Earl Shaffer: First Man to Hike the Appalachian Trail

earl shaffer

Photo of Earl Shaffer, courtesy of the Smithsonian

In 1948, many people thought it was impossible to walk the Appalachian Trail.

The idea of the trail was only a decade old and the trail was in terrible shape. Many volunteer maintainers had gone to the war and those that remained lacked gasoline to reach the trail.

Earl Shaffer (1918-2002) was a vet from rural Pennsylvania. He was a devoted to poetry and the outdoors, but had just endured a brutal experience during World War Two. He served in the Pacific Theater, spending time on small islands constructing radar and communications facilities, often with the Japanese close by.

One of Earl's close friends was Walter Winemiller. Before the war, they'd discussed hiking the AT but Walter was killed at Iwo Jima. Earl headed out to hike the trail alone, but his hike was in many ways a memorial to his friend.

In many ways, Earl was an ideal candidate for the first thru-hiker. He was an experienced outdoorsman thanks to his childhood in Pennsylvania and his war time service.

Earl-Shaffer-boots

Photo of Earl Shaffer's boots, courtesy of the Smithsonian

He started in Mt Ogelthorpe Georgia during May 1948 - at that time Springer Mountain wasn't the south end of the trail. Earl's hike took four months as he bushwacked his way north to Maine. He walked almost entirely alone, keeping a diary and taking photos to prove he really had completed the trail.

There were on guidebooks or maps of the trail at that time. Earl used road maps provided by stations. Earl's diary describes wrong turns and going miles off course. His supplies were minimal, and he even mailed his tent home only a few days after starting out.

Shaffer not only finished the first thru-hike but then completed two more hikes of the Appalachian Trail, the last in 1998 at the age of 79.

Smithsonian Exhibit and Earl's Diary

The Smithsonian has a wonderful collection of Earl Shaffer memorabilia and information.

They are also crowd-sourcing the reading of Earl's diary. 121 pages of the diary are online and you can help transcribe the diary's content. Click here to help out the Smithsonian.

Shaffer's Book: Walking with Spring

Although Shaffer's diary is still being transcribed, he did publish a book called "Walking With Spring".

The book was published privately and only became commercially available in 1982, thanks to The Appalachian Trail Conference.

"Walking With Spring" isn't a how-to guide (and a good thing too, because so much has changed since 1948). Instead, its a quiet, engaging and meditative mix of hiking stories, history and local legend. Highly recommended.

More about Appalachian Trail Books


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About the Author Steve Burge:
Steve Burge was the original founder of AppalachianTrail.com. He was a teacher for many years before starting a web development firm.
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