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Re: Changes to the Appalachian Trail


I've been section-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) since Feb., 1992 (a subject of another conversation...).  I am now at the 1,025 mile point in Harper's Ferry, WV.  This adventure was sparked by my first hike on the AT in Maine (June, 1973), while stationed on a submarine at the sub base in Groton, CT (another conversation subject). 

I was recently asked, what has changed since I started hiking the AT.  Here are some topics I've considered:

1.  Hiking Population: There are more people on the trail. Prior to the mid-1970s, there were not many hikers on the trail (day, section, or thru). I have a 2-book series (hardbound, no longer in print), that is a compilation of people's journals who had hiked the trail in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Many wrote that they did not see many hikers, sometimes for a week or more at a time!  Hard to imagine now.

2. Trail Routing: The trail was around 2000 miles then, now it is 2190 (changes every year).  There is less road walking now.  Another thing I've noticed is, where the trail used to go straight up a hill/mountain, many sections have been changed to switchbacks or re-routed around the mountain (especially when there's no view at the top).  I know that change is not every where, but in many places I've hiked and re-hiked.

3. Shelters: At one time, I planned to use shelters as I hiked north. However, with the increased population of hikers, I would much rather sleep in my own "shelter". In December, 2017, I purchased the REI Quarter Dome 2 tent (and the footprint). I love this tent, and look forward to using it as I hike north.

4. Equipment: One of the biggest changes is in the design of the backpacks. When I started my section hiking, I purchased a JanSport external frame pack (4400 cubic inches / 68 L). It was considered one of the best at that time.  For some time now, the internal frame style is all that is used (based on my observations and shopping).  For a tent, the older "pup" tents, or one-person tent was carried - which is much heavier than those sold and used now (see comment #3 above).  Technology in design and material has made everything lighter.

5. Clothing: There was basically NO performance material for t-shirts, etc when I started hiking. Many people hiked in blue jeans. I really like the new performance clothing material, and the convertible pants that can be easily made into shorts.  Footwear mainly consisted of things like combat boots, and the old, stiff mid-high hiking boots.  For many years now, I've used a Merrell hiking shoe.  I am now shifting to a Merrell mid hiking boot for more support.

6. Cooking: At one time, this was mainly done over a fire. When I started my section-hikes, I used a liquid fuel that was poured into a container attached to the stove part itself.  I now have a very small stove that screws onto the top of a fuel canister.  I MUCH prefer the new to the old.

There are other changes, but that's my summary.

Question: For those that been hiking the AT, what changes have you observed?



17 Replies

Hi everyone!  I can't speak to the A/T having changed, as I've only hiked a few sections, despite being so close.  And, while gear has undoubtedly taken massive strides over the last few years, the thing that I see the most change in, is me!  I have been an outdoors person all of my life.  Some of my earliest memories are of playing in the woods as a child.  As I grew, I took up a variety of pursuits;  hunting, fishing, off-roading, hiking, camping, bouldering.  With each activity comes its own select types of gear, most of which I eschewed at the time.  "Special equipment?  I don't need no stinking special equipment!"  If it couldn't be done wearing jeans and a t-shirt, well then, something was askew.  What clothing and camping gear I did have was mostly military surplus.  It was sturdy, cheap, and the camo was suitable for use when hunting, and it didn't show grass and dirt stains.

As I grew older and took on adult responsibilities, like a full-time job, marriage, kids, homeownership, I had less time and money to dedicate to the outdoors, so I made do with what I had, and new stuff was usually generic from Sears, or Kmart (showing my age here).  When my then wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon some 20+ years ago, I was wearing khaki cotton zip off pants, and a heavy, leather pair of work boots, and was fascinated seeing other people hiking with "ski poles".  What the heck!?!?

Since then, my perspective has changed, as well as my discretionary income, and I have invested in some magical things like trekking poles; breathable, moisture-wicking clothing with DWR; Gore-Tex boots; wool socks...the list goes on. 

Happy Star Wars Day!  May the Fourth be with you. 


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Hi.  Very interesting and funny post.  From a longevity perspective, there is still something to be said for military surplus!


@KenBrenner There are definitely a lot of changes!  But that's what we're getting used to with everything these days.  There's always that joke of it being the ounces that you can shave off and I can remember in the '90's not just shortening toothbrushes, but hollowing them out as well.  There almost seems to be no need for that these days, but I still see no reason for needing to have the latest and greatest gear.  It just sort of speaks to the fancy folk picking up a new hobby.  I love running into people that are backpacking for the love of backpacking and using things they've made themselves or who still love external frame packs.  What shocked me when I did my thru was the "kids" running around in their shorty shorts and tank tops with 10 lb packs running in and out of town constantly.  It doesn't seem particularly safe to me.  Oddly, I ran cross country in high school and we hated the circa 1970's tiny shorts and tank tops and we'd wear leggings and short sleeve cotton t-shirts underneath!  I long for the days that you needed to be prepared for the worst, be able to use a map, and carry what you needed rather than being able to call uber and stay in hostels/ hotels just about every night.  Not quite the same experience with so much catering to hikers (at a cost) but it's also a different world now that so many can finish the trail when starting with no experience and learning as they go.  It certainly brings variety to the folks you meet along the way!

@taskmaster, no kidding 

REI Member Since 1979

Hi.  I appreciate your thoughts and post. 

RE: Hiking Light

At 67, I value comfort over speed on the trail.  An REI backpacking expert (from the virtual/online consultation meeting) recommended I get something that is comfortable and supportive for any load I'd carry (max: 40 lbs).  At this age group, one has a different perspective.  I have a Jansport D3 external frame backpack I'd hoped I could have used.  But, trying it on loaded for the first time in many years, I found it probably wouldn't work (plus, my orthopedic doctor told me I needed to get a new, internal frame pack).  Also, the straps are wearing out (as I found out recently), so it would probably be unreliable for a two-week trip.


OK, John J, if you're gonna pin me down like that!  😀  (Honestly, thanks for asking!  I'm honored!)

I'm going to make this all up as I type it.  Some of it is AT related, some deals with other trails, and some is completely unrelated.

Start with the AT.  I distinctly remember when I first stepped foot on it.  Back in the early '60's, when my family took our first trip to the Smokeys.   Mom and Dad, my younger sister and brother, and me.  Camped in a 26 foot Shasta (think Airstream, just cheaper), pulled behind the family sedan.  We stopped at Newfound Gap, which is where I first saw the trail.  I think the same sign is still there (or maybe a reasonable facsimile of it).  Georgia, hundreds of miles that way.  Maine, more hundreds of miles the other way.  One continuous footpath.  Wow!  I was pretty amazed, and mentioned how wonderful it might be to hike the whole thing.  "Look over here", said Dad, and took my picture.  "Now you've hiked the Appalachian Trail!".

*sigh*  Dad isn't as funny as he thinks he is.  Yeah, present tense.  I'm 66. and Dad's still with us.  So is Mom.  96 and 89, respectively. I'm amazingly blessed.  They both give me great hope!

So, how have things changed?  Ever been to Gatlinburg?  Seriously crowded, isn't it?  During that trip, we parked on Main Street, car, trailer and everything.  No issues finding a place.  There's a pancake house there on Main, to this day.  We parked right in front of that, where we had breakfast!

Equipment has changed a lot.  Not AT related, but when we hiked in to camp (that was backpacking way back then), it was borrowed WWII vintage sleeping bags (one with real feathers for insulation!), loaned by the next door neighbors.  Borrowed heavy cotton canvas tarp for a tent.  Cooking kit was assembled from a few No. 10 cans the school cafeteria thoughtfully gave me.  Stove?  Another No. 10 can, a hobo stove. Campfire for the rest. Weighed a ton, but we had a great time.  Eventually, my patents got me a bunch of good Boy Scout camping stuff;  the old cook kit, which I still have and sometimes use out of nostalgia, real packs instead of tying everything together with the tarp ridge line and hoisting it up on our backs.  Real tents, instead of the huge canvas tarp.  Dad always has believed "the bigger, the better".  We sometimes had eight or ten kids under that thing!  Had to have that many to get all our junk to the camp site.

Back to the AT.  Did my first hike on it back in the late 80's.  Had an industrial accident that did a lot of damage to my right hand.  Of course, I'm right handed.  After 18 months of surgery and therapy, I determined I would prove myself fully recovered, and planned a hike on the AT (for some reason).  Solo.  I'd make it on my own, or not at all.  Had a great two day hike, from the southern terminus to Woody Gap.  My wife wasn't quite as thrilled as I was about it.  And yes, fully recovered!  😊

Didn't get back on the Trail for another ten years, and did so at the insistence of, once again, my darling wife.  Georgia is only about six hours or so from where we currently live, and she arranged a number of solo hikes for me, where I could drive up, park and start walking until we could meet at an agreed-upon road crossing a few days later.  My equipment went from old and heavy to new and much, much lighter.  Pack weight went from 45 or so pounds to my current 18 (dry) pounds.  I could go lighter, but I do like my comforts.

The trail has also changed a lot, as mentioned several times above.  Less road walking, which I really like.  Switchbacks instead of straight up and down the mountains.  The scars from those old sections are going to take decades to heal, and in some cases may never be fully erased in our lifetimes.

It's longer, in some ways easier to hike, and resupply is almost never a problem now.  Sadly, we can't get on it for the time being, and I do wonder what it's going to be like when we can once again safely access it.  The great volunteers that keep up the trail can't get on it, either. so it's going to be overgrown, with blowdowns.  It'll be a tougher trail for a while.  I recall reading Earl Shaffer's book, "Hiking With Spring".  During WWII, the trail got little, if any, maintenance, and Mr. Shaffer had some issues hiking it.  Hopefully it won't be that bad for us!  We'll see.

Hope to see you all out there soon!

Hikes in Rain



Retired medical technologist and engineer
REI member since 1978
Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Thanks for the stories and comparisons from then to now.

Also, very thankful you have healed...


A related article just posted on the BBC's website: Appalachian Trail: Covid postpones the great American adventure.


Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.