’re retired or nearing retirement, it’s also a great way to make positive connections with others. Hiking boosts your health and wellbeing, it’s social, accessible to virtually everyone, and it’s a free activity.
All you need is basic fitness, comfortable shoes, and a love of the great outdoors.
Avid hikers, Philip Collins, 65, and wife Doone, 60, have been hiking together for decades. They’re part of the Sunshine Coast Hikers group. For novice hikers, Phillip suggests joining a hiking group as a great way to introduce yourself to the pastime.
“It’s very social and you’ll pick up lots of tips to make it a safe and enjoyable experience,” he says.
Doone says strapping on hiking boots and being at one with nature can be a deeply moving experience.
“In Japan they call being outdoors and immersing yourself in nature, Forest Bathing, it’s proven to change the chemistry of your brain,” she says.
There is also the reward for older Aussies of learning a new activity.
Michael Hoopmann, 63, from Queensland Bushwalkers Club, says trying new things like hiking can boost your self-confidence.
“Meeting the challenge of moving into an unfamiliar environment, if you are a novice, can really give you a sense of discovery and achievement,” he says.
Michael took up hiking years ago after his partner died.
“It broadens your mind, you get to share conversations and stories with people you wouldn’t normally know,” he says. “I met a bloke on one walk who was from Liverpool. He told me how he kicked around with the Beatles as a boy.”
Hiking is a low impact sport, so it’s perfect for older Australians.
As we age, we are more at risk of falls, and building strength and flexibility can serve us well. Getting outdoors and hiking is a great way to do that. If you feel that you’d like a little extra stability, hiking poles can help.
If you are a novice walker, Michael recommends early morning or later in the afternoon. “It’s always a good idea to avoid the heat of the day if possible, especially in summer,” he says.
And another piece of advice: “Get your gear ready the night before and tick everything off,” he says. “I once turned up at the start of a walk and had forgotten to bring my boots!”
Even for a short hike, it’s important to take plenty of water, so you stay well hydrated, a minimum of one litre for a small hike, or three for a longer one.
As for the gear you’ll need, Philip recommends quality walking shoes such as trail runners, or hiking boots, good woollen socks so you’ll be more comfortable, and snacks such as energy bars, fruit, and nuts.
Naturally, for longer hikes you’ll need more gear and food.
Philip says taking a little extra food and water gives more freedom.
“You might find a pretty spot to explore and with snacks on board, your tummy’s not screaming at you to cut it short,” he says.
Comfort is key. If you are heading bush for a long hike, Doone suggests a backpack with a frame so it sits comfortably.
“It allows more support and air flow, and wear lightweight loose and breathable clothing, and take a rain jacket,” she says.
Safety gear is also important for longer hikes.
A fully charged phone, first aid kit and a torch are a must. Some experts also recommend a Personal Locator Beacon.
When you’re walking through the Aussie bush, chances are you may end up with a hitchhiker or two.
The couple regularly checks each other while walking.
“We must look like a couple of monkeys going over each-others body’s looking for unwelcome little visitors,” Doone says.
Michael says there’s a running joke in his bushwalking club that he is a tick magnet.
“On any walk, if there’s a tick around, it will find me,” he says.
There are a few tricks of the trade to help. Ticks like dark-coloured clothing, so go for light colours and use a quality bug spray containing DEET or eucalyptus.
And, Michael says, don’t forget to spray on your socks and shoe eyelets.
If you don’t want to spray yourself, there are clothing products that have permethrin which repels ticks and leeches.
Snakes could also be encountered in the bush, although Michael says it’s unlikely you’ll see one as they’ll hear you and be long gone.
“But watch where you put your feet. If you see one, give it a wide berth and they’ll leave you alone,” says Michael, who has had the experience of being eyeball to eyeball with a large python when he peered over an embankment.
“It was curled around a tree just centimetres from my face,” he says.
Once you get the hang of it, you might feel ready for a solo walk. While that might be ok for well-trodden popular walks where you’ll encounter other hikers, if you’re going off the beaten track or on a longer hike, its best to walk with a buddy.
“If something goes wrong the other person can take charge,” Michael says.
“As a club we usually say you should have a minimum of four – so one person can stay with the injured person, while the other two get help.”
Hiker etiquette involves some basics. The first is giving way to people going uphill. Keeping loud noise to minimum is another.
“We go into the bush to enjoy the serenity and sounds of nature, not loud music,” Philip says.
You can hike at any age. On tracks and trails around South East Queensland you’ll find hikers in their 60s and 70s, and even 80s. One hiking group Philip and Doone joined years ago was started by an 80-year-old.
“He was the fastest in the group,” Doone says.
One of the oldest walkers in Michael’s group, is a young-at-heart 78-year-old.
“She is an absolute legend,” he says. “She goes to the gym, cycles, and did the Bibblemun track, a 1000 km hike in WA, last year.”
If you’d like to give it a go, try different groups. You’ll find one that feels like a good fit.
You’ll make new friendship connections, and if single, you may even meet a significant other along the way.
“We’ve had two marriages and one engagement in our group,” Philip says.
Age is no barrier to getting out and exploring the great outdoors.
A relaxed hike or two, and you may find you’ll be signing up for longer hikes, overnight adventures, or planning an adventurous trek overseas.
The great outdoors awaits.