Developing Senior Hiking Programs

Developing Senior Hiking Programs

3 min read

Huffing and Puffing With A Smile

“I gained a profound respect for the wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn't know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”
--Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods”

One of the benefits of living in the Pacific Northwest is access to a wide variety of scenic outdoor activities. From Vancouver, Wash., the Pacific Ocean, Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens are all reachable by car in two hours or less.

The region’s natural beauty is widely recognized. In 2018, The Urban Outdoor Access Analysis—conducted by the Trust for Public Land in partnership with REI—named Vancouver one of the top 50 cities in the United States to #OptOutside.

A Robust Program

Seniors might not be the first demographic that springs to mind when envisioning outdoor enthusiasts, but the city’s parks and recreation department aims to change that. The 50+ Forever Young Hikers program takes groups of up to 24 people on trips at least once a week, year-round. Participants hike through a variety of landscapes in Washington and Oregon, including dense forest trails, historic urban neighborhoods, and mountain slopes. The program offers hikes of various difficulties—from easy three- to five-mile ones with little to no elevation gain to eight-mile treks with steady climbing.

The program has over a dozen dedicated volunteers who plan and lead hikes alongside staff members, and who drive participants to the trailhead. Volunteers scout the trail route in advance so every road closure, potential hazard, and lookout point is known. This also provides staff members with a good idea of the elevation gain.

Mary Jo Hoffman has been a volunteer guide for the past seven years. “A friend of mine participated in the program and suggested that I join and lead hikes,” she says.

Hoffman stuck with it for the socializing and incredible outdoor experiences, saying “People make lifelong friends going on these hikes.”

Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies

Hiking is a continuous physical activity that demands focus. In today’s high-tech world, taking a few hours away from screens on a regular basis helps reduce stress and anxiety. And a typical hiking pace does not inhibit conversation with fellow hikers, making it equal parts physical and social. Additionally, the mental-health benefits of being outdoors with a peer group are too numerous to count. Since seniors risk becoming isolated, and those who don’t retain social bonds have more negative health outcomes than their peers who seek regular social contact, the benefits appear to be unlimited.

Kelly Lund is a Recreation Specialist with the city’s 50 and Better Program and is in charge of 50+ Forever Young Hikers. “I love it when I see our lobby full of chatter and healthy bodies,” she says.

It’s common knowledge that people have difficulty sticking to an exercise regimen if they don’t enjoy it. A study on “Affective responses in mountain hiking,” published in the journal PLOS One, found that participants who went hiking showed “significantly greater positive effects” in mood when compared to those who exercised on a treadmill indoors. This information is especially compelling since the hiking noted in the study, done on a popular mountain trail with steady climbing, was more physically rigorous than the treadmill workouts.

Duke Silva is a lifelong hiker and has been a participant and volunteer guide for more than a decade. He agrees that community is a big part of what makes the program unique, but that hiking has an added benefit for seniors. “It’s really the best all-around exercise,” he explains.

The Gateway To Other Activities

Because the hikes range from a brisk walk on a flat surface to more strenuous mountain climbing, there is an entry point to the hobby for most levels of ability and experience. Hiking engages the entire body in activity, especially the cardiovascular system, muscles, and bones. It also improves balance, coordination, and dexterity. These factors create an ideal physical exercise for seniors.

Lund sees the program as a great entry point into other activities through parks and recreation. Agile hikers go on to participate in group fitness classes that they may not have felt up to before their hiking journey. Others will use the program to prepare for a larger goal, or to cross an item off their bucket list.

“We had a woman who used our program to prepare to hike the Appalachian Trail,” Lund recalls.

Staff members ensure participants are prepared by mandating an in-person orientation that must be completed before being allowed to register for their first hike. During orientation, trained volunteers evaluate seniors on their physical and mental readiness while leading an easy four-mile hike.

Since volunteers and staff members maintain positive relationships with the United States Forest Service and other state and national agencies, each hike is also a lesson in local ecology, history, and species identification.

The program has been a great success, with hikes often filling up immediately after registration opens!