Hiking the Appalachian Trail is an incredible achievement, no matter how you do it. To date, around 20,000 people of all ages and backgrounds have completed the challenge, some in a single year and others in sections over many years. But most would agree that Earl Shaffer’s 1948 hike was one of the most inspiring and influential of all.
Shaffer is recognized as the first person to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in one season. It took him 124 days to hike from the trail’s southern terminus of Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia, to its northern end at Mount Katahdin, Maine. Shaffer was 29 years old when he completed the route, which was then 2,050 miles long (it’s now nearly 2,200 miles long and begins at Springer Mountain, Georgia).
Shaffer had long planned to hike the Appalachian Trail, but it wasn't supposed to be a solo venture. His childhood friend Walter Winemiller was meant to be his hiking buddy, but Winemiller died during the Battle of Iwo Jima at age 26. Shaffer himself had completed four-and-a-half years of Army service, including more than two years as a radioman in the South Pacific combat zone. He described himself as “confused and depressed” upon returning home to Pennsylvania.
Shaffer’s rucksack weighed around 40 pounds and contained repurposed army gear, a compass, helmet, basic food, cooking equipment, some clothing, and a few maps, as well as a journal for his observations and poetry. He wore leather boots without socks (he thought they would give him blisters) and slept under an Army surplus poncho rather than a tent.
The leadership of the Appalachian Trail Conference (now known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) doubted that anyone could hike the entire length of the A.T. in a single season, even as Shaffer wrote to tell them that he was approaching Mount Katahdin. Construction of the A.T. had only been completed in 1937. Previously, only a handful of people had completed the entire length of the trail, and that had been in sections over the course of several years. Shaffer would eventually convince them that his achievement was genuine, thanks to his meticulous documentation of the hike.
"The Crazy One":
- Shaffer completed his trek (which he nicknamed the “long cruise”) on August 5, 1948. He had averaged around 17 miles a day since starting out on April 4. Seventeen years later, he earned another record as the first individual to have completed the entire trail in both directions, when he thru-hiked the A.T. from Maine to Georgia in just 99 days.
- Shaffer was a lifelong bachelor with a wide range of interests, ranging from beekeeping to carpentry to antiques, but working as an Appalachian Trail volunteer and talking about conservation were among his passions.
- Earl Shaffer died of liver cancer in 2002. Only four years earlier, in 1998, he had completed his third A.T. thru-hike at age 79, on the 50th anniversary year of his first, and temporarily became the oldest A.T. thru-hiker. Shortly before his death, Shaffer donated many of his belongings from his initial hike to the National Museum of American History – including his beloved leather boots.