Stream in Rocky Mountain National Park at Sunset.

A Middle-Aged Flatlander Trains for Bear Country

Okay, if I’m being honest, I’m not technically a flat-lander, as my town sits at 358 feet above sea level. Plus we live on a hill at roughly 600 feet. And if I’m being super honest, I’m not middle-aged anymore, unless my life expectancy is somewhere in the vicinity of 125 years, which is a pretty daunting thought. But putting those pesky details to the side, it’s been challenging to figure out a way to get in shape for our upcoming backpacking trip to the Colorado Rockies.

It has been close to thirty years since my last backpacking trip. Luckily I’ve maintained a pretty active lifestyle since then, with a lot of running, bicycling, Nordic skiing, and the occasional day hike. So the good news is that I’m in fairly decent aerobic shape. But the not so good news is that it’s been a very long time since I’ve had a heavy pack on my back. And an even longer time since I’ve been up above 8000’ feet.

BearVault Adventure Ambassador Barry Auskern with a BV475 in front of a tent.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine organized a group hike up Mount Kearsarge (3268’), in southern New Hampshire. I drove up to New Hampshire the night before to stay at a campground and reacquaint myself with sleeping on the ground in my bag. The good news was that the campground itself, up until about 9:00 pm or so, was very peaceful and quiet. The bad news was that around 9:00 or so someone cranked up the music – some very aggressive hybrid of rap and country music – and yes, it took a very long time for the music to die down and for me to finally fall asleep. The next day we drove to the trailhead, met up with our other friends, and had a great hike to the top of the mountain where we were graced with 360° views of the countryside. 

But by the end of the day, after I had driven home, my legs and back were definitely sore from the day’s exertions. And much to my chagrin, my daypack – which I thought was pretty well stuffed with food, water and extra clothing – weighed only 12 pounds!

I have to say, when I did the math and double-checked my numbers and realized that this was how it felt to hike with a 12-pound pack, that was kind of depressing. And then to contemplate hiking with a heavier load at more than a mile above sea level only made this summer’s trip appear that much more intimidating.

BearVault Adventure Ambassadors Barry and Dick backpacking in New Hampshire with a BV500

But . . . . I eventually came to the realization that I had two choices. Choice A: I could easily allow myself to obsess over (and freak out about) the fact that there’s very little I can do at sea level to replicate the conditions at 8000’ of elevation. But that wouldn’t solve anything, and would only make me feel more anxious about the upcoming trip. So I went with Choice B instead, which was to acknowledge that nothing that I do here will perfectly replicate the conditions we will be hiking in and to simply let go of that fantasy. 

I told myself to just focus on what I can do: continue to run and bicycle; practice my cooking on my old camp stove; and get in as much hiking as possible with a pack just to get acclimated to the added weight. 

As a perfectionist, it is hard for me to recognize that this plan won’t be perfect, but as a realist, I can acknowledge that at least I am doing something. And to any of you other flatlanders out there trying to get in shape for your summer adventures in the mountains, just remember that if we get tired while hiking, all we have to do is to stop, take a very deep breath, and look around at the mountain scenery. And what could be better than that? 

BearVault Adventure Ambassador Barry at the top of some mountains in New Hampshire.

This author is one of BearVault’s 2023 Adventure Ambassadors.

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