Backpacking and Hiking

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"I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements" (Sattelmeyer, p. 99). Henry David Thoreau's words, first spoken in 1851, still capture for many Americans the meaning and significance of walking into one world and, temporarily at least, leaving behind another. Although Thoreau's woods of New England may have largely succumbed to the forces of industrialization and economic expansion, there still exist today many natural areas where hikers and backpackers continue to restore their health and spirits.

By many accounts, the backpacker of today would have difficulty recognizing his or her counterpart of a hundred, or even fifty, years ago. In the early twentieth century, America was experiencing a physical and social transformation characterized by increased urbanization, industrialization, and mechanization that caused many people to seek respite from the ills of urban life by getting back to nature. From these circumstances emerged a popular recreation movement, known as "woodcraft," that "celebrated a working knowledge of nature" and was "preoccupied with an independent masculine ideal rooted in the frontier" (Turner, p. 464). The woodsman possessed an intimate knowledge of his surroundings and was capable of living off the land by utilizing the resources at hand. Hunting, building fires, identifying edible plants, and constructing shelter were some of the outdoor skills a woodsman needed in order to tame the wildness of nature and re-create the comforts of home. Many books were published with titles such as The Way of the Woods and Camping and Woodcraft extolling the rewards and virtues of the self-sufficient woodsman. The Boy Scouts of America also formally adopted this utilitarian wilderness ethic early in the twentieth century.

While the woodsman movement was a direct reaction against the encroaching mechanization of society, this same industrial force provided a network of new railways and highways for the average citizen to access public lands. Cars permitted people to drive to rivers, mountains, and open spaces for the purposes of camping, fishing, and hiking. In a short period of time, the nation's public lands became a legitimate and significant tourist destination for both individuals and families.

As more and more people demanded automobile access to the nation's public lands and national parks, the government responded by building an extensive network of roads that cut ever deeper into the wilderness. In order to protect some of the remaining untouched lands, several outspoken environmental visionaries, including Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall, ushered in a new wilderness ethic that celebrated the aesthetic and spiritual qualities of nature. These appeals were specifically directed at mobilizing the increasing ranks of hikers and backpackers who used public lands for recreation. The growing number of wilderness advocates, such as the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Club, believed in protecting and preserving some of the remaining public land in its pristine state and were largely responsible for securing administrative support for wilderness protection. The most significant legislative document to come out of this movement was the Wilderness Act in 1964. In it, wilderness is defined as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

By setting aside vast tracts of land that would forever remain unspoiled by man, Congress essentially provided hikers and backpackers with their own exclusive province. As the number of hikers and backpackers visiting the nation's wilderness and backcountry areas increased during the 1970s and 1980s, concerns regarding the impact these numbers would have on the land and its inhabitants influenced yet another wilderness ethic. The Leave No Trace (LNT) mantra of "take only pictures, leave only footprints" was uniformly adopted by many organizations and companies, including Outward Bound, the North Face, and, recently, the Boy Scouts of America. The hiker and backpacker in America's wilderness was now not only a visitor who did not remain, but also one who traveled lightly on the land, both literally and figuratively.

One of the unexpected consequences of the LNT movement was the marketing of outdoor clothing and equipment that was technologically advanced, more efficient, and, most important, lighter. Suddenly compact gas stoves replaced campfires, nylon tents fitted with aluminum poles replaced lean-tos, and a working knowledge of how to operate these devices replaced a working knowledge of the land. Two of the more controversial technological gadgets that have altered the once self-sufficient posture of most backpackers and hikers are the use of mobile phones and global positioning system (GPS) devices in the backcountry. Proponents of these technologies appreciate the ease with which the phone can keep them in touch with the outside world whenever necessary (especially if lost or injured), as well as the GPS's accuracy in locating one's exact position in the woods. Opponents argue that these devices provide a false sense of security that encourages reliance on technology at the expense of navigational skills and common sense.

This trend in applying the latest technologies to the equipment and tools of backpacking and hiking has created a multibillion-dollar market that leads the outdoor sporting goods industry in overall sales (May). Consumerism, though not often associated with an image of the lone backpacker walking off into the wilderness, has become an essential element in today's minimal-impact hiking and backpacking ethic.

The commercialization of hiking and backpacking encourages and permits increasing numbers of people to walk comfortably and safely in the wilderness and back-country areas of America's public lands. Fortunately, the United States has nearly 200,000 miles of existing trails on public land for people of all abilities to explore. These range from short, interpretive trails posted with information about the local flora and fauna to National Scenic Trails like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail that extend continuously for thousands of miles, providing hikers and backpackers seemingly endless opportunities to get back to nature.

See also: Camping, National Parks, Orienteering, Park Movements, State Parks


May, Mike. "The Outdoors: America's Playground." Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association Press Release. Available from

Meier, Joel F. Backpacking. 2d edition. Champaign, Ill: Sagamore Publishing, 1993.

Sattelmeyer, Robert, ed. The Natural History Essays. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith, 1980.

Turner, James M. "From Woodcraft to 'Leave No Trace': Wilderness, Consumerism, and Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America." Environmental History 7, no. 3 (2002): 462–484.

John R. Persing