Looking Back at the History of Hiking in America

“Why would anyone enjoy deliberately walking around in nature?” is an initial question. As a longtime junior high school teacher, it was a challenge to bring 14-year-olds to a mental place where they could appreciate “just walking” around in the backcountry. At first, many wanted to keep riding in cars, skateboarding or at least biking — hiking was rather stupid.

Hiking, or leisure walking, began as a chosen social activity only when Americans were freed from the necessity of travel by foot. When public transportation improved after the Civil War, and when automobiles became very common after World War II, many citizens suddenly awakened to the idea they could drive to a trailhead and just walk right out into nature. It’s not such a simple concept if you mull it over. We aren’t thinking of Jim Bridger or Jedediah Smith, but urban sorts venturing out of the city.

Silas Chamberlin’s well-written tome with the catchy title, On the Trail, offers a concise, 204-page survey of the ways organized hiking or nature walking grew in the United States after the 1860s. Until the late 1960s, this was an East Coast story. The author’s main thesis is that the social aspect of the new 19th-century hiking clubs had been lost by the 1970s with the rise of hiking as a mass phenomenon. The United States developed from fewer than 2 million walkers to more than 34 million dayhikers/backpackers today.

When did the idea of choosing to hike out into nature increase to the point that by the 1960s, the old-style hiking clubs couldn’t handle the masses (or, the masses rejected large-group social hiking)?

Learn more here…


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