Thru-Hiker Flash History: The Evolution of Gear on the AT

In 1948, when Earl Shaf­fer set out on what would become the first thru-hike of the Appalachi­an Trail, he tried to keep the weight in his pack low. Long-dis­tance hik­ing was a new con­cept and there was no mar­ket for spe­cial­ty back­packs or light­weight sleep­ing bags. Shaf­fer, who had just got­ten out of the army, packed his sup­plies in a mil­i­tary ruck­sack and hit the trail in his old boots. Instead of a stan­dard rain jack­et, he packed a pon­cho, which dou­bled as a ground cloth at night and as a shel­ter in bad weath­er. When he fin­ished the Trail, he advised future hik­ers to eschew sneak­ers and air mat­tress­es and to pack both a knife and a saw (for cut­ting fire­wood on rainy evenings). If a thru-hik­er from today met Shaf­fer on the Trail, they would scoff at his low-tech gear and prob­a­bly assume his hike was doomed.

The Evolution of Gear on the AT

The Evo­lu­tion of Gear
In the six­ty-five years since Shaffer’s hike, the con­tents of a thru-hiker’s back­pack have changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Some of the biggest changes began in the late 1970s with the advent of the Therm-a-Rest. Instead of fash­ion­ing a bed out of pine bows or sleep­ing on the ground, hik­ers could car­ry an actu­al mat­tress. Around the same time, the GORE Com­pa­ny sub­mit­ted a patent for the water­proof lam­i­nate, bet­ter known as GORE-TEX. Light­weight and water­proof, the new iter­a­tion of rain jack­ets replaced the need for a pon­cho. Back­packs, once awk­ward and heavy, were redesigned with the frame on the inside. Boot man­u­fac­tures dis­cov­ered new tech­niques that allowed the sole to flex with each step, instead of remain­ing rigid.

The choic­es for gear con­tin­ue to evolve. Rather than deal­ing with the weight and heat of hik­ing boots, many thru-hik­ers now opt for high-tech trail run­ners. Hap­pi­ly, air mat­tress­es are have become both small­er (deflat­ed) and larg­er (inflat­ed). At shel­ters, stoves are a par­tic­u­lar­ly divi­sive top­ic. Invari­ably, the debate cen­ters around which is bet­ter, the one that boils in less than a minute, or the one that weights half an ounce? 

Some peo­ple get caught up in gear and mak­ing sure they have the best of every­thing. But if the evo­lu­tion of a thru-hiker’s pack demon­strates any­thing, it’s that gear is not piv­otal to the suc­cess of a thru-hike. Sure, it makes life a lot eas­i­er some­times, which makes it more fun to stay on the Trail. But if Earl Shaf­fer could pio­neer the AT with old army boots and Grand­ma Gate­wood, the first female thru-hik­er, could com­plete the trek in Keds, car­ry­ing her belong­ings on a bag strung across her shoul­ders, maybe it doesn’t mat­ter that your cook pot isn’t the light­est and your tent leaks a lit­tle in the rain.