50 Years Later, Backpacker’s Founder William Kemsley Still Dreams of the Trail
"Nature is not a hobby to me, or even something I really think about. It’s simply part of who I am."
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“We believe that simply walking in the backcountry … engenders a special relationship with nature that is unlike anything you can find sitting in your living room, or in an office, in a lecture hall, in a church, reading a book, or listening to music.”
—William Kemsley, Spring 1973 issue
When the first issue of Backpacker debuted in the spring of 1973, William Kemsley had a simple goal: to teach people how to take care of the trail.
America’s wilderness areas were experiencing the greatest surge in visitation in the nation’s history, fueled by returning Vietnam veterans, baby boomers blessed with unprecedented mobility and disposable income, and young people inspired by the back-to-nature movement. Our wild lands were also facing extraordinary pressure as energy and real estate demands skyrocketed.
Recognizing these threats—and the opportunity to shape a new generation of conservationists—Kemsley took out a big loan and launched a journal-style magazine with thoughtful essays, full-color photography, and hand-drawn illustrations. Success didn’t come overnight, as Kemsley shunned mass-marketing techniques and easy advertising dollars in favor of building an audience of true believers. But the business world noticed: Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone launched Outside four years later, and a slew of camping and hiking brands started popping up in Berkeley, Boulder, and Seattle. Kemsley himself would go on to cofound the American Hiking Society alongside legendary trail advocate Jim Kern, Sr., paving the way for today’s Leave No Trace standards.
Fifty years later, Backpacker’s 94-year-old founder lives in a casita near Taos, New Mexico, and still hikes almost every day. Longtime editor-in-chief Jon Dorn spoke with him over breakfast earlier this summer.
Backpacker: You were a food writer in 1973. What inspired you to launch a backpacking magazine?
William Kemsley: At the time, I was living in New York City, the most congested place in the world, which was tough for someone whose father had passed along a love of nature after homesteading in the wilds of northern Canada.
Every weekend, I would head to the woods—seeking any place that got me past the last pavement. Early on, you didn’t have to go very far, but pretty soon I was bumping into more and more people. So I started winter hiking, and the same thing happened.
The problem was, most of these new hikers had atrocious habits—they didn’t know how to take care of the trail. Shooting them wasn’t an option, so I decided to start a magazine to educate them. [Ed. note: We’re pretty sure Bill was joking.]
BP: In your first editor’s letter, you grappled with the risk that Backpacker would contribute to overuse, and encourage more people with atrocious habits to despoil the backcountry. Have outdoor enthusiasts become better stewards?
WK: Oh, absolutely. We got people to stop burying garbage, which was the way we did things before. And there are many examples where Backpacker and other outdoor organizations implanted better habits in new backpackers.
BP: In those early issues, you frequently wrote about the special clarity and peace that could only be found from a reverential walk in the woods. How have you experienced that in your life?
WK: Nature is not a hobby to me, or even something I really think about. It’s simply part of who I am. I live out in the woods, up a lonely road a mile from any pavement. I walk in the forest every day, and that’s where my being is—out there with the squirrels and pine trees.
BP: What makes you most proud about Backpacker?
WK: It was with great reluctance that I started the magazine, because it was a lot of work that took me out of the woods. But it needed to be done, and we did it for the right reasons—to be a custodian for wilderness. I’m really grateful that the current owners have similar values, and my hope for the next generation is that you continue caring about the planet and keeping our wild places pristine.