How a 67-year-old Grandmother Unintentionally Pioneered Ultralight Backpacking

How a 67-year-old Grandmother Unintentionally Pioneered Ultralight Backpacking


In 1955, 67-year-old Emma “Grandma” Gatewood told her 11 children she was “going for a hike in the woods." She conveniently forgot to mention this hike would stretch over 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail.

Gatewood learned about the trail in a National Geographic article profiling Earl Shaffer, the first man to thru-hike the A.T. less than a decade prior. Up to that point, no woman had solo hiked the entire trail.

Gatewood slipped into a pair of Keds and left home with a handmade denim bag slung over her shoulder. Her kit weighed about 17 pounds and included a blanket, a shower curtain, a canteen, a small pot, a cup, a spoon, a Swiss Army knife, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a piece of rope, a raincoat, a warm jacket, and a spare set of clothes.

In lieu of a tent, Gatewood slept on picnic benches, piles of leaves, and in the homes of complete strangers. She didn't have the luxury of packing in thru-hiker staples like energy bars, tortillas, or dehydrated dinners. Instead, her on-trail diet consisted of canned meats, raisins, nuts, bouillon cubes, and foraged greens.

After 146 days, Gatewood reached the summit of Mount Katahdin on September 25, 1955 and became the first woman to complete a solo thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

While Gatewood's bare-bones setup made the journey to Katahdin easier, gear alone isn't a good litmus test for a successful thru-hike. Gatewood spent the early years of her life toiling on a farm to support her family and enduring three decades of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from her husband. She was a tough, resourceful woman determined to reclaim her life and do something just for herself, maybe for the first time ever.

Gatewood herself summed it up best when asked why she decided to hike the A.T., simply stating, "Because I wanted to.”

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