A look back through the history of the visionary Appalachian Trail — which celebrated its 75th anniversary Aug. 14 — shows that the trail and the people who walked it were once very different than they are today. One of the most notable contrasts between then and now can be found when comparing the equipment used by some of the trail’s first hikers and the equipment used by today’s modern backpackers.
Shaffer’s primitive backpacking equipment suggestions, according to a list printed on the Earl Shaffer Foundation’s website, included a small axe, two knives, a pith hat, two kettles, a fry pan and a snake-bite kit “just in case.” Shaffer also wore plenty of cotton and flannel.
Although Shaffer will be revered forever by other Appalachian Trail enthusiasts, in an era when some hikers cut their toothbrushes in half to save weight, his packing list would be enough to make most modern-day, weight-pinching backpackers cringe.
The standard today is usually synthetic footwear, not leather boots, and light nylon fabric for clothing and gear, rather than the heavy canvas and cotton used in the past, said Doug Wright, the store manager at Nantahala Outdoor Center, a popular trail outpost on the Appalachian route.
Using modern technology someone’s Appalachian Trail gear, not including food, can weigh around 10 pounds, compared with the 20 pounds Shaffer recommended on his packing list. And, the lighter gear will most likely serve a hiker better than the old stuff.
On his own hiking trip on the AT, Wright said, his pack started out at about 45 pounds, but he quickly shed it down to 35.
But not only is the gear lighter today, so is the food. More frequent re-supply points allow hikers to ship themselves more food than their path-pounding predecessors. While Shaffer was knocking on farmhouse doors for a good dinner to eat on his way to Maine, Wright — who hiked the trail at the age of 25 in 2006 — had his mother in Atlanta cutting strips of dehydrated chicken to send to him by post along the way.
And usually you don’t have to sacrifice quality. Backpackers can enjoy everything from dehydrated curry soup to pasta primavera, all cooked up over a lightweight alcohol stove and eaten with a titanium spork (a combination spoon and fork utensil).
Wright estimated his store receives by mail about 400 packages between January and May destined for thru-hikers. By the time hikers reach his store outpost at mile 134 of the 2,180-mile trail, they are usually ready to embrace any lightweight alternatives they haven’t thought of yet, he said.
But, he said some of the packages sent to travelers are a cause for concern.
“We see it all,” Wright said. “We see some very efficiently packed boxes with the bare minimum. Then we see some that weigh 40 pounds, and the staff here raise their eyebrows and say ‘Wow, all that has to go in a pack.’”
The AT itself has also undergone many changes since the project began to be pieced together in 1922 from a conglomeration of historic hunting routes, military training paths and Native American trails. When the trail was fully connected 15 years later, the corridor was made up of more than 3,000 slivers of private land, said Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a federal non-profit that supports Appalachian Trail volunteers.
Since 1937, King said the federal government undertook one of the most complicated projects in its history: to bring all that patchwork of land under federal control. Now, only six miles remain in private hands, King said. The 1968 National Trails System Act played a large part in protecting the Appalachian Trail and other national scenic trails.
But, for the consolidation to happen, King said more than 95 percent of the original trail from 1937 has been moved. Only a few spots of the first contiguous path remain. Whereas the old route passed under power lines and made use of farming roads and other byways, the modern route follows scenic ridgelines and natural landmarks.
One of the bigger changes was moving the southern terminus in Georgia from Mt. Oglethorpe to Springer Mountain after nearby development compromised the natural scenery surrounding the first ending point.
The route had undergone such a transformation that when Shaffer embarked on his subsequent trans-trail trips in 1965 and 1998 (at the age of 79) he grumbled about the changes, King said.
“When [Shaffer] did it again in 1998, he wasn’t too happy,” King said. “He had to do a lot more climbing — a lot of the trail moved into the woods and on top of scenic ridges. But, he was also 50 years older.”
Another thing the Shaffer probably did not experience on his maiden walk was the plethora of community celebrations planned along the trail route to welcome the rush of thru-hikers on their journey north during the spring — the typical hike starts in Georgia in early spring and ends before winter in Maine.
Don O’Neal, trail maintenance coordinator for the Nantahala Hiking Club, touted the support system that has built up around the trail to make the experience enjoyable, such as the town of Franklin’s festival in April, various guidebooks directing hikers toward appropriate medical care and hotels and the increasing number of fellow hikers that build camaraderie to help carry more people from start to finish. Still, only about a quarter of dedicated thru-hikers actually make it the whole way.
The Conservancy, which tracks the number of hikers using surveys, reports that an estimated 2 million to 3 million people hike a section of the Appalachian Trail each year.
But, the growing popularity of the trail has also brought added wear and tear. Andrew Downs, the Conservancy’s trail resource manager for Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, said one of the biggest, most important tasks today is coordinating the 6,000 or so localized volunteers spread out along the trail working on maintenance, upkeep and other projects.
The goal of those volunteers is to help the trail withstand erosion and degradation. The modern Appalachian Trial is by far an improvement over its prototype, in terms of both engineering and location, Downs said.
“It’s a protected trial system now,” Downs said. “In 1940, you didn’t know if the trail would even be there in 100 years.”