Reflecting on the Accessibility of the Appalachian Trail
My 2022 AT thru-hike lasted 180 days. I began hiking from Amicalola Falls State Park on March 28th, and finished at Katahdin on September 23rd.
During that period I published 12 articles here on the Trek, and produced nine short podcast episodes (as a part of the series Common Land) about my Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
Before departing for my hike, when I would explain to friends and family what I was about to attempt, everyone seemed to be shocked by the amount of time that it would take. Everyone I spoke with had heard of the Appalachian Trail, but none of them had any sense of the scale, or what it actually takes to hike the trail in its entirety.
There is an interesting dichotomy surrounding the idea of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. It is one of the most mentally and physically challenging feats imaginable, and yet it is truly accessible to almost any able bodied person.
The physical and mental challenges associated with a thru-hike are enormous. Those who’ve attempted a long distance hike understand, but for those who haven’t – imagine that your one hour workout was extended to last 8-10 hours. Then you had to wake up and do it all over again – every single day for 6 straight months. After about a month your body is in excellent physical shape, but you still need to work through the mental challenges associated with continuing this physically demanding routine each and every day.
And yet, it is quite common for AT thru-hikers to begin their hike, “straight from the couch”. I met innumerable hikers on the AT who had taken this approach; no running, no hiking, no backpacking, no physical training whatsoever before starting their thru-hike. Lots of folks that I met had never spent a single night out backpacking before they began their thru-hike attempt.
Of course, most of the folks who attempt to thru-hike the AT don’t actually finish the trail (at least within the one year window during which one’s hike can be considered a “thru-hike”). That said, I was very surprised by the number of hikers who came “straight off the couch”, and still completed their thru-hike. I became good friends with a few of these folks.
So if thru-hiking the AT is such an enormous challenge, how could it be possible that many of the people who hike the trail do very little physical training or preparation?
When attempting a Northbound AT thru-hike, you start hiking in Georgia, then make your way up to North Carolina and follow the border with Tennessee for several hundred miles. While this terrain certainly isn’t easy, it’s orders of magnitude easier than many sections of the trail further North in New Hampshire and Maine.
When starting the trail, “straight from the couch”, one must ease into the hiking routine. Although I did some physical training before starting my hike, I was hiking with my mom, who was recovering from a knee injury and had very limited time for training before our start date. For the first two weeks of hiking on the AT, my mom and I hiked 8-10 miles a day. This allowed for plenty of recovery time in the afternoons, and greatly reduced the chances of injury. We maintained this pace through the somewhat challenging terrain in the Great Smoky Mountains, then started to slowly increase our daily mileage.
As we increased our mileage incrementally, we entered Virginia, where the terrain began to get a bit easier. This balance is crucially important, especially for folks who are coming “straight from the couch”. It’s necessary to increase one’s daily mileage up to 15-20 miles per day or more and to maintain that pace throughout Virginia and the mid-Atlantic states, but if you go too fast, you’ll be prone to injury.
A relatively fast pace is necessary as you hike through the middle part of the AT, because the trail becomes more difficult the further north you get. As you enter New England the trail becomes more rugged, and by the time you reach Mt. Killington in Vermont you’re climbing some serious mountains. Once you reach the Whites, 20 mile days become a thing of the past for all but a few of the most intense hikers. It’s necessary to plan for a much slower pace through these last 400 miles of the trail.
This is the magic of a Northbound AT thru-hike. If you find the right balance, and increase your daily mileage incrementally as you become more fit, it’s entirely possible for many people to complete a thru-hike with zero physical training beforehand.
Of course, issues surrounding the “accessibility” of the AT go far beyond physical fitness and ability. The AT thru-hiking community remains majority white, although the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other groups are certainly trying their best to increase diversity on trail. I saw a fair amount of diversity when I was out on the AT – actually more than I anticipated. I wasn’t surveying hikers on their ethnic and racial backgrounds, so this is purely anecdotal, but I met and hiked with a number of non-white folks while on the AT. One brown-skinned guy who I hiked with for a bit in Virginia actually mentioned to me that he had been nervous about hiking through the South, but hadn’t experienced any interactions that he perceived as racist.
Are racist attitudes and beliefs present on the AT and within the long distance hiking community? Of course. We live in a deeply racist society. The tentacles of white supremacy are so intertwined with American culture that they’re easy to miss, especially as a white person. But the diversity that I saw on trail makes me hopeful that barriers are being overcome, although there’s obviously still a long way to go.
As a person of Jewish heritage, I didn’t experience any barriers or overt anti-semitism while on the trail. There were some uncomfortable moments however, stemming from the prevalence of church groups throughout the Southern part of the trail. In the South, church groups regularly provide trail magic on the AT, a phenomenon that I wrote about in a previous post. I always felt separated from the group at these church gatherings along the trail. Should I take the free food procured by the church at their trail magic station, or were these handouts only for good, Christian hikers? I found myself wondering if anyone could tell that I was Jewish based on my appearance. Was I being judged? But this struggle was taking place almost entirely in my head.
Another significant barrier to “accessibility” for prospective AT thru-hikers is money. Hiking the AT can be expensive, especially if you’re new to backpacking and need to acquire all the gear that is necessary for such a trip. I’m extremely lucky that I’ve had the chance to go on several long distance backpacking trips over the course of my life, and didn’t need to buy too much gear before starting my trip. Lightweight gear is absolutely essential for a successful thru-hike however, and ultralight gear can be very expensive. Some of the most popular and lightweight tents that I saw on trail are made by Z-packs, and cost $700-800. A new lightweight pack will cost $200-300, and a sleeping bag or quilt will cost about the same. This adds up quickly – if you wanted all the latest gear you could easily spend over $2,000 before taking a step onto the trail. Some of the small, boutique gear companies are making gear that is both cost-effective and ultralightweight, but it can still add up. Most of the folks that I met on trail had been saving up their money for several years to afford this journey.
There is a subset of the thru-hiking community however that is dead set on outfitting themselves with low-cost or no-cost gear. Used gear can be a great option, and almost every hiking related business along the AT has a “hiker box” full of free gear. Hikers can leave behind unwanted gear in these hiker boxes, and take anything that they can use. I heard stories about hikers who acquired the vast majority of their gear from these hiker boxes, outfitting themselves for free.
One thru-hiker who I met had her backpack, with all her gear and belongings, stolen from the front of a supermarket in Virginia. Within several days, she had re-outfitted herself while barely spending a dime. When she recounted the story to me, she explained that despite the initial shock and despair after the theft of her pack, she was amazed by how the AT thru-hiking community stepped up to support her. Fellow hikers and a local gear shop donated gear, and she started getting offers of free gear from folks she didn’t even know once her story was shared online.
“The Trail Provides” is one of the most common expressions heard on the AT, and it has proven true for me in many different ways. It’s not just about the gear, it’s about “trail magic” where you get a free meal, or sometimes even a free resupply of food for the next 3-4 days from a group of strangers. It’s about sticking your thumb out and counting on a ride into town. It’s about knowing that if you get hurt or injured, the next thru-hiker to come down the trail will help you out, even if you’ve never met them before.
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle for most people who attempt an AT thru-hike isn’t money or physical fitness, it’s the mental challenge. Hikers commonly talk about how the challenge of completing an AT thru-hike is 20% physical and 80% mental. The vast majority of folks who quit hiking before completing their thru-hike do so for mental reasons, not physical reasons. A lot of folks quit early on, in the first few weeks, but it’s also quite common for folks to quit during the later stages of a hike. A number of hikers that I knew quit just as they were entering the Northern section of the trail in Connecticut, Massachusetts or Vermont.
I hiked the first 1,500 miles of the AT with my mom, trail name: Chili Pepper Woman. My mom and I hiked the Long Trail in Vermont together nine years ago, so we figured that we understood a thing or two about both the mental and physical challenges of a long distance hike. Despite this previous experience, I did consider giving up on my thru-hike a few times. First in Virginia when my mom and I contracted Norovirus, and again in Massachusetts when I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. In both instances, I took just a few days off, then kept hiking, doing my best to ignore my misery.
My mom was dealing with a different set of physical struggles however. Back in 2020 she tore her ACL when she took a fall on the ski slopes (she’s an expert skier and teaches ski lessons every winter). She had two knee surgeries before we began our thru-hike attempt, and was constantly monitoring the condition of her injured knee. As we continued our hike however, and slowly began to increase our pace, her knee got stronger. By the time we had reached the halfway point she wasn’t too concerned about her knee, but another issue had started to bother her. She had soreness in her Achilles tendon.
We made it through a surprisingly difficult section of the trail in NY, which was exacerbated by a heat wave and an ongoing drought. Water was scarce, forcing us to carry packs weighted down by multiple liters of water. On our last day in New York we hiked over 20 miles, finally crossing the border into Connecticut at the end of the day. The next morning, my mom’s Achilles was screaming at her, and when we reached Bull’s Bridge a few miles down the trail she decided to get off trail for a few days of rest.
At first I assumed that she’d be right back on trail with me after taking a week or so off, but the injury was more serious, requiring at least a month off trail. Part of me wanted to get off trail with her so that our hikes would remain aligned, but I knew that my chances of finishing the trail would diminish significantly if I didn’t continue walking. So while my mom got a ride across Massachusetts to my sister’s house near Boston, I continued my thru-hike alone.
Hiking alone provided a different kind of AT experience. I was never really alone – each day I ran into numerous fellow thru-hikers, many of whom I knew quite well. But now all the planning and decision making were solely in my hands. In a certain sense, this was freeing – I no longer had to worry about anyone else, and I could plan the next steps of the hike with only my needs in mind. But it was also more difficult to motivate myself to hike without being accountable to anyone else. While hiking with my mom, I rarely considered getting off trail, but once she was gone, I found myself thinking about the comforts of home. Without a family member to share the experience with, I found myself missing my wife and son a whole lot more.
I continued on, despite these challenges. By the time I entered Vermont, I had started to hike at about the same pace as a few fellow hikers. This group never coalesced into a true trail family (or tramaly), but it was nice to have some friendly and familiar faces nearby. Then, as I neared the Vermont – New Hampshire border, I ran into two good friends who my mom and I had hiked with through parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania, Bear Snack and Chop Chop. These two had recently started hiking with two other hikers – KFC, who I’d met briefly in Harper’s Ferry, and Koozy, who I was meeting for the first time.
The five of us all ended up arriving at the tiny town of West Hartford, VT at the same time. This town once had a general store that served the thru-hiking community, but it closed down a number of years ago. Luckily, a trail angel by the name of Linda offers up her backyard for hikers to pitch their tents, and when the five of us learned that Domino’s Pizza would deliver to her house, we decided that we were done hiking for the day. Each of us ordered our own, personal large pizza, and nobody had any trouble finishing the entire pie. We set up our tents in Linda’s backyard, and discussed our plans for hiking into Hanover, NH the following morning.
From that point onward, the five of us were in lock step. We became a true “tramaly”, making plans for each section of the hike together, camping together on most nights, and hitch-hiking into town together. Our only rule was that we had no rules. While many hikers and lots of tramalies will plan out each day of the hike a week or more ahead of time, deciding which shelters and campsites they’ll stay at each night, we just made rough estimates. Decisions about where to camp each night happened at the very last minute, and our loosely-made plans regularly changed. We stayed together not because of good planning, but because we were all hiking at nearly the exact same pace, so even when plans changed at the last minute, or when part of the group got separated, we always came together in the end.
My mom rejoined me on trail soon after I entered the White Mountains, becoming the sixth member of our tramaly. She hiked with us across the Franconia ridgeline on her first day back, a gruelingly difficult but spectacularly beautiful hike. She continued on with us through the end of Whites, but then her knees began to bother her. Although her Achilles’ tendon had healed, she had lost much of the physical strength and stamina that she had built up over the course of those first 1,500 miles, and we were now hiking the most difficult terrain on the entire length of the AT. Just before we reached the Maine border, my mom decided to get off trail again. For her, it wasn’t worth risking another injury to complete her thru-hike. She decided that she was happy to be a Long Ass Section Hiker, and plans to complete her LASH next year.
By the time we entered the 100-mile wilderness, another hiker had joined our crew, Sauce. So we were back up to six members as we approached Katahdin, the final challenge of a Northbound AT thru-hike.
I wrote all about my experience on Katahdin in my previous post, so I won’t go into details here. But there is an important point to be made here about the “accessibility” of Katahdin and Baxter State Park. In my last post I wrote at length about Baxter State Park’s restrictive policies towards thru-hikers, and how the park has urged the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to adopt a permitting system for thru-hikers.
Requiring AT thru-hikers to get a permit before starting their hike would necessarily reduce the accessibility of the Appalachian Trail. While the idea might seem like a good one to certain folks concerned about overuse of the trail system, it would be logistically challenging to implement, and likely wouldn’t have any significant impact on trail use. Also – it could create a backlash, potentially causing more problems than it would solve.
The Pacific Crest Trail set up a permitting system for thru-hikers a number of years ago, but this was primarily an effort to consolidate the many individual permits that PCT hikers were already required to get into one central system. It’s also not technically a requirement to get a PCT permit – thru-hikers are still allowed to acquire each local permit separately, avoiding the need for the main PCT permit. That said, acquiring all of the individual permits for 20+ local areas would be a challenge, and the Forest Service will only issue 8,000 general PCT permits each year. So the implementation of this system has surely reduced foot traffic on the PCT over what it would have been without the system in place.
There are also daily caps for each trailhead – no more than 50 people can start at a particular location along the PCT on a given day. While this surely reduces crowding on the PCT, it also has the effect of reducing the flexibility of a long hike. Weather and snow conditions play a huge role in calculating the appropriate start time for a PCT thru-hike, and the requirement to lock in your start date months ahead of time can cause problems.
The permitting process itself sets up a significant accessibility barrier for the PCT. The process is complicated, and requires that hikers plan out certain details of their hike long before their hike begins. This process is designed to reduce usage, and therefore necessarily reduces accessibility.
On the AT, registration for a thru-hike is strongly encouraged by the ATC and all local trail clubs, and the vast majority of hikers do go through the registration process. But you’re allowed to register at any time – I actually registered the day that I started my hike. The registration process is designed to spread out the crowds, just like the PCT permitting system. When you register your start date for the AT, you are encouraged to select a date that fewer than 50 people have already chosen. But of course there’s no penalty for going over 50, and registration isn’t a requirement.
I met numerous people on trail who hadn’t registered their thru-hike for a variety of reasons. For some it was just inconvenient, while others weren’t even aware of the existence of the online registration portal. Additionally, I met numerous hikers who had started their AT thru-hikes spur of the moment. This is the most interesting group from an accessibility standpoint – these folks didn’t even know that they were going to attempt a thru-hike until weeks or days before they started, and some of them were unsure of how far they would go.
I met a hiker in Virginia who had thru-hiked the AT two years previous. He had been recovering from a motorcycle accident over the previous winter, and by the time March rolled around he decided to just get on trail and see what happened. He found that the trail provided an excellent path to recovery for him, so he just kept going. When I met him he had no idea how far he was going to go, he was just hiking until he ran out of money. I encountered a surprising number of folks on trail who had a similar approach to their thru-hike. Outside of the world of long distance hiking they’d be considered homeless bums, or driftless 20-somethings, but while inside the AT thru-hiking bubble, they’re hiker trash just like everyone else.
The accessibility of the AT is demonstrated by the very broad socio-economic range of the thru-hiking community. Wealthy doctors and lawyers with their $700 tents end up camping right alongside jobless drifters camping underneath homemade tarps. And these folks become friends! The trail removes the societal barriers that in the real world would prevent these people from ever interacting with each other.
The trail is a great place for homeless people. Folks who were homeless before getting on the AT get to join a group of thousands who have intentionally chosen to live a homeless lifestyle for 4-7 months. A permitting system would seek to end this phenomenon, but it would fail.
There are a few existing permitting systems on the Appalachian Trail, and they are all a joke, largely because they’re unenforceable. AT thru-hikers are required to get permits before entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. Smoky Mountain permits must be acquired with a physical paper copy printed out before entering the park. But there aren’t any limits on the number of permits, and nobody ever asked to see my permit (not even the park ranger that I chatted with for 10-15 minutes). I did talk with a fellow hiker who told me that a park ranger had asked to see her permit, but what would a ranger do if they encountered a hiker without a permit? Ask them to leave the park on foot?
In Shenandoah National Park, there’s a kiosk along the trail at the park boundary where hikers are supposed to fill out a paper form that asks you to list out which campgrounds you’ll stay for each night of your hike through the park (an impossible task for most thru-hikers). I reached that kiosk just as it was starting to rain. I pulled out the paper form, and it was almost immediately soaking wet, making it literally impossible to fill out and submit. I continued hiking without filling out the form upon this realization, and nobody ever asked me about the permit.
I met a handful of AT ridgerunners over the course of my thru-hike. These folks, who are employed by the local hiking clubs responsible for maintaining the AT, are responsible for enforcing the rules of the trail. While all the ridgerunners that I met were incredibly friendly and helpful, there just aren’t that many of them, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to enforce a permit requirement. In fact just the idea of anyone at all trying to enforce a permit requirement on the AT is laughable. The trail is simply too long, and it’s easy to hide in the woods.
Instead of fruitless efforts to reduce trail usage and decrease the accessibility of the AT, we need more efforts to increase the accessibility of the trail. The Warrior Hike program is an excellent example of this – the program provides resources, including gear and training, for war veterans who want to attempt a long distance hike. I met numerous veterans on the AT, and although most of them weren’t participants in this program, they were all familiar with Warrior Hike. There’s lots of space for veterans within the AT thru-hiking community, and projects like Warrior Hike help provide that space.
Outdoor Afro is an amazing organization working to connect Black people and Black communities with each other and with the natural world. The group has helped organize trips along the AT, and runs outdoor leadership training workshops year round. Participants in these workshops then host and organize local trips and meetups in the outdoors, including backpacking trips along the AT. This is the kind of work that is and will continue to increase diversity and accessibility within the long distance hiking community.
Efforts to restrict usage of the AT are clearly in conflict with efforts to increase the diversity of the AT hiking community. When a stereotypical crotchety old man on the AT bemoans the “good old days” when they wouldn’t see another person on trail for days, they’re also communicating in a not so subtle way that newcomers aren’t welcome.
The reality is that humans are a part of nature. We’re functioning members of every ecosystem that we inhabit. The best way to protect the AT and the beautiful natural areas that the trail passes through is to hike it, love it, and live on it, as AT thru-hikers do each year. This is one of the core principles that makes the AT different from all the “square parks” (normal national parks that don’t extend for thousands of miles through many different states). Each and every year, several thousand people decide that they are going to not just visit the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, but live on and within it for half a year. By the time these thousands of people have completed their journeys, each and every one of them has become a lifelong advocate for protecting the trail, and the landscapes that it passes through.
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