A Walk in the Woods: How “Leave No Trace” Ethics Are the Mark of Today’s Trail Ambassador

In September 2015 a cinematic interpretation of travel writing superstar Bill Bryson’s best selling book A Walk in the Woods will debut in movie theaters around the world. It is likely that millions will see the film and absorb images and impressions of the Appalachian Trail and long distance hiking. No doubt, given the normal “monkey see, monkey do” nature of people, some of those millions will walk out of the movie theater with a sudden conviction to hike some heroic portion of the Appalachian Trail. This phenomenon could potentially be a positive development, but one pregnant with potential problems too. I am certainly not the first observer to imagine a swarm of “noob” hikers in the wake of the film. The Appalachian Trail was imagined and created by people like Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery in the 1920s and 30s to offer the urban masses of the overcrowded east a vast natural refuge. Toward that goal, volunteer trail organizers and maintainers over the generations have been successful.

What I am about to write may trigger rebuttals, but it is true. The Appalachian Trail was not intended for thru hiking. It was not intended as a conduit of marketing for outdoor adventure products. Neither was it intended to concentrate young impressionable college age hikers for the purposes of proselytizing. Before I am mistaken for some stereotypical tree hugging, puritanical atheist killjoy, let me say simply that I am not. As a hiker, I am interested in what new gear is out in the market. Also, I am always happy to come across trail magic, the not unusual cooler full of cold sodas in the woods. After taking note of that most ubiquitous scripture (John 3:16), I drink my soda and continue along my heathen path. The vast forest all around me sways in the breeze, oblivious to my human designs. The forest is always the star of the show. I, the hiker, am an adjunct of the forest, not the other way around.

Perhaps what is least understood about Bill Bryson’s famous book is its concern for serious environmental and ecological problems along the trail. These problems stem partially from climate change caused by humans, but more immediately observable is the encroachment of urban development, also caused by humans. Sheltering overnight in the winter along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, one notices the many electric lights of east Tennessee, a sign that economic opportunity has expanded for Appalachian populations that need it. However the requirements of the eastern mountain ecology and the new urban hives of southern Appalachia are not always harmonious.

The first part of Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods narrates the adventures of the author and his beloved slob of a friend, Katz. Bryson and Katz will be played in the film version by legendary actors Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. SPOILER ALERT: their attempted thru hike falls short of Katahdin, by about two thousand miles! In 2011 when I hiked past Newfound Gap (where Bryson’s attempted thru hike ends in the book) I thought, “Well, I’ve gone further than Bryson.” I am a hiker, but I was a writer first, and so I am impressed that A Walk in the Woods is the best selling book of all time concerning the AT. The story of the book’s narrator and Katz serves to capture the reader, in hopes, I suspect, she or he will continue reading the back chapters: the ones about the seventy year old coal mine fire near the AT in Pennsylvania; the Superfund site created by a half century of zinc smelting, also in Pennsylvania; species of trees dying off in the Smokies and other micro climates; the conflict of overlapping bear and human habitats in places like New Jersey. I think Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods should be taken seriously by hikers because it has touched so many people who will never step foot on the Appalachian Trail. The book is a great ambassador.

The Appalachian Trail needs ambassadors. After his historic first 1948 thru hike, Earl Shaffer found authorities at the Appalachian Trail Conference (the former name of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) initially skeptical of his feat. Benton MacKaye dismissed Shaffer’s 1948 thru hike as a stunt. It is my view that Shaffer’s greatest contribution to the trail was not hiking the AT Georgia to Maine in six months in 1948, but documenting that hike with photos, notes and poems. Shaffer did not intend to become enshrined as a pioneer of an unofficial extreme sport. He wanted to be famous for his nature poetry. What he really accomplished was introducing postwar America to the wilds of eastern America, and serving as a kind of patron saint, lured thousands upon thousands of hikers to the Appalachian Trail. He also completed thru hikes among two new generations of thru hikers– in 1965 and 1997.

Earl Shaffer’s photos, memoirs and poetry document his experiences and vision, but there were other great ambassadors of the trail too. Gene Espy’s 1951 thru hike (the second recognized by ATC) is considered by some purists as the first legitimate thru hike, citing Shaffer’s occasions of yellow blazing (taking a car ride further up trail) due to poor trail conditions after the neglect of World War Two. As I write this, Gene Espy is alive, a very old man who has been admirably generous sharing his story with groups for many decades now. Then there was Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, who thru hiked in 1955 and 1960, and once again in 1963 at age 70! She wore Keds sneakers and carried only an over the shoulder sack and slept in a plastic shower curtain. Today considered a pioneer of ultra light weight hiking, Emma Gatewood caught the attention of the Associated Press during her 1955 hike and even made the cover of Sports Illustrated and appeared on late night TV. Public figures like Shaffer, Espy and Gatewood introduced the American masses to the Appalachian Trail.

It is through the prism of ambassadorship that I view the impending arrival of the film version of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. The movie can provide an occasion to reintroduce the public to the Appalachian Trail, its intrinsic value as a natural area, but also, its value to the human body and spirit. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, anticipating a spike in interest in the trail as a result of the film, is currently implementing an information campaign for the “Leave No Trace” ethical philosophy. Old Timers (by which I mean Baby Boomers) sometimes reference the easier to remember slogan from the 1970s: “Pack it in. Pack it out.” In other words, if you brought it with you to the woods, bring it home with you. If you didn’t know you are supposed to pack out (rather than bury or burn) your trash, now you do. “Pack it in. Pack it out” addresses litter nicely, but “Leave No Trace” offers a more comprehensive guide to ethical behavior on the Appalachian Trail.

Millions of people hike on the Appalachian Trail every year, most of them day hikers and overnight campers. Section hikers and thru hikers may have the greatest impact on the trail, if only for the time they spend on trail and the volumes in which they appear during short durations. Whether you are taking a five mile stroll in the woods this weekend or breaking one of those unofficial thru hike speed records (perhaps because there are too few marathons and “iron man” competitions?) you are ethically obligated to be a steward and ambassador of the trail. What follows is a list of the seven principles of “Leave No Trace,” offered as a reminder of the recognized ethical principles of back country foot travel:


1.Plan Ahead and Prepare

  1. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.
  2. Dispose of Waste Properly
  3. Leave What You Find.
  4. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  5. Respect Wildlife
  6. Be Considerate of Other Visitors


Several of the aforementioned ethical principles can spark disagreements. A younger generation of hikers who have only known modern headlamps and quick dry clothing may not have a problem with forgoing a campfire. For many hikers, however, especially weekenders, a camp without a fire negates the attraction of camping. Some people (yes, I mean you, Timber) insist on burning trash. Ask anyone familiar with the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park what they think about burying human waste as opposed to changing federal regulations to allow privies and you’re liable to spark a lively discussion. To love the Appalachian Trail is to use it, but the paradox seems to be, by using the trail, we may negatively impact it. Perhaps it is only natural that people will debate about the implications of  “Leave No Trace” ethics.

If a book or a movie or anything encourages such debate, and if such debate encourages better stewardship of the Appalachian Trail, I think it is a positive development. No book or film can fully capture the inspiring grandeur of the mountains, but they can lead us there with a proper frame of mind.    Bill Bryson wrote a book, I think, that portrays what remains of the eastern mountain forests as something much bigger and far more profound in meaning than just the individual hiker and his or her vanity and ambitions and ego. The mountains themselves, not just what we hope to accomplish there, is what lasts.

Happy trails. Hike your own hike. Leave no trace.

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