As Hiker Numbers Soar, the Appalachian Trail’s Future Lies in Educating Hikers
As thousands of aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hikers began their trek north from Georgia in 2019, they were joined by a new breed of hiker—trail ambassadors who serve as role models by demonstrating backcountry ethics and Leave No Trace principles.
The volunteer ambassadors for the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club—about 40 of them this year—patrol the AT in Georgia, spending a day or more at a time on trail talking with hikers, helping those who may be on trail for the first time and are not familiar with proper backcountry practices. They pick up litter, dismantle fire rings at hiker-created sites, and most importantly, help hikers who may be on trail for the first time and who are not familiar with proper backcountry practices. Their role is to teach, not enforce, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club says.
“I believe they make a strong, positive influence when and where they have the opportunity,” says GATC President Jay M. Dement, who started the ambassador program. “Unfortunately, visitors to our wild areas and the AT do not sufficiently practice the Leave No Trace principles.”
And as an estimated two million to three million people hike on the Appalachian Trail annually, it’s programs like the trail ambassadors that keep the trail healthy.
Boots on Trail
The increase in hikers over the years is staggering. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says it recorded 59 people who completed the AT from 1936 to 1969. In 2018, the ATC recorded 6,532 people who set out to thru-hike the AT, and 1,128 who completed the entire trail. And that includes only the people who registered their thru-hike.
Jordan Bowman, communications manager for the ATC, says the soaring numbers are not a surprise.
“Historically numbers have risen decade after decade, occasionally with small downturns, but with an overall trend continuing upward,” he says. “We expected and prepared for a significant increase in the number of hikers when the popular book A Walk in the Woods was made into a film. Ultimately the film Wild about the Pacific Crest Trail may have been more influential, but both likely contributed to the rise in hikers. We anticipate that, as the AT and other national parks continue to receive exposure through movies, books, and social media, visitation will continue to increase.”
In response to the surge in hikers, the ATC is trying to lessen the impact of all those feet on the trail. It encourages creative hikes, such as a flip-flop hike starting at Harpers Ferry, VA., hiking north to Katahdin in Maine, and then returning to Harpers Ferry to hike to the Southern Terminus in Georgia. The ATC estimates that as of July 2019, 657 hikers are doing a Harpers Ferry flip-flop in 2019, compared with 3,300 hiking from Georgia to Maine.
The ATC’s suggested hiking variations can be found here.
The ATC also suggests that people voluntarily register their thru-hike so they will know when hiker bubbles are setting out from Georgia.
Bowman says flip-flops and registration are helping. “Flip-flop thru-hiking is definitely helping to disperse hikers and reduce impacts along the trail, as is our voluntary thru-hiker registration system. However, more efforts across a spectrum of solutions is needed.”
Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, where thru-hiking permits are required, registration is voluntary on the AT. Permits are needed to hike through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park, and to summit Katahdin in Baxter State Park.
The ATC has no current plans to limit hikers or to impose mandatory registration, Bowman says.
Trek Blogger Paul Monsen commented on the difference a flip-flop hike can make. “My flip-flop hike from CT to ME, CT to VA, and now GA to VA has allowed me to experience everything from quiet solitude last fall (2018) to a traveling band of gypsies this spring (2019). Last fall I was happy to find one or two hikers at a campsite and spent several nights alone. This year I’m usually camping with 10 to 20 other hikers every night.”
Garbage In, But Not Out
Perhaps the greatest threat to the trail is trash left behind and hikers’ ignorance of Leave No Trace.
Jim Fetig, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) ridgerunner coordinator and a Leave No Trace Master Educator, says keeping the trail clean is a continual battle.
“The synonym for ridgerunner is janitor,” he says. “They haul tons of trash off the trail each season. Some hikers are receptive to Leave No Trace coaching while others resist, sometimes out of embarrassment. ‘What difference does the one tiny thing I’m doing make?’ they argue over and over, year after year. If you see the same trail section all summer or year after year, you know that not just one person is doing it and the additive impact can be huge.”
Thru-hikers may cause problems initially, but by Virginia they seem to have found their trail legs and environmental awareness.
“By the time thru-hikers reach our region, they generally, but not always, are pretty good at Leave No Trace practices,” Fetig says. “But the larger number of users are weekenders and first-timers whose ignorance of Leave No Trace is obvious when you have to pick up after them.”
Even something seemingly as benign as trail magic can cause problems. Unattended coolers filled with food could be raided by animals, and hikers may be tempted to leave their trash in them, the ATC says. And if organized hiker feeds do not supply hand-washing supplies, norovirus and other food-borne illnesses can be spread.
Georgia is Thru-Hiker Ground Zero
If anywhere on the trail might be the epitome of bad hiker practices, it is Georgia, home to Springer Mountain and the Southern Terminus of the AT.
“I counted more than 150 backpackers per day after spring break when I was a ridgerunner in Georgia,” Fetig says. “That’s far more than the shelter areas and privies were designed to handle.”
Former GATC President Don Hicks, writing in the trail ambassadors guidebook, says: “One of the most damaging aspects of the thru-hiker rush in Georgia is that so many hikers are inexperienced. They have heard about our wonderful trail and they want to experience it. They know little, if anything, about Leave No Trace. … They pack the shelters. Overseers spend a lot of time and effort picking up trash for these newbies. The challenge is how to educate them.”
And so the trail ambassadors program was born in Georgia. The first volunteers took to the trail in 2016, followed by 18 in 2017. That second year they logged 3,680 interactions with hikers, suggesting which shelters to use to avoid overcrowding, answering questions about the trail ahead, and outlining how to store food properly in areas that bears frequent.
This year the ~40 ambassadors on the trail expect to make more than 100 patrols combined. Most of them are trained in Leave No Trace and Wilderness First Aid. The trail ambassadors, supervised by the GATC, are considered a supplement to ridgerunners, who work for the ATC, and coordinate their backcountry patrols with the ridgerunners so they don’t overlap on trail.
The ambassadors’ guidebook runs 42 pages, covering topics from staying safe during interactions with hikers to providing assistance during an emergency on trail. Ambassadors are advised to avoid administering first aid beyond their comfort level.
“It has proved to be popular and successful with over a hundred patrols during the season (many of which are two or three days),” Dement says.
Dement says the main problems in Georgia are hikers creating new campsites, also known as stealth camping; trash; filled privies; and improperly storing food, causing problems with animals.
Josh Johnson, a Trek writer, saw firsthand the problems caused by filled privies as he followed a thru-hiker bubble north through Georgia and North Carolina in 2018.
At composting privies, he found buckets that were empty of natural materials intended to be added to privies after using them. The result? A link was broken in the composting chain.
“I don’t know if people didn’t know how to use them early on or there were just so many people in a hurry or if everyone was being lazy,” Johnson says. “I just know people used up the material and left the bucket empty. That will clearly lead to an unpleasant privy experience before long, which could even lead to sanitation issues eventually. I feel like this was directly related to the volume of people coming through and probably mixed with a lack of education of the aforementioned volume of people.”
Humans in a Wild World
Bears are increasingly associating hikers with food, and many shelters and campsites on the AT now have bear boxes or bear cables for hikers to store their food.
The alternative method of storing food—hanging a bear bag 12 feet off the ground and six feet from a tree—can be tricky, and in some cases bears have been able to get at improperly hung food. Some hikers dispose of food in privies or leave their trash in bear boxes.
The Green Mountain Club has asked hikers to remove the ubiquitous cans hung by strings in shelters, used to deter mice but now attracting bears. After a bear drawn by hikers’ food was killed when it showed no fear of humans at Goddard Shelter on the Appalachian and Long trails in Vermont this summer, the National Forest Service began requiring hikers to use bear canisters or bear-resistant food sacks on Green Mountain National Forest lands in Vermont, and the GMC stepped up efforts to put bear boxes at shelters.
The ATC recommends cooking and eating food 200 feet away from shelters or tents as protection against bears. The ATC also recommends using a bear canister, although most thru-hikers don’t carry one.
But Fetig says the 200-foot rule is often ignored.
“Unfortunately the shelters are not set up to support the food triangle—cook in one place, store your food in another and sleep in yet another place. Overcrowding doesn’t make it any easier. If a shelter has cables, bear poles or bear boxes, please use them.”
Fetig blames humans for causing the problems with bears. Too many hikers, he says, do not know how to properly store or dispose of their food.
He cites a night-vision camera study showing that the first place bears go to at a shelter is the fire pit. “Unwitting hikers throw food trash in fire pits, where it does not burn completely,” Fetig says. “I’ve cleaned out enough of them to know that firsthand.”
“Beyond bears, think about the other critters seemingly simple food crumbs attract. First come the mice, then all the other animals, such as snakes, that eat them. Ultimately, the entire food chain shows up. Even ramen crumbs under the picnic table have an impact.”
Sometimes even proper food storage isn’t enough. Fetig tells of a bear that ripped apart a tent to get at food inside. Later, the same bear tore up an empty tent looking for food, although the hiker had properly stored his food away from his tent.
“The bear was doing what people taught it to do,” he says. “As I always tell campers, you never know what happened before you got there.”
Fetig is a proponent of bear canisters. “We’re seeing more canisters each year. But with the number of bear incidents increasing, I think you’ll see more and stronger recommendations to use canisters, especially on the southern half of the AT. Even where hanging is easy, I can’t tell you how many simply awful bear hangs we see. A lot of bears got food rewards from bad hangs this season.”
Wear on Trails
The wear on trails is apparent to anyone who hikes the AT and encounters stretches where the trail is worn down as much as a foot below the surrounding ground, or widened by hikers trying to avoid muddy spots.
The GMC asks hikers to stay off the trails during spring mud season, and closes trails that cross state land.
The reason? Wet trails are susceptible to compaction, which reduces the ground’s ability to absorb water. Water running down the compacted soil erodes the trails, exposing rocks and roots. And that’s part of the reason New England trails are so rocky and root-filled.
Just the regular trail maintenance—clearing blowdowns, weed-whacking, checking waterbars—is time-consuming. Fetig estimates that the section he personally maintains requires about a day of maintenance per month for nine months of the year, not including his three-hour round trip drive.
“Well-designed and maintained trails are very resistant to weather,” Fettig says. “Waterbars and check dams/grade dips work well to slow erosion. But blowdowns still need to be cleared and the weeds cut back to remove tick habitat.”
The six ridgerunners Fetig hires and supervises each season patrol the 240 miles of the AT maintained by the PATC—from the southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park at Rockfish Gap to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania.
The fragile alpine zone on Northeast mountains is especially vulnerable to heavy foot traffic. String hung alongside the Long Trail in Vermont attempts to define the path for hikers through the fragile alpine areas.
In the White Mountains, trail workers place more cairns and scree walls to better define the trail in spots, which has helped to keep users on the trail, according to Andrew Norkin, director of Trails and Recreation Management for the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Hikers also are creating new trails and campsites, and though Norkin says volunteers and staff work to eliminate those trails and campsites, they can’t keep up.
Georgia is not alone is trying to educate hikers. The Nantahala Hiking Club, which maintains 56.8 miles in North Carolia, has had a trail ambassador program since 2016, and Dement helped with their training. The Carolina Mountain Club is getting ready to start a program on Max Patch, a heavily visited area.
The PATC ridgerunners since the mid-1980s have been educating hikers on backcountry ethics, along with doing trail maintenance.
And the AMC has volunteer alpine stewards—similar to the trail ambassadors—who patrol the AT on Franconia Ridge and Mount Washington, advising hikers on LNT and alpine travel practices. AMC staff at White Mountain huts, backcountry sites, and visitors centers do the same.
Farther south, AMC ridgerunners patrol the AT in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts.
View from the Trail
How do thru-hikers view the issues facing the trail?
JC Van Etten saw firsthand hikers’ disregard for LNT during his 2019 thru-hike, and took action. Van Etten was hiking through New York in May when he saw rocks spray painted with graffiti and pictures pinned to trees. He took pictures of the damage, along with pictures of car license plates in the nearest parking area, and sent them to the ATC.
In Maine, he heard from a New York ranger that the high school students responsible for the damage were found and made to remove the paint.
Audrey Payne, a Trek blogger who thru-hiked in 2018, encountered large numbers of hikers on the trail early on during her NOBO hike, and sometimes wished for a more solitary trek. But in the end, she says, the hiker community was a big part of her hike.
“I would never say the AT is ‘crowded’ and I think, as a whole, thru-hikers are extremely respectful of the trail, the forest, the trail towns, other hikers, etc.,” Payne says. “But, I’d also say there were times when I certainly would have liked more solitude, more peace, and more quiet. That being said, I met some of my favorite people ever on the trail, and the community is an incredible part of the experience. I was never lonely and never felt unsafe, and often after a tough day, I’d arrive at camp to find a roaring campfire and friendly faces inviting me to join in. You take the bad with the good (incredible, really).”
“Looking forward, I don’t expect trail usage, trash deposited, or human-animal interaction to decrease,” Fetig says. “The only answer is education, which is a top priority with ATC and the (National) Park Service. But if you consider the bigger picture over time, it’s secure funding to maintain and support the trail. To a hiker the trail is a simple footpath from Maine to Georgia. To others more deeply involved, it’s a system involving 31 maintaining clubs, countless jurisdictions, land managers/owners, corridor boundaries, maintenance standards, relationships, recruiting, law enforcement, and planning. All of that costs money.”
And Fetig, along with the ATC, is at the forefront of education.
Fetig is a member of the ATC President’s Leadership Circle and serves on the communications committee of the ATC’s Preserving the Appalachian Trail Hiking Experience (PATHE).
Among many of PATHE’s initiatives are hiker registration, the annual thru-hiker hang tag to record the number of hikers on trail, and the AT Expert Advice Facebook page. The page counsels hikers, whether they’re planning a thru-hike, overnight hike, or day hike.
Bowman agrees that education is paramount.
“We think education is the most important element for keeping the Appalachian Trail pristine and for preserving the one-of-a-kind experience it provides to hikers,” he says. “The ATC is continuing to promote Leave No Trace and sustainable hiking practices through a variety of means, both through educational material and in-person workshops produced by the ATC itself (the Start Well thru-hiker classes at Amicalola Falls State Park and our How to Hike the AT backpacking courses being good examples).”
The ATC also works with educators to teach students about conservation and trail stewardship, and recruits ridgerunners and caretakers for the trail each hiking season.
Along with education the ATC is working with federal, state, and local agencies to manage and preserve the lands the AT passes through.
In 2009, the National Park Service, which oversees much of the trail on federal lands, completed the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Natural Resource Management Plan. The plan outlines the resources of the trail and recommends management actions. The ATC, the Park Service, and the US Forest Service, along with other agencies and organizations, work together to monitor those resources and coordinate volunteer help.
One such management effort is the Kittatinny Ridge project, a coalition of public and private agencies working to protect land and water within an Appalachian Mountain ecosystem stretching across Pennsylvania from the Delaware Water Gap to the Maryland border.
The ATC also engages in political action, which includes working with Congress to stop the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline through Virginia and West Virginia and advising the Congressional Appalachian National Scenic Trail Caucus on issues affecting the AT.
In the end, the future of the Appalachian Trail belongs to the people who use it. The trail ambassadors who lead by example. The volunteer trail maintainers who work countless hours picking up trash, cleaning shelters and campsites, and stabilizing worn and washed-out trails. And the hikers who practice LNT and respect the trail.
“I truly learned the idea that it is up to all of us to set a good example and keep the trail protected, clean, pristine,” Trek writer Laura Johnston says she discovered during her 2016 thru-hike. “But part of that is also doing what others might not want to, taking action when you’re tired, or simply doing the right thing rather than saying it.”
Feature image provided by Audrey Payne.
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