6 Mistakes to Avoid on the Appalachian Trail from a Backpacking Guide
Do you remember your first-ever backpacking trip? Maybe you were dragged overnight by the Scouts. Perhaps you begged your college roommates to rough it with you for a couple of nights in the woods. However you started, it’s likely that they were humble beginnings. I have a similar story, yet after thru-hiking the AT in 2021, I find it easy to forget that. Like most, at one point I had zero backpacking knowledge and did lots of things a seasoned backpacker might frown upon.
Two years later, I am in the middle of my second season working as a backpacking guide in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Looking back, I’m proud to reflect on how far I’ve come since my many cringe-worthy mistakes. However, hindsight is 20/20, and I remind myself that I didn’t know any better in the beginning.
That said, ignorance is not an excuse. Now, my own rocky start fuels my passion for educating others who may find themselves in similar situations. Here are 6 mistakes that I’ve either witnessed, or made, while thru-hiking.
1. Being a Litterbug
The most familiar backcountry cardinal sin is littering. Hopefully, you’ve heard of Leave No Trace (LNT) and are familiar with the Seven Principles. I like to summarize these by saying, “Pack in what you pack out”, with the goal being to leave a place better than you found it.
When I was on the AT, I felt that many thru-hikers prided themselves on picking up after others. After all, the trail was our home for 6+ months, and we wanted to keep our space looking fresh and clean. I met multiple people on trail who kept ziploc bags handy for picking up haphazardly discarded wrappers and water bottles.
Yep, pack out your food scraps too
I hate to admit it, but I’ve committed the sin of leaving a trace, thanks to some orange peels left on a summit. Since then, working as a guide has empowered me to take a deeper dive into LNT, and through some self-education, I have learned that even “natural” trash, such as apple cores, banana peels, and orange peels can still attract wildlife to an area and disrupt their diet/lifestyle.
While guiding on the AT throughout the Smokies, I am privileged to interact with ridge runners. These lucky few are employed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to educate hikers and provide trail and campsite maintenance. One told me horror stories of packing out nearly 70 pounds of trash from a single shelter. This was not only an inconvenience to the ridge runner, but it was also ruining other hikers’ experiences at the shelter and attracting unwanted wildlife. All around, a negative experience for everyone.
READ NEXT —
- 4 Ridgerunners Share Their Top Advice for AT Thru-Hikers
- Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner FAQ
- Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner: Dream Job or Not?
2. Storing Food Improperly
I remember being somewhere in New Jersey the last time I hung my food bag during my thru-hike. From that point on, I slept with my food every single night. I’m not proud to admit this, and since then, I’ve learned how harmful human food can be to animals, specifically black bears.
As a guide in the Smokies, we teach our clients to not only hang their food bags, but also to hang their entire packs from the provided bear cables. Personally, I think hanging packs is overkill, but this ensures that a forgotten Clif bar in your hip belt or ramen packet lurking in the bottom of your pack doesn’t end up as bear food. Better safe than sorry when hiking through bear country!
Do it for the bears
Once a bear consumes human food or trash, it cuts its life expectancy in half according to the National Park Service. This is because bears become habituated to human food which makes them more willing to put themselves in danger to seek out that food. That means crossing deadly roads or stumbling into campsites.
I only scared a bear out of camp once on the AT. Fortunately, I had properly hung my food bag. However, I can only imagine the potential disaster if a bear decided to come after my food when I was using it as a pillow during the latter half of the trail.
In 2022, a new ATC policy, “advocates strongly that backpackers carrying food use an approved food storage container along the entire Appalachian Trail. ATC strongly discourages the use of the ‘food hang’ to secure food.”
I will be curious to see how this policy changes over the years, and if more hikers will transition to using bear canisters instead of hanging their food. While carrying a bear canister may feel cumbersome, it is much more convenient than finding a branch and tossing a rope to haul your food bag high in the air like a little bear piñata.
READ NEXT —
- ATC Recommends Bear-Resistant Food Storage Along Entire Appalachian Trail
- Bear canisters, Ursacks, or bear bags on the Appalachian Trail?
3. Not Respecting Wildlife
I had a moment on the AT where I felt like a Disney princess. I was hiking through Grayson Highlands State Park and up sauntered a beautiful wild pony. At this moment I didn’t know whether to sing like Snow White or to freeze, but I sat my pack down and held out my hand. The pony didn’t even hesitate before drawing closer and licking my outstretched palm. I had heard that the ponies loved licking the salt off sweaty hikers, but this behavior was still unexpected.
Seeing the ponies is a highlight for many, and thousands of people flock to Grayson Highland each year for the sprawling vistas, rocky outcroppings, and wildlife. But it’s very important to remember that the ponies are wild animals, and approaching, petting or feeding the ponies is not allowed. Looking back, it’s obvious to me that these wild ponies are accustomed to people and likely are fed by many of the state park’s visitors. As mentioned previously, eating human food can cause health problems for animals, and being accustomed to humans can put them at risk.
Hands to yourself
In a similar vein, I used to love picking up small critters while hiking. When you spend enough time staring at your feet, you start to notice all the wildlife on the ground. Specifically, my eye was always drawn to newts. The Eastern Red Spotted Newt is found in abundance along the AT, and the juvenile “efts” spend most of their time on land before maturing and returning to the water. I saw these little guys everywhere, and I often times picked them up to help them along their way (or so I thought).
While working in the Smokies I have learned that GSMNP is home to 31 different species of salamanders! I also learned that salamanders have very absorbent skin, and the oils on our hands (naturally occurring oils or even lotions, sunscreens, and bug spray) can cause damage. Because of this, I encourage clients not to pick up these little guys. If you have to move them out of harm’s way, it’s important to first wet your hands so that they are free from the oils.
Regardless of the animal, the best piece of advice I can give is just to let them do their thing. If you’re lucky enough to see wildlife while you’re hiking, give it plenty of space and appreciate it in all its wonder.
4. Feeling Entitled Just Because You Walked There
A milestone moment for many NOBO thru-hikers is summitting Mount Washington in New Hampshire. I remember standing outside of the Lake of the Clouds Hut and gazing up at the peak, thinking that in a short while, I would stand atop another conquered mountain, enjoying the serenity of nature.
However, if you’ve been to Mount Washington, then you know that there is very little serenity to go around on the summit. The mountain is one of many examples that are accessible not only by foot, but also by car and train. This means that along with weary hikers, there are also floods of tourists pouring onto the mountain from vehicles and the cog railway.
I distinctly remember my building anger as I stood in line to take my picture with the summit sign. I had walked to this point from Georgia after all, and now I had to wait behind a family that was midway through a casual afternoon drive? Hadn’t I earned some special privileges or something? These people should be parting the waters for me, not staring with disdain at the dirty hiker in their midst.
Looking back, I can identify this feeling as a sense of entitlement. Just because I walked somewhere, I automatically felt like I was more deserving of existing at that spot.
Accessibility is important
In retrospect, I feel like I behaved like a spoiled brat, but it is a common thru-hiker sentiment. This is something that I have become more attuned to as a guide. Clients and I discuss why nature accessibility is important, and why things like paved trails and summit parking lots exist. Conversations like this remind me that not everyone can hike thousands of miles to a destination (and not everyone wants to!). That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to experience these places. This wider perspective has smoothed my judgment, especially when working with clients of differing physical abilities.
READ NEXT — Are Thru-Hikers Too Entired?
5. Pushing Past Your Limits
One age-old adage on long trails is “hike your own hike”, yet one of my favorite things about the AT was that it was such a social trail. Before I began, I hadn’t expected to meet so many people, and I actually had to make an effort to be alone during my thru-hike.
I made countless new friends and often found myself trying to match their pace or daily mileage in order to stay in their orbit. Sometimes this meant slowing down or going into a town I hadn’t planned to stop at. Other times it meant that I hiked harder than I would have on my own.
When you’re immersed in such a social experience, it can be hard to listen to your own wants and needs rather than those of the people you’re hiking around. With my backpacking clients, this often looks like someone over-exerting themselves in order to stay close to the rest of the group. Because of this common tendency, guides are encouraged to initiate pack-off breaks at least every hour.
This provides clients with a designated time to hydrate, check for blisters, stretch out any tight muscles, and eat a snack. While an hourly break strategy may seem exaggerated to some people, setting aside time to intentionally assess your body’s needs is crucial.
No really, hike your own hike
Considering overall hiking health, I think there are several steps a person can take to ensure healthy transitions throughout a long hike. When starting a new trail, I would encourage lower daily mileage at the start to build your muscles and prepare your joints. Big miles can wait. When transitioning toward the end of the trail, I think it’s even more important to listen to your body. If you’re experiencing problems, recognize that it’s okay to take days off.
Not listening to my body’s needs was a huge problem for me on the AT. By the time I reached Maine, I was taking an overwhelming amount of pain meds to get me through the day. My entire tramily would have a “pill party” every morning to pop some Ibuprofen. We repeated a similar group session around lunchtime. We ended our days by drifting off to sleep with the aid of Tylenol PM.
To be fair, I think most people’s bodies are falling apart after walking 2,000+ miles. However, there are alternative ways to alleviate pain (or prevent it in the first place) besides downing Vitamin-I. In hindsight, I wished I had listened to my aching knees and taken a few more zeros or slowed my pace rather than pushing through and relying on my knee braces and medications.
6. Not Stopping to Smell the Roses
One of my absolute favorite things about being a guide is sharing the places I love with clients. One of the ways this manifests is through teaching folks about the plants and animals that make the Smokies so unique.
One thing I regret about my time on the AT was the fact that I mostly kept my head down and just hiked. I would admire pretty views when the trail took me by them, stop briefly to gaze at a patch of wildflowers, and marvel at the moss-covered rocks while crossing the stream, but I missed so much. I never took the time to learn about the forests I was passing through. Walking by pretty flowers I thought, “Wow, that’s a pretty flower” and then just kept going.
Stopping to smell the cactus
As a guide, my mindset has shifted so that I take time and appreciate the flowers rather than just snapping a picture and pressing on. One of the best tools for discovering new plants, insects, and animals is an app called Seek. This is a free app that is powered through iNaturalist and works offline to identify just about everything you can take a picture of. I used this app daily out west to learn about the flora and fauna of Arizona when I was section hiking the Arizona Trail (AZT) this past spring.
While I was out there, I took a lot more time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. When I saw an unfamiliar plant or interesting insect, I documented my discovery on Seek and learn more about each species. Our tramily even had challenges to see who could “Seek” the most new species each day! I feel like I enjoyed the natural world so much more by doing this rather than just hiking through it.
A Well Rounded Hiker
Remember where you came from. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it doesn’t matter how many miles you’ve logged — at one point you were a novice and didn’t know what you were doing. You either learned the ropes from someone more experienced than you or cut your teeth out in the backcountry by trial and error.
The learning curve for backpacking and thru-hiking can be steep, but be mindful of your humble beginnings. Use your own journey as a reminder to treat people with grace and kindness. Maybe the person with their tent set up in the shelter doesn’t know it’s a faux pas, or the group washing their dishes in the creek doesn’t realize they’re contaminating the water source.
There’s no need to shame or embarrass a person for being inexperienced. Just treat mistakes as educational opportunities and move on. Your reaction in those moments has the power to make or break someone’s experience outdoors, and we want everyone to feel welcome and included in our shared natural space. And don’t forget, there is always more to learn regarding ways to recreate responsibly. Never stop questioning your preconceptions and never stop learning.
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