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
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.