Appalachian Trail Histories


The First Thru Hiker

Earl Shaffer

Earl Shaffer in Pennsylvania (1948)

At the annual meeting of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at Fontana Village during the summer of 1948, Conference members received  a message from a World War II veteran and ATC member named Earl Shaffer. Shaffer wrote that he was on the Trail in New York State, nearing the Connecticut line. He had begun his hike at the southern terminus of the Trail in Georgia on April 4, and intended to hike all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine in order to complete the entire Appalachian Trail in one hike. Later that summer, he wrote again to inform the ATC leadership that he had finished his hike on August 5, thus becoming the first person to complete what is now known as a thru hike.

Members of the ATC were, at best, skeptical of Shaffer's claim to have walked the entire Trail. Jean Stephenson, the editor of the Appalachian Trailway News, grilled him at length about his claims before being willing to accept that he had actually achieved what no one had managed to accomplish up to that point. Even after accepting Shaffer's story as true, Stephenson wrote:

Mr. Shaffer's immediate past experience had particularly conditioned him for a trip of this nature. It will probably be some time before anyone who attempts a through trip has the unusual experience and training that made it possible for Mr. Shaffer to succeed in such a journey.

Earl Shaffer at Katahdin

Earl Shaffer at Katahdin (1948)

The "immediate past experience" that Stephenson referred to was almost five years of service in the Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Shaffer was also an accomplished outdoorsman, having grown up outside of York, Pennsylvania, where he and his close friend Walter Winemiller spent their free time hiking, camping, and trapping together. Winemiller died during the American assault on Iwo Jima near the end of the war and Shaffer later said that one of the main purposes of his hike was to "walk off the war" and get over the loss of his closest friend.

From him I learned most of my woodcraft and my abiding love of all outdoors. Walter Winemiller was a pardner such as one may have only once in life and no incentive could have been stronger to carry me over the long high Trail than remembering we always wanted to hike it together.

Shaffer hiked most of the way without a tent, using his Army Surplus poncho for shelter, or staying in lean-tos built by various trail clubs. His meals consisted largely of oatmeal, pan baked bread, jam, honey, raisins, Betty Crocker dried soups, and canned foods he was able to purchase from stores along the way. His pack was a Mountain Troop Rucksack--the type used my U.S. Army mountain divisions during the war--and his boots were 9" moccasin style lace ups popular at the time. 

Like George Outerbridge before him, Shaffer felt the need to point out that his hike was not a "stunt."

If it had been [a stunt], it would most likely have been unsuccessful. The way is much too long and difficult to traverse. The trip was planned as an expedition based on a genuine love of the outdoors, a desire for solitude, and a keen interest in color photography.

Earl Shaffer's Diary (1948)

A page from Shaffer's diary (1948)

Some have disputed his claim to have been the first to hike the entire trail, arguing that he must have skipped sections or hitched rides along the way. However, it might not have been possible to comlpete a "pure" thru hike in 1948, given the poor condition of many trail sections due to neglect during the war and the lingering effects of a massive hurricane that struck New England in 1938.  Shaffer later hiked the Trail from north to south (1965), becoming the first person to thru hike in both directions, and then a third time (1998) at the age of 79.

His account of his 1948 hike, Walking With Spring, is the first extended account of a successful thru hike and offers interesting insights into the often terrible condition of the Trail in 1948, his impressions of the people he met, the sites he saw, and the poetry he wrote along the way. Shaffer's diary of his first thru hike has been transcribed by volunteers at the Smithsonian Institution and can be read in its entirety online.