How to Survive an Encounter With A Wild Thru Hiker

When it comes to day hiking during Spring, most people in the South are most concerned about encountering a bear, wild hog, rattlesnake, or other potentially dangerous wildlife. Fortunately, most of these creatures want to avoid you as much as you would like to avoid them.

But there’s another species native to the Appalachian Trail that you may find while hiking and be unsure of how to deal with.

You’re walking along a section of the trail, maybe for an afternoon or a weekend, and hear a rhythmic clicking that sounds like toenails hitting rocks. Next you hear labored breathing and a wall of stench hits your nostrils even before you see the creature approaching. By the time you realize what is happening, you jump slightly as it quickly catches up to you, trekking poles flying in all directions. It excuses itself and trucks on down the trail past you all before you realize what you have seen.

You survived an encounter with a thru hiker.

If not on the move, you may see one stationed on the side of the trail devouring recent prey such as a granola bar or summer sausage. You are unlikely to be attacked. They are probably unconcerned with your presence and could smell your freshly showered and shampooed body before you approached.

Should you choose to stay in the vicinity and enjoy your own lunch, be mindful that the thru hiker may look up with glassy wistful eyes and begin drooling when you pull out a freshly made sandwich with fresh bread and real lettuce and perishable meats.

At this point, you may begin to softly speak to the thru hiker and they will generally respond with enthusiasm as they wipe saliva from their watering mouths. Avoid topics such as “how dangerous it must be to be out here alone” or “how you could never survive without a toilet” and you will quickly befriend them.


Expedite the friendship by tossing them a small food offering such as a piece of candy or slice of cheese. This phenomenon of “Trail magic” is a surefire way to have a positive encounter with the wild creature. Some people even set up road side tables full of food just to attract hikers! Unlike any other species found in the wilderness, in the case of thru hikers, please feed the wildlife.


Other locations you are likely to find thru hikers are tourist destinations along the trail such as Clingman’s Dome or hanging out next to arbitrary country roads with a wide-eyed expression. They have learned to associate roads with food.

At night, they often seek shelter together. They congregate around primitive lean-tos known as “shelters” and these hiker towns arise in the early evening and no trace of them is left behind past 9 AM. Generally the hikers gather around a campfire after filling their bellies and disperse into tents and the shelter before nightfall.


Just remember that these creatures are of no danger to you, despite what their odor may suggest. They are generally a gregarious and friendly type and you can always entice them into conversation with a small offering of food.

I am currently 342 miles into my thru hike and try to update here as I have internet access, but if you’d like daily updates on trail life and more encounters with a thru hiker, check out my Instagram!

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Comments 1

  • Paul Boulay : May 12th

    Great article. I did it SOBO in ’78-79. I discovered the delicious wild Ramps in the VA Bald Mtns and ate them continuously for several days. Ramps are culinary much like scallions and garlic, so are loaded with sulfur. With my sulfur-loaded body I then tramped the long soaking downhill in continuous rain from the Rogers area down to the hostel near the state line at (?) Damascus. I was wet for so long that I had lost s few toenails.
    So I trudged into the hostel very exhausted at the end of a long 20+ miler, removed my boots and slumped into the chair at the table. I just wanted to rest, as I have rarely been that tired. But my hiker colleagues at the hostel were begging me to Please Go And Take A Shower Please. The stench must have been intense. It’s funny though because I didn’t smell a thing!


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