Looking back: Thru-Hiker’s Handbook by Dan Bruce

Let’s go back almost three decades in the backpacking world.

I could discuss the gear (leather boots, large packs, white gas stoves) or the clothing, but many people have covered those topics over the years.

What was different was that hiking the long trails was somewhat obscure.

Hundreds of people did it.

But not thousands.

There were no movies.  Books about thru-hikers were a for a limited niche.

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail at that time was a bit of a wilderness experience, a bit of a pilgrimage, and a large part of the social community experience.

Not really that different than today.

But what was different, it that is the experience of thru-hiking was not such an institution.    There were random acts of trail magic by trail angels.  As opposed to Trail Angels doing Trail Magic.  Registration was minimal.

Social media were simply wet, stained, and dirty notebooks left at shelters.  Maybe a newspaper clip.   The internet as we know it today was just getting off the ground.

And people took guidebooks. Something being phased out in our digital world.

One guidebook that was taken at that time?  The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook by Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce. 

A book that became popular during a transitional time in the long distance hiking world.

The trail was not as obscure as the era discussed in the classic Rodale Press books.  The locals around the trail certainly knew of the yearly thru-hiker migration by the 1990s.  And many backpackers on the East Coast certainly dreamed of hiking the trail.

Instagram feeds, Twitter, and established pilgrimage waypoints were years away.  The AT was something that if not a mystery, was not entirely known by people who have not hiked this famous footpath.

And Wingfoot’s guide lead us on the way for the uninitiated.

Though The Philosopher’s Guide predated  The Handbook by a few years, it is arguably Wingfoot’s book that was much more influential. The Handbook had a professionally produced look.   And Wingfoot’s template of basic mileage info, expanded town data with maps, logistic info for post- and pre- trail experience and descriptions of places along the trail sprinkled with advice is the standard for today’s contemporary long trail guidebooks.






Not long after the Handbook peaked in popularity, the nature of the trail started changing: Becoming more connected, more popular, more established, and more social.

But for those who lament the alleged lost “Golden Age of Thru-hiking” as described by some (not me!) , arguably books such as Wingfoot’s guide were part of the change.  Laying the information out in a condensed form made the trail more accessible. And helped to make the trail more attractive to many.

Guidebooks such as Wingfoot’s book are now somewhat obsolete. They are preferred to be in electronic form by many.  And other, more interactive guides, have become the information source of choice for many long distance hikers.

As the thru-hiker season is here, this book came to mind.

But, as I’ve said before, I don’t think of the differences.

But of the similarities!

I chuckle at one portion that is all too familiar in this day of social media as one example:

Gossip and controversy will probably be two of the least appealing aspects of the AT scene that you will encounter during your hike… these needless distractions are usually injected into the Trail scene by… alumni..It is a powertrip for them.. as a newcomer you have no long-term context for questioning the validity of their comments… Recognize malicious gossip and petty controversy for exactly what they are – Trail pollution.

Hmm???? 😀

I suspect I’d find the AT too crowded for my tastes.  And I seek more of a  wild experience than a linear social community when I go backpacking.  But there is no denying the transformative experience thru-hiking the AT was for me…and many others.

The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook is a look at a time that has passed in many ways. But the handbook helped bring about some of the changes to make this era pass.

An interesting snapshot of a different time and thru-hiking culture.

But the lines found at the beginning of  Wingfoot’s book still sums up the AT, or any long trail, experience be it 1936, 1998 or 2017:

Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, the Appalachian Trail beckons not merely north and south, but upward to the body, mind, and soul of man.            –Harold Allen, 1936

As long as people grab a pack and follow those white blazes, the Appalachian Trail will be a transforming experience for many.

Not matter how the trail is done or what resource is used to walk this famous path.

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Jim Warnock
7 years ago

Enjoyed seeing the similarities of early trail gossip with today’s social media. Thanks for sharing the ideas and the quotes.

Jeff Ryan
7 years ago

More than through-hikers that benefited from “Wingfoot’s” great guides. I was a 28-year section hiker. Wingfoot’s books were instrumental in planning our adventure. I am thankful that he came up with the idea and kept the guides current — no small task. Great post. Thank you.

Beth Miller
Beth Miller
7 years ago

I carried Wingfoots book in 2006, just prior to his decision to quit publishing. Still looks good today, although obsolete.

7 years ago

When Sisu and I thru-hiked the AT in 2000, Wingfoot’s guide was being supplanted by another guidebook. And it didn’t help that Dan was late in publishing his guide that year. We posted our trail journals on his web site and met him in Hot Springs during our hike. He seemed so genial and kind, in contrast to his testy, ascerbic online persona. Definitely a true trail personality, though. I hope he’s still out there, chain smoking and clacking away at a keyboard. Or, better yet, on the trail.

4 years ago

Good stuff, Mags!

Johnny Swank
AT SOBO 2000

Tyler williamson
Tyler williamson
3 years ago

I carried the 94 versions on my hike. Of course I cut it up into sections but I was recently gifted another, clean copy. I also have my 93 copy that I used for planning. I treasure my old guidebooks. For me that was the golden age of thru hiking. I miss it.