On The Trail: A History of American Hiking

On the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin is an account of the American hiking experience from the time of just after American Civil War to our current times.

Or rather, in my opinion, an account of how hiking evolved from large group centered activities to an activity centered around an individual or small groups of friends.

The book hits all the high points of what one would expect from a chronicle of the history of hiking in the United States:

  • A boom in outdoor recreation post-Civil War:  A surplus of sturdy military equipment suitable for hiking and camping was available.  A generation used to marches and living outdoors recreated outside of the cities.  And (perhaps most importantly) growth in the number of middle and upper-middle class professionals with leisure time, money, and energy to enjoy the woods in a recreational manner.
  • Just after the first World War with, again, more surplus equipment available and the rise of the automobile allowing access
  • A huge jump in backpacking after World War II.  And, to carry a common motif, surplus military equipment became available suitable for outdoor use.  No coincidence, our interstate system was constructed, and that allowed easier access to outdoor areas.

A theme throughout the book is that outdoor recreational pursuits are the province of so-called professionals for the most part. To build the trails, start the organizations, and implement many of the policies and traditions found in the American outdoor experience were started, implemented, and continued by a homogenous socioeconomic group.  And this group tends to be urban (and later, suburban) dwellers as opposed to rural residents.   The romanticism of the typically college educated and affluent urban dweller in contrast to the rural person who lives on the land, but has a more pragmatic view of the land itself. Not much has changed since the 1870s it seems.

But the immediate years after World War II were the largest watershed for the overall change in the use of the American trails it seems, at least according to the author.

  • Due to easier transportation and inexpensive gear, less involvement and a need for hiking groups.  More solo or small group of friends heading out to the wild places.
  • With more people recreating outdoors, the now multi-million outdoors gear, clothing, and related apparel industry was created.
  • That due to the cost of the equipment, the trend towards an affluent consumer base being the primary outdoor user was further accelerated.  And that gear and clothing almost became a status symbol. A way of showing belonging to this group.
  • Silas contends a “consumer versus creator” culture was created. With the rise of the hybrid government and private organizations maintaining many of the hiking trails, Silas argues that an expectation of maintained trails as done by the ubiquitous “others” as opposed to an individual feeling engaged to maintain the trails. In others words, trails for recreation were expected by most without thoughts to how the trails became reality.

While I agree with some of these ideas (mainly affluent users of the outdoors, post-World War II being a major watershed, gear as a touchstone as being an active outdoors person), I question a few assertions:

  • The decline of outdoor groups –  Yes, traditional outdoor groups have indeed decreased concerning trips and members. But many have evolved and gone primarily to social media. MeetUp and Facebook, in particular, have active, if less formal, outdoor groups of many different types. Many new users of the outdoors are hesitant to take small group trips, never mind solo ones. As long as people are new to the outdoors, there will be a desire to do something in a group setting.
  • Less social outdoor experience –  Hmm, I am not sure if that is a bad thing? 😉  But, again, social media and similar online resource fill this niche for many people. Discussing gear, trips, tips, and ideas about the outdoors have moved from in-person gatherings to the online sphere.
  • Consumer versus creator” culture –  Arguably there has always been a core in any group that performs the heavy lifting. Most people, at least in my experience, aren’t as engaged as others.  Be it an outdoor community, a social group, or a work environment. The dedicated core will drive the work, organize the group, and perform many of the tasks that need to be completed.  True in the halcyon days of the 1920s, true in 2017.

Overall, On the Trail is a thoughtful book. The book is a bit more on the drier academic side of the readability scale versus more lively writing. At only a little over 200 pages, it reads quickly, however.   But for anyone who has an interest in the history of American trail system, outdoor groups, and an evolution of the use of how our hiking trails are perceived may find the book to be of interest.  I would not call it a must have book for the outdoor library, but certainly, a book that is worth reading for the person who enjoys reading beyond gear and trail information when it comes to outdoor topics.

Disclosure: This book was borrowed from the library with one of my favorite pieces of outdoor related gear.

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