The 2018 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Survey: General Information
Two years ago, The Trek expanded our annual Appalachian Trail thru-hiker survey to include questions not only about main gear items, but also more detailed demographics, the timeline of AT thru-hikes, favorite and most difficult sections of the trail, hiking partners, and their adherence to Leave No Trace practices.
Participants were recruited through social media, particularly Facebook groups for the AT thru-hiker class of 2018. Data were collected from Sept. 25, 2018, to Nov. 3, 2018.
Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Survey Demographics
The average (mean) age of hikers in the survey was 34 years old, plus or minus 13 years, with a median age of 29 years old. Hikers ranged in age from 18 to 74.
Fifty-five percent of hikers were biologically male and forty-five percent were female. Regarding gender identity, 54 percent of hikers identified as men, 44 percent as women, and 1.6 percent identified as non-binary.The vast majority (95%, n = 286) of hikers in the survey were white non-Hispanic. Six hikers identified as Hispanic/Latino/Latina, three hikers as Asian, four as multiracial, one as Native American/Alaska native/Hawaii native, and one as black.
Nearly half of hikers in the survey (46%) had bachelor’s degrees. One of the four hikers who had not yet finished high school was only 19 years old.
Nearly all hikers were from the US (89%), with England and Canada a distant second. There was one hiker each from Denmark, France, Guyana, India, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Scotland, and Switzerland.
Unsurprisingly, states with the highest numbers of AT hikers were states that the Appalachian Trail passes through, as well as the most populous US states (California and Texas). Additionally, a high percentage of US hikers were from Florida. From my personal experience, I’m guessing more hikers come from AT states because the trail is more well known in those places. For example, I grew up hiking in the Smokies and learned about the AT as a child; where I live now in Mississippi, most people don’t even know what it is. For me personally, exploring my homeland before I moved away from it was a primary reason I chose to hike the AT instead of one of the other long trails.
The majority of hikers had gone backpacking between one and seven nights. Very few had no camping or hiking experience, just as very few had done long-distance backpacking. However, this year the percent who had backpacked three-plus months more than doubled from the previous year (7.2% compared to 3.2% in 2017).
Thru-hikers were the target of this survey, and comprised the majority of hikers who took it.
Of the 47 survey participants who did not thru-hike, 11 had intended a section hike. The other 36 were unable to finish intended thru-hikes. Injuries were the most common reason that hikers quit. Note that some hikers were still on the trail at the time they responded to the survey. This annual survey doesn’t go into detail about reasons hikers quit, but check out our data on a separate trail casualties survey for more information on illness, injuries, and reasons hikers quit.
The vast majority of thru-hikers who took the survey walked northbound, which is by far the most common direction for AT thru-hikes. The percentage southbound and flip-flop hikers who took the survey declined from a quarter (24%) to a tenth (10%) of survey participants. The survey was distributed almost a month earlier this year which is a likely contributing factor, as many southbounders or flip-floppers are still trekking as I write this.
The majority of hikers started their hikes between early March and early April (with March 28, April 1, and April 4 being the most popular dates), which is considered the bubble for AT thru-hikers. The earliest hikers began in fall 2017. The latest start date for a thru-hike was Aug. 30, 2018, and this hiker reported they had left the trail for family/personal reasons. While there are far fewer southbound and flip-flop attempts than northbound attempts each year, mid-June appears to be the most popular start time for southbound thru-hikes.
For thru-hikers, the average and median pace they walked was 17 miles per day, with two-thirds of thru-hikers maintaining an average pace between 14 and 20 miles per day. The slowest pace reported by a thru-hiker was ten miles per day while the fastest was 30 miles per day.
In contrast, the pace was several miles per day slower for section hikers and people who attempted, but did not complete, thru-hikes. The average pace for section hikes and incomplete thru-hikes was 14 miles per day (median 15 miles), with two thirds of ranging from ten to 18 miles per day.
Sections of the Appalachian Trail
We asked hikers to rate sections of the AT for both how much they liked them and how difficult they were. Hikers could rate more than one section as “favorite,” “least favorite,” “most difficult,” and “easiest.” The percentages shown below exclude hikers who said they did not hike that section.
Favorite and Least Favorite Sections
The section most commonly picked as a favorite was Baxter State Park, home of the AT’s Northern Terminus, Mount Katahdin. The White Mountain National Forest was a close second. Southern Virginia was again the third most popular region, home to the Grayson Highlands, where hikers can interact with wild ponies. Northern Maine (which includes the 100-Mile Wilderness) and Southern Maine ranked fourth and fifth again. Remember the sample was primarily northbounders, who mostly dealt with winter conditions on the southern end of the AT and had milder weather for the northern end. I may look into southbound-only rankings in a later post.
Northern Pennsylvania, known in the hiker community as Rocksylvania for its rocky terrain, was by far the least-liked section. The New York/Connecticut section was the second most commonly ranked as a least favorite section. When I thru-hiked in 2014, this section, particularly near New York City, was by far the most crowded area on the trail. There were also many trails intersecting the AT and I got more lost in that section than anywhere else (disclaimer: I’m good at getting lost).
Easiest and Most Difficult Sections
Northern Pennsylvania was not only the least favorite section of the AT, but it was also often rated as the most difficult section. However, the other most difficult sections of the Appalachian Trail were also among the favorites: the White Mountain National Forest, Southern Maine, and Baxter State Park/Mount Katahdin.
Three sections were similarly rated the easiest, by 85-87 percent of hikers in the survey: the Harpers Ferry area, Shenandoah National Park, and Maryland.
Because Harpers Ferry and Maryland are toward the middle of the trail, both northbound and southbound hikers will usually hit these areas during warmer, mild seasons, which might make them seem even easier. As with favorite sections, I’m interested in looking into this for just southbounders in a later post.
The majority of thru-hikers who took the survey set out alone, but most ended up hiking the majority of their trek with friends made on the trail. Three people hiked the beginning and the end with a dog, three dogs started and did not finish, and two dogs joined after the person had begun hiking.
About 95 percent of hikers reported they typically packed out all of their own trash. Almost half of these hikers sometimes packed out other litter on the trail. Seven percent of hikers in the survey packed out all the litter they encountered!
A Tangent on Littering
A few hikers (2.3%) either packed out or burned their trash. Burning trash is a controversial practice that I have sometimes seen recommended by trail clubs and park maintenance, but it is typically not considered best practice for outdoor ethics. About the same percent of hikers (2.6%) admitted to leaving trash behind intentionally; five did so to shed weight, two did so as trail magic, and one said he littered for other reasons.
Two and a half percent may seem like a small number of hikers, but our sample represents only ten percent of the total number of people who registered to start a thru-hike with the ATC last year. If our sample is representative, this means potentially 80 people were littering up and down the Appalachian Trail corridor, some of them for over 2,000 miles, for over six months. The possible negative impact on the wildlife of this region is tremendous.
If you are one of the well-meaning hikers who leaves trail magic unattended, especially if you hike on without returning to clean up the mess, please know that this is not a good deed. During my thru-hike, some other hikers left boxes of doughnuts at a trailhead, with good intentions. By the time I got there, animals had eaten most of the doughnuts and they had chewed containers to pieces so that they were too scattered for me to clean up. I think I can speak for the 95 percent of thru-hikers who were litter-conscious when I say we’d rather go without the doughnuts.
Last year, 40 percent of thru-hikers had a total budget (all expenses, including gear) of $6,000 or more. This year, almost half (47%) had a total budget over $6,000. I should have increased the categories for their responses after last year and I will definitely do that next time around. These numbers still surprise me because they are so much higher than what I remember for my budget and my friends’ budgets.
I analyzed whether older hikers tended to spend more, since that’s the pattern I found last year. This year there wasn’t a significant association between age and budget (r = .07, N = 297, p = .198), which could very well be because I didn’t extend the survey response options to a high enough dollar amount.
The average amount spent on gear alone was between $1,000 and $2,000, but anything from $500 to $3,000 was fairly common. Keep in mind some hikers probably had good gear for a while before preparing for their thru-hike so they may not have factored this into their estimates. Considering that the average gear budget remained about the same as last year, I would recommend that between $1,000 and $2,000 is sufficient for most hikers to purchase the gear they need for a thru-hike, although a substantial portion will need $2,000 to $3,000.
We asked hikers which resources they found helpful or inspiring and which ones were not. We also asked them what other resources they used that we hadn’t mentioned.
The two most popular resources by far were The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller and the mobile app GutHook by Atlas Guides. Anecdotally, the AWOL guidebook has been the most popular resource for AT long-distance hikers for many years, and it ranked most helpful or inspiring in our previous surveys. This year, the GutHooks app outranked the AWOL guidebook by less than a percentage point. It should be noted that the ATC publishes a similar guidebook that 20 percent of hikers found helpful (six percent did not like it).
Here are links to resources (where possible), in order of their popularity:
- The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller
- The GutHook app (also check out this Backpacker Radio interview with Ryan Linn, the app creator)
- The Trek
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) website
- Appalachian Trials – the book
- A Walk in the Woods – the book
- The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker’s Companion (The ATC’s guidebook)
Books: Other books mentioned in the open-ended comments were Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis (three hikers mentioned), Where’s the Next Shelter by Gary Sizer (two), Wild by Cheryl Strayed (two), Tracks by Robyn Davidson (one), How to Hike the A.T.: The Nitty-Gritty Details of a Long-Distance Trek by Michelle Ray, and Appalachian Fail: What I Learned from My Failed Thru-Hike by John Desilets (one).
Facebook: There are Facebook groups by class of thru-hikers (e.g., “Class of 2017”), a separate one for women, and one for the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association. These can be located with a simple search.
Instagram: Six hikers mentioned Instagram. It isn’t clear which pages they follow but if you’re interested in following hikers on Instagram, here are a few from 2018 to check out.
Reddit: Five hikers mentioned reddit in the open-ended responses. There are subreddits for the AT and for ultralight hiking, among others that might be helpful.
The only resources more often disliked than liked were A Walk in the Woods (the movie) and workshops for preparing for a thru-hike. The data for this is small since not many people said they tried these two resources, but they were similarly unpopular with last year’s class of hikers.
Over a third of hikers in our survey attended Trail Days in Damascus, VA, but very few attended the kick-offs at Harpers Ferry or Springer Mountain. Most did not attend any of these festivals.
Regarding thru-hikers only, about 13 in 20 checked in at Springer Mountain, 14 in 20 checked in at Harpers Ferry, and about 16 in 20 checked in at Mount Katahdin. This was only slightly higher than in years past. Checking in with the ATC helps them research surges in numbers of hikers and to prepare for future maintenance of the trail.
There are two ways to access Springer Mountain: the Approach Trail and a forest service road that intersects the AT about one mile north of Springer Mountain. Hikers who skip the Southern Terminus Approach Trail and park at the forest service road a mile from Springer Mountain won’t pass the Amicalola Falls State Park facilities and will be unable to check in. This may be one reason fewer hikers are checking in at Springer Mountain. Another reason is that most hikers are walking northbound, so they may be unaware of the check-in system when they set out, but they may know to check in by the time they reach Harpers Ferry and Mount Katahdin. Again, when I get the time and if I have enough data, I’ll see if southbounders tend to show the opposite trend.
More from the 2018 Hiker Survey
This is the first post on our survey of the hikers of 2018. Coming posts will cover our survey data on backpacks, footwear, shelter systems, sleeping bags, stoves, food, water, and sleeping pads.
Congratulations and many thanks to all the hikers who took the survey! Best of luck to those who are still on the AT. Thanks also to Zach Davis and Maggie Slepian for coordinating and for spreading the word about the survey.
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