Times have changed since Earl Shaffer set out to complete the A.T.’s first ever thru-hike. Today’s hikers enjoy a myriad of technological advancements to help them on their journey from one terminus to the next.
Of course, there are the technological advancements of modern backpacking gear, which seem to improve almost daily. The featherlight tents and sleeping bags, the ergonomically designed packs, and jet boils are all things that Shaffer and Emma ‘Grandma’ Gatewood would have gazed upon with bewilderment and wonder.
But there is a separate category of technology that has swept the trail in recent years, fundamentally changing the nature of an A.T. thru-hike, and stirring up a little controversy in the process.
Digital technology is now ubiquitous on the Appalachian Trail. From smartphones and tablets to solar chargers, e-readers, and handheld GPS devices, technology has had an undeniably profound effect on the Appalachian Trail experience.
Dan ‘Wingfoot’ Bruce hiked the Appalachian Trail seven times. For 25 years he virtually lived on the trail, logging some 20,000 miles while authoring several versions of a successful guidebook that led many hikers from Springer to Maine.
‘Wingfoot’ devoted a significant portion of his life to the trail, becoming a tireless spokesman and advocate for once-threatened sections like the Max Patch Bald and Maine’s Saddleback Mountain, but the course of his life changed when he began to notice a sweeping phenomenon that was changing the course of A.T. history.
“I left because I didn’t like the way that interactive technologies like cell phones were changing the trail,” he said. “I prefer to remember it as it was before all of that.”
But for newcomers adept in the ways of modern technology, there may have never been a better time to embark on an AT thru-hike.
Zach Davis is an outdoor blogger who completed an A.T. thru-hike in 2011 and went on to write a book about the experience. He says digital technology was a pivotal and essential part of his Appalachian Trail experience.
“Technology serves a purpose,” he says. “There were those on the trail who would look down upon someone who carried a Kindle because they were relying on technology for entertainment. This same individual would be carrying a tent that weighed less than two pounds in addition to the pair of books in their pack (an extra lb. over a kindle – a significant weight for a long-distance backpacker). I didn’t see anyone building their tent out of twigs and mud in protest of technology. The line seems to have been drawn somewhat arbitrarily.”