Feeling Safe Again on the Appalachian Trail

The recent killing on the Appalachian Trail of Ronald Sanchez has shattered many people’s confidence in their personal safety while on the trail. Unfortunately, the problems in society sometimes violently intrude, even on special places such as the AT. As stated by Suzanne Dixon, president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “The Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe environment, a refuge that welcomes more than three million users a year. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the trail is not absolutely safe.”

Statistically speaking, the trail is still very safe. With the millions of trail users per year, there have been 12 homicides over the past 50 years. The US as a whole has a murder rate of five per 100,000 people annually. Many major cities have homicide rates up to ten times that overall average. Admittedly, this is an apples and oranges comparison, but the reason the recent terrible killing received so much news coverage was precisely because it was so rare.

Regardless of how safe the trail is for hikers, it can always be safer. In the 40 years since my first solo trip, I’ve considered and practiced a number of techniques to improve safety. In addition, I’ve recently spoken on the subject with Howard Rahtz, a retired Cincinnati police captain. He’s written multiple books on community policing and safety, was the head of the city’s police academy, and served as a defensive tactics instructor and SWAT negotiator. He’s also my brother. Hopefully, our joint experience can provide some advice on staying safer on the trail, which then can provide some additional peace of mind for hikers, their friends, and family.

Before sharing our conversation, I need to say the following: It is not my intention to second-guess the actions of those victimized during the recent attack and should not be the interpretation of this article. I was not there, and in circumstances such as these, decisions have to be made quickly, under extreme duress. My intention is to provide my general thoughts based upon years of backpacking, often alone, and the advice of an expert in the field of community safety.

Keep in mind that these are general recommendations and not guarantees of safety. Each situation is different and there are countless variables that have to be considered as a situation unfolds, whether on the trail or at the local mall parking lot.

A Police Perspective

Jim: The AT is safer than most American neighborhoods, but reading about this attack was unsettlingly, to say the least. Also, if you are a victim, statistics don’t matter at all. Given that these kinds of incidents are statistically unlikely, what are your thoughts on what hikers can do to reduce the odds of being attacked? And if we are attacked, are there some steps to help us not only survive but to better get through the encounter?

Howard: Criminal acts on the AT are indeed rare, and it is discouraging to even have to discuss this. There are two important factors in avoiding victimization, and they are no different on the AT than they are on the streets of Chicago.

The first is to look and act like a difficult target. Criminals are looking for easy victims. When we look as though we’d be a “handful” for any attacker, the odds of being targeted go down. We can stand tall, speak loudly, and look confident. Facial expression, voice control, and a calm demeanor carry more weight than physical size. Potential attackers are sizing you up. You want them to look, and decide to move on.

Second, listen to that little voice inside that tells you when things are not right. Author Gavin DeBecker refers to this as the “gift of fear,” our intuition warning us of danger. I’ve spoken to a multitude of crime victims who say, “I knew something was not right.” When the hair on our neck stands up, the hollow in our stomach opens, the beginnings of panic floods our senses—we ignore those warnings at our peril.

Jim: What about weapons? I get asked all the time if I carry a gun on the trail.

Howard: While it is a personal choice, carrying a gun can be a complicated matter. The requirements for concealed carry vary widely from state to state and not all states recognize another’s permit. In addition, most of us are good people who would find it extremely difficult to shoot another human being, even if the action was necessary for our own safety.

You are also giving yourself the heavy responsibility of bringing a deadly weapon on the trail where it can’t be locked away. You’d have to keep control of it every minute on the trail, a tall order.

On the other hand, I think pepper spray is a great tool. It works really well on almost everybody. It is easy to use, weighs almost nothing, causes no permanent damage, and some brands even leave an ultraviolet trail that can assist in identification of a suspect. It can be used from a distance of ten to 15 feet and works whether the threat is a human, dog, or black bear.

The key factors are to keep the spray readily accessible. Also, practice spraying a few times to avoid dosing yourself. When you need it is not the time to be reading the instructions.

Jim: I’ve carried pepper spray for years. I think of it as a seat belt. Hopefully I’ll never need it, but if I do, I’ll be very glad it’s there. Anything else you can suggest?

Howard: Studies show people will fight harder for family members and those they care about than they will to save their own lives. We had police officers keep pictures of family members and those they loved in their hats or attached to the dash of the patrol car. When someone tries to hurt you, they are attacking the people who love you. Those pictures are a reminder of what is at stake.

Lastly, mental rehearsal. Think of situations that may arise. Picture yourself responding forcefully and effectively. Imagine it in as much detail as possible. When a crisis situation arrives, you’ll have the benefit of mental planning to help you overcome.

Backpacking-Specific Suggestions for Feeling Safer on the Trail

There are also a number of things hikers can do on a daily basis to increase their safety.

  • Keep a charge in your phone. No matter how great the episode is, don’t use the last 10% of battery power listening to Backpacker Radio. If nothing else, you might need the battery power to order a pizza.
  • Don’t hike with both ear buds in. Keep one ear available to hear what’s going on around you; situational awareness. Plus, to a predator, both ear buds in signal that you can’t hear. Again, don’t look like an easy target.
  • Concerning additional electronics, consider carrying a Spot satellite tracker, especially when hiking alone. There’s not always a cell signal on the trail and it’s great to send messages back home for peace of mind. And, if something ever happens such as a broken leg, it can let first responders know your exact location. That way, the search part of “search and rescue” is eliminated. At five ounces, it can be considered cheap insurance.
  • There are also non-electronics, such as the shelter register. If anything strange is happening in the area, odds are good someone wrote about it in the register. It’s a good idea to look over recent entries.
  • Getting on and off the trail is another area where it pays to be cautious. Look to use shuttle services and established trail angels whenever possible. When hitching is unavoidable, or just part of the thru-hike experience you don’t want to give up, there are ways to hitch more safely:
  1. Hitch with another hiker, or as part of a group.
  2. If you are hiking alone, don’t share that information.
  3. Keep your phone out and visible while in the car.
  4. As mentioned before, trust your gut. If you walk up to a ride and something just doesn’t seem right, don’t get in the car. Have an excuse in mind (I forgot my food bag) to easily decline the ride and wait for one that seems better.

As a reminder, report any incidents by calling 911 for emergencies, as well as the National Park Service 24-hour dispatch at 1-866-677-6677

All in all, hiking the AT is a nearly always a positive experience that can change your life for the better. A little preparation and awareness of the (unlikely) problems that can occur will improve your safety, your confidence as you hike, and the peace of mind of the folks back home.

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Comments 7

  • JLawrence : May 23rd

    Oh, BS. I always carry a huge hunting knife on my belt plus a double action 9MM Kurz where I can pull it quickly. I stuck this handgun in the face of a hostile character who came at me with a knife after my dogs awoke him as they ran barking through a thicket. I never knew he was there because his tent was camo. I later found out the man was a homeless paranoid schizophrenic off his meds. When he saw the business end of my gun, he stopped and backed off. I have no doubt I would have been injured or killed if I had not been armed.

    I always thought that the old retired lawyer and his wife, the Bryants, who were kidnapped and murdered by Gary Hilton near the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pink Beds, might have had a fighting chance with a pistol. Hilton was a serial killer, a psychopath. The Bryants could have exterminated that monster from the face of the earth and stopped him from murdering more innocent people.

    I have met a lot of good people on the trails here in WNC. They won’t tell you expressly but they hint enough to let you know they are packing. I don’t blame them, not one bit for protecting themselves after all the slaughter we hear about in remote areas of our woods.

    I’m elderly now and do not care to hike alone. But if I do, I plan to have a well-trained Malinois or Rottweiler with me. And a satellite phone. And…

  • Andrew Carter : May 23rd

    Really, Mr. or Ms. J Lawrence, was your post and the Mickey Mouse art which accompanied it necessary? It’s hard to tell if you are serious or sarcastic. If serious, you could have made your point in a less belligerent manner. Although Mr Rahtz is recommending not carrying a gun on the trail, he’s not threatening to take away yours. Clearly, not all of us think we’ll be a safer with a gun.

    At any rate … Thank you Mr. Rahtz for your post. I’d never thought about pepper spray. I’m not sure I’m going to carry it, but I appreciate the suggestion. I will think about it.

    I think all hikers are truly saddened by what took place in southwestern Virginia.

  • Diane Hall : May 25th

    Thanks Mr. Rahtz for your intelligent post. I carry pepper spray in my purse, why not my pack also.

  • Cue : Jun 21st

    I have a SPOT locator that I use both when hiking the AT in Rocksylvania, where I live and there is often no cell signal. I also use it where I work in West Africa. It is amazingly accurate. (I had one with me for 6 years in Afghanistan and it worked there too.) I have a concealed weapon permit in PA, and I carry a 9mm along with police strength gel pepper spray that has less likelihood of blowback. It leaves an ultraviolet stain. As far as the gun is concerned, it is not only a defensive weapon, but it also makes an excellent signaling device, as does the whistle I have lashed to the strap of my backpack. Carrying any kind of weapon is a personal choice. It’s just another tool, like a knife or a saw.

  • Philip Botrel Bloxam : Oct 2nd

    Great advice on all fronts. Do what you think is best for you. Being out in the wild, you never know what you will encounter. If you feel the need for a firearm, bring it. If pepper spray is your thing, you bet! Everyone has their idea of what they believe is right for them and it is!

  • Paul : Jan 25th

    I was on the AT last year in April doing a section hike from Sam’s Gap to Hot Springs. At Little Laurel Shelter some folks were talking about the miscreant who was harassing hikers. Although he was arrested he was released and the rest is history.

    I always carry a handgun when I hike and backpack. Too many crazies out there …


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