Ron Strickland was a 19-year-old Georgetown University student when he read an article about antiques dealer Paris Walters, who hiked 450 miles through the Cascades on what later became the Pacific Crest Trail. The year was 1962, and a continuous long-distance backpacking trip like that was a rare feat.
"It captured my imagination," says Strickland. Six years later, he flew to Seattle and hiked the trail himself, escaping into the wilderness from what he felt were the crowds and social malaise of the East. Strickland felt liberated by the Cascades, which were much grander than anything he had seen back home. He took in moonlit climbs and met what he says were "like-minded bearded youths," one of whom invited him home, "where he grew weed in his closet" and was building an outdoor sauna.
"I was totally hooked," he says.
So were a lot of people in the late '60s and '70s. It was the golden era of backpacking, fueled by the environmental and countercultural movements of the time. Long- distance trails were still being built and explored, and the excitement of those new wilderness journeys spread with books such as Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked Through Time. Eventually, backpacking idols even developed fanatical followers. There arose a craze over something called the "Citadel spread," a concoction of peanut butter, powdered milk, and honey favored by famed Appalachian Trail backpacker Ed Garvey. At one meeting of a hiking club at Dartmouth College, Strickland says, a group known as "the Traveling Garveys" greeted their namesake by chanting, "We are unworthy!"
Strickland, now 62 and living in Seattle, went on to found the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs east to west from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, and forms a counterpoint to the north-south Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.
These days, Strickland still finds solitude by going into the backcountry—too much solitude, actually. A couple of years ago, he returned to the Pacific Crest Trail and was "astonished at how little used it was."
"The trails are a way that one learns about the wilderness and its value," he says. "There is much less interest from the general public now than there used to be."
Americans continue to enjoy the outdoors in great numbers, according to an annual survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, a Boulder, Colo.–based nonprofit affiliated with the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group. Snowshoeing, telemark skiing, and trail running are growth activities. But while backpacking is still a vital activity, with an estimated 13.5 million American participants last year, that figure represents a 22.5 percent decline since 1998. None of the other 21 outdoor activities measured by the foundation has seen anything close to that kind of drop. More disturbing yet to backpacking enthusiasts, young people are snubbing the backcountry in even bigger numbers, evidenced by a 32 percent drop in backpacking among 16- to 24-year-olds since 1998.
The Moutaineers, a club that is emblematic of Northwest backpacking, hiking, and climbing, has seen its membership fall by a third since 1995, to approximately 10,000. Surveying former members, the club's Steve Costie discovered that people want shorter trips than the classic multiday backpacking journey. That may be in part because, as National Park Service social scientist Jim Gramann has observed while assessing declining overnight stays in the park system, overworked Americans are more likely to take long weekends now than the iconic two-week vacation. But even the day trips are proving too long for current tastes.
"People want to get back by 5 o'clock," Costie says. "They want to go hiking in the morning and go to Qwest Field at night. They want to surf their experience."
That seems to be especially true among young people, who are accustomed to surfing video games, iPods, cell phones, and the Web. "We like to do lots of things but nothing that lasts a real long time," says 25-year-old Andrew Skurka, an East Coast backpacker renowned for his "extreme" approach to the sport. "We still like the outdoors, but doing it in a way that allows us to stay connected. We don't drift as far away."
Consistent with this assessment, the Moutaineers has seen the average age of its membership creep upward of 50. "We used to say, we want to get more young people in here," Costie says, and he does still have hopes of that. "At the same time, going after AARP [the American Association of Retired Persons] is a pretty good idea, too. They're the ones coming in wanting to do this stuff."
On a Thursday night at the Mountaineers' Lower Queen Anne headquarters, eight people—all baby boomers—show up for a beginning hiking seminar. Bill Swint, a silver-haired, 59-year-old management consultant, says he discovered hiking after moving to Seattle recently. He says, "I've got time to do it." Also in attendance is Tim Mahoney, a self-described "middle-aged fart who's out of shape." The 43-year-old says he can already hear the clock ticking—and henceforth wants to become more of an outdoors person.
Yet it's also true that there's a limited pool of aging boomers and older folks willing to slap on a backpack, hike for miles, and sleep on the ground. Seventy-three-year-old Goldie Silverman is one who doesn't mind. The author of two books, Backpacking With Babies and Small Children and Camping With Kids, Silverman last went on an overnight backpacking trip this summer off the Mountain Loop Highway with her doctor husband and 22-year-old grandson. In her contemporary Laurelhurst home, distinguished by soaring ceilings and sweeping views of Lake Washington, she heads down two flights of stairs to a walk-in storage closet where she keeps her backpacking supplies: rain ponchos hanging from the wall in a row, neatly laid out backpacks and sleeping bags, and boxes with labels like "10 essentials" and "First Aid."
Hiking, that's one thing: She goes out weekly with a group of 70-somethings who dub themselves the "Walkie-Talkies." Backpacking, however, has come to seem like too much work.
"It's getting harder to get people to go with me," she says. "A lot of people in my age group are tired of that."
Mulling it over in her living room, sporting sensible black shoes and dangling turquoise earrings, Silverman can see that backpacking has changed in other ways as well. When she and her family went on early backpacking trips, they had to construct a device for carrying their youngest child. They took a wooden and canvas frame known as a Trapper Nelson and strapped a baby car seat to it.
"People improvised, and that was part of the challenge of going," she says. Now, she realizes, baby carriers along with every other kind of gear are easily bought.
"I guess that kind of thrill and excitement is gone," she says.
Backpacking has an image problem, opines Demetri Coupounas, founder and president of the Boulder-based lightweight gear company GoLite. It's seen as plodding, particularly among the young. Backpacking "is a very slow, not athletic, not cutting-edge activity," he says, lacking the thrills of faster-paced pursuits such as snowboarding and adventure racing.
Enter Skurka, who spends a couple months a year teaching clinics for GoLite. The rest of the time he spends "trying to figure out the physical and mental limits" of what he semi-jokingly calls "extreme backpacking." In 2005, he completed the unofficial "Sea-to-Sea Route"—7,700 miles of interlinking long-distance trails, from Quebec to Washington state, that Ron Strickland is trying to establish as a formal trail—by hiking an average of 36 miles a day for 11 months. And Skurka just headed out to "yo-yo" the Long Trail, meaning that he will traverse that trail's 265 miles through Vermont's Green Mountains—and back—without veering off course for new supplies.
Whether extreme backpacking will draw hoards of young people remains to be seen. Right now, probably the biggest local outdoors club for youth is Garfield High School's Post 84, which attracts as many as 550 students a year to participate in trips such as a five-day "desert school" and a three-day Lopez Island camping trip. Around six or seven years ago, it became a science class as well as a club, a move that helped make the group one of the most popular activities at Garfield. A particular draw is the desert school, where kids mountain bike, climb, and take geology and biology hikes in the sagebrush steppe of Eastern Washington. There's also a wilderness survival trip, where students camp out in the forest with only the barest essentials (not including sleeping bag).
Recently, the group became affiliated with the Moutaineers, through which Post 84 gets its insurance. The Mountaineers' Costie sees a future in Post 84 and would like to start similar school clubs throughout the state. But it turns out that the future of Post 84 itself is in jeopardy because of funding issues.
One day after a class spent packing for the upcoming Lopez Island trip, Post 84 leaders Tim Willis and Sophie DePillis, both seniors, muse that they might be able to pull off a backpacking trip. But they say it would be seen as hard work and too technical. What they like about the club is more simplistic.
"It's kickin' it with your friends," says Willis. "In beautiful places," adds DePillis.