9 Fantastic Hiker Traditions on the Appalachian Trail

We humans are pretty ritualistic creatures. We crave routine and seek out the familiar. When we start to pass these behaviors down through enough generations, we start calling them traditions. Every culture has its own traditions, including the community that surrounds the Appalachian Trail. Hiker traditions and customs can be hard to understand for those on the outside, but that’s not surprising. Life on the AT is almost the exact opposite of what most people in the U.S. consider “normal” life. We hikers are a quirky group of people, indeed. Sometimes we can’t even explain why we do what we do, but there’s something kind of fantastic about that.

I’ve gathered here a list of what I think are some of the most popular hiker traditions on the Appalachian Trail. It’s true not every hiker participates in these (I certainly didn’t), but that doesn’t make them any less amazing. Some of the traditions may seem fairly obvious, but for those new to the Appalachian Trail, you may consider partaking in a few of them on your own thru-hike experience. (nudge, nudge)

1. Carry a Stone From One Terminus to the Other

Southern and Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail

Photo credit Kenny Howell.

This is probably one of the earliest traditions I can recall being introduced to along the trail. The idea is pretty straightforward. Hikers pick up a small stone from their starting terminus (either Springer Mountain or Mount Katahdin) and carry it all 2,186 miles to place it at the ending terminus. Who knows where this tradition started, but its not hard to imagine why it exists. Humans  can find profound meaning in the most meaningless of objects—we love to personify the inanimate. For some, the stone may come to represent a smaller version of themselves; a little hiker on a grand adventure being carried by forces beyond its understanding to a place it never thought it would go. For others it could become a reminder of where they’ve come from and where they’re going. It could  be a small symbol of the task at hand or a beacon of hope on those really rough days. How popular this tradition is today is anybody’s guess. I personally did not participate as its relation to Leave No Trace tactics is questionable when you have the theoretical potential of 2,000+ stones being removed from a mountain each year. That and I thought my pack was heavy enough without a rock weighing into the mix.

2. Trail Names

Trail Names

Photo credit Kenny Howell.

Trail names are easily the most popular tradition you’ll find along the Appalachian Trail (and long-distance hiking in general). Being donned with your new trail identity is a veritable thru-hike staple. There are  those every year who do not take up a trail name, but I think its safe to say that they’re in the minority. It’s hard to trace the origin of the trail name tradition back to its roots. Earl Shaffer, the first ever thru-hiker, dubbed himself “The Crazy One” (later to become “The Original Crazy One”), but this seems to be a rarely cited fact for why people take up their new identities.

According Laurie Potteiger, Information Services Manager with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the popularity for trail names seems to have spiked sometime in the 1980’s. 1983 ATC records show less than 10% of hikers with recorded trail names, but by 1987 the figure increased to over 50%. By 1999, even section hikers were taking up the tradition with 96% of reported section hikers using trail names. That being said, it should be noted that the ATC didn’t officially have a standard method for collecting information from thru-hikers until 1996 or ’97; so take that data as you will.

The more interesting question is: why do we even take on trail names at all? Some take on the tradition as a safety precaution. When hiking out in the wilderness with a bunch of friendly strangers, some consider it a wise idea to keep their “real world” identities a secret. However, for many hikers I feel the tradition has taken on a much more profound purpose. In a world where people depart from their old ways of life taking on a trail name is another way to escape the world left behind. The reasonings behind trail names are beyond fascinating, but Appalachian Trials Blogger Evans Prater already knocked this subject out of the park so I’m not going to try and reinvent the wheel. Click through the link for another good read.

3. Hiker Parade at Trail Days

Trail Days Hiker Parade

Photo credit Kenny Howell.

This Appalachian Trail tradition has been an annual event since 1987. Every mid-May the collective hiker consciousness migrates to one of the most celebrated towns on the entire trail, Damascus, VA. For an entire week the small Virginia town is flooded with hikers from all corners of the globe to celebrate all things Appalachian Trail. During the week, attendees will get the opportunity to participate in various talks, presentations, hiker feeds, visit vendor tents—and the experience that is Tent City. However, there is nothing more anticipated than the festival’s signature event: the annual Hiker Parade. On the second Saturday of the festival, a large processional amasses to march through the middle of town. The parade starts like you would expect any other small town parade would. The police department and fire house roll by soon followed by a bag piper, hiker clubs, floats, classic cars, oh… and a couple thousand dirty hikers bringing up the rear. Yet this parade is much more than a simple walk down Laurel Avenue.  Townies, locals, and other festival-goers line the roofs and streets awaiting the hikers approach. Armed with everything from water guns to water hoses, it is an army bred for a single purpose: to clean off the smelly hikers. The crowds and the hikers clash in a town-wide water fight that ensures even the most innocent of bystanders will leave damper than they arrived. The fight may only last between 15 – 20 minutes, if  that, but regardless, it’s another unforgettable experience to log away during your AT adventure.

4. Getting Your Picture at McAfee Knob

Hang off McAfee Knob

Photo credit Kenny Howell.

Ever since hikers discovered they could bring cameras out onto the trail they’ve stopped to take a glorified selfie on McAfee Knob. Why? Why not? For years, this iconic trail feature has been a regular spot for hikers to show their friends back home just how awesome they really are. McAffe Knob is considered the most photographed location on the Appalachian Trail for a reason. Sitting only about four miles from a major roadway, it is one of the most visited hiking spots in Virginia. It offers a beautiful 270-degree panorama of the Catawba Valley, including the Tinker Cliffs. Just look at that view! Mother Nature created the perfect photo-op when she created McAffe Knob. It’s one that’s proven nearly impossible for hikers to pass up. Take a look through any thru-hikers photo album and I’d wager more often than not you’ll find an obligatory shot on McAfee Knob among their collection.

5. Jump Off the James River Footbridge

Jumping from James River Footbridge

Photo credit Kenny Howell.

The James River Foot Bridge is the longest footbridge on the entire Appalachian Trail. As its name suggests the bridge lets hikers safely walk the approximate 700 feet across the James River to Route 501 where some may choose to hitch their way into the trail town of Glasgow, VA. This footbridge is also ironically dedicated to someone named Foot (William T. Foot to be specific). I’m not sure whether most people would consider this a tradition or rather I WANT it to be considered a tradition. I don’t often go looking for excuses to jump off of things but for this I’ll make an exception. I don’t suffer from many irrational fears but I definitely have a thing with heights. I get that annoying anxiety whenever I find myself too close to a precarious place. For me my journey along the AT was an opportunity for me to engage in experiences that I would rarely find myself again, if ever. Jumping from the James River Foot Bridge was another experience I simply couldn’t let myself pass up. Take note- this jumping off the James River Foot Bridge is illegal and you should absolutely not do it.

6. Confess Your Trail Sins to the Priest

The Priest shelter log.

Photo courtesy of Salsa and Twix.

About a third of the way through Virginia hikers will find themselves climbing the Priest, a nearly 4,000 foot mountain about 30 miles before Rockfish Gap. By the time hikers reach the Priest shelter just shy of the summit, they are well accustomed to the trail log routine. However, this shelter log adds a new twist of fun. At some point somebody got the clever idea to turn this trail log into a confessional. Once hikers arrive at the Priest shelter they must “confess their trail sins to the Priest” by sharing some of the more hilarious private thoughts and activities they’ve engaged in during the hike. The result is probably the most entertaining shelter log on the entire Appalachian Trail.

7. Get Your Photo Taken at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy HQ. 

Appalachian Trail Conservancy Photo

Photo credit Kenny Howell.

Harper’s Ferry is the officially unofficial halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. It is also the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters where they’ve kept records of passing hikers since 1979. The ATC HQ is usually the first stop for every thru-hiker once they reach town. As eager hikers arrive, a member of the ATC staff takes them out front for the customary photo in front of the ATC sign. Hikers then provide information such as their trail names, email, start date, and hiking direction while they also get to learn their position in the hiker bubble (i.e. how many hikers have arrived before them). Once completed, the ATC archives the photograph and information in the thru-hiker albums, officially adding the hiker’s record as a small piece of Appalachian Trail history.

8. Half-Gallon Challenge

Just after crossing the OFFICIAL, official halfway point of the trail, hikers will find themselves arriving in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. There they’ll find the home of one of the most famous traditions along the trail: the Half-Gallon Challenge.  Since 1980, hikers have been able to pick up a half-gallon of ice cream from the Pine Grove Furnace General Store with the intention of eating the entire tub in a single sitting. By this point in the trail, the hiker hunger is in full swing and many blaze through the challenge with little effort. Even so, that is still A LOT of ice cream. So what do hikers earn for completing this potentially nauseating experience? Bragging rights, a fully bloated digestive system, and a tiny wooden spoon acting as their badge of membership in the Half Gallon Club. So in other words it’s totally worth it!

9. Hike Naked Day

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Courtesy of 25.media.tumblr.com.

That’s right! This is a thing that exists! Every year on the Summer Solstice you’ll find the many trails of America flooded with a lot of bare backs. June 21st is National Hike Naked Day. During this exhibitionist holiday participating hikers do exactly what they’ve done every other day on the trail, except this time they just do it a little more nakedly. I can say I did the world a public service and kept my clothes on June 21, 2013 for pretty much one reason: Mad chaffing. Don’t let that dissuade you though. For many, the AT is about experiencing a sense of freedom unlike any other. What could be more freeing the tearing off the prison of synthetic bondage and letting the sun shine on parts that should probably be aired out anyway?

I would recommend being smart about this one. The AT occasionally passes through some fairly touristy areas. This is particularly true in the Mid-Atlantic states—where many hikers find themselves around that time of year. It may not be the wisest decision to brandish your freedom when your walking through areas with easy access to the general public, particularly places where children may frequent. To most of the hiker community, nudity is nothing too shocking or surprising. Basic societal standards are usually one of the first things that goes by the wayside. The hiker community knows it’s all in good fun, but the local authorities might not see it that way. Different states and localities have different thoughts and punishments when it comes to public nudity. Come June 21, just take note of where you are and where you’re going to be passing through. Then ask yourself if it’s worth the risk of getting put on a sex offender list just to celebrate your newfound freedoms.

 That’ll do it!

How many of these fantastic traditions did you partake in on your own thru-hike? How many do you plan to do? This is by no means a complete list of all the amazing traditions out there. What other awesome Appalachian Trail hiker traditions do you have to share?


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Comments 5

  • John C Parson : May 17th

    Try hiking the Pacific Crest Trail naked, there isn’t enough bug repelant to save you.

    • Fred : Jun 16th

      Not so many bugs if you are in SoCal.

  • Kat : Nov 11th

    That Instagram post about ice cream and diabetes is really ill-informed. Maybe @tiltgravity should stick to subjects of which he/she has some knowledge.

  • Bad juju : Dec 4th

    What about mooning the cog train on Mt Washington ?


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