How Backpacking Gear Has Changed Through the Decades

The evolution of the pack list….

If you’re planning on hitting the trail this year, you’re most likely fretting and constantly editing your pack list.  You put things in, you take things out.  You look at them and turn them all about.

Trying to get your base weight as low as possible is certainly one ingredient for a successful hike. You can hike longer, put less stress on your body, and hopefully lessen your chance of injury. But have you ever thought of what the successful hikers of yesteryear had in their pack? I’ve taken a look back into the past and gathered old pack lists from books and my hiking friends who hiked 10, 20, or 30-plus years ago.

Let’s take a look into their packs.


1940s-1950s: The Old Timers

earl

Earl Shaffer – 1948

When Earl Shaffer walked up Mt. Oglethorpe back in 1948, beginning what would become know as “The Long Cruise” and first thru-hike, he was carrying the following gear in his Mountain Troop ruck sack:

Air Corps survival tent
Marine Corps poncho
A “rainhat” |
“Paper mill” blanket
Match safe
Compass
Sheath knife
Small handaxe
Sewing kit
Snakebite kit
Mountain Troop cook kit, plus food for about a week
His clothing consisted of:

T-shirts
Navy turtleneck
Mountain Cloth pants
Wool-cotton socks
Birdshooter boots.

The tent was the only item that he removed during his hike.

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood – 1955

grandma-gatewood

Grandma Gatewood may be considered one of the first lightweight backpackers.  Her gear list was spartan to put it mildly.  First of all, she didn’t have a backpack.  Her main pack was a denim bag that she had sewn herself, carried over her shoulder.  Inside was a cup, blanket, raincoat, and extra clothes.  For a shelter, she used a shower curtain. Her gear weighed in at about 12 lbs and her signature Keds sneakers were her trademark in a world where most hikers still used heavy hiking boots.

Gene Espy – 1951

gene

Gene Epsy was the second person to thru-hike, and he carried something unique. Instead of a flashlight, he used a miner’s carbide lamp which uses a chemical reaction of calcium carbide pellets and water.

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Gene’s pack weighed in at around 50 lbs and included the following items:

Steel frame pack
Lamb’s wool used as comfort under the heavy pack straps
Tent (without a floor) and tent posts
Down sleeping bag
Watch; to know his time between shelters
Guide books
Hatchet and rope
Inflatable pillow
Camera
New Testament Bible
Diary and pencil
Collapsible cup
25-caliber pistol (don’t freak out now)
Carbide lamp
Nylon poncho used for a rain jacket and as flooring in the tent
Pants from the Navy to protect his legs from thorns
Two long sleeve shirts
Two pairs of hiking socks
Hat

(Source: GearJunkie)

1970s: Backpacking Popularity Rises

Richard “Peregrine” Judy – 1973

Peregrine, the author of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, SOBO thru-hiked in 1973.  Although he no longer had an actual pack list sitting around, he did have this to say about some of his gear.

“First my boots— an old pair of Dunhams with the thick lugged soles and massive leather uppers popular in the early 70s — are on display at the AT Museum. My pack is on display on the lobby wall of the Len Foote Hike Inn. The pack is an old Trailwise, the kind recommended by Colin Fletcher in the original edition of The Complete Walker. I must admit that if you have items from your personal past on display as museum relics, then you are officially qualified to call yourself a card carrying fossil. I do so proudly.
Other items of interest on my list would include: A 1.5-inch Swiss Army knife. An old mesh onion sack that I used for a food bag (obviously, my finances were limited). A nylon parka purchased at a Zayre’s discount store. An old Boy Scout poncho. A brass SVEA 123 stove. An aluminum fuel bottle to carry Amoco premium lead free “white gas” which at that time was the only lead-free gasoline on the market.”
Boy Scout Mess Kit

Heirloom Boy Scout Mess Kit. Circa 1928

My most prized possession of the hike was this mess kit. My Dad was an Eagle Scout, as are I and my son Dan. Dad bought a Boy Scout mess kit in 1928, and it made the whole trip with me in 1973 from Maine to Georgia. It is a tiny one-quart-capacity pot made of steel. It was just barely enough to cook rice or noodles on. I spent many a lonely dinner listening to the sibilant hiss of my SVEA 123 waiting for it to boil up my meager meals in that little pot. The pot will hit 90 years of age next year which probably makes it one of the oldest truly functioning items ever carried on an AT thru-hike.”

1980s: Hiking Comes of Age

Alan “Gonzo” Strackeljahn – 1983

Gonzo hiked the trail in 1983.  His detailed journal and photos can be found at 2000milehike.com.  Gonzo’s hike is also commemorated at the AT Museum. The 1983 exhibit contains some of his gear and several stories from the hikers of that year that they fondly referred to as AT Three.

Below is his pack list (with a few weights) that he had written on the inside cover of his log book.

Gonzo Gear List

Gonzo’s gear list – 1983

Laurie “Mountain Laurel” Peele (later Potteiger) – 1987

laurie

Mountain Laurel started her hike in late April of 1987.  She admits that her gear choices were not typical for the day. Her starting weight was 33 lbs, which she described as practically ultra-light for the 1980s.  Laurie did a lot of research and preparation before her hike. Below is her pack list and comments on some of her choices.

laurie2

Gear
Camp Trails external frame pack (6 lbs. 2 oz.)
8 x 10 tarp
Synthetic sleeping bag – “About 4 lbs, warm enough to keep we warm every night except one in Maine.”
Rope
No stove
Small aluminum cook pot (used to cook over fire 1-2x/week), mostly ate cold
Lighter
First Need filter (switched to bleach for most of the hike–don’t know of anyone else who used bleach)
Duracell plastic 4-5 oz. flashlight
Footwear
Started with light- mid-weight leather hiking boots
Switched to running shoes, (quite unusual back then), wore most of the rest of the way except
Redwing, hard-soled leather boots in PA
Raichle leather hiking boots for Maine
Clothing
LL Bean hiking shorts
Polypropylene long johns
Polypropylene long-sleeved top
Cotton shirt
Wool knit hat
Rain pants
Columbia $20 rain jacket
~3 pr. wool socks
~ 2 pr. liners
Winter
German Army pants- “I was the only one wearing them”
Wool sweater
Down jacket
Maps/Guides
Philosopher’s Guide
Data Book
Official ATC Guidebooks and maps
Compass
Writing materials
Composition notebook
Bic pen
Compass
Address labels
Stamps
Food
Snickers
Ramen
Lipton noodle dinners
Canned date nut bread
Canned boston Brown bread
Cheddar cheese
Cream cheese
Peanut butter/chocolate wafers
Nutella – “Nobody else had even heard of it back then”
Peanut M&Ms
Peanut butter
Squeeze parkay
Oatmeal
Tuna in cans, probably
“Nobody used trekking poles. I usually had a walking stick, nothing special. A few people had internal frame packs—it was a newfangled thing then. I remember the first time I touched someone’s Patagonia fleece—I hadn’t known about it when I started and couldn’t have afforded it anyway. I couldn’t believe it could be so soft. Polypropylene was really scratchy.”

1990s: Hiking Gear Gets Lighter…?

J.R. “Model T” Tate – 1990

I couldn’t find an actual pack list in J. R. “Model T” Tate’s Walkin’ on the Happy Side of Misery, but he proudly mentions that his pack weight was 52 lbs when he lifted it up onto the Truth Teller at Amicalola Falls State Park.  His confidence was compared to two other hikers who weighed their packs after him.  He called them eighty-six and seventy-eight.  As he passed them on the approach trail, he saw them sorting through their packs, discarding items left and right… and he never saw them again.

Sprained Rice - Hike Planning Binder

Bill “Sprained Rice” O’Brien – 1992

Sprained Rice was already a 2000-miler when he did his 1992 thru-hike, so the list he provided had a good bit of experience behind it. As I look at the photos he sent me of his Hiking Binder, I could tell that a lot of thought and planning had been put into this hike. His pack list reflects the decisions he made to cut certain items that still happens today. Bill reported that his pack weight was a respectable winter weight of 35 lbs.

Sprained Rice's 1992 Pack List

2000’s: A New Century

Jim “Early Bird” Foster – 2007

Early Bird sent me his list from memory.  Even though it has been ten years since his thru-hike, he can still remember everything he carried on his epic adventure.

Granite Gear Vapor Trail pack
Zero-degree REI bag for March & April in south, plus later in NH & Maine, also fleeces for those times
30 degree North Face bag for remainder
Asolo  Fugitive boots, 2 pair used
Wigwam Ingenius socks, 3 pair
Sea to Summit stuff sack for food
Bear rope
Lightweight white hat
EMS insulated hat
EMS light gloves
Jetboil stove/bowl
plastic spoon, knife, fork
headlamp
Therm-a-Rest blow-up mattress
Tarptent Double Rainbow tent
Leki hiking stick
Scrubbie sponge
3 neckerchiefs
2 pair men’s underwear
Tights
Under Armour short sleeve T-shirt
Under Armour long sleeve T-shirt
waterproof camera
Radio & headphones
Small cellphone & charger
Two pair REI hiking pants with zip-off bottoms
Small first aid kit
Small container petroleum jelly
Earplugs
Button up hiker shirt
Therm-a-Rest stuffsack pillow
Rainsuit
Two garbage bags for waterproofing

2017: And Here We Are Today

So as each of us fusses over the two-ounce difference from one brand to the next, I wonder if maybe we are fretting a little too much.  As you can see above, these successful hikers, had a pack weight that today, is considered heavy.  They made it despite the weight of their pack.  I’m not advocating a heavy pack.  I think it is a good idea to try and lessen the load you carry.  It can only help as long as you aren’t trying to go stupid light and leave behind what I consider important survival items.  That is up to you.
I have personally stopped worrying about my pack weight.  I still hold everything up to scrutiny before considering bringing it along, but I know that this process will probably never end.  Your pack contents should be fine tuned all along the trail.  The changing seasons will bring different needs; be flexible and willing to change things as your hike progresses.
I’ll see you out there.
Peace,
EarthTone
Photo Sources:
Earl Shaffer’s equipment – A.T. Museum
Grandma Gatewoods stuff – A.T. Museum
Gene Espy historical photo – A.T. Museum (from the archive)
Gene Espy gear – A.T. Museum
Cookpot – Richard Judy
Alan Strackeljahn’s list – Alan Strackeljahn from his website 2000milehike.com
All photos of Laurie Potteiger, including feature image – Laurie Potteiger
Bill O’Brien’s binder and list – Bill O’Brien
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Comments 8

  • Tory : Mar 8th

    Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing awesome moments in time from historical AT. I hope to cross paths with you and your companion. See you in April:)

    Reply
  • Kate G : Mar 8th

    Fun historical perspective on pack weight! I’ve been fussing about the 2 lbs my bear canister will add to my pack and this made me feel better.

    Reply
  • Kiarnan : Mar 9th

    Great post, really enjoyed the kit lists. Would have loved to see Ray Jardine included as well!

    Reply
  • katie sandage : Mar 10th

    Great read! I’m a fan of Horace Kephart; he was an Appalachian adventurer from the late 1800’s. If you ever find a copy of one of his books, they’re really interesting (and funny too!). Hope to run into y’all in April; ’til then happy trails!

    Reply
  • Lucky : Mar 10th

    Super awesome post! How interesting! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  • Paul Nehlson : Mar 11th

    Really fascinating to see all the old outdoor gear–nothing like some of the latest newfangled, high-tech, lightweight gadgets & gear available to us these days. Even the humble lantern has gone high-tech: http://www.gearferret.com/best-led-lantern-2017

    Reply
  • LC : Mar 12th

    Loved your post. My Dad was a backpacker from the early eras and it brought back memories of his gear. Today I backpack light, but not ultralight. I tell people to pick up ultralight that you can afford to allow room for the luxury items for comfort. I think that’s smart. That way each of us can bring along items that are pure joy in the backcountry (pillow, Nutella, etc) while keeping a pack under 25#. Then there’s that precious moment, after an arduous uphill day, when you are tucked in your tent or sitting on an overlook and you break out that one can of beer…… Pure joy.

    Reply
  • BobD : Mar 20th

    You poked me with memories as I tried to start the old svea 123 stove the other day and when I looked at pictures from ’77 and ’78 with the external frame Kelty along the AT. This year I’ll still be using my down North Face sleeping bag I bought near the trail in ’77. Too bad I didn’t keep my heavy leather boots since I still have never used vibram soles for them. Happy trails and memories. Probably the best memory of all is back then a shelter was never really crowded and there were so few of us.

    Reply

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