The Growth of Individual Hiking
The success of the early thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail was a harbinger of a larger national trend in the hiking community. Before World War II, there were certainly many individual hikers on trails such as the AT. It is also true that large numbers, if not a majority, of hikers before 1941, hit the trail with small or large groups, often on hikes organized by their local hiking club.
By 1970, the popularlity of individual hiking, or group hiking without the structure of a hiking club had completely bypassed the world of club hiking. According to historian Silas Chamberlain, by the end of the 1960s, as many as 20 million Americans took part in some form of backpacking, while membership in hiking clubs was no more than 150,000.
This rapid growth in the backpacking population led to a similarly rapid growth in the number of companies developing ever better and lighter weight gear, which made backpacking that much easier and enjoyable. No longer did a long distance hiker need to be as fit as veterans Earl Shaffer or Gene Espy to hike long distances on the AT. The newer lighter gear--better packs, better cooking sets, a wider variety of lightweight foods--helped to open up the back country to the less committed hiker or backpacker.
The spectacular growth in the number of backpackers in the United States naturally had an impact on the Appalachian Trail. The number of casual day hikers, weekend backpackers, and those who might have spent weeks on the Trail is impossible to determine. What is known, however, is the number of hikers who completed the entire Trail in one year. At the end of the 1950s, the number of thru hikers was only 14, and by 1969, the number of new thru hikers had risen by only 37 more. But by 1979, the number of thru hikers had jumped to 785, and it is likely that hundreds more had attempted such a hike but failed.
Historian Adam Berg argues that the rapid growth in long distance backpacking in the 1970s was the product of several intersecting factors in white middle- and upper-class American society: a growing belief among hikers that by challenging themselves physically in nature they might learn new insights about themselves, about life, and about the world; a desire to step outside of the consumer culture many of these hikers rejected; and the increasing wealth of the American middle class. Given that Benton MacKaye's initial plan for the Appalachian Trail was rooted in his desire to help American workers spend more time in nature, the fact that long distance backpacking continued to be the preserve of the prosperous--those who could afford the gear and the time off from work--surely would have surprised or distressed the Trail's founder.