Gary Paulsen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1939. Although Gary Paulsen was a poor student with little motivation, one particular incident changed his life forever. When he stopped in at a library to warm up on a cold day, the librarian gave him a library card and a book. Initially reluctant, Paulsen soon took to reading with enormous enthusiasm, and became an avid reader.

At age fourteen, after a difficult childhood living with his alcoholic parents, he ran away from home. He traveled with a carnival, which invested him with a sense of adventure he has maintained for his whole life. He also held of wide range of odd jobs to support himself during this time and to enable him to pursue his writing career on the side. These jobs included teacher, electronic field engineer, construction worker, sailor, actor, director, satellite technician, rancher, and singer. He was in the army from 1958 to 1962. He also twice completed the Iditarod, the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race. Once he realized he wanted to take his career as a writer seriously, he got a job as a magazine editor to gain some experience in the publishing world. In 1966 Paulsen published The Special War, his first novel. Gary Paulsen has written more than forty books, 200 magazine articles and short stories, and several plays, primarily for young adults. Hatchet was published well into his career, after he had achieved a certain degree of success, and he enjoyed much popular and critical success. Gary Paulsen's life experiences have heavily influenced his writing. His early difficulties with his family, as well as his love for and struggles with nature, become central themes in Hatchet and in most of his works.

In addition to personal factors influencing Paulsen's work, the literary culture of his time also shaped the content and mood of his work. Around the same time that Paulsen emerged into the literary world, three books were published that dealt with the author's personal relationship with the natural world. Each book sought to combine autobiography and fiction in order to search for meaning and a rethought system of values out in the natural world. Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motocycle Maintenance, and Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It all revolved around similar themes. Paulsen adapted these themes to a young adult audience and added his own personal elements as well. These themes were not exclusive to the literary world. In the 1970s a strong cultural force called people back to the land, and Paulsen's books are partially a product of this outlook.