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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Trail Tradition: When Hikers Shun Innovation

For generations of Americans who have hiked and camped outdoors, spring days in the city mean time to stop daydreaming about where to travel and start packing. Outdoor equipment advertisers are eager to attract consumers attention with latest in high-tech gear: The newest pack! The lightest sleeping bag! The most flavorful food! Yet one famous hiker chose to ignore the hype and stick with what he knew. Meet Earl Shaffer:

Shaffer used this slide as a part of his talk in the years after his AT hike.
Earl Shaffer Collection 1999.0189, Appalachian Trail Slides,
Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History

Shaffer was the first person to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail, back in 1948. His gear was unremarkable. He used an army surplus pack and wore surplus pants and a plaid shirt. It was the best rugged, inexpensive clothing available to ordinary people for outdoor sports. (Check this out if you want to learn more about Shaffer’s AT hike in 1948.)

When I came across Earl Shaffer’s papers at the NMAH Archives Center and artifacts in the NMAH Division of Culture and the Arts, what surprised me wasn’t that he had worn those clothes in 1948. What surprised is that fifty years later, when Shaffer hiked the Appalachian Trail again, he chose the same, old-school outfit.

Earl Shaffer donated his gear to the National Museum of American History after his last big hike.
Earl Shaffer Collection, 1999.0189, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History

In 1998, most hikers, long distance or not, had traded in external frame metal army surplus packs for internal frame backpacks. They wore clothing built for hiking, not for war—zip off pants perhaps. But not Earl Shaffer. His outfit was memorable for how it stood out from the crowd. “Here came this old fellow that warm, sticky day in well-worn, long-sleeved shirt of blue flannel, long-legged blue work pants, in jungle-style pith helmet with mosquito netting, carrying his minimalist gear in a backpack out of Saving Private Ryan, aiming to hike all the way to Maine.” (1)

So why did Shaffer stick with the old when there was so much good in the new? Shaffer wrote about his gear philosophy in a letter to an editor at Outside magazine just after his first big hike: “The Trail can be hiked in one trip only by sacrificing much of the present day highly touted equipment…. This doesn’t mean that all new things are rejected, but that the new improved versions of old reliables must be chosen.” Fifty years later, Shaffer was still practicing what he preached; he carried old reliable flannel, wool, and canvas instead of the latest innovations. 

Earl Shaffer to P.A. Parson, January 10, 1949, Earl Shaffer Papers, 1903-2002, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Maybe Shaffer was on to something—how many 79-year-olds do you know who’ve hiked 2,000 miles in one go?

What old hiking gear do you hold on to, even when you learn about high-tech innovations? What hiking clothes or equipment would you like to see preserved for future generations? 

Rachel Gross, Predoctoral Fellow
National Museum of American History

1. David Corriveau, “Shaffer Back on the Trail He Pioneered,” Valley News, Sept 17, 1998, Box 2, Folder 5, Earl Shaffer Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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