A fitter generation climbs and pedals into adventurous retirement

Kate Patterson carried a 45-pound pack on a three-week hiking trip last year in Montana's Beartooth Mountains. Patterson, 56, is retired from an editing job at USA Today. (Kate Patterson)

A generation ago, Americans’ idea of retirement travel might have involved a Caribbean cruise, a casino vacation or a European shopping trip. It would not have typically included trekking in the Himalayas, clearing invasive weeds on a volcanic island, canoeing through crocodile-infested waters in Nepal or, at the extreme end, selling the house to fund years of travel.

But little is typical among today’s retirees, who increasingly are leaping into more adventurous activities than their parents ever dreamed of.

Partly this is because they can — many older Americans are fitter and more active than their parents were and more creative about how they spend their time and money. And as baby boomers start to reach retirement age, many are eager to reconnect with the adventure and service ethos of their youth.

Washington resident Kate Patterson, 56, joined people half her age on a grueling, three-week off-trail hike last year through Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. The trip involved carrying a 45-pound pack, leaping between boulders and slithering down slick scree, and she suffered a deep gouge in her leg along the way.

“I figured if I’m going to do this kind of wilderness adventure, then I’ve got to do it now or I’m not going to do it,” said Patterson, who retired last year as managing editor for visual storytelling at USA Today. “I really want to be able to sit on my porch and rock without saying, ‘I wish I’d done that.’”

So, she is front-loading the adventure. Last year, she volunteered to help the Limahuli Garden and Preserve on the Hawaiian island of Kauai weed invasive plants and replace them with endangered ones, and this year she plans to help rehabilitate a salmon habitat in Oregon.

“It’s like a vacation with a cause — you get a real insider’s perspective,” she said. “You get to go where other people don’t get to go.”

The number of men over 50 traveling overseas from the United States rose 70 percent from 1993 to 2012, and the number of women over 50 rose 141 percent, according to the Commerce Department’s Survey of International Air Travelers. The biggest increases were among those 65 or older.

Over the same period, a cottage industry has burgeoned around adventurous travel for older people. Overseas Adventure Travel, a Massachusetts-based company designed for people 50 and older, served 40,000 clients last year, up from 29,000 in 2004 and 1,011 in 1994. At HomeLink USA, a house-swapping organization, 65 percent of clients are retirees and empty nesters, up from around 50 percent in the 1980s.

The difference reflects the values of a generation that was the first to travel extensively in its youth and has no qualms about spending money on immediate pleasures rather than saving for hard times.

“In earlier generations, it would be incredibly unusual,” said Elinor Ginzler, director at the center for supportive services at the Rockville, Md.-based Jewish Council on the Aging. “A couple of generations ago, you didn’t move away from your family and raise your own family. You stayed. Those were your roots.”

Baby boomers were unfettered by the sorts of restraints that held back earlier generations, Ginzler said. “As college folks, they wandered around Europe for two years after they graduated. I can see a version of that now, 40 years later — ‘I’ve got no strings, and I’ve got nothing holding me down.’ ”

In their youth, baby boomers also embraced the philosophy of making the planet a better place.

Glenn and Ronda Olson of Washington state, both 63, were in their early 20s when they heard President John Kennedy tout the then-new Peace Corps, but it took them four decades, after raising their family, to sign up.

“There was something about his promoting the Peace Corps that stayed with me forever,” Glenn Olson said in a Skype interview from Cimislia, Moldova, where he is a consultant in a regional development center and she is a health education teacher.

Part of the appeal, he said, was getting to live, eat and work with Moldovans — an urge his parents would likely not have understood.

“My father had served in World War II, so he’d had his adventure,” he said. “I think for my parents, their mind was set on getting the kids’ food on the table.”

Linda Schwartz, 58, a semiretired lobbyist in Washington, said her travel plans as she ages are far different from her parents’ trips to Paris and London, where her mother liked to shop.

“I would say I’m in better shape than they were. It just seemed like they looked a lot older than I feel at their age,” said Schwartz, who takes two or three major trips a year. They have included travel in India and Bhutan, a hiking trip to Machu Picchu in Peru and a charity bike ride in Israel that clocked 75 miles a day.

Such adventurous impulses are also familiar to some born before the boomers. Gretchen Schafft, 75, and her husband, Harry, 81, of Silver Spring, Md., have swapped their house every year for the past five years with homeowners from around the United States and other countries, finding small towns where they can immerse themselves for several weeks in the local culture.

In Saffron Walden, a town near Cambridge, England, they worked in a municipal garden and served soup to older people. In Ireland, their local butcher invited them to a private home to listen to live music.

“It’s a different feeling when you’re really integrating into the community,” Schafft said. “That kind of experience is more typical when you’re doing a home exchange than when you’re coming by bus and have a list of things you must see because that’s what the guidebook says.”

The trend reflects an evolving cultural understanding of what it means to grow old, said Larry Minnix, president and chief executive of LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit aging-services providers. “Fifty years ago you had rest homes; 100 years ago you had homes for old women and widows of the Civil War,” he said. Now, even people in retirement communities “are not just going on the leaf tour and playing bingo. What people are looking for are choices, flexibility.”

Today’s older travelers want “more cultural, hands-on experiences — eating at people’s houses, going to people’s vineyards,” said Denise Gibson, a travel agent for AAA in Tyson’s Corner, Va.

Whereas earlier generations might have taken a seven-day cruise to Alaska, now they might go on safari, or in the case of some military veterans, return to the battle scene, Gibson said. “People want to go back to Vietnam and visit and see how that has changed and what’s new.”

Travel shows on television have encouraged the thirst for adventure. “They’re seeing these things and saying, ‘I can do this,’ ” Gibson said.

Travel is also possible now in areas that weren’t accessible 30 years ago: the Siberian railroad from Vladivostok to Moscow, a river cruise in China. Technology helps travelers stay connected to family back home. The Olsons Skype with their children and have had friends visit from the United States.

Renting a home abroad can be cheaper than staying in hotels, but it still costs money. Leasing, swapping, or selling one’s home can help subsidize a trip, and some extended travelers control costs by alternating expensive destinations such as Norway with cheaper ones such as Ecuador.

Lynne Martin, 73, and her husband, Tim, 68, are an extreme version of this. Three years ago, the grandparents of four sold their house in Paso Robles, Calif., and embarked on an extended journey. They have lived in nine countries so far, staying at least a month in each, with the goal of finding more authentic experiences than their parents’ cohort sought out.

“I think we’re really going to keep doing this until the wheels fall off,” said Martin, who chronicles their travels on a blog and next month will publish a book about their adventures. “We look better and feel better than we did when we started. As long as the health holds out.” If a serious health problem were to arise, she said, they would probably return to the United States. “But we really don’t worry about that too much.”

Is eternal travel ultimately satisfying? “I just find it hard to believe that after a year or two of that, that most people wouldn’t be yearning to put down roots,” said Marc Freedman, the founder and chief executive of Encore.org, which supports people in second or third careers. He recalled a group who had planned to spend their retirement in RVs. After a while, he said, “they found it unfulfilling and then hooked up with Habitat [for Humanity] and built homes.”