How Aging Complicates the Wilderness Experience

Through my thirties and early forties I was feeling and looking pretty damned good. People would say that I looked 10 years younger. Then this year people suddenly stopped being surprised that I was 43. I didn’t just slide a few years; I instantly started looking my actual age. I gained a decade all at once.

Some callous schlub on the beach after a particularly grueling surf session even ventured to say, “It’s great you can still do that.” That comment haunts me. I’ll always remember this year as the first time I heard those words. Also the first year I couldn’t do everything better-faster-stronger than the year before—or make any sense of a McDonalds menu.

The year I turned 30 I paddled for 80 days down the British Columbia coast. My friend and I didn’t have a cell phone or a sat phone or an emergency beacon. Our first aid kit contained little more than duct tape and Band-Aids. We were young and just assumed that we’d be fine. And we were.

Blithe gallivanting into the world’s remotest reaches was the ultimate expression of youthful invincibility, vitality and fearless flouting of mortality.

We slept on the ground without an ache in the world. On rest days we’d rise and greet the day after a blissful 10 or 11 hours flaked out on primitive foam pads the same thickness and consistency as the vintage, gold foil-wrapped, sawdusty PowerBars we happily munched as part of our inconsequentially horrible diet.

Nowadays when I crash in a tent, I call it “sleeping” in quotation marks. It’s more like a nightlong meditation on which position offers the most relief from competing discomforts. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “I ache in the places that I used to play.” In my case, most of those places are in the wilderness.

Okay, so I know “going on 44” isn’t actually old. But the aches and pains I have already make me fear for what’s to come. At this rate, what will my camping future hold?

So many people I know have completely given up sleeping on the ground, or sitting in kayaks, because of sore hips, backs and shoulders. Already, health issues are greatly complicating the carefree wilderness experience.

That same friend I paddled the coast with turned 50 last year and had a small heart attack. For Christmas he got a brand new heart valve and a refurbished aorta. We used to talk about reuniting for another expedition, maybe on the coast of Chile. If we ever do, our emergency preparedness will look a lot different.

My great fear now that I have kids is that by the time I have the freedom to do long expeditions again, I’ll be too old. In the interim I have zealously instituted wilderness camping as a family tradition. My wife’s one condition was that I provision her with…

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