The older backpackers rewriting the travel rulebook

For Kristy Burns, her partner Annette Demel and close friend Lynn Edminston, hitting their 50s and 60s marked a beginning, not an end.

Around six years ago, the trio reached retirement age and sold their homes — first, heading out on the road in RVs, and then beginning several hiking odysseys across the US.

The group has since embarked on the 2,190-mile (3,524-kilometer) Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail — which connects the US border with Mexico and US border with Canada — and most recently, the mountainous Pacific Coast Trail, which they finished up around Thanksgiving 2021.

“We wanted to retire while we could still physically do stuff,” Burns tells CNN Travel. “So the first thing we did, as a retirement gift, is all three of us did the Colorado Trail — backpacked that 500-mile trail.”

Burns and Demel had long loved hiking, but in between their busy jobs, they’d never had time to embark on a long trek. Meanwhile, Edminston only got into backpacking when she was in her 50s. The Colorado Trail was a new experience for them all, but an incredible one. They were hooked, and wanted to get back out there as soon as they could.

“We decided to do these three long iconic trails in the United States,” says Burns.

“We really just decided to do the Appalachian Trail,” cuts in Demel, laughing. “I personally never thought we’re going to do all three of them.”

“You can’t hardly think of it because it’s overwhelming,” admits Burns. “In my heart, I always wanted to do it. But you don’t even know if your body can hold up.”

Hiking the three treks, known in the US as the “Triple Crown of Hiking,” came with some grueling challenges — from preserving water while walking through desert to keeping an eye out for grizzly bears — the trio persevered, and completed their dream. They say they had the best time along the way.

“Our goal is to motivate older people to get out and get outside,” says Burns. “Society kind of tells us that you retire and you’re kind of at the end of your life, you’re going the other way — where we’re kind of like — expand that belief and, get out and you could do amazing things.”

Finding fulfillment

While many might plan to travel when they retire, the stereotype suggests older travelers prefer to save up for opulent hotels and luxury cruises, rather than backpack.

But American couple Barbara and Matt Derebery, who are in their 50s, also eschew five-star suites in favor of hostels and tents.

Barbara, who is retired, and Matt, who works remotely, have been traveling on and off for the best part of six years. Their first stop was the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in Spain. Since then, they’ve explored destinations including Portugal, Switzerland and Croatia.

“You go from all these things in your normal life and the stress of work and this and that to ‘I’m getting on a plane to go walk with a backpack,'” says Barbara of their experience.

While many of the travelers they meet along the way are twenty-somethings, Barbara says she’s glad she’s backpacking the globe in her 50s.

“It’s a choice that we’re doing — it’s not out of necessity,” she tells CNN Travel. “So I think that’s what, for me, makes it better and sort of more fulfilling at an older age.”

Matt, however, says he wishes he’d traveled more as a younger person, and feels he’s making up for lost time now.

There are difficulties that come with this lifestyle, he points out, like the aches and pains that are inevitable and make sleeping wherever you can lay your head a little trickier.

While the couple say it’s easier to travel with more financial security than they had in their younger years, they also insist life on the road is cheaper than people might assume.

Their main piece of advice is to avoid delaying travel dreams if you can.

“With all of us, there comes a day when you can’t. And none of us ever know when that day is going to arrive,” says Matt.

“And so I would say get out and do it — do it as soon as you can. Don’t find excuses not to.”

Working remotely

In the era of remote working and widespread digital connectivity, older travelers are increasingly able to delay retirement, while still enjoying exploring the globe.

Writers Brent Hartinger and Michael Jensen, who left the US in 2016, work on their respective writing projects as they travel.

One of the many positives, they say, is seeing how their travel has led them to evolve and mature in unexpected ways.

Jensen, who’d always seen himself as introverted, says he just figured: “I’m in my 50s, I’m not going to be changing anytime soon.”

But Jensen says that living out of a backpack while exploring the world led him to realize he thrives off new experiences, and loves engaging with new people and different cultures.

And for both Hartinger and Jensen, traveling in their 50s comes hand in hand with a greater appreciation of living in the moment.

“You do start to have a bit more of a sense of the preciousness of life and that life is not infinite. At some point, you realize, ‘oh, more of my life is behind me than is ahead of me,'” says Jensen.

“I think that people over 50, who make this choice, are often doing it very consciously, because they know, it’s either now or never.”

Making connections

Hartinger and Jensen chart their adventures via their newsletter, while Kristy Burns, Annette Demel and Lynn Edminston share their hikes on their YouTube channel, where they dub themselves the “Wander Women.”

For all of the travelers, it’s a way to inspire others to follow in their footsteps, although Burns says she only established the channel to keep her mother in the loop about her trip, and was surprised when she realized others were watching.

It’s now become another way for the travelers to forge connections, she says. Burns, Demel and Edminston have had people who follow them on YouTube offer them a bed for the night, or give them lifts to and from the trail paths.

And they also know they’ve got people across the world drawing inspiration and cheering them on from afar.

“We have people that have written to us and say, ‘Hey, I’m out hiking. I haven’t hiked in years, but I’m out hiking,'” says Burns.

Making unexpected connections on the road is one of the joys of their adventures, say the trio. It’s changed their outlooks, and enhanced their lives.

“We always feel like when people retire, they kind of shrink their life — you don’t have your work relationships — our message is to expand it, to do more, to do different things, to meet new people,” says Burns.

Sometimes, says Demel, that can be uncomfortable — physically and mentally. She recalls nights spent in shelters while on the Appalachian Trail, lying shoulder to shoulder with total strangers.

But putting themselves out of their comfort zones is key, the group say.

“It’s part of the fun of all of it,” says Edminston.

“Connecting with people and experiencing the people out there has given us hope in humanity, really. I mean, it’s been a positive, wonderful, upbeat experience for us, in a not so positive world,” says Burns.

Burns, Edminston and Demel also suggest, like Jensen, that traveling as a slightly older person can lead to unexpected personal discoveries.

It’s a chance, says Burns, to “reinvent” oneself.

“It’s amazing. I would have never thought I would be doing this in my 60s at all,” agrees Edminston.

In the future, the Wander Women want to head overseas and embark on famous hikes across the globe. Covid has so far put a stop to those plans, but in the meantime, Burns, Edminston and Demel are thankful to be able to get outside in nature in the US.

Their immediate plan is to head south for the winter in their RVs. Then they’ll plan the next trip.

“We’ll regroup, and make our plans and get our maps out, look at different things,” says Demel.

“There’ll be something amazing. We’re going to do something amazing. We just don’t know what’s going to be first,” says Burns.

The-CNN-Wire
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