It can be difficult to identify who invented hiking because humans have been walking over long distances since there have been humans.
Hiking might seem like a fun pastime today, but this has not always been the case. People who had to walk several hundred miles for their survival are probably considered the first hikers.
The earliest documented recreational hike can be traced to 1336, when a French poet claimed to summit Mount Ventoux. Recreational hiking gained popularity in the 1700s in Europe, when people wanted to escape the effects of industrialization and experience nature in its original form.
It has been common for humans to travel long distances on foot, searching for food, water, hunting, and even trade. However, recreational hiking did not become popular until recently.
Experienced hikers believe that no one person invented hiking. Humans have been going around on foot ever since they have existed. Initially, all their 'hikes' were for survival, where they would search for food and water. In today's era, hiking is an excellent recreational activity that keeps us stress-free, healthy, and curious. Today's hiking is much different from what our ancestors must have experienced.
The Earliest Hikers
The origins of hiking remain ambiguous because humans have walked very long distances for several purposes throughout history. Many armies have marched on foot across ancient trails to meet the enemy. Some tribes have worked their way through hills and mountains to reach sacred locations for pilgrimages. Yet others have been known to wander about searching for food and shelter.
Hiking for Trade – Ancient Egypt
One of the earliest forms of hiking can be traced back to ancient Egypt. The hieroglyphics have symbols that resemble a group of people out on a foot excursion together. The symbols show them carrying baskets full of supplies. We presume that these people traveled in groups for long distances in attempts to trade.
Hiking was probably the only method to travel to and explore new areas. It was also essential for gathering essential supplies such as food and clothing. It played a vital role in developing the Egyptian lifestyle and culture.
A Lesser Known Form of Hiking – Pilgrimages
During the middle ages, several tribes had to take long walks on all kinds of terrains for their religious pilgrimages. These treks, which could go on for months, or years on end, were solely for religious purposes, and the goal was to attain spiritual benefits. These walks often consisted of retracing the footsteps of a religious leader and ended in a sacred place.
Several ancient pilgrimage trails can still be seen today, and today's pilgrims continue to traverse them on foot to pay respect to the past pilgrims, who went through a lot of hardship to search for spiritual satisfaction.
Hiking as a Recreational Activity
However, hiking and its reasons have drastically changed with time. Hiking for fun and leisure is a much more recent invention. One of the earliest examples of recreational hiking dates back to 1336. A poet called Francesco Petrarca wrote a letter to a friend stating that he had reached the summit of Mount Ventoux, located in south France.
The peak of Ventoux is around 6.200 feet above sea level, and reaching its summit on April 26, 1336, is one of the earliest examples of hiking that has been documented. However, some historians believe Francesco only made up the story and did not set foot on the mountain.
Although there are some early examples of hiking for leisure, hiking became popular as a recreational activity in the 1700s. Walking was once linked with homelessness and poverty, and most people avoided it if they could. This concept, however, began to shift during the Romantic period.
The Romantic period started around the end of the eighteenth century. Artists, musicians, philosophers, and authors praised nature, emotion, and individuality in response to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization.
As a result, an increasing number of people desire to escape the congestion and pollution of cities and enjoy the serenity of the natural environment through activities such as hiking. A walk in the wilderness was no longer connected with poverty but rather with a luxury enjoyed mostly by rich Europeans, artists, and authors.
Hiking groups sprouted all across Europe and North America as people became more interested in walking for recreation and spending time with nature. The groups aimed to bring together hikers and enhance access to natural places.
The Emergence of Hiking Around the Globe
As discussed above, recreational hiking supposedly started in Europe, somewhere between the Alps and the English countryside. Most of the documented evidence comes from the UK, France, Switzerland, and Germany.
During the late 1700s, the concept of taking walks for pleasure was documented by many writers in the UK. Several writers and popular personalities have published works about their foot excursions. Take Thomas West, for instance, who was an English priest who published a guide on Lake District in England. The guide enticed interest in discovering the district on foot and pointed to taking walking as a recreational activity.
An English poet, William Wordsworth, enjoyed taking leisure walks and often set off on walking tours around the UK and Europe. He mentioned his foot expeditions in his poems and shared them with the world. More writers like John Keats and Robert Louis have also published works discussing walks in the countryside during the late 1700s.
England and Europe saw significant industrialization during the early 1800s. English people, who felt deprived of clean and fresh air, resorted to the countryside to enjoy long walks in the wilderness and spend time with nature.
In 1879, Leslie White founded England's first rambling club. It was called Sunday Tramps. It was a club for people who enjoyed taking walks in the countryside. The idea flourished, and several other rambling clubs appeared around England. In 1905, the Federation of Rambling Clubs was formed. The body overlooked the performance of all the rambling clubs present in the country.
Other Parts of Europe
European countries are full of scenic valleys and breathtaking mountains. They provide an excellent opportunity for hikers to step out and explore nature. In 1732, Albrecht von Haller wrote a poem to appreciate nature and the mountains around Switzerland. It was called Die Alpen, meaning The Alps. His works enticed curiosity among explorers, and by the end of the 1700s, many of them had recorded their expeditions into the mountains.
Among the explorers was German author Johann Gottfried Seume. He began his expedition in 1801 and traveled on foot for over nine months. His journey from Leipzig to Sicily on foot has been described in detail in his book published in 1803.
Hiking clubs also started sprouting in other European countries in the 1800s. The Swiss Alpine Club was founded in Olten in 1863 and was the first alpine club in Europe. As a protest against industrialization, young organizations in Germany formed the Wandervögel (translated as "Wandering Birds") movement. From 1896 until 1933, German youth went on hikes in the countryside, where they could spend time in the forest and reconnect with nature.
In the nineteenth century, industrialization made going for a stroll in the woods more difficult and more desired for many individuals in the United States and Canada. In the late 1800s, problems with overpopulation, pollution, and bad health in North American cities sparked a movement that called for better access to open, natural places. On the other hand, hiking involved effort, money, and time, making it a luxury only the rich could afford.
Taking inspiration from European rambling clubs, outdoor programs appeared in the United States and Canada towards the end of the nineteenth century. Some of the popular clubs formed included:
- The Alpine Club was founded in Massachusetts in 1863
- The Rocky Mountain Club was established in Colorado in 1873
- The Sierra Club, located in California, was founded in 1892
However, since most of these clubs were located in larger cities, their membership was a luxury only the wealthy could afford.
However, by the 1900s, the concept of these clubs began to change. American people began to value the importance of physical exercise and preferred spending time with nature. This led several organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to flourish at the start of the twentieth century. These organizations instilled the importance of outdoor activities like camping and hiking among the younger generations.
Hiking, however, did not become a favorite hobby for Americans until the mid-1900s. Following World War I, working hours were decreased, which provided many Americans with paid time off, allowing them to enjoy vacations and engage in outdoor recreational activities.
After WWII, changes in the workplace and industrialization of labor resulted in an inactive lifestyle for most people. These changes and the growing popularity of automobiles made hiking and other outdoor recreational activities more accessible and appealing as pastimes. Hiking has since been among America's most popular recreation activities, and millions hit the trails each year.
Explorers in the early 1700s discovered that Australian Aborigines created paths and tracks through the bushes by burning them with fire. However, as the colonies grew in the 1800s, most of these fire techniques were abolished, and paths disappeared into the bushes.
During the nineteenth century, walking was the most popular method of transportation among lower classes and explorers. People from the upper class also walked around their estates to pursue their botany interests.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Romantic Movement influenced the interest of Australians to spend time with nature for fun. Bushwalking became a common pastime. With the development of the nation post World War I, outdoor recreation projects, guidebooks, and national parks emerged to promote hiking. Since then, hiking has held a special place in Australia's multi-million dollar tourism industry.
Asia has long been home to several ancient trade routes and sacred pilgrimages. However, traces of recreational hiking can be seen as recently as the early 1900s. Hiking gained popularity in Asia thanks to several European and American tours to the Himalayas.
Many nations did not accept hiking as a recreational activity until recently. In Hong Kong, urbanization took place in 1970 and incited an interest in hiking. However, today, Asia houses some of the best hiking expeditions. Whether it is the Himalayas in Nepal, the jungles in Hong Kong, or the wildlife across the continent, Asia has several hikes that you can add to your favorites list.
Latin America is known for some of the best hiking expeditions. Many of the hiking trails follow the paths used by the locals before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. One of the trails worth mentioning is the Inca Trail; it is a 26-mile long route designed by the Inca civilization in the 1400s. Similarly, another trail follows the Tairona clans' path through jungles, hills, and river valleys. The Lost City Trek in Columbia takes you along these routes.
Hiking, trekking, and mountain climbing industries sprouted in Latin America in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Over the years, corporate sectors and governments have attempted to boost tourism to their countries, and more hiking and trekking organizations have emerged.
Trekking operators have been marketing various trails such as the Inca Trail since the 1970s. Several hikers visit these countries today to satisfy their craving for hiking by experiencing the rich history, archeological wonders, and breathtaking landscapes.
Our list could not be complete without discussing Africa. According to paleoanthropologists (excuse the long word, let's call them historians), it is the first place where humans walked on two legs. It is also home to Egypt, known for some of the most important ancient trade and transportation routes.
Like most of the world, Africa also saw the sunrise on recreational hiking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1925, the Virunga National Park was established as part of the European Conservation Movement in the Republic of Congo. Scientists carried out multiple expeditions on foot, and these expeditions set the ground for many of the hiking trails that exist today.
The highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, has played a crucial role in setting the ground for trekking. Two European climbers set the record of being the first to reach its peak in 1889. It is believed that these two European climbers set the ground for trekking in Africa.
Evolution of Official Hiking Tracks
Several hiking trails and hiking clubs appeared in Europe around the same period. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, these clubs began to develop, maintain, and mark their own routes while focusing on building long-distance routes for hiking. Their efforts paid off when Europe unveiled its largest trail in 1938, The Hungarian National Blue. It covered a distance of 63 miles running through the Hungarian wildernesses.
Official hiking trails first appeared in the United States in the 1800s, the same time as other outdoor activities clubs. However, Native Americans had developed informal trail networks long before the nineteenth century. Native Americans in North America developed multi-use routes that frequently followed tracks taken by animals. The paths were utilized for various purposes, including hunting, trade, ceremonies, and combat. A few of these routes continue to be used today.
In 1819, one of North America's first hiking routes was established. Abel Crawford and his son Ethan carved a route to the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire's highest peak. The 8.5-mile path is still in use today and is one of the oldest continuously used and maintained hiking routes in the United States.
Outing clubs encouraged and coordinated hiking expeditions in the late nineteenth century. They provided access to resources, making it simpler to explore such places on foot. Hiking groups cleared and marked paths, constructed overnight shelters, and designed trail maps to be used by all kinds of adventure seekers.
Hotel owners also played an important part in developing trails. Hotels in popular places such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley created trail networks and pathways to serve recreational hiking as outdoor tourism flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Emergence of National Parks
National parks serve to protect the precious and beautiful ecosystems for the betterment of the planet. They are also a great place for hiking and exploration. Some parks focus solely on conserving the environment, while others serve as recreational routes loved by hikers.
As the colonies in the United States began to expand towards the West during the 1800s, they discovered beautiful lands. However, the expansion also led to ranching, logging, mining, and resource extraction. These manufacturing processes triggered the conservationists because of their harmful effects.
The 1800s also saw rapid urbanization, causing social and health issues to surface in Northern America. People began to realize the importance of fresh air and greenery.
With the ever-growing concerns for the environment after the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, ecologists and scientists persuaded the governments to preserve certain areas from the harmful effects of industrialization. These persuasions resulted in the formation of the city, state, and national parks. The idea of National Parks expanded globally, leading to many governments building them. They are now found in most countries across the globe and help conserve the ecosystem.
The national parks serve as great hiking spots. They allow the hikers to see nature up close and in its real form. Let us look at some national parks that played a vital role in hiking for recreation.
Yellowstone National Park, USA
The Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and is commonly considered the first national park on the face of the earth. It stretches across the Montana and Wyoming territories. Its creation laid down the framework for conservation at the level of federal governments, and it inspired many leaders around the globe to build national parks in their territories.
There have been reports of the Qing Dynasty taking conservation measures similar to those found in national parks in 1783. However, the Yellowstone National Park was the first to promote conservation at a federal level and on such an enormous scale.
Royal National Park, Australia
The Royal National Park was founded in 1879. It was Australia's first national park and the second one behind Yellowstone across the globe. Improvements were made to civilize the National Park by removing under-scrub, building English decorative gardens, and importing exotic vegetation and wildlife, including five Rusa deer in 1886, whose descendants are still found in the park today.
Banff National Park, Canada
The Banff National Park was designed while keeping tourism under consideration. It was established in 1886 and was Canada's first and the world's third national park. The park's foundation was laid when three workers from the Canadian Pacific Railway project came across hot springs, now known as Sulfur Mountain, in the park.
These hot springs were seen as a tourist attraction. However, many people began to claim the territory as their own, which prompted the government to conserve the springs and protect the area surrounding them.
Several hikes are available in the Banff National park, as it is home to gushing rivers, several mountains, and alpine meadows. Trails span the Banff area, ranging from low-elevation walks along flat surfaces to more demanding full-day excursions that take experienced hikers to several great alpine passes in the Rocky Mountains.
Other National Parks
The establishment of the above three national parks served as a crucial step toward conservation. Over the next two decades, several parks were established around the globe. Here are a few of them:
- Yoho National Park established in 1886 in Canada
- Tongariro National Park established in 1887 in New Zealand
- Sequoia National Park, established in 1890 in the USA
- Yosemite National park, established in 1890 in the USA
- Lakes National Park established in 1895 in Canada
The popularity of national parks has only grown since their inception. More than four thousand national parks are located across 100 countries. They all serve to protect nature in its original form and help conserve the environment.
Hiking Timeline for the United States
Hiking has been around in the United States since 1800. Let's take a glimpse at how hiking has progressed since then.
In the United States, the 1800s was a time of considerable discovery and growth. Hiking was becoming increasingly popular to explore new locations and see new things.
Congress laid the foundation for Yellowstone Park in 1872, which became an important landmark for hiking. The park was and continues to be home to breathtaking sceneries and several wildlife species, which can only be observed through hiking.
As hiking continued to gain popularity, several new trails were developed all across the country. Hikers now had the opportunity to explore areas that were previously considered inaccessible. Hiking was beginning to become one of America's favorite pastimes. It gave the people a sense of excitement and freedom, which came from discovering the undiscovered.
Like the 1800s, hiking's popularity continued to grow through the 1900s. In 1909, the first-ever Hiker's Guide was published. It shared experiences from hikers to assist those beginning the hobby. Many novice hikers used it to learn about the various hiking trails.
The Appalachian Trail, one of the longest hiking trails, spans more than 2000 miles from Maine to Georgia, was founded in 1925. It allows the hikers to visit and explore various parts of the country. Completing the Appalachian Trail is a golden feather that hikers can wear in their hats.
During the 1900s, several long hiking trails were established. These trails allowed the hikers to go from one state to the other without turning back home.
Hiking had rapid development in the 2000s. Hiking paths were being developed rapidly, and more people became interested in hiking and treated it as a method of spending time outside.
The inaugural Hiker's Conference was held in 2006. It brought hiking enthusiasts from all across the US to share their knowledge and experience. Hikers had the opportunity to meet fellow hikers and interact with people who shared their passions. Hiking has remained a community-oriented pastime, which makes it so unique!
About THE AUTHOR
I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.Read More About Peter Brooks