Backpacking is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the world today, with more than 4,000 people attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trails each year. Outdoor recreationalists first began to sample the sport (a combination of hiking and backcountry camping) in the late 19th century—largely without any of the gear that’s commonly recommended today.
Prior to the invention of the tent or the sleeping bag, backcountry campers would sleep under the open sky or in hasty shelters made with just a blanket or two, which also functioned as the first backpacks. Hikers would roll up their gear in a bedroll and carry the bundle over their shoulders. A typical gear list included a rubber blanket to double as a ground cloth, a spare shirt, a hatchet, a long-handled frying pan, a coffee pot, a towel, soap, a comb, a shotgun, and a fishing tackle.
The equipment and gear were simple as was the clothing. Most backpackers wore the clothes they wore at home on a Sunday afternoon. Hiking boots hadn’t made their way into mainstream backpacking culture, and neckties were the norm.
Food, however, was the one aspect of backpacking that remained consistent across decades. People ate dried foods, oatmeal, and GORP– “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts” – just as they do today.
In the 1920s and 1930s, backpacking gained popularity as people sought solitude and peace in the outdoors following World War I. With this came significant improvements in gear. Tents were widely used – though they weren’t always structurally sound – frequently made with white canvas and held together by wooden poles chopped on site. Sleeping bags were also introduced, but they were only available to the wealthy. Otherwise, people slept on balsam bough beds and used army blankets pinned together by safety pins to stay warm.
Though some still used the bedroll technique to carry their gear, most serious hikers began using backpacks. These were rectangular canvas bags or inherited Army rucksacks from World War I. Backpacker’s clothing also changed slightly – shorts made a hesitant entrance and hiking boots were introduced – though sneakers were still the norm.
The new century also brought greater participation among women in backpacking. Having won suffrage, women turned to the outdoors to express their new freedom.
In the 1950s and 1960s, backpacking looked relatively the same as it did post-World War II. The only difference was that Army-Navy surplus clothing augmented current backpacking styles. It wasn’t until the 1970s that backpacking began to look the way it does today. The aluminum frame pack replaced old backpacks, long pants were discarded in favor of shorts, leather hiking boots became standard, and brightly colored nylon was the material of choice for tents, sleeping bags, and clothing.
With these new looks came new technology as well. Gear was made with synthetic fibers and the portability of items like stoves was taken into consideration. More shelters were built along popular trails and a new generation of backpackers embraced environmental ethics and Leave No Trace principles.
Backpacking is an activity that has evolved over time yet continues to be one of the most popular outdoor pastimes today.