Many people believe that hiking, especially thru-hiking is meant for ultra-athletes and people who are fitter and stronger than average humans. However, some of the most famous hikers we have ever known were just ordinary people with high ambitions. Despite enormous challenges, these people accomplished what many consider impossible.
Some of them wanted a fresh start and a new perspective, while some wanted to push themselves to the limits. Regardless of what their ambitions were, they were able to make a permanent mark in the history of hiking and backpacking. Let’s start with some of the most famous hikers and how they left behind a legacy that still inspires millions.
The 2,190 miles long Appalachian Trail is one of the longest hiking-only trails in the world and is no easy feat to complete. What makes Grandma Gatewood a true hiking legend is that she completed the hike when she was 67 years old and a mother of 11 and a grandmother of 23. After surviving domestic abuse for over 30 years, in 1955, she told her children that she was leaving for a hike in the woods. But they never thought it was going to be the world’s longest. In September 1955 after summiting Katahdin, she became the first woman to complete the AT, all on her own.
She is considered to be the pioneer in thru-hiking and a true picture of resilience who broke all barriers. She had a difficult life and was used to strenuous manual labor since childhood. She got her inspiration from an article published in National Geographic about the first man to complete the AT. When she realized that no woman has ever thru-hiked the AT, she accepted the challenge. She often sought refuge in the woods and took the AT as a sanctuary. In a sense, she wasn’t walking toward something, but rather walking away from her current environment.
She made her first attempt in 1953, which resulted in a failure. She got lost and broke her glasses. She was rescued by some rangers who told her to head back home. She made her second attempt in 1955 while trying to avoid the rangers who earlier rescued her and told to go back home. She did not tell her children where she was headed in both attempts fearing that they would stop her. During the hike, she wore out seven Keds sneakers and relied on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. She soon became a local celebrity and finding food and shelter became easier wherever she went.
Local reporters caught on and the media covered her trip extensively by stopping her for interviews. Soon her children also came to know about her whereabouts. She fell, sprained her ankle, bruised her face and broke her glasses again just a day before completing the hike. However, she kept moving and climbed Mt. Katahdin after 146 days of hiking on 25 September 1955. Not only did she become the first woman to complete the AT, she also made history by doing so at such an old age in one season.
She averaged almost 14 miles a day and only stopped after being totally exhausted. Even members of Boy Scout troops failed to keep up with her. Two years later, Grandma Gatewood made her third and second successful attempt in 1957 and became the first to hike the AT twice. She didn’t stop there and hiked the AT the third time in sections in 1964, leaving a legacy behind and becoming a source of inspiration for to-be-thru-hikers.
Also known as the Father of National Parks and John of the Mountains, John Muir was a naturalist and played an important role in forming California’s Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. Born on 21 April 1838 in Scotland, Muir used to walk with his grandfather and fell in love with nature. He later moved to America and left university to reclaim his love for the wild in Canada. His first long hike was from Kentucky to Florida, a thousand miles walk he completed in 1867.
He is better known for his works inspired by traveling and experiencing nature. With over 300 works including “A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf”, he became a hiking pioneer and helped establish many national parks including the Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier National Park. His writings helped change the way people perceived mountains, rivers, deserts and the wilderness.
Gertrude Emily Benham
She had a passion for mountain climbing since childhood, which continued throughout her life. Enticed by newly-accessible Rocky Mountains ads, she went to Canada with a small inheritance her parents left. She mostly traveled alone and summited more than 300 mountains in almost every continent. She was the first woman ever to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, which is considered to be among the most treacherous of climbs, and traversed the whole of Africa on foot.
She was also the first woman to summit Canada’s Truda Peaks, which are named after her. She listed seven round-the-world trips which included on-foot, steamship and train tours. This is a great achievement considering she did it being a woman in the late 1880s. She either traveled alone or with native guides while spending less than 250 GBP (British Pound) a year.
She drew as she traveled and later used her drawings to map different countries she traveled through. She set off for one last journey in 1935 into the South Pacific and passed away near the coast of West Africa at the age of 71 (onboard an Africa to England-bound ship). Despite being a legacy, a self-sufficient woman, and a jack-of-all-trades, she remained relatively unknown and went under-reported. Her hiking journals, photographs, sketches, and boots are on display at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.
One of the pioneers of ultralight backpacking, 2007’s National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and Backpacker magazine’s Person of the Year, he hiked more than 30,000 miles in his twenties. Andrew became popular after hiking the Seas-to-Sea Route (7,778 miles) in 2005, which was a Quebec-Washington journey that took him 11 months.
His 2005 adventure was followed by a 6,875-mile adventure (the Great Western Loop, 2007) in which he traversed through 12 National Parks and 75+ wilderness areas at an astonishing pace of 33 miles/day. In addition to being a long-distance hiker, Skurka also works with hiking gear companies and offers guided tours and professional training.
The American professional backpacker helped expand the limits of long-distance hiking and played a defining role in the ultralight backpacking movement with his pack weighing only 6.5-8 pounds. This helped him log 35 to 45 miles on a routine basis and appear on many TV broadcasts and newspapers, including the Fox News Channel and The Wall Street Journal.
Check out his website here: https://andrewskurka.com/
The Buddy Backpacker
Christian Thomas aka the Buddy Backpacker was born on 1 April 2008 and is the youngest backpacker to have hiked the Triple Crown (AT, PCT and CDT) as well as the Colorado Trail. He hiked the entire Appalachian Trail at an age of only five with his stepdad, completed the Pacific Crest Trail two years later, and hiked the Continental Divide Trail at an age of 9. He represents exploration, curiosity, friendship, and mobility.
He grew up as an outdoor lover, thanks to his parents who inspired and helped him get out in the wild. He averaged 12 miles/day while hiking the AT (17 miles/day from Greenleaf-Zealand Falls Hut), which is quite an achievement considering he was only 5 years old. He was given special permission by the Baxter State Park Authority in 2013 and became the youngest person to have summited Mount Katahdin. He also happens to be the youngest American to have hiked Camino de Santiago at an age of 10 (in 2018).
Known as Anish on the trail, she is among the top and fastest thru-hikers in the world. Her achievements on the trail include FKT (Fastest Known Time) for the AT, the PCT as well as the Arizona Trail. She completed the Triple Crown for the second time (8,000 miles) in just eight months and became the first woman (and sixth person) to thru-hike all in one calendar year. She has over 28,000 miles to her name and was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year (2019).
Anderson has thru-hiked the AT, The PCT, and the Continental Divide three times and has set numerous speed records. She began her adventures in 2003 soon after graduating and completed the Triple Crown in 2018. In 2013, she set the FKT of 60 days for the PCT despite having pain in the knee followed by a speed record (54 days) for the AT.
She covered the 800 miles of the Arizona Trail in just under 20 days. She proved that you don’t have to be a superhuman to conquer the wild. Anderson broke perceived gender and physical barriers with her tick being nothing more than sheer determination to keep hiking.
Jennifer Pharr Davis
She holds a number of FKT records, including the Long Trail (7 days, 2007), AT (women’s fastest, 57 days and 8 hours, 2008) and broke her own record for the AT in 2011 (46 days, 11 hrs, 20 min). She was named 2012’s National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. She has over 14,000 miles to her name and has hiked across six continents. Her key achievements include the AT, the PCT, the Long Trail, the Colorado Trail, the Bibbulmun Track (Australia), GR 20, and GR11.
Breaking FKT records is not the only thing she is known for. She also shares her experiences in different countries, including presentations to big companies, universities, and trade organizations. She founded Blue Ridge Hiking Company in 2018, which leads a variety of hiking trips including overnight, full-day, and half-day trips in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
MacKaye was a forester trained from Harvard and spent a large portion of his life studying the outdoors and advocating conversation. He is considered to be the man behind the AT. He presented the idea of a hiking path along the Appalachian Mountains in 1921 and developed it into a plan, which was published in 1921 in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. His idea and efforts were joined by local hiking groups and CCP (Committee on Community Planning).
The result was the AT Conference aka AT Conservancy, which still oversees the stewardship of the AT. MacKaye coined the term Geotechnics, which refers to balancing the needs of humans with the needs of nature. His article ‘An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning’ (published in 1921) was followed by 16 years of continuous effort and ultimately the establishment of the 2,192-mile trail. The Pinhoti Trail extends the length of the Appalachian Mountains and is considered to be an extension of his original vision.
Commonly known as Teddy Roosevelt, he was the youngest (42 years) and 26th President of the United States. He loved the outdoors and used to take his friends and ambassadors on intense hikes. Roosevelt has a long history of hikes, including Upper Works trailhead, Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C., and Yellowstone National Park. He sat with John Muir beside a campfire in Yosemite National Park in 1903 where Muir urged him to work for the preservation of the remnants of US wilderness. Roosevelt was a hiking fanatic himself and became a source of inspiration for conserving America’s wildernesses.
Shaffer was the first to walk the whole AT in one go, which is something once believed to be impossible. He decided to hike the AT aiming to walk the military out of his system after completing service in WW2. He began his adventure in April 1948 without any guidebooks or modern equipment, hiked at an average of 16.5 miles a day, and took 124 days to reach Mount Katahdin. He hiked the AT again once more in 1965 from Maine to Georgia, becoming the first person ever to have hiked the AT in both directions. He hiked the AT for the third time at an age of 79 in 1988.
Barry set foot on the AT a year after the AT opened in 1937 at an age of 15 and is currently the oldest person to have hiked the AT. He thru-hiked the AT again sixty years later in 2004 at an age of 81 years, officially becoming the oldest person to hike the AT. The record was previously held by Earl Shaffer who hiked the AT just before his 80th birthday. Barry spent more than four years of his retirement years on the AT. He was a trail minimalist and only carried the essentials. Surprisingly, he did not experience any serious injuries during 15,000 miles of hiking.
At an age of 74, she is the oldest woman thru-hiker to have completed the AT. Commonly known as Drag’n Fly, she completed the trail near her home and gathered with her family and friends to finish the last miles. The record was previously held by Grandma Gatewood who completed the trail at an age of 67.
Since 1972, Doyle has hiked the AT 17 times (nine times thru-hiked). He is a minimalist hiker and an advocate of the ultra lightweight backpacking movement. He founded the AT Institute, which offers crash courses to prospective AT thru-hikers. He leads hiking groups every season from Georgia to Maine on a tight schedule of 140 days.
Being an engineer and inventor, Jardine aimed to revolutionize rock climbing, sea kayaking and then fastpacking. He hiked the PCT the third time at the age of 50 in just 3 months, four days. He along with his wife carried homemade sleeping bags and packs to reduce weight and hiked long days instead of hiking faster. He is considered to be the father of ultra lightweight backpacking and moved on to arctic kayaking after leaving a mark on hiking.
George Woodard (AKA Billy Goat)
George Woodard has over 32,000 miles under his belt and is considered a true legend in the long-distance hiking community. He is a triple-crowner and hikes the PCT for six months each year. To make things a little easier and more streamlined, he uses a rubber stamp to mark his entry in trail registers, which happens to be a red goat insignia. The retired rail railroad conductor has hiked the PCT eight times and a total distance almost equal to the distance around the world. He also hiked the Rocky Mountains twice in each direction.
At an age of 50, he decided to escape from civilization and moved into the woods. He now sleeps under the stars for the most part of the year and lives outdoors. He has hiked the PCT more than any other hiker and continues to do so whether in entirety or in sections. He is also described as the heart and soul of the PCT and reminiscent of John Muir.
Physically Challenged AT Hikers
Many people find it hard even to imagine walking the AT. But Bill Irwin worked his way without even having the ability to see. He completed the trail in 259 days by ‘feeling’ the trail and with some help from his German Shepherd dog called Orient and his friend. He used his fingers to feel trail signs and broke a rib, three-pack frames, and six ski poles in the process. Without any GPS or maps, his dog could read White Blazes. His friend guided him during the last three weeks of hiking in snow and icy conditions.
Physical challenges were not the only thing he had to deal with in his 50s. He also struggled with alcoholism and the mental consequences of getting divorced. Irwin thru-hiked the AT in 1990 and became the first blind person to hike the trail after falling thousands of times, dealing with hypothermia and scabbed knees. His advice to other hikers was to keep the 4 ½ inches between their ears under control. He died at an age of 73 and left a legacy behind that still inspires thousands.
Hiking the AT is a great achievement for someone who is deaf-blind, awareness-weak and suffering from Usher syndrome. Most of his life was spent under the care of someone else and he used to wear protective gear in his childhood. He decided to hike the AT in sections at an age of 42. He along with his companion completed the trail in four years according to weather conditions and their own ability.
He completed the trail in sections with his SSP (Support Service Person) Roni Lepore, a deaf interpreter and deaf himself. Their adventure started in April 2010 and completed in June 2014 after hiking different sections every year. They were unable to complete the trail in 2013 due to strong winds at Mt. Katahdin, which marks the end of the AT and returned to finish their adventure in 2014.
At an age of 19, he received a kidney transplant and another shot at life. Doctors told him that the kidney is good until he turns forty, so he decided to live life fully before returning to the dialysis machine. In addition to hiking the AT in 1999, he also summited Mount Everest and hiked in Tibet. He thru-hiked the AT to raise awareness for tissue and organ transplant. Despite physical challenges, daily medication and vulnerability to infection, he completed the AT in 5.5 months.
In 1998, Rogers accidentally shot himself and lost his left leg. However, the accident made him even stronger and he decided to hike the entire AT at the age of 35 in 2004. He became the first above-the-knee amputee to hike the entire AT. He is an inspiration for hikers who are not that concerned with covering as many miles possible each day. He believes that hiking is more about getting closer to nature and spreading smiles.
These hikers show that limits are often just in our minds and even some of the most difficult challenges can be overcome with determination. Did we forget someone who should be part of this list? Let us know in the comments below.