4 Ridgerunners Share Their Top Advice for AT Thru-Hikers
“It’s just a simple trail,” says Jim Fetig, describing the Appalachian Trail. “It’s just a simple trail. Which is to say, it’s not a simple trail. There are people doing all the work that you don’t see as a hiker. Nor should you have to see it. But the point is that it takes 240,000 hours/year just to keep blowdowns cleared and the weeds cut.”
Some of the people doing that work are ridgerunners, including Fetig. Ridgerunners, like thru-hikers, spend a large portion of the year on the trail, but unlike thru-hikers, they aren’t quickly passing through. They patrol the same section of trail for the entire hiking season, and it offers them a unique perspective on the trail and those who use it. Most of them are former thru-hikers themselves.
I sat down (virtually) with Fetig and three other former ridgerunners to discuss not just the job, but advice that their experience has taught them that may be useful for future hikers. Continue reading for the top tips and tricks from some of the best resources on the trail.
But first… who are these people?
Jim Fetig: Thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2014. Georgia Ridgerunner in 2015. Spent time as a volunteer at the visitor’s center in Harper’s Ferry and serving on PATHE (Preserving the Appalachian Trail Hiking Experience). Has managed the PATC’s ridgerunner program for many years and will become their club president in January. Trail name Sisu, a Finnish word for “irrational persistence,” used to describe him first by his father-in-law.
Sara Leibold: Thru-hiked the AT in 2011. Northern Virginia ridgerunner in 2016. Worked a short season as a ridgerunner in Shenandoah in 2021, and worked three different sections for the PATC in 2022. Trail name Tidewalker for the Alabama Crimson Tide, of which she is a fan and alumnus.
Matt Derrickson: Thru-hiked the AT in 2016. New Jersey ridgerunner in 2017 and 2018. Spent end of 2018 season (end of September through November) as a ridgerunner in the Smokies. Trail name Frisky for the crazy cat shirt he carried for the entire AT (had two other cat shirts, one each for his Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail hikes).
Kylie Yang: Thru-hiked the AT in 2015. New Jersey ridgerunner in 2018 and 2019. Trail name Sugar Magnolia, given to her at the Fontana Hilton by a Grateful Dead fan.
Thank you so much to each of these kind people for taking time out of their day to chat with me. Anything useful in this article is solely thanks to them.
2 Ways to Make Your Thru-Hike Easier
According to Fetig, two things make thru-hiking easier:
First, know what you’re doing. As a Georgia ridgerunner, Fetig has seen many inexperienced hikers, including two separate hikers that opened their packs at the Springer shelter to reveal their tents still inside the boxes. “A thru-hike is a series of, like, 37 five-day hikes. If you can hike 5 days in a row and do it over and over again, you can thru-hike. So why don’t you go out and practice as many four-night, five-day hikes as you possibly can? If you can’t do that, then do as many overnight and three-day weekend hikes as you can get. That way you can dial in your equipment.” People who don’t know what they’re doing have a lower chance of success.
Second, get yourself in physical condition. “The better shape you’re in, the better off you’re going to be. And less prone to those overuse injuries that get a lot of people, young and old,” says Fetig. “If you’re in the best condition you can get yourself in, even if you hike around your neighborhood in your backpack, you’re going to be in better shape than the desk jockey.”
To illustrate this point, he shared the story of a man who, back in the day, was a star football player. But the man had more recently spent many years as a cop on desk duty. He got to the trail thinking he was still that football player, and Fetig almost had to medevac him because his body wasn’t prepared for the heat.
“If you can do those two things alone,” says Fetig. “You increase your odds exponentially.”
How To Avoid Blisters
During her thru-hike, Sara Leibold found that she really only got blisters when she was wearing dirty socks. She recommends keeping your feet dry and using preventative care before it gets too bad. Fetig sums it up nicely: “If you feel a hot spot, stop. And correct it.” Whether that’s getting the wrinkle out of your sock, popping some tape or moleskin on the area, changing out of wet socks. Fix it as soon as you feel it.
Kylie Yang suggests one step further: assess not only your footwear but your foot itself and the type of shoe you’re looking for. (For instance, if you need something with ankle support, a trail runner may not be the way to go). She recommends going to a running store to get your foot measured and determine the kind of foot you have. The most popular trail shoe may not be what works best for your foot. Take time before your hike to figure that out.
“If you wear the wrong shoes, you could rub your feet to hamburger,” says Fetig. “Wouldn’t you rather learn that months before rather than find out in Georgia?”
Carry Rain Gear on Both Ends of the Trail
Matt Derrickson recognizes that rain gear is extra weight and that sometimes it leaves you as drenched with sweat as you would’ve been with rain. But he recommends carrying it at least on both ends of the trail for that very reason. Specifically, Derrickson says hikers should carry rain gear from Springer to at least the Smokies, and Mt. Killington (Vermont) to Katahdin for the warmth factor. Your rain gear traps heat and cuts out the wind, making it one of your most useful tools for staying warm according to Derrickson.
When asked what the biggest mistake a hiker could make, his top response was not bringing rain gear in the Smokies. So if you’re considering leaving the rain gear at home, maybe reconsider those few ounces.
Keep Your Fingernails Clean
“When I see a hiker, the first thing I look at is their fingernails,” says Fetig. “If you keep your fingernails clean, you’ve just reduced your disease risk a huge amount.”
If you’ve done much research on the Appalachian Trail, you may have encountered mentions of hikers contracting norovirus, a virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea and is highly contagious. What does that have to do with clean fingernails?
“There’s a way of germ transmission called fomite transmission,” explains Fetig. According to the Boston University School of Public Health, “fomites are inanimate objects that can become contaminated with infectious agents” such as viruses “and serve as a mechanism for transfer between hosts.”
So norovirus and other viruses causing gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines causing vomiting and diarrhea) can be spread simply by touching surfaces a contaminated person touched–privy doors, picnic tables, shelter logs–and then touching your face.
Which is why clean fingernails are important. Infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria can hide in all that dirt under your fingernails, and enter your body when you pick your nose, scratch your eye, or lick the Dorito dust off your fingers. It’s not easy staying clean on the trail, but if it can save you from puking your guts up, it might be worth a shot.
Report Needed Maintenance and Questionable Activity
Ridgerunners, park rangers, and trail club members can’t be everywhere at once, so when hikers report things it helps them improve the trail experience for everyone.
Derrickson says hikers with the FarOut app should leave comments when they encounter safety/maintenance issues. “Most ridgerunners and some volunteers check it regularly, so sometimes it is the fastest way a hiker can get that information to someone who can start working on it.”
On a more serious note, Fetig encourages hikers to report people acting in aggressive or other negative ways by calling (866) 677-6677. This number goes to the east coast dispatch center for the National Park Service where they can evaluate whether or not law enforcement need to get involved. Maybe this person isn’t doing anything against the law right now, but with enough reports, the National Park service will send someone to speak to that individual and assess the situation.
Follow Local Restrictions
Yang says that the biggest mistake a hiker can make is being unaware of where you are. Some sections have fire bans and camping restrictions, and it’s very important that you follow them. New Jersey, the state Yang was a ridgerunner in for two seasons, has both in place. When I asked why NJ has these restrictions, she explained that in New Jersey, the trail is close to civilization and the trail corridor is pretty narrow. You’re often walking right next to private land. So there’s not as much room for people to camp wherever they want—a few people camping in undesignated sites would have a bigger impact than in states where the trail corridor is much wider.
Yang says that when hikers choose to camp in undesignated places, ridgerunners and trail maintainers must scatter limbs and other debris to renaturalize the site because that impact is so easily multiplied. If hikers were to continually ignore the camping restriction, Yang explains, “the land would look very different.”
As for the fire restrictions in New Jersey, Derrickson had a good explanation. “New Jersey has a no-fire policy because it has lots of downed trees and limbs from the last, say, 10-20 years. This wood is basically a matchstick waiting to go up. So eventually, when there is a forest fire in NJ, it’s going to be really bad because there’s all kinds of extra flammable stuff on the forest floor waiting to create all kinds of problems…It’s going to burn so hot that it’ll burn all the grass seed and roots out of the soil, and then you’ll have massive washouts because nothing is holding the dirt in place. And plants won’t be able to grow for years because all the nutrients in the soil will be gone. So the no-fire stuff is serious.
“If you’re in a spot where they say don’t have a fire, unless you’re going to die (without one), don’t have a fire.”
How To Store Your Food
This is the one topic all four ridgerunners discussed, and they all agreed on plan A for food storage: “If there is a bear box, cable, or pole, 100% use it,” says Yang. Opinions differ, however, regarding what your personal method of food storage should be when such luxuries are not available.
Derrickson mentioned that while you should definitely be mindful of the possibility of a bear getting your food, in his experience, mice are more often the problem when it comes to food storage. While he has never used one personally, Derrickson recommends using an Ursack on the AT because he’s seen other hikers use them to good effect (though on other long trails, he definitely recommends a bear canister).
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy now recommends bear canisters for the entire trail but not does not require them. In Fetig’s vast experience with the trail, he has seen many strengths and weaknesses of bear canisters and Ursacks. Ursacks are lighter and easier to fit in your pack, but Fetig has met hikers whose Ursacks were ripped open, squashed to mush, or punctured.
But Fetig has occasionally seen bear canisters get destroyed too, and they are much more inconvenient to carry due to their large and rigid shape. Despite this, Fetig has seen more and more hikers carrying a bear canister. As for the PTC hang, Fetig says that it isn’t possible in all sections of the AT to get a true PTC hang that keeps the food out of reach of the bears. In some places, your only options are branches that are too low or too high for your rope to reach.
Yang, on the other hand, recommended hanging your food when bear boxes, etc. aren’t available. She also went into the importance of storing your food properly. “It’s the long-term impact and impact of other hikers that you have to look at when you’re thinking about it,” she says.
“I’ve seen people camp at a campsite, not store their food but instead have it out around camp. Then later, I heard stories of other hikers coming through that site and seeing bears.” Not because they didn’t do everything right, but because people before them chose to not store their food correctly.
So what is the correct way? “Think about what option works best for you,” says Fetig. “And hope the bears don’t get your food. A fed bear is a dead bear.”
Keep Your Dog on a Leash
Fetig says that this is the topic he educated people on the most as a ridgerunner. Dogs are required to be on leash along the entire Appalachian Trail, except the places where dogs are not allowed (the Smokies and Baxter State Park). Part of the reasoning, Fetig explains, is that those who created this law don’t want dogs harassing the wildlife, which is part of the sixth Leave No Trace principle.
The leash law also protects dogs from picking up ticks (that could give you Lyme and other diseases), and from encountering snakes, porcupines, skunks, and raccoons–all of which could harm your dog.
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Engage Small Businesses
Derrickson urges hikers to engage small businesses along the trail for two main reasons. The first is that it’s a simple way of giving back. These trail towns allow us to come through, use their water, and sometimes camp there. Supporting the livelihoods of the people who live in these towns is a way of paying our respects.
Secondly, Derrickson says that hikers engaging with small businesses will maintain and improve the relationship between hikers and trail towns. Most, if not every, hiker has a tale of kindness demonstrated to them by a random stranger. “I think a lot of that kindness comes from the people that are rooted in these communities and know who the hikers are and what they’re doing,” says Derrickson.
He gave the example of a guy that lets people camp in his backyard and then drives them up to the local deli where the hikers buy three sandwiches each. The guy with the yard just loves to be around hikers because they’re fun. But now the deli also loves the hikers because they’ll buy tons of food, and the hikers love having a cheap place to camp. From one trail angel liking hikers, so many people benefit.
“If the hiker reputation gets tarnished,” says Derrickson, “and the acts of kindness stop happening, it’s like a negative feedback cycle. This kindness goes away, then hikers encounter a town that’s colder towards hikers than it was last year. Now hikers don’t want to stay in this town so they just go in and out, so there’s even less engagement happening in that town.” Making the town care for hikers even less.
Derrickson admits that it is sometimes more expensive to shop small, and there’s not always the same selection you might have at a larger retailer. He’s also not suggesting that you blindly support any and every business, but rather as you have need for things and find small businesses that can fill that need, support them. And obviously don’t go against your own personal beliefs and stances to support a business.
“To me, it’s very much about preserving the trail town experience for the next person who’s coming through. When those places start disappearing, the trail is going to get harder and less friendly.”
Pay It Forward
This is easily the topic that all four ridgerunners are the most passionate about: ways that you as a hiker can help preserve the trail for the future. As mentioned earlier, it takes 240,000 hours of work per year to keep the trail clear of debris. That doesn’t include shelter/privy maintenance and other trail work that keeps the path walkable. All of this and more is done by volunteers, and the trail wouldn’t be here without them. We don’t always see a lot of that work as hikers. And we typically can’t directly participate in significant maintenance projects while we’re walking over 2000 miles. But there are still things we can do.
Like picking up trash. “Trash breeds more trash,” says Yang. Those little tabs off of the granola bar wrapper lying along the trail, the cigarette butt smashed out on a rock, the partially burned Knorr packet in the fire pit. These examples don’t represent much trash on their own, but they subconsciously discourage people from being careful with their own trash. So pick up your trash and that of others. Leave it cleaner than you found it. Learning to dig a proper cat hole is another way hikers can help.
Our ridgerunners also encourage hikers to get involved after their thru-hike. Whether that’s by volunteering to help with trail maintenance—on the AT or your local trails—becoming a ridgerunner, or donating funds so maintainers have the supplies they need. It costs $12,000 to build a privy and $50,000 to build a shelter, according to Fetig, and that doesn’t include the money needed for yearly upkeep.
“Thru-hikers don’t get to see the impact. They know there are tons of hikers, but they don’t see the impact. Ridgerunners do,” says Leibold. “They see the water getting dry, the mud patches getting wider and wider. When hikers give back, they feel empowered and become a part of the trail and keeping it for the future.”
See Ridgerunners as People and Resources, Not Cops Out To Get You
Many hikers view ridgerunners as the cops of the trail, some hikers going so far as to despise them for the role they think ridgerunners play. But Derrickson explains that in reality, ridgerunners have very little authority, and the majority of what they do is observe and report.
In the Smokies, ridgerunners carry a radio that connects them with the backcountry rangers, who do have authority, in case of trouble. But a ridgerunner’s primary functions are to promote safety and educate hikers on LNT and where the nearest resources are (such as water, campsites, what stores are located in the nearby towns). They are trained to provide first aid and medevac people if necessary, but they also are trained to step in as a preventative measure if they see hikers putting themselves or others in danger. Which turns into education, as the ridgerunner strives to teach a more correct way to do something.
The other primary function of a ridgerunner is to facilitate work with trail crews and aid in the clean-up and maintenance of the trail. They carry basic hand tools and cut back anything they can, but for big downed trees or washouts, they provide information to the crews who can come in and fix it.
“Everything ridgerunners are doing is to protect the environment and make the trail a better place for everyone,” says Yang. “I’ve gotten screamed at, I’ve gotten threatened. Generally, we’re fielding questions for as long as we are awake. And in addition to being in the backcountry, we’re picking up trash, cleaning up after people, disassembling fire rings. It’s physically strenuous work because you’re carrying way more than you would. For most hikers, as you hike and eat, your pack gets lighter. But as a ridgerunner, as you hike, your pack is always getting heavier.
“We are out there trying to advocate for more responsible use and better stewardship and to grow those bonds between the trail community and actual communities. So just be nice. We’re here for the lands, and we’re here for you.”
Ridgerunners encounter thousands of would-be thru-hikers each year, all at different stages in their journeys. Ultimately, Fetig says the most important step a thru-hiker can take to increase their odds of success is to jump in with both feet.
“When you’re a thru-hiker, if you’re going to make it, it has to be the most important thing in your life. If it’s not, you won’t make it. You have to have that drive, that focus. Cause it’s a long time to be out there looking at the ground.”
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