Examining the Real Numbers Behind Violent Instances on the Appalachian Trail

Note: This story has been updated to include new information regarding the total number of murders on the trail. According to Brian King, publisher for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, there have been 10 murders in eight incidents on the trail since the first murder was recorded in 1974. 

The Appalachian Trail community was shocked when one hiker was killed and another critically wounded in a recent pre-dawn attack on the trail. Ronald S. Sanchez, Jr., aka Stronghold, a US Army veteran from Oklahoma, was pronounced dead at the scene after he and several other hikers were menaced and attacked by a knife-wielding assailant in southwest Virginia on May 11.

ronald sanchez, jr. appalachian trail

Ronald Sanchez, Jr., aka Stronghold, was killed in a knife attack on the AT in southwest Virginia May 11.

An as-yet-unidentified female hiker also was badly injured, but survived the attack and was taken to a hospital after fooling the assailant into thinking she was dead, then walking six miles to find help.

Police arrested James L. Jordan of West Yarmouth, Mass., who went by the trail name Sovereign, near the scene. He faces federal charges—the AT is part of the national park system—of murder and assault with intent to murder and is being held without bond pending a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation.

Jordan was previously arrested April 21 in Unicoi County, TN, following reports that he threatened hikers. He pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and providing false information, was fined, and released on probation. A trail angel convinced Jordan to board a bus for Maryland on May 2, but he was spotted back on trail just days later.

A Welcoming Refuge

kelsi mayr bearbait appalachian trail upper goose pond

Kelsi Mayr, aka Bearbait, relaxes at Upper Goose Pond in Massachusetts. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

“The Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe environment, a refuge that welcomes more than three million users a year,” Suzanne Dixon, president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said in a May 14 statement. “Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the trail is not absolutely safe.”

The immediacy of the recent attacks has led to anxiety and speculation about the danger of assault on the trail. But an analysis of crime and population statistics shows that the AT is literally hundreds of times safer than the United States at large.

(Asterisks (*) indicate numbers that reflect the least-favorable scenario for the annual AT murder rate, such as rounding up, using a lower population number, or extending the period of data to include the most recent incident, in order to “steel-man” the argument.)

By the Numbers

  • According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, the murder rate for the United States as a whole in 2016 was 5.35 per 100,000 population per year. However, the average annual rate from 1974 (first recorded murder on the AT) to 2017 (most recent available statistics) is 7.35 per 100,000 population per year.
  • There have been 10 documented murders in eight incidents on the AT since 1974, according to the ATC.
  • 10 murders in 46* years (1974-2019*) is an average of .217 per year on the AT (10/46=.217).
  • According to the ATC, three million* people use the AT each year. (If you’re wondering whether that number has changed over time, a US Forest Service study found that “the annual number of AT users has generally been reported to be between three and four million” since 1970.)
  • In order to compare apples to apples, i.e., 100,000 users/population per year, divide the number of annual murders on the AT (.217) by 30 (three million/100,000=30), for an annual rate of .0072 murders per 100,000 population.
  • Dividing the average US murder rate from 1974 to 2017 (7.35) by the average AT murder rate (rounded up to .0072) over roughly the same time period (1974-2019*), the US murder rate per 100,000 population per year is more than 1,000 times higher the equivalent rate on the AT (7.35/.0072=1,020.83).
appalachian trail camaraderie

Camaraderie and friendship are the rule on the AT. From left, Josiah “Patches” Crumrine, Ian “Easy-E” Griniere, the author, and Andrew “Lava Monster” Zapor. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

Here’s another way of looking at it (US averages derived from these statistics):

  • Applying the average annual US murder rate 1974-2017 (7.35 per 100,000 population) to the annual AT population (three million), you would “expect” 220 murders per year (7.35×30=220.5), or a total of 9,680 murders (220*x44=9,680), 1974-2017.
  • There have been 10 murders on the AT, 1974-2019*.
  • Using those numbers, you are 968 times more likely to be murdered in the US at large than on the AT in any given year (9,680/10=968), roughly the same multiplier derived from annual murder rates above (1,020).

Statistics, of course, can be tricky. But no matter which way you look at it, you are many hundreds of times less likely to be murdered on the AT than in the US at large.

Reported Assaults also Rare

long pond appalachian trail clay bonnyman evans

Sunset over Long Pond, Maine. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

Statistics for assault and sexual assault are harder to come by, but the ATC receives reports of just about one assault per year and one rape every three years on the trail.

“Assaults are rare. It has been a few years since a sexual assault has even been reported, although we are certainly aware that this is a crime that is underreported,” the ATC responded to a hiker query in 2015. There was a rape reported at the Trail Days festival in Damascus, VA, that year.

For comparison, in the US at large there were more than 135,000 reported rapes and more than 810,000 aggravated assaults in 2017 alone. And statistics for assault and sexual assault tend to track closely with murder and overall crime rates.

Of course, calculations and statistics are of little comfort to anyone who has been involved in, or in proximity to, a violent incident, on the trail or anywhere.

Imbalance of Fear

chestnut knob shelter appalachian trail clay bonnyman evans

Chestnut Knob Shelter, VA. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

That’s no surprise, given that human brains are generally wired to respond to rare but anomalous events—terrorist bombings, airplane crashes, shark attacks, murder—even as they habitually underestimate considerably greater dangers inherent in familiar activities such as driving (40,000 annual motor-vehicle deaths in the US; that’s 12.19 per 100,000 population, or 1,300 times the AT murder rate), texting (which causes more than a million auto accidents each year), and fireworks, which send more than 10,000 people to emergency rooms every year.

“The great irony is that by paying attention to isolated incidents and scares… we don’t pay attention to what are much more proximate and serious dangers and therefore put ourselves at greater risk,” says Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Worry About the Wrong Thing. “I like to talk about the fact that if you are in an airplane you are infinitely safer than if you are in a car but it’s very hard to keep that in mind.”

Safe and Alert

The AT has plenty of “proximate and serious” dangers: In 2016, for example, five percent of AT thru-hikers contracted Lyme disease, according to an ATC questionnaire, and as many as 40 percent of the 60 percent of NOBO thru-hikers who drop out by Damascus leave due to injury.

The recent murder and assaults on the AT are disturbing and tragic, and hikers should always be alert to their surroundings, whether in town or deep in the woods. But would-be thru-hikers (and their friends and families) should know that, any way you look at it, the trail is not just “relatively” safe, but extraordinarily safe.

Related

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Comments 20

  • Warthog : May 24th

    The problem here regardless of statistics, (ie, the elephant in the room) is it happened on the trail this month. It’s like the people who went to church for years safely until that one demented person came into the Church and started shooting and killing parishioners. Statistically it was a .0000001% that it could happen, but it did! I’m sure they felt safe never expecting trouble too just like all the hikers. However there’s a difference here, thecAT is not a sanctuary, it is a wilderness trail. It only takes that one! Continuing to live in la la land and thinking all is butterflies and flowers opens you up to be a victim especially if your unarmed as probably 90% of thru hikers are. I’m not advocating guns, but bear spray, or a fixed blade knife like our forefathers carried when in the wilderness should be adequate in defending yourself. Even a good old wooden hiking stick could help, not the carbon fiber toothpicks we tend to see nowadays. Personally I’m not going on any trail without some form of personal protection.

    Reply
  • Clay Bonnyman Evans : May 24th

    Whether or not to carry any form of protection is a personal choice for each hiker to make.

    I think what the statistics show is simply that, compared to virtually anywhere else in the United States, the AT is incredibly safe — not absolutely safe; nowhere is absolutely safe. The immediacy of this horrible crime certainly heightens the awareness of everyone on the trail, yet in reality, if one would not carry a weapon routinely in the “civilian” world, aka “synthetic” world (thanks, Dixie, for that term of art), it’s not clear why it makes sense on the trail.

    But again, this is a personal choice for each hiker to make.

    Reply
    • Warthog : May 25th

      What you don’t seem to get is that anomaly or not statistically, one female was seriously injured, one male thru hiker killed. I’ve hiked the AT in Pa and there are areas that aren’t like walking downtown, ie., St Peters Wilderness area from Dauphin to Swatara State Park. That whole part of the trail runs through State Game lands 211 which is set up for hunting, etc. it’s not like walking downtown Damascus or your local city street where I don’t carry personal protection, it’s a wilderness area, with bobcat, coyotes, bears, and plenty of access points for anyone seeking to cause havoc on the trail. It only makes sense to protect yourself just in case.

      Reply
      • Chillbill : May 25th

        If we packed for all the “just in case” events then we’d all be transporting an absurd amount of gear. HYOH but the whole point of the article is to show that the trail is pretty safe. To say nothing of the weight of carrying that kind of fear around with you on the trail. No thanks.

        Reply
      • Dare Bear : May 27th

        You must be scared of your own shadow at noon.

        Reply
  • Robert : May 26th

    Statistically speaking, the AT is a safe place. However, there are no utopias in this world. The important thing is to recognize that and plan accordingly. Personally, I carry some extra ounces. But, what I find disturbing is that this was not a singular incident. This murderer was a menacing presence on the trail for weeks. The question is could this have been prevented? And if so, why wasn’t it?

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : May 30th

      It is also human nature to ask such questions in hindsight. Clearly, there were opportunities to apprehend Jordan. Indeed, he was apprehended, but was convicted of only two minor violations when hikers who felt threatened by him declined to serve as witnesses, according to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s office.

      Many people turn, unsurprisingly, from there and point the finger at the hikers who declined to be witnesses (i.e. “press charges” — the public can’t really do that, but agreeing to serve as a witness in a criminal case is basically what people mean when they say this). Some claim they were “selfish” and just wanted to continue their hikes, but that can’t be: Law enforcement agencies do not kidnap and immobilize future witnesses in a criminal proceeding. The hikers would have been asked to give statements and interviewed, but beyond that and a commitment to appearing at a potential future trial, they would have been free to go. I don’t know who these hikers are, but knowing hikers, I’m guessing they decided that having Jordan apprehended was probably enough to take care of the problem — and they probably did not expect him to be so quickly released.

      Others have, incredibly, criticized the three other hikers Jordan assaulted, claiming that they were “cowardly” or should have “done something” — in the dark, in the forest, in a panic-inducing situation — to prevent Sanchez’s death. This is, on its face, ridiculous, and demonstrates a lack of empathy — that old line about walking in someone else’s trail runners before casting stones.

      Terrible things happen in the world. It’s human nature to look back and ask how they might have been prevented, and to place blame. This makes the human brain feel “safer” in the world, recasting what can fairly be described as an extremely rare, high-consequence event to make the brain feel that if *it* had been in these situations, all would have been different.

      Reply
  • Andrew Carter : May 27th

    05/25 Boston Globe article on alleged murderer. May be over the top. I don’t know.

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/05/25/the-long-twisted-fatal-journey-hiker-called-sovereign/NmN3GKuQDZub5tfOdbL6pI/story.html?fbclid=IwAR2Enea0hZQcxFmP7MgZFdFKGatGs2WEL-u-VqXLxcd7pf6C3vUDn-vDdOg

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : May 27th

      I think the Globe story is excellent, and clearly well reported (I say that as a lifelong journalist). They put real resources into trying to track down the history of the alleged AT killer, and came up with some great reporting. This is what real news organizations do, and it costs money!

      Reply
  • Tom Manuccia : May 30th

    Although I haven’t done the calculations, I strongly suspect that the reason there is so little crime on the AT compared to the “real world” in the calculations you presented is simply because the number of other people per day that one comes in proximity to on the AT is vastly lower than it is when you are in town.

    Because of this huge difference, another very useful statistic would be the probability of “trouble” per person you encounter (or come in proximity to) on the AT versus the same probability while at home.

    This is similar to asking whether the fraction of crazy / malicious people on or near the AT is higher than at home. Put differently, when you meet a stranger, whether it is on the trail or at home, what u need to know is if he is a likely threat.

    My guess is that the fraction of “crazies” on (or near) the trail is about the same as it is at home for most people, depending on where they live. This is a very different conclusion than the “hundreds of times safer” statistic presented in this article.

    I also suspect that the reason for the fear many people have is not at all irrational, but it comes from the fact that if an encounter with someone on a hiking trail gets weird, help is much further away in time & distance compared to when they are at home (again, most people).

    T

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : May 30th

      @Tom Manuccia, you’ve hit on one of the obvious critiques of the methodology you make, which boils down to population *density* and the unique geography of the trail — very long and very skinny.

      Nonetheless, the numbers are surprising. When I began looking into this, I guessed I might see that by this measure, the trail would be maybe 40-50 times safer than the US at large. That the numbers were an order of magnitude greater, then some, is, I think, still a reasonable way to illustrate that the trail is vastly safer than most settled areas (contrary to many people’s assumptions, by the way).

      It appears from your comment that you may not have hiked the trail, or not much of it — I may be wrong about that. I mention this because I’ve met and spoken to hundreds of AT hikers, and hiked the trail completely, plus another 200 miles, and the proportion of “crazies,” if you will, is small indeed. They’re out there — I’d count three people, total, in 2,189 miles, who made me slightly uncomfortable (I suspect two of them were either on drugs or perhaps struggling with mental health issues; the third person was just aggressively rude).

      Just as with bears, the fear of humans on the trail is, statistically, not rational. Here’s some info about bears:

      • Between 2000 and 2019, there have been just 53 documented fatal attacks on humans by bears in North America, or about 2.8 per year.
      • Of those, just 10 fatal grizzly attacks and 10 fatal black-bear attacks occurred in the lower 48 states of the United States, or about 1 a year.
      • No fatal grizzly attacks occurred in states traversed by the AT; 1 occurred in a PCT state (California, but with this notable asterisk: a captive bear killed its handler); nine were in CDT states.
      • Of CDT-state grizzly attacks, six occurred in Yellowstone (around 4 million annual visitors) or Teton (around 3 million annual visitors) national parks.
      • Of fatal black-bear attacks, four occurred in AT states; two were in CDT states; and none were in PCT states.
      • No fatal black-bear attacks occurred on the AT, PCT or CDT. The two CDT-state black-bear attacks occurred far from the trail. Of the AT-state attacks, two occurred about 10 miles from the trail (one in the Smokys; the other was the first recorded bear fatality in New Jersey history); the other two were at least 50 miles from the trail.

      So again, statistically, the chance of being killed by a bear is tiny, but greater than zero. According to Wise About Bears, your chance of being killed by a bear is 60,000 times smaller than being killed by a human.

      Without criticizing anyone who has a heightened awareness of potential violence on the AT after the recent attacks, it’s still statistically irrational to walk the trail in fear of violence by either bears or humans.

      Reply
  • Brandi : Jun 1st

    There is no heavier weight to carry than fear.

    Reply
  • Adam Rabung : Jun 3rd

    Thanks for writing this.

    A couple of things that could be debated:
    * If a town has 3 million people, it has pretty close to 3 million people every second of every day of the year. In other words, 3 million people spend about 3 million people-years in their town a year. This is not true of the 3 million annual visitors the AT gets. A vast majority of these visitors will spend just a few hours per year on the AT. This means that the average population on the AT will be much, much lower than 3 million. My wild guess would be 1000 through hikers, and the remaining visitors are 99% day hikers and 1% section hikers. If we say through hikers spend 6 months/year on the trail, section hikers 2 weeks/year, and day hikers 1 day/year – we get an “average population” more like 10k at any given time. Using 10k instead of 3 million, we get a murder rate of roughly 2/100,000k. Still much safer than the “real world”, but not hundreds of times safer.
    * A smaller factor that could also be considered – I’d bet all 10 AT murders happened in the 6 warmest months. This would imply that the murder rate would be more like 4/100,000k in the warmer months, and 0/100,000k in the colder months.

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jun 4th

      Hey, Adam. Thanks for the comment.

      I was definitely aware, when doing the calculations, that there are multiple ways to poke holes in the methodology. For sure a real statistician could find a much finer-grained way to make comparisons, and you have pointed out some obvious places to question the numbers. Indeed, I anticipated your first point regarding “average populations” while writing the piece.

      Even so, the, let’s call it, lemons-to-oranges murder rates I’ve compared here, and your revised version, demonstrate the trail’s remarkable safety. It would be fascinating to me to see how a professional statistician would go about making a comparison.

      Thanks again for taking time to make an astute comment.

      Reply
      • Ryan : Jun 8th

        Thanks to a Adam for pointing out this glaring omission. Really would have helped to just address the thru hiker population (~4K attempts per year) to do the stats and then use the 3 million day hikers as a bonus point. As a successful thru-hiker from 2018, I completely agree with the premise here (I only met 1 “crazy” in 6 months on the trail), and agree the trail is incredibly safe, however this analysis was not the good math I was hoping for to share with all the people telling me “did you hear about the crazy on the AT?!?”

        Reply
        • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jun 8th

          Thanks for the comment, Ryan.

          I’m not a statistician, but as noted above, I was aware as I was penciling all this out of numerous critiques that one could make of the methodology.

          I suppose one way to address the issue would be to somehow calculate how many people one typically encounters in a given environment — city, town, rural area, trail, etc. — in a given time period (day, week, month, etc.)

          But again, such statistics are, to my knowledge, unavailable. One could perhaps “guesstimate,” but I doubt there’s a source of solid information about how many person-to-person encounters one experiences in various environments, especially the trail.

          Personally — and anecdotally — on many days of my thru-hike I met and interacted with many more people than I typically do in “synthetic life” on a daily basis. I work from home, so outside of exercising (usually running) there are many days when the only person I really come into contact with is my wife. On the trail, there were certainly days where I met few people, but then there are towns, and at times I was encountering scores of people even on the trail.

          I still find these comparisons in murder rates a valid, if admittedly imprecise, exercise in demonstrating how extraordinarily safe the trail is, statistically.

          Reply
        • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jun 8th

          @Ryan

          P.S. On my 2016 thru, I met two people I’d call “crazies” (a couple) and another couple at a shelter that was what I’ll just call sketchy (so much so that when they started playing loud music and smoking weed and tobacco right in front of the shelter, I packed up and moved on).

          Reply
        • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jun 8th

          P.P.S.

          I don’t think it makes sense to count only thru-hikers, as you suggest. In fact, of the documented murders since 1974, at least half weren’t thru-hikers. For example, Meredith Emerson, who was kidnapped from the trail near Blood Mountain, Ga. and killed elsewhere, was a day hiker.

          Reply

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