A (Short) History of Hiking
A history of hiking? You’re likely thinking, “why? Isn’t hiking just walking?”
Yeah, you’re basically right. This is one of those action-packed nerd-posts that evolved from a late-night Google search urged on by a potent Christmas ale. It’s akin to who invented homework? or When did they come up with socks?
Before you hit that back button, though, consider this post for what it is: food for thought. While parts of this post might be in the realm of duh, a lot of it is on the realm of yeah, that makes sense. At the very least, it’ll give you something to think about or a knowledge bomb to drop on your kids when they’ve hit the wall.
First, though, the all-important definition:
verb (used without object), hiked, hik·ing.
1. to walk or march a great distance, especially through rural areas, for pleasure, exercise, military training, or the like.
2. to move up or rise, as out of place or position (often followed by up): My shirt hikes up if I don’t wear a belt.
3. Nautical. to hold oneself outboard on the windward side of a heeling sailboat to reduce the amount of heel.
Obviously, the first definition applies to our beloved activity the most (unless you suffer from ill-fitting boxer-briefs). Given that definition, we can say that the history of hiking starts with the movement of people from one place to another.
In the before time, in the long, long ago, in order to get anywhere, mankind had to walk. Even with the use of horses, carts, and other conveyances…dudes walked. Sure, domestication gave them animals to move stuff, but the harsh reality is that not everyone was rich enough to use them. Most times those precious animals were used for hauling heavy loads, not heavy human asses. Horses have to be broken for human riders- breaking a horse for pulling a cart is a more logical use of time and resources.
So ride on the cart, right?
- Field/Market: Extend this to the factories, across town, getting water, washing clothes at the river, whatever. Anyway you slice this, it’s not hiking, it’s work. The reason for going to and from these places is survival. The closest we can get to hiking is going to the pub, but even then most folks didn’t walk a dozen miles for a drink- they lived near the pubs or drank at home.
- Battle: The vast majority of troops throughout history have moved on their feet. There were some units that didn’t walk all the time (cavalry, Native American horse soldiers, Mongolians, et cetera), but most of them were walkers. This included units like artillery. We see this well past the American Civil War into modern warfare. What these troops were doing was marching not hiking.
- Pilgrimages: While close, still not on the mark. The point of religious pilgrimages are to reach a site of religious importance. Many times these were long, arduous processes to show devotion. There is still something missing. (Side note: I consider hiking a form of pilgrimage.)
While there are examples throughout history of folks just going out for a hike, this was an activity that was closed to the vast majority of humanity. For the most part- especially in America- hiking was an activity enjoyed almost exclusively by rich people and starry-eyed poets.
In the late 19th century something happened with all this load-moving while people walked: industrialization. One could argue that if humanity decided to haul themselves instead of their work, industrialization would be stunted. We probably would not have come as far and as fast as we did.
Anyway, society advanced, industry flourished. People moved to the industries, got more done in less time. And, with more time to spare between work, there was a rise in luxury. People had time to do more than work and drink.
Since we had a lot of folks move into cities, the logical choice for escape would be to return to the wilds. But what to do when they got there? Go for a walk, of course!
Note, however, we’re not quite ready to close the book on the history of hiking. To just leave and get away required time and money. The average Joe couldn’t just get up and go for a walk- they had to work to survive. Getting into the wilds also required a way of getting there. While poor farmers out in the middle of nowhere had no trouble walking their land in their “free” time (usually hunting), the poor folks stuck inside the cities couldn’t do that.
To make matters worse, the industrial revolution saw a huge increase in city populations. Folks moved out of the country and immigrants flocked to the cities to get these jobs. That required a lot of housing closely huddled together. It was unsanitary to say the least, and health began to suffer which, in turn, affected industry. This spurred on reform.
In 1850, NYC opened Central Park, an area of fresh air and exercise for everyone. Following that success, cities embraced the urban parks movement and began opening their own parks. People could actually go out and take a walk!
The advances kept happening, so I don’t need to elaborate too much. The parks system remains a national treasure of recreation, exercise, and appreciation. Tourists domestic and foreign flock our shores and forests to see North America in all its wild splendor and reverence of history.
Despite this love and need, of course, there are those who could care less. They want to open those protected lands up to development and resource-gathering. The space and the resources below the ground has to be more valuable for building and harvesting. And, don’t get me wrong, there are resources there.
I’m going to stay away from politics, but one has to consider, in light of recent events, how would we have fared the pandemic without those parks?
Let me know in the comments what you think!
This is a pretty simple overview of the American history of hiking, and there is a lot more to it. If you want to learn more, consider the following links:
- Hiking in America – Forest History Society
- Ramble On: A History of Hiking – Jeffrey J. Doran
- On the Trail – Silas Chamberlin (Yale University Press)
- Creation of Trails – nps.org
- When Was Hiking Invented – lovetoknow.com
- The Invention of Hiking – Smithsonian Magazine
- When was Hiking Invented? – Hi-Tec Blog
If you want to read more of my work, check out my article on Authentic Adventures! Are you looking for more hiking options? Check out my Alternative Trails.
Maybe you want to get to know a few of my favorite trails? Try any of these: Fred Woods & Pine Tree Trail, The Little Quehanna Loops, or Day Hiking in Quehanna.