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BackpackerBill’s Take on a New Hikers’ Book

On the Trail: A History of American Hiking  by Silas Chamberlin

Even though it’s a “history,” the guy writes very entertaining stories of hikers pioneering the way.

And it is factually correct!  How do I know?  Simple.

While many have written about my founding Backpacker magazine, this is the first that tells it like it was.

Another story he tells that was a lot of fun to read, was of the first end-to-end hike on the Appalachian Trail.

Earl Shaffer took his 124-day through-hike in 1948 just after World War II.  His story is not just about his experiences on the trail in the backcountry, but of interesting folks he met in the villages and towns the trail passed through back then.

Then we have Shaffer’s observations of the differences he found in the AT on his second, and particularly his third, through-hike in 1998, fifty years later. He was highly critical about the “new” wilderness view of hiking that had changed the AT’s route to avoid towns.  We love the trail to stay away from towns.  But nice to hear Shaffer loved going through them.


Then there is the story of Colin Fletcher taking the first end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon.  There are some beautiful quotes of Fletcher’s experiences on that long hike.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that On the Trail author Chamberlin would write a patiently detailed and interesting history of American hiking, for he is an avid hiker himself.

He did his own through-hike on the AT.  And he spent summers working with a trail maintenance crew on both the Adirondack and Catskill mountain trails of New York.

Any active hiker will want to own this book and read bits and pieces of it at leisure.  It’s makes good evening reading after a weary day of work when you are dreaming about being out there on your favorite trail.


Now, having said nice, I’ll be a little critical.

There is a lot of important trail events he’s missed and hasn’t hinted at their importance.

While Chamberlin gives Jim Kern plaudits, for instance, of founding the Florida Trail, he doesn’t mention one of the most colorful and tireless trail builders, Gudy Gaskill, who almost single-handedly built the Colorado Trail, a significant section of the Continental Divide Trail. It’s a five hundred-mile section of trail from the mouth of Waterton Canyon southwest of Denver to Durango.

And he also praises me for founding Backpacker magazine and what we did to set new standards of clean trail practices. It is difficult to see why he skipped over some very important actions for trails in the Twentieth Century.

He doesn’t mention, for example, the only national lobbying organization that was formed to advocate for trails, the American Hiking Society.  Nor does he mention the avid group of Hikanation hikers hiking 4,000 miles in fifteen-months from coast to coast across America advocating for the creation of the only cross continental trail, which is now on the map as the American Discovery Trail.

These were efforts that probably have done as much for hikers on the national level as anything else in the history of American hiking.

And when talking about racial minorities in the hiking community and efforts to bring more inner city African-Americans and Hispanics into the woods, he fails to mention Jim Kern’s extraordinary accomplishment of putting together Big City Mountaineers, which is making a significant difference in that direction.

Despite my criticism, I’m giving the book a five-star rating.  There’s nothing else like it.

And if there is ever a revised edition I would hope that Chamberlin will take a few minutes to consider at least acknowledging these events.

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