Just recently, my boyfriend and I read the first few Little House books together. For him, it was kind of boring. I, on the other hand, had read the books many times as a child; they were familiar, heart-warming tales. However, I wasn’t expecting that having through-hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) six years earlier would change my interpretation of the stories as much as it did.

For those who are unfamiliar with the AT, it is a long-distance hiking trail that runs 2175 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia along the Appalachian Mountains to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It takes approximately six months to hike while carrying all your gear in a backpack. Through-hikers are those that attempt to hike the trail within one uninterrupted period usually beginning in April and ending in October. Having completed the 

Laura Ingalls WilderCredit: by unknown (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons

trail in 2007, I can attest that it is both gruelling and wonderful at the same time. It’s tiring hiking 20 miles a day and it is often wet and cold. But, one gains a newfound appreciation for the smallest gifts of nature: like when the sun briefly appears to warm your bones or when there are juicy wine berries along the path.

In the Little House on the Prairie[6749], Laura endlessly describes the environment around her: the wind, the trees and the animal life. It transported me back to my own journey and made her story that much more rich. However, simultaneously, I was only too aware of the dangers of the trek. Stories that were before just adventurous now made me anxious. The risk of the river crossings, accidents and encounters with wolf packs were now very real. This inspired me to learn more about the American Pioneers. What kinds of people were they? And how did they face these challenges without the advantages of Gore-Tex rain gear, freestanding tents and alcohol stoves?

The Story of the Ingalls Family

The story of the Ingalls family offers insight into pioneer life. However, it is important to note that they did not travel one of the famous trails heading west such as the Oregon Trail or the California Trail. Actually, the Oregon Trail starts very close to where they stopped their own travels in Kansas.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born near Pepin, Wisconsin, the location in the book, Little House in the Big Woods. She is born during an extremely dynamic period of US history. The American Civil war had just ended in 1865 and Indians were slowly being displaced farther and farther West as settlers moved in with the Homestead Act of 1862[6738]. Their trek to the prairies of Kansas took place in 1869-1870. Laura was actually younger than what is depicted in the book, being only around three years of age instead of five or six. The reason for the move given in the book was that Wisconsin was becoming too crowded for Pa. Thus, the family left their home, crossing over Lake Pepin just before the ice broke the next day.

Their destination was an area in Montgomery County, Kansas. The Ingalls family was not alone in their pursuit of a new home. Montgomery County had been recently created in 1867, an area that had formally been Osage Indian Territory. After opening for settlement, waves of settlers entered the area. Some would cross over into the Osage Diminished Reserve, straining tensions between the Indians and the settlers[6739]

The Ingalls were one of those families that settled just inside the boundaries of the Osage Diminished Reserve. They did this either because they didn’t know it was inside Indian Territory or because they felt it would be soon opened up to settlement. It isn’t in clear in the book. In either case, it was an unfortunate choice as they were forced to depart approximately one year later just as they were beginning to have success with their small homestead.

Today, the distance between the location of their house in Wisconsin and Montgomery County, Kansas is, according to Google Maps, 635 miles apart using the local highway system. If we use that as a distance estimate and the approximate wagon speed of 10 miles per day, we can determine that it must have taken about 64 traveling days to reach their destination or about two months. This may seem short, but this isn’t all of the traveling that the Ingalls family did. They, eventually, repeated the trip back to Wisconsin; travelled to Walnut Grove (the site of On the Banks of Plum Creek); had a brief stay in Iowa and then finally travelled to De Smet, South Dakota (note: only Pa travelled by wagon to De Smet, North Dakota). Estimating distances using Google Maps, the total mileage is similar to the AT: 2155 miles! Total time on the wagon trails would be approximately 215.5 days or about seven months.

Pioneering and Hiking

Since the time of Laura’s childhood, the world has gotten a lot smaller. There are no more lands for the taking with the last homestead claims being in Alaska in 1988[6740]. Unexplored regions are far and few, requiring technology and big budgets to reach them. In thtpstagecoachwalarocCredit: by taliesin (public domain) via morgueFilesis era, those who long for nature and adventure seek out long distance hiking paths. These trails offer the opportunity to escape from civilization for months on end. Besides the AT, famous long-distance trails also include the Pacific-Crest Trail and the Continental Divide.

Hiking and pioneering are clearly not the same. Certainly the final motivation is much different (i.e. no one is offering you 160 acres of land at the end of the AT) and instead of a pack on your back; pioneering included the transport of crucial supplies using a pulled wagon. However, I would also suggest that they still have a lot in common as both require months of time, exposure to the elements and the risk of injury.


Pioneers were generally outfitted with a set of horses or oxen and possessed a covered wagon carrying their belongings. This is certainly the case with the Ingalls family, who used a team of mustangs to pull their wagon. The wagon was typically 14 feet long, four feet wide and two feet deep and made entirely of wood except for iron reinforcements. The wagon box was often waterproofed with hide or a caulking material[6741]. The wagon contained mainly food and general living supplies: tools, stationary supplies, a cook stove for the homestead, seeds. On the outside, wagons had water barrels to store and collect water. Just like hikers, pioneers left luxurious goods behind to lighten the load. The few luxury goods that the Ingalls definitely took with them were Pa’s violin, a carved shelf and Ma’s porcelain figurine.

An AT hiker’s backpack is often 40-60 litres in volume and unlike a wagon that can weigh about one ton; he or she carries usually a maximum of 40lbs (with food and water). Backpacks also aren’t waterproof. Most hikers use either covers or line the inside of the backpacks with plastic trash bags. Despite 150 years of technology, most hikers don’t have a perfect solution to waterproofing either, and during severe rain, the contents often get soaked. The contents of a hiker’s bag are proportionally the same as the Pioneer’s wagon. The majority of the weight comes from food and water.

Clothing and Shoes

Pioneer clothing was simple: men wore shirts and trousers and women wore long, full dresses often covered with an apron. In the summer, these garments were made of cotton and in the winter, they were made from wool[6742]. Ma and her daughters certainly wore cotton calico dresses and wore bonnets.  Pa is always depicted as wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Most Pioneers only had two sets of garments and that is also reflected in the Laura’s family where the girl’s had a week dress and a Sunday dress. Most men and women wore leather boots, which could be smeared with fat to offer some waterproofing. Pa certainly wore them. Not much is said over Ma’s footwear. Laura and Mary were for the most part barefoot during warm weather. In the Little House on the Prairie, it is clear that the family rode in the wagon. Footgear probably wasn’t that much of an issue for them.

Hikers also have very limited clothing options; usually they have a set of easy walking clothes: a synthetic shirt and shorts and a set of warmer clothes consisting of synthetic pants and a fleece. The use of synthetic materials is an advantage as they dry quickly, are light and usually can insulate when wet. The cotton of the Pioneers was definitely a disadvantage, as it doesn't insulate when wet. However, wool is extremely fine for traveling and some hikers even prefer it to synthetics today.

For AT wanderers footgear is highly important. Although you will see some hikers still walking with leather boots, and others attempting to walk the trail barefoot, the majority wear lightweight trail runners. The disadvantage of sneakers is that they offer little to no protection against moisture. However, this is offset by their ability to quickly dry and their low weight.

Food and Water

The majority of the food was packed in the wagon, though settlements and some forts would be passed on the way, there would be no guarantees that food would be available. The lack of food was a real threat. This is in stark contrast to hikers that usually carry for not more than five days at a time due to limited carrying capacity. A hiker also can be certain that there will be chances to buy more supplies along the way.

Flour, eggs, bacon, sugar, coffee, tea, dried fruit, corn meal, and rice made up the majority of the staples for those on the frontier[6741]. Cooking was performed often using either a spider pan (frying pan with legs) or a Dutch oven (large cooking pot with a cover) made from cast iron[6743]. In the Little House on the Prairie, Ma often made corn meal cakes fried in lard with her spider.

When the pioneers had supplies, their food was probably more nutritious than hiker fare. Dinner on the AT often consists of pasta, rice or instant potato combined with a freeze-dried or canned protein source prepared with a gas or alcohol stove.  Breakfast is often hot cereal or protein bars. Lunch: a mixture of breakfast and dinner. Many candy bars are consumed. Bacon? Lard? Not a chance! Pioneers made salt-rising bread, fritters and stew with prairie hens using wood fires[6744]. Shooting meat was a possibility. However, walkers of today have the advantage of leaving the trail and heading to a restaurant. This is something that the wagon trainers couldn’t even imagine.

Hiker on PrairieCredit: Imma (public domain) via Wikimedia CommonsWater for the walker of today is tricky business. No matter how clear, fresh and sparkling the water appears; it needs to be treated as if it was contaminated. Unfortunately, most water sources on the AT have the risk of being polluted with chemical run off or being contaminated by water borne diseases such as E. coli and Giardia. Hikers of today carry water purification systems like filters, chemical tablets and UV sterilization devices. For the travellers of yesterday, clean water was also an issue. Cholera was one of the main causes of death for settlers[6745] and this is transmitted mainly via contaminated water sources. For the Ingalls family, traveling only to Kansas, finding clean water probably wasn’t as difficult. Furthermore, rain barrels on the side of the wagon would also collect clean water.

Hygiene and Delicate Matters

On the Frontier, the washing of clothes and bodies was dependent on a good water source. Washing the clothes was labour intensive and baths required copious amounts of warm water, heated on a wood fire. Families would also share the same bath water. It is suggested in Laura’s books that the family washed at least once a week. When travellers on the AT feel dirty and tired, they usually leave the trail for a day or two and wash up at a hostel or hotel. There they also have the chance to wash their clothes. Some hostels even have spare clothes so that hikers can wash all of their garments. However, this isn’t to suggest that trailside washing doesn’t occur. Many walkers have undergarments drying on the outside of their packs.

Relieving oneself on the AT is surprisingly simple. Privies are found at shelter sites (except in the Great Smoky Mountains) and there is plenty of cover and soft topsoil to dig cat holes. Most hikers have a standard Ziploc bag containing toilet paper and small tube of sanitizer gel. Those on the wagon trail relieved themselves along the way. If one was part of a wagon train with both men and women, then one side of the train was for men and the other for women. When a homestead was established, a privy was built. It’s all very similar to the situation nowadays, but there were no handy Ziplocs with paper and gel. Instead, travellers of the frontier used corncobs or rags[6746]. If they cleansed their hands it would’ve been using homemade lye soap.


One of the most dangerous aspects of hiking is possible death due to exposure. Unless it is extremely warm, rain is always a risky situation. Hikers protect themselves through the use of rain suits and shoes made with Gore-tex or coated nylon designed to keep you dry. Although, these work with varying degrees of success, one must imagine how it was for the pioneePhotograph of the Red ButtesCredit: William Henry Jackson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonsr, who’s clothing was made mostly from cotton or wool cloth. As we hikers say: “cotton kills” due to its limited insulating value when wet. However, pioneers clothed in wool would be wouldn’t be that bad off. Wool still insulates when wet.

"Sunday night we had a storm on the Plat [River]. I will asure you that we had eight cotten stufed comforters wet through and not a dry rag to put on ... everything was wet in the wagon through a thick blanket and cover." – Pamelia Fergus[6747]

The pioneer wagons were not covered with a waterproof material. Cotton canvas was pulled tightly over a bowed-frame attached to the wagon bed. Pioneers slept both in and out of the wagons on rubber sheets and were, thus, continually exposed to the elements. This is a far cry from the common hiker outfitted with a fancy ultra light tent. Yet, to paint a rosy picture about hikers would also be wrong as my own experience on the AT included several wet nights with soaked gear and fears for hypothermia.

For the settlers, a huge danger was crossing rivers. In the book, one of the most dangerous things that occurred was the flash flooding of the Verdigris River just as they were crossing it. Hikers, too, cross rivers, but its not nearly so dangerous as there usually are guide ropes installed.

On the Oregon Trail, Indian attacks were a possibility. However, the more prevalent causes of death were from Cholera, smallpox and firearms accidents[6745]. The Ingalls family remained safe for the most part, though; they did catch malaria while they were at their homestead. Interestingly enough, it is at this moment that one realizes that the prairie wasn’t nearly so desolate as it appeared. So many of the settlers were getting sick that a doctor from Independence, Kansas actually travelled to the area to treat the stricken settlers. 

Getting sick on the AT is also a huge issue. For the common hiker, the real threat is Lyme disease, a disease that didn't even exist in the time of the American Frontier. During my own through-hike, several hikers did get sick and one risked permanent nervous system damage. Contracting a diarrheal disease from untreated water is also a large risk.

In Little House on the Prairie, wolves appear to be the most dangerous animal that the family encountered. After setting up their homestead, the family is surrounded in the night by a wolf pack. Other dangerous animals include bear and panther. Today, panthers are scarce and wolves are not found on the AT. Black bear, however, is common, as well as the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. However, problematic encounters of these animals with hikers are actually rare[6748]. More hikers are known to have problems with local dogs instead.


In many ways, the challenges of hiking are similar to those faced by the Ingalls family. Given my own experiences as a through-hiker, I can easily imagine how I would deal with wagon trail life. Yet, any experience today couldn’t be how it was then. The hikers of today have mobile phones and are usually no more than a day’s hike away from civilization. If you have an accident, a helicopter is but a phone call away. The Ingalls and other pioneers did not have the luxury of security built from technology and civilization. Everything depended on their skills, strength and luck.

Being on a trail for six month enlightens you to human vulnerability and resourcefulness. It opens your eyes to how it was on the American Frontier, but it can never be a replacement. And, thus, I am left with an immense respect for the Ingalls family. They were capable, strong folk with a will to survive and the discipline to hold onto to their principles despite the hardships. Was there room for enjoyment of the trek? It’s hard to say, but I would cautiously guess that if Pa or Laura were alive today, they would’ve also made an attempt at a long distance hike. 

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