Army Ranger Training on the Appalachian Trail

It’s day two of my journey along the Appalachian Trail and I’m hiking along a gloriously sunny ridgeline in the Georgia mountains. I glance up towards the right of the trail and notice two men in the woods. My first thought is that they’re hunters because one is lying on his stomach looking through the sight of a rifle. But no, these men are in military camo, and I remember the AT trail ambassador back at Amicalola telling us that there is an Army training facility in the area.

As I walk closer I see that there are maybe 25 men in full camo with face paint in the woods right alongside the trail. I also realize that if I continue walking I will walk right through the line of sight of at least two rifles.

I stare at the two men closest to the trail, one of whom is pointing a weapon directly at the path of the AT. They’re about 10 yards away, close enough that I can see the blank expressions on their faces. They pretend I’m not there. I realize that I’m afraid to look away – if I must walk through the line of sight of that gun, then I feel like I have to closely monitor the movements of these men.

I walk past, and shift my gaze to the larger group a bit further from the trail – maybe 20-30 yards back. There’s another rifle pointed directly at the path of the AT. I continue walking, and as I’m almost past one man towards the back of the group raises his hand and waves. I wave back and look behind me to see that my mom is waving as well. She has the same bewildered look on her face that I imagine I have after walking through that training exercise. 

Later that day, in camp at Hawk Mountain Shelter, everyone comments about their close encounter experience with the Army Ranger training exercise. Fear and surprise were expressed by many, including myself.

That evening, as a group of 15 or so thru-hikers gather by the fire pit, I ask the two volunteer ATC trail ambassadors about what we’d seen earlier that day. Is it normal for them to be conducting their training exercises that close to the trail? And for guns to be directed towards the trail?

I’m a bit baffled to see how normal this seems to them. A few of the other thru-hikers gathered around the fire also seem unfazed by the incident. One fellow hiker, Andy, overhears us talking and jumps in to offer some answers. He went through this Ranger training, it turns out, not that long ago.

As darkness settles in, we hear gunshots crackle from across the gap. We look up from the fire and can see the little points of light as the shots ring out from both sides of this pretend firefight. As it happens, Andy rattles off the details of what this probably looks like on the ground, from the trainee’s perspective. The few of us still awake just sit and listen. I grab my audio recorder at one point and walk a few paces away from the fire to capture the sounds of gunfire from my second night out on the Appalachian Trail.

You can hear those recordings that I made that night, as well as a short segment of the interview that I conducted the following day with Andy, in the short podcast episode that I’ve shared below.

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Comments 23

  • Vince : Apr 18th

    If you had served, you would know that only blanks are used, and those Ranger Trainee’s would never knowingly point weapons at hikers. Quit being stupid. If anything, you are safer around those cats than you could ever imagine. They would lay their lives down for you.
    The Dude, SOBO ’17, ’18, ’22 LASH.

    Reply
    • John : Apr 18th

      Well said!!

      Reply
    • Edward J Hulme : Apr 19th

      Agree very safe amongst those people who would give their life for you . The alarmist nature of the encounter i find a bit amusing. As if these military types are something to be feared . And not applauded. I would have been thrilled to see these wonderful people .

      Reply
      • Matthew Podolsky : Apr 22nd

        It’s possible to both fear and applaud the Army Rangers. I’m a hunter, and am very comfortable around guns, but I’m also very conscious of gun safety. I think that fear is a natural reaction that many hikers had when they realized how close the Rangers were to the trail, and that they had weapons aimed towards the trail.

        Reply
    • Bill : Apr 20th

      The US hasn’t won a war since WWII. They’re not doing anyone any favors by playing GI Joe in the middle of a populated hiking trail.

      Reply
      • TM : Apr 22nd

        No one wins a war…those GI Joes are some of the most professional soldiers in the world. Many have degrees or earn degrees while serving and do have other options, but choose to continue to serve. So yes, they are doing you a favor and to suggest otherwise just illustrates a lack of knowledge or agenda.

        Reply
      • TM : Apr 22nd

        No one wins a war…those GI Joes are some of the most professional soldiers in the world. Many have degrees or earn degrees while serving and do have other options, but choose to continue to serve. So yes, they are doing you a favor and to suggest otherwise just illustrates a lack of knowledge or agenda.

        Reply
      • Lip : Apr 24th

        Well Bill I’d take 1 of the over 10 of your ilk any day.

        Reply
      • Cowboy : May 7th

        The United States Army hasn’t lost a major military engagement in over 70 years… Task Force Smith in Korea. Withdrawal do to political theatrics is far from losing a war due to military defeat fool.

        Reply
    • Donna : Apr 22nd

      I thought I read they had rifles pointed at trail. Not the hikers.

      Reply
      • Matthew Podolsky : Apr 22nd

        Hi Donna – they had rifles pointed at the trail, which means that numerous hikers had to walk through their line of sight. So for a brief period as hikers walked past, those guns were aimed at the hikers (myself included).

        Reply
        • Lip : Apr 24th

          The rifles had blank adapters on them it’s impossible to fire a live round out of the weapon it would destroy the barrel and more likely the upper receiver.

          I guarantee at that point in your life that’s the safest you will ever be.

          Reply
    • Matthew Podolsky : Apr 22nd

      Hey Vince – thanks for your comment. The point of this post was to share my personal perspective and reaction to this encounter with an Army Ranger training exercise, and clearly I have never served in the military. I think that hearing perspectives and reactions from folks who have served is extremely valuable. But both perspectives have value. Did you listen to the short podcast episode that I embedded into the post in which I shared a snippet of the interview that I did with a former Army Ranger and current thruhiker? He talks about the value of listening to the reactions from fellow thruhikers who haven’t served in the military.

      Reply
  • And I : Apr 18th

    Hooorra for them Rangers.

    For it is because of them—and their predecessors all the way to Rogers Rangers and the patriotic “Minute Men”—that we enjoy the freedom to roam the woods, carefree.

    They are paying your toll; they stand the watch.

    Reply
  • RangerZ : Apr 18th

    If an AT hiker saw some Ranger students then the Ranger students screwed up.

    We reconned the Trail a couple of times on patrol. The point was to not be seen.

    It was my first experience on the Trail in north Georgia in 1976.

    Reply
    • Matthew Podolsky : Apr 22nd

      Thanks for sharing this perspective! This is the central question that I have about this incident – was it a completely normal occurrence, or was this an unusual situation in which someone “screwed up”, as you say. As I shared in the post, the trainees were VERY close to the trail, and impossible to miss. At least several dozen hikers walked past them that day, and it was the talk of the trail for several days afterwards.

      Reply
  • Father Guido Sarducci : Apr 19th

    A native american, PhD, former Army Medic, Air Assault and C4 trained recognizes the poor fire lane control resulting in apparent LOS of the AT. However, fear lies within you and is entirely borne of your own misjudgement. Grow some stones and require them to clear your lane! (*Walking in the fire lane is stupid, blanks or not – cant tell you how many times I have seen a rod test fire a live round at the range. Always assume a firearm is loaded. Always.)

    Reply
    • Matthew Podolsky : Apr 22nd

      I am extremely appreciative of this perspective that you have shared! In retrospect, you are absolutely correct, I should have “grown some stones” and asked them to clear the lane. I think one of the things that folks who’ve served in the military have to their benefit in situations like this is that they aren’t intimidated by a large group of armed military personnel. As someone who has never been on the other side, I was extremely intimidated by this training exercise, and it would have made me very nervous to stand my ground and insist that the trainees clear the lane before I walked past. That said – you are right, this seems like the best and safest approach. I would encourage fellow hikers to heed your advice if they encounter a similar situation on the trail.

      Reply
  • pearwood : Apr 20th

    I did some wild stuff in the Army, but I knew I didn’t have what it takes to get through Ranger School. The closest I got was an exercise in flight school were were we shuttled some of them around. They were hard-core dedicated. I have enormous respect for the Rangers.
    Blessings on your way,
    Steve / pearwood

    Reply
  • TM : Apr 22nd

    I concur with Rangerz. Having been through this school and served in 2nd Ranger bn. The rangers patrol day and night and are graded on their ability to lead successful patrols. Which means that the students leading that patrol likely failed their patrol for being caught out in the open in the daylight. Their guidance was likely to freeze in place until the civilians passed. However, I would like to note that those weapons likely had blank suppressors on the end of their rifles for safety. My experience was in the late ’80s, but can see how it might be startling to come upon that along the trail. The next time you’re up that way you should check out the ranger training brigade post near dahlonega.
    Best
    TM

    Reply
  • Kyle : Apr 22nd

    The defensiveness of some of the earlier comments is hilarious. If I were in the hiker’s boots, my reaction would by very similar. I wouldn’t like it. Would I think I was going to be shot? No. But I still wouldn’t like hiking past aimed guns. Especially if it doesn’t seem like those aiming don’t look like they see me. It’s good to know that they only have blanks loaded. I didn’t know that and not everybody does.

    This seems like a frequent occurrence at that location. Not only from the forewarning but especially from the casual reactions from the trail ambassadors later on.

    Reply
  • Always Forward : Apr 24th

    I went through Ranger School in the winter of 2020. I remember passing people on the AT in mountain phase and I truly wondered what they thought of seeing us. It’s cool to see the other perspective.

    Rangers Lead The Way

    Reply
  • Matthew : May 4th

    The proper course of action would be to thank them for their service and move along. Things really are going downhill in the good ole USA. How entitled we have become. The only reason we get to hike and ski and go out and party etc is because armed men stand ready to do violence on behalf of our liberty. We smugly complain about training exercises because they interrupt our hike? God save us. Divided we fall.

    Reply

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