Great Strides: The Epic First Journey of Colin Fletcher, “Founding Father of Backpacking”

The Great Strides series will be an occasional feature of The Trek exploring some of the greatest walks and walkers in history, literature, and film.

In 1958, a Welsh immigrant to California named Colin Fletcher took the first steps of his long and remarkable career as a long-distance hiker, author, and backpacking pioneer.

“Ever since moving to the United States two years earlier I had been hankering for a broader look; and I could hardly have hit on a more varied sample than I would find in a six-month, one-thousand-mile walk – off the road wherever possible – from Mexico to Oregon,” Fletcher wrote in his first book, The Thousand-Mile Summer.

A Royal Marines commando and mountain-warfare instructor for Great Britain during World War II, the peripatetic Fletcher lived in Africa before moving to America in 1956. His trans-California walk was just the first of many epic journeys and was the starting point for his long career as the author of 10 classic backpacking and adventure books.

Fletcher—who died in 2007—is all but unknown to most long-distance-hikers. But he was a true pioneer, hailed as “the founding father of modern backpacking,” and deserves to be remembered.

Photo by Colin Fletcher. Courtesy of the University of California, Santa Cruz Colin Fletcher Archive.

Desert Extremes

Rather than hike the nascent Pacific Crest Trail, which began appearing on maps in 1939, Fletcher decided to follow California’s wild and rugged eastern edge for his first long-distance trek. He started March 8, 1958, at the Colorado River on the Mexico border and finished in the remote sagebrush plateau of eastern Oregon exactly six months later.

Fletcher found the early going through the stark Mojave Desert mind-numbing. He had to cache three five-gallon cans of water just to survive the bitter-cold nights and brutally hot spring sun in Death Valley.

“The trouble with Death Valley as a spectacle is that it is too extreme. It bombards you with the lowest land and the highest temperatures in America, with 282 feet below sea level and 11,049 feet above, with salt and snow, with mountains uncompromisingly mountainous and plains unbelievably plain,” Fletcher wrote.

The High Sierra

In the Sierra, he climbed up and over 14,252-foot White Mountain Peak, third highest in California, where he marveled at gnarled bristlecone pines that had been there for more than four millennia.

“Death comes slowly to a bristlecone pine. An apparently lifeless skeleton may still support, halfway up one tapering arm, a single living sprig,” he observed. “In failing evening light I stood silent and sober before one such colossal wreck. Somewhere in that twisted structure the sap still ran. Yet when Christ died this tree had already surpassed the halfway mark along its course of life.”

Hugging the High Sierra, he encountered mind-blowing scenes of unimaginable beauty.

“Wilderness would be worth conserving if it did nothing but make such moments possible,” he wrote after describing a fleeting encounter with “a copper-red dragonfly” in minute detail.

Photo by Colin Fletcher. Courtesy of the University of California, Santa Cruz Colin Fletcher Archive.

Bushwhacks and Road Walks

After the crescendo of the Sierra, Fletcher found the last three weeks of his journey, like the first three weeks through the Mojave, less inspiring, but he kept putting one foot after the other.

“I walked mostly along roads that held me at arm’s length from the countryside. For the first time since Mexico, the country was, in any case, too monotonous to keep my mind fully occupied,” he wrote.

While following a series of bushwhacks and road walks of his own design, Fletcher frequently ran into “well-intentioned inquirers” all along the way who said things like, “There’s an easier way than that! Why don’t you take the road to So-and-So?”

“Don’t forget,” he replied, “you’re interested in getting somewhere; I’m interested in going.”

He made plenty of mistakes in the early going. But with every step forward, the trail became his teacher, leading him to the same kind of epiphanies as any 21st-century thru-hiker.

“The act of driving your body, very occasionally, close to its limit of endurance is for some reason one of life’s major satisfactions,” he wrote. “And relaxing afterwards is one of life’s most luxurious rewards.”

Later Achievements

Among many other adventures, in 1963 Fletcher became the first person to hike a continuous route through Grand Canyon National Park, and in 1989, at age 67, he rafted and hiked the entire length of the Green and Colorado rivers, from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the Gulf of California. He wrote 10 books about his adventures, as well as the famous “backpacking bible,” The Complete Walker, now in its fourth edition.

Photo by Colin Fletcher. Courtesy of the University of California, Santa Cruz Colin Fletcher Archive.

Fletcher also developed a reputation as an uncompromising environmental advocate and sometimes irascible character, prefiguring his near-contemporary, Edward Abbey.

“If you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either—or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs,” he wrote in The Complete Walker.

“And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.”

Following Fletcher’s Footsteps

At the time of his death in 2007 in Monterey, California, at age 85, Fletcher’s claim that his hike “could never be repeated” had yet to be disproven.

But just one year later, a German immigrant named Andreas M. Cohrs decided to recreate The Walk, in celebration of its 50th anniversary, after finding a copy of The Thousand-Mile Summer for 99 cents at a flea market.

While researching and planning for his trip, Cohrs gained access to Fletcher’s journals, maps, and photos, which allowed him to closely follow the route of his predecessor, with some exceptions. Cohrs wrote about his own adventure in the 2012 memoir, California Serendipity.

Though his name is little known in the thru-hiking community today, Colin Fletcher is one of backpacking’s true pioneers.

“Colin was sort of the founding father of modern backpacking, the first person to write about going out for an extended period and being self-sufficient,” Annette McGivney, author of the National Outdoor Book Award-winning Pure Land, about a murder in the Grand Canyon, said in the New York Times’ 2007 obituary for Fletcher.

Further Reading

The Thousand-Mile Summer by Colin Fletcher
The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher
The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher with Chip Rawlins
California Serendipity by Andreas M. Cohrs
Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher by Robert Wehrman
“Colin Fletcher, 85, a Trailblazer of Modern Backpacking, Dies,” The New York Times, July 19, 2007

If you’ve got an idea for a Great Strides feature, email [email protected].

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Comments 12

  • Tim C : Sep 22nd

    Fletcher was an absolute classic and an inspiration, and everyone interested in solo backpacking should read The Complete Walker. I still get a kick out of Fletcher’s First Rule of Thermodynamic Walking: “Give your balls some air”.

    Reply
    • Howard D. Ross : Oct 19th

      Back in 1968 Colin Fletcher still had his phone listed so I called him one Saturday morning to ask him questions about gear. I guess I woke him up because after he bit my head off he said, “haven’t you read The Complete Walker?” I said, no sir, I didn’t know about it. He said, “read it”, and hung up. I learned a ton from that man and loved all his books.

      Reply
  • Andrew Carter : Sep 23rd

    “All but unknown to most long-distance-hikers”? Not if you’re 63 and you’ve been hiking since you were in grade school. (Thanks, Dad.) I thru-hiked the AT in 1977 with a Trailwise pack (no longer in existence) because that’s what Colin Fletcher used.

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Sep 23rd

      All right, all right, we’ll amend that to “most younger thru-hikers”!

      I’m 58, and I wrote the piece … must be a generational thing!

      Thanks for commenting.

      ~Pony

      Reply
      • Andrew Carter : Sep 23rd

        No offense intended. I knew what you meant. I also know that in the greater scheme of things, I’m over the hill.

        Reply
        • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Sep 25th

          Didn’t take offense, promise! 😉

          Reply
  • Mr. Scott : Sep 23rd

    I read “The New Complete Walker” 46 years ago. It was inspiring to a 14 year old boy from the midwest. I’ve since read just about everything he ever wrote. My favorite quote from Colin is:

    “All you need is the right equipment, a reasonable competence in using it, a tolerable degree of physical fitness, and a clear understanding of your own limitations. Beyond that all you have to do is overcome the fear of the unknown.”

    He had an amazing ability to understate… Keep these articles coming!

    Reply
  • Paul Mags : Sep 23rd

    Very informative article, Clay.

    The only caveat I’d mention is the fourth edition of “The Complete Walker” which he wrote in conjunction with Chip Rawlins and does not have as much of Fletcher’s unique voice. At nearly eighty years old at the time of publishing, the 4th edition lacked the cohesive vision of Fletcher’s earlier works.

    The Complete Walker – Third Edition is the version Fletcher wrote entirely on his own and considered by many to be the best version. As I tell people, many people talk well about the HOW and the WHAT, but the WHY? of backpacking always gets encapsulated well within Fletcher’s timeless works.

    Over a decade after this passing his words can still teach us much.

    In Fletcher’s own words “Listen you bastards, I’ve got something to tell you!”

    Indeed. He does.

    Cheers,

    Paul

    Reply
  • Drew Boswell : Sep 25th

    It’s not too much of a stretch to say that had I not read the third edition of the “The Complete Walker” I would not be backpacking today. Not only could Fletcher hike, he could damn well write about it better than almost anyone else I’ve ever read.

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Sep 25th

      Agreed; he’s a great writer. I hope more people will take a look at his work!

      ~Pony

      Reply
  • Greg Rodzenko : Sep 27th

    Excellent article. Sure the technology has changed but part of preparing for a long hike or any significant effort is one’s attitude, as quoted from Fletcher several times. Fletcher’s hiking stories were my inspiration and The Complete Walker was my guide to prepping for a 30 day solo backpack around Big Bend National Park in January 1976 at age 19.

    Reply
  • Lance A Goehring : Sep 27th

    I loved reading all of Fletcher’s books. Definitely an inspiration. Nice article, Clay.

    Reply

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