Interview with an Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner

It’s no secret that the Appalachian Trail (AT) survives in large part due to the thousands of hours of labor put in by willing volunteers each year. Yet, there are still a number of fortunate souls lucky enough to get paid to work on the AT. Among these select few are ridgerunners. If you’re a frequent visitor of the of AT odds are you have crossed paths with an ridgerunner, or perhaps even shared a shelter with one. But what exactly do ridgerunners do? Sure they get to hike up and down the AT for a living, but there must be more to it then getting paid to hike. Are they glorified rangers? Do they focus on maintenance or enforcement? Is there actually running involved?

Maury Hudson, more commonly known as Twinkle Toes on trail, worked as a 2015 Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) Ridgerunner in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) and will be returning again for 2016 season. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with Twinkle Toes to discuss a ridgerunner’s duties, their relationship with AT hikers, and the role these khaki-adorned patrollers play in the grander scheme of the AT.

All responses contained within represent the opinions of Twinkle Toes and as such may not explicitly represent those of The Trek or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The Trek: So what is the purpose of a ridgerunner?

Twinkle Toes: Simply put, the purpose of a ridgerunner is to take care of the AT. Ridgerunners are “boots-on-the-trail” liaisons for the ATC, providing information, educating about Leave No Trace (LNT) practices, and helping hikers have AT experiences that are positive for both them and the trail.

 

The Trek: But what does a ridgerunner do exactly? What are your day-to-day duties?

Twinkle Toes: I spend a regular day hiking to a shelter, maybe an average of 7 miles. I talk to people I meet along the way and at the shelter. I check folks permits, ask them about their hikes, answer questions. I give advice about the weather, hiking the trail, bear activity, LNT, and any other info I might have. I make note of trail and shelter conditions and any blowdowns that need to be reported. Smaller blowdowns or trail maintenance I might take care of myself.

At shelters, I check permits, talk to folks, clean up if necessary, and service the privies. I sweep the privies, sanitize the seats, and knock down the “fecal cones” with a shovel to help with composting. When the time comes, I move the privy seat over to an empty bin and empty out the full bins. Maintaining privies is not exactly the highlight of my week, but someone has to do it and I’m already out in the backcountry.

 

The Trek: How long were you on duty?

Twinkle Toes: I started patrolling on Feb. 27 and finished on Nov. 2. Hike five days a week, take two off, repeat.

Twinkle Toes hanging out at the Mt. Cammerer lookout tower in the Smokies.

The Trek: How did you become a ridge runner?

Twinkle Toes: The ATC hires ridgerunners seasonally, as needed, and posts the openings (https://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/about-us/careers). The southern sections (i.e.- Georgia and the Smokies) start working early in the year to meet the thru-hikers and are usually hired in November through December of the previous year. Further north, ridgerunner’s seasons start mid-spring and run through the summer, so they are usually hired at the beginning of the year. I believe the Green Mountain Club, Appalachian Mountain Club, and Maine Appalachian Trail Club hire their own ridgerunners and caretakers directly.

I think most people who look to become ridgerunners love to hike and want to get paid to do it. Backpacking experience and AT knowledge are pretty big requirements. Any experience making public contacts or teaching/demonstrating LNT principles help a lot, too. I also think to be a good ridgerunner you also need to care about the trail and its natural surroundings, and you want to help others care about it too, so that we can make sure the AT remains the special place it is that all future hikers can enjoy.

 

The Trek: What kind of hiking/backpacking experience did you have before this job?

Twinkle Toes: I thru-hiked the AT in 2008 and section-hiked from Springer to Harpers Ferry in 2014. In 2012, I hiked 1000+ miles of the PCT, which included most of the section from Campo to Tuolumne Meadows, plus parts of Oregon. I spent all of 2013 working as a field instructor for a wilderness therapy program in western North Carolina. And in between all of this I’ve been on countless day, overnight, and weekend hikes in Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, and South Korea.

 

The Trek: Were you required to undergo any special training for this position?

Twinkle Toes: Before starting patrols, the ATC provided a LNT Trainer course (https://lnt.org/learn/trainer-courses) for ridgerunners. I believe the ATC will also provide a Wilderness First Aid course to anyone who needs it, but I was (and still am) already Wilderness First Responder certified, so I didn’t need it. Later in the season, the ATC also gave me the opportunity to take a LNT Master Educator course, which I did, but that is not required for a ridgerunner position.

 

The Trek: What was your territory? Does it overlap with other ridgerunners?

Twinkle Toes: There are three ridgerunners in the Smokies through the end of May (i.e.- NOBO season). One covers the 16 miles from Fontana to Spence Field shelter – Carl Goodman has been doing that job for over a decade now. The other two split up the rest of the park, one from Spence Field to Newfound Gap and the other north of Newfound Gap, but trade sides once in awhile. The other two ridgerunners’ seasons end after spring so starting in June it’s just me.

 

The Trek: Do you know how many ridgerunners the ATC employs?

Twinkle Toes: I do not know exactly how many ridgerunners the ATC hires. In 2016 there will probably be a dozen or so between Springer and Shenandoah National Park. Past that, I have no idea.

Twinkle Toes (right) posing with Sublime, a thru-hiker.

The Trek: As a ridgerunner in the Smokies did you have to enforce backcountry permits?

Twinkle Toes: I wouldn’t use the word “enforce.” I do not work for the NPS so I cannot write citations for permit violations. I would say I “verify” permits and encourage compliance with park regulations. I can issue permits to hikers on the trail, if necessary. I can also report violations to park authorities, as necessary, which could result in citations. My job is to take care of the trail, and I believe the Smokies section is one of the most beautiful on the AT. National park regulations (including permits) help preserve that beauty. So I’m all about following the rules, with reasonable accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

 

The Trek: Did you encounter many thru-hikers without proper papers to pass thru the Smokies?

Twinkle Toes: There were a few thru-hikers without permits, but I think more people printed out their payment receipt instead of their actual permit. They are different. All of the regulations in the Smokies, including permits, help to preserve the natural environment of the national park and compliment LNT principles. Since the Smokies are the most visited national park in the country, requiring hikers to stay at designated shelters and campsites concentrates user impact to a few areas. Backcountry permits help prevent overcrowding and excessive impacts in those areas, which provides a better backcountry experience. Now, during NOBO season, the shelters will be overcrowded anyway…but that’s a whole other can of worms.

 

The Trek: During the 2015 season how many thru-hikers did you encounter? How does this compare to day-hikers, section-hikers, etc.

Twinkle Toes: In 2015, I encountered 1,422 thru-hikers. About 97-98% of them were northbound. Compare that to 1,852 day hikers; 1,143 park backpackers; and 150 long-distance section hikers. Thru-hikers made up 31% of all the hikers I encountered – nearly a third. And keep in mind that was almost entirely concentrated in the March-May season (with a few SOBOs and flip-floppers in the fall), while the numbers for other hikers covered from March to October.

 

The Trek: What kinds of challenges are there dealing with the mass amounts of thru-hikers combined with the regular tourists, day hikers, and section hikers?

Twinkle Toes: During the spring NOBO thru-hiker season the trail and shelters are packed pretty much every day. On top of that, most colleges have spring break during March and April and the Smokies are a popular destination. I’d say the biggest challenge is just making space for everyone. Sometimes park backpackers see thru-hikers setting up tents and decide they would rather tent than stay in the shelter. Thru-hikers are often reluctant to take a spot in the shelter, because a hiker with a reservation might arrive later and take the space. Good tenting spaces are limited at some shelters (especially on the northern side of the park), and there are just SO MANY hikers it’s difficult to find spots for everyone.

I sleep in a shelter every night I’m out there. I try to manage the space and be as accommodating as possible for hikers. If it’s freezing or rainy outside, we can cram a lot of folks inside, and usually the reservation hikers are understanding. If a thru-hiker is sleeping in the shelter and a reservation hiker arrives late (like after dark), I’m gonna ask people to make some extra room inside so that thru-hiker doesn’t need to set up their tent. If the shelter is already full with thru-hikers and a reservation hiker wants to put up a tent, that’s fine with me – a tent is a tent as long as the shelter is full first.

Part of LNT is “Be considerate of other visitors,” so that’s how I try to deal with issues. What is most reasonable to accommodate the most hikers while still minimizing impact on the natural environment?

 

The Trek: In a typical week how much trash did you have to carry out?

Twinkle Toes: How much trash I carry out varies a lot. Sometimes I hardly find anything, and others times I haul 12-15 lbs. I guess most of the time it’s probably only 3-4 lbs. This year, I found A LOT of wet clothes. Also, lots of abandoned food. If hikers leave things behind because they think someone else might want it, the truth is most people carry too much weight already and don’t want extra. So stuff just sits there and then I usually have to haul it out.

I found a pillow once – not a camping pillow, like a normal bed pillow. A can opener. An air horn (I guess someone thought they would use to scare bears). I found a jar of pickles and a jar of cherry preserves stashed in the woods. The grossest things I find are when people poop straight on the ground and leave it, which I encountered at at least 4 different shelters (3 of them had privies!). That I then have to bury in the ground where it’s supposed to be.
This year I packed out around 250 lbs of trash and abandoned items. That’s an approximation, since I did not officially weigh everything I carried. It also does not include all the trash I cleaned out of privies, which was probably another 40-50 lbs. I would like to add that while most of the trash I picked out of privies was wet wipes, I also found feminine products, Ziploc bags, food trash, plastic bottles, and clothing.

A collection of various trash piles carried out by Twinkle Toes in 2015.

A collection of various trash piles carried out by Twinkle Toes in 2015. CLICK TO ZOOM!!!

The Trek: Is there a regulation that almost no one seems to recognize, understand, or follow that would make a ridgerunner’s life easier?

Twinkle Toes: Well, besides the fact that it is actually a regulation not to leave or burn trash, a lot of people think they can use a thru-hiker permit if they hike only the 72 miles of the AT in the Smokies. From the GSMNP permit site: “To qualify for an AT Thru-Hiker Permit, you must begin and end your hike at least 50 miles outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park and only travel on the AT in the park.” (emphasis mine). That is, start at least 50 miles before you reach the park and end at least 50 miles past the park. This is because people hiking long distances on the AT have difficulty knowing what their itinerary will be once they get to the Smokies; by the time they arrive at the park, the reservations may not be available to fit their plan. People who are starting or ending their hike in the Smokies, or just hiking across the park, should know their plan and be able to make reservations accordingly. Non-thru-hikers who use thru-hiker permits make the shelters and trail unnecessarily crowded. Plus, when you apply for a thru-hiker permit you have to certify that you’re hiking a long distance, so people can’t plead ignorance.

 

The Trek.: What is your biggest gripe with thru-hikers. Said a different way, how can the class of 2016 do better than 2015?

Twinkle Toes: I guess my biggest issue with thru-hikers is, or perhaps potential thru-hikers, is that so many of them insist on hiking northbound. And I totally understand why everyone chooses that hike. Almost the entirety of “AT culture” has concentrated around a northbound itinerary – trail magic, trail angels, trail festivals, and many services of trail towns  – and the overwhelming majority of thru-hike information people can access is based around northbound hikes. I hiked northbound myself, because that’s what I learned about from other people and I wanted to have a similar experience. The idea of finishing on Katahdin seems epic. I don’t want to sound like I think there’s anything WRONG with hiking northbound – do what is best for you – but I do think the AT has reached a point of popularity where it is important for hikers to consider other options.

The southern section of the trail is bearing a tremendous brunt of the impact caused by thousands of hikers passing through in such a short amount of time; and most of those hikers don’t even make it past the south. That impact also ripples out, with more trail magic being left unattended by trailheads or different hiker feeds at the same spots week after week (Max Patch and Lemon Gap are good examples). The ATC is doing what they can to promote alternative thru-hikes, but it’s up to hikers to make the choice. And the more people choose not to NOBO, the more people will follow. Personally, I think that starting in the middle and flip-flopping is the ideal way to go and may even promote at better chance of completion since you can start hiking in better weather and on easier terrain, which are two major reasons a lot of people drop out early on NOBO hikes. Plus you can plan a flip-flop itinerary where you will meet other folks on the trail and still experience that “hiker trash” community.

My second-biggest gripe is to carry a trowel. Seriously. I know, I know – I didn’t carry one for a long time either. But now I’m older and wiser, and I know what a proper poop-hole looks like, and I know that the “holes” I dug with some sticks and my boot were not 6 inches. Be the change you want to see on the trail. You don’t like nasty toilet paper flowers and mine fields near shelters? CARRY A TROWEL.

 

The Trek: What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen a thru hiker carrying?

Twinkle Toes: One thru-hiker named “Animal” was carrying all his food by hand in a five gallon bucket. I believe he’s hiked the trail previously and always carries the bucket. I also saw a few thru-hikers using the BioLite camp stoves, which weigh 2 lbs – huge for a wood-burning stove.

 

The Trek: Camping regulations in the Smokies are obviously strict, but is there a policy regarding the need to stealth camp in an emergency?

Twinkle Toes: If you are caught in a true emergency situation, your safety is the first priority. The park would rather you keep yourself safe than have to launch a search and rescue. That being said, planning ahead and preparing accordingly is the best thing you can do to avoid emergencies. Make sure you pay attention to the weather, look at elevation profiles and water sources, and know your abilities – don’t try to push yourself past your limit. Several emergencies that happened in the park last year were due to people being unprepared and making poor decisions, so do your best to avoid that and you can protect yourself and the environment at the same time.

Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail will keep a ridgerunner from their duties. Well, within reason.

The Trek: In 2015 was the weather ever bad enough to impede your own duties as a ridgerunner?

Twinkle Toes: The first couple weeks of winter I had to shorten my shift a little because Newfound Gap Road was closed. And when hurricane Joaquin came up the east coast I came out of the field for one night to be on the safe side. I’m in contact with the Smokies backcountry office, and Christine Hoyer – the park’s backcountry management specialist – and if something is serious they’ll let me know. That’s what happened with hurricane Joaquin. Usually, if they don’t think it’s safe for NPS rangers to go in the backcountry they’ll let me know I should probably come in, too (if I’m in a position where that’s even possible).

I zeroed in a shelter one day, instead of hiking on, because the weather seemed pretty sketchy (bad thunderstorm coming, high wind, etc), and told hikers to stay if they felt unsure about it. I think we probably got 20 people inside the shelter and a several more tenting.

 

The Trek: In the Smokies not all the shelters are equipped with privies. Due to the popularity of the park, some hikers have pondered whether or not there are plans to construct new privies at these locations to aid with conservation. To your knowledge do such plans exist?

Twinkle Toes: There are 12 AT shelters in the Smokies and 7 of them do have privies.

Short answer: No, there are no plans to build new privies in the Smokies.

Long answer: If you think privies are the answer to the poop problem, I suggest you try cleaning one out and then see how you feel. Really, there is no easy answer to the poop problem on the trail. LNT guidelines for pooping in the woods are as follows:

1. 200 feet away from trail, shelters/campsites, and water sources.
2. Buried AT LEAST 6 inches in the ground.
3. Pack out your toilet paper or bury it with your poop (preferably pushing it into the hole with a stick, so it is not near the surface).

If every hiker followed those directions there would be no nasty toilet areas around shelters and no need for privies. Obviously, that will never happen, so privies have been built to try to concentrate the impact at high-use areas. But people do not use the privies correctly either, and they pass their responsibility for cleaning up after themselves on to someone else (i.e. – ridgerunners and trail club volunteers). I emptied out 4 privies this year and found at least 10 lbs of trash in each one. That’s 10 lbs of trash that I had to pick out by hand and then carry out of the backcountry. Most of that trash is wet wipes, which are not compostable. DO NOT PUT WET WIPES IN THE PRIVY! Plus, building privies in the backcountry takes a tremendous amount of time, money, and volunteer power, all of which are tough to come by for AT clubs. Digging a hole in the ground is a lot cheaper and easier to maintain than a privy.

In conclusion – if you’re tired of seeing nasty mine field toilet areas, educate yourself and others on proper poop-hole technique. In the Smokies, the 5 shelters without privies all have shovels provided, so digging 6 inches shouldn’t be hard. And if you must have a privy, go recruit for the trail clubs so they can have the resources and man-power they need to even make it feasible.

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Comments 4

  • Avatar
    Dave Michel : Jan 13th

    I rode my ankle in the Whites on a section hike 7 uears ago. A fantastic trail runner (I forget his name, unfortunately) helped me hobble out 7 miles. Surgery, reconstruction, and now I’m poised to NOBO 2016. Very grateful for all the trunners!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Steve wetherbee : Aug 13th

    is there an age limit to being a ridge runner?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Kenny Howell : Aug 15th

      From what I was able to ascertain I do not believe so, but I could not say with 100% certainty one way or the other. My assumption is that as long as you are capable of performing the required duties you’d be considered a viable candidate.

      Reply

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