The Appalachian Trail Needs You (and Your Sweat)

Volunteer maintainers are “graying out” and nobody’s replacing them.

It took more than 1,600 miles of walking on the Appalachian Trail before it struck me how important volunteers are to keeping the trail open, healthy, and sustainable.

The epiphany struck as I was trundling down one of the steepest half-mile sections on the AT toward Vermont Route 9. It was pouring rain, and I was immensely grateful to the anonymous laborers who had built a series of stone steps out of monolith-sized boulders.

How in the world do they get these things into place? I wondered.

Nine months later, strapped liked a mule to a 600-pound chunk of granite on Yellow Mountain near the Georgia-North Carolina border, I finally got an answer: inch-by-inch, via teamwork, with plenty of thick, mud-grimed yellow webbing, sheer muscle, and lots of grunts and groans.

“One … two … three!” barked Justin Farrell, a former crew leader with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s storied Konnarock Trail Crew.

Five guys hoisted the rock a few inches off the ground as I drove my legs into the ground, tugging the boulder (dubbed Fred) a few feet forward. A dozen lung-busting tugs down the trail, and we were ready to maneuver it into position, just one of several equally enormous rocks needed to build a single French drain on one, tiny section of the 2,190-mile trail.

Volunteers Make the Trail

Members of the ATC’s Konnarock Trail Crew at work. Image courtesy Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Although the AT is jointly managed by the ATC, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and numerous state agencies, it is maintained almost entirely by volunteers. Indeed, some 6,000 volunteers working with the ATC, the federal agencies, and 31 maintaining clubs provide about 270,000 hours of service on the trail annually. That’s close to 110 volunteer hours per mile of trail, every year.

Simply put, without volunteers, there would be no AT (or PCT or Colorado Trail…). There’d be nobody to saw through last winter’s blowdown. No one to fend off the fast-growing sourwood, greenbriar, poison ivy, or multiflora rose that threaten to engulf the tread. No sturdy bodies to bust up rock, haul boulders, build steps, and rebuild washed-out sections.

“All long-distance trails depend on volunteers to keep them open and them well-maintained,” says Josh Kloehn, resource manager for the ATC’s Central and Southwest Virginia Regional Office. “Having a good volunteer capacity is important for the ATC, the Forest Service, the Park Service, and all the clubs. Without volunteers, it’s hard to imagine what the trail would become.”

But while working with Konnarock over the past two years, I’ve heard the same, unsettling story from members of local maintaining clubs who join us: Longtime, dependable members are “graying out,” having to cut back or retire from trail work, and new, younger members aren’t taking their places.

Graying Out

kent connecticut appalachian trail volunteers

Volunteers are almost entirely responsible for keeping the AT clear for hikers, as with this section of trail near Kent, CT. Photo: Clay Bonnyman Evans

“It makes sense that a lot of our trail maintainers are retired individuals, because now they have the time,” says Kim Peters, 62, trail maintenance coordinator for the Tennesee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, which has helped maintain and relocate some 135 miles of the AT, from Damascus, VA, to Spivey Gap, NC, since the 1940s. “But we’ve recently had several long-term active maintainers age out and they can no longer be active. The crux of the issue is that we’re not seeing younger people come in to replace them.”

Peters jokes that once you take a job with the TEHCC, it’s yours until you die. She notes that the man who leads the club’s weekly work trips is now in his 70s.

“He’s extremely fit and active, but I see him slowing down,” she says. “If we lose him, that’s done.”

The ATC’s six summer trail crews—Konnarock, the flagship crew, 36 years and counting; Rocky Top, which works in the Smoky Mountains; S.W.E.A.T., the Smokies Wilderness Elite AT crew; Maine Trail Crew; the Volunteer Long Trail Patrol in Vermont; and the Mid-Atlantic Crew—have been successful at recruiting younger volunteers, despite (or perhaps because of) their well-earned reputation for putting in long, hard days.

College service groups and projects from as far away as Missouri and South Dakota have in recent years helped fill Konnarock’s early-season rosters. All they have to do is get to the crew’s base camp in Sugar Grove, VA, and the ATC does the rest: food, transportation, tools, and camping gear if necessary. About half of the ATC’s crews qualify as “youth” (under 30) while a third are retired.

“The rest are middle-aged folks who are able to take time off work,” Kloehn says.

The ATC actively encourages volunteers to use newly acquired skills beyond crew weeks.

“We love to get younger folks involved and experience the opportunities, then take it back to their states to give back on other long trails, whether it be the PCT or CDT, or even their local city or county parks,” Kloehn says.

But the heavy-duty work done by ATC crews doesn’t always translate to the lighter (but just as important) work done by maintaining clubs. Many volunteers return to work on ATC crews, but few seem to join local clubs.

The AT Needs You!

keffer oak appalachian trail clay bonnyman

The author pauses for a photo with the Keffer Oak near Sinking Creek Mountain, VA, on his way to work for the ATC’s Konnarock Trail Crew.

Both the ATC and local clubs have tried different approaches to bring in new blood, with mixed success. The ATC and Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, for example, created a meetup group, and the ATC and TEHCC hosted “hiker happy hours” in Damascus.

“We probably got six to eight volunteers from that,” says Kloehn, who helped lead an introductory workshop on trail maintenance for potential recruits. “Given all the staff time and ATC promotion, was it worth it? I think that’s a judgment call.”

Some local clubs, including the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club and the Carolina Mountain Club, simply require all members to participate in a minimum number of work hours to maintain membership, Peters says.

And in an effort to cash in on the goodwill and sturdy muscles of thousands of annual AT thru-hikers, Bob Peoples, 73, the famed founder of Kincora Hikers’ Hostel in Hampton, TN—who has logged more than 8,000 hours of trail volunteering since retiring from the Air Force in 1988—established the “Hardcore” crew. Hardcore recruits current-year thru-hikers at Trail Days in Damascus for several days of hard labor. Konnarock took over Hardcore in 2016, putting 30 hikers to work for two days before they continued on their way.

But even as the volunteer corps continues to age or drop out, changing climatic conditions will only continue to accelerate the need for more volunteers. In the West, for example, pine-bark beetle infestations have caused a 70 percent kill rate on timber in some sections of the CDT, and the emerald ash borer has killed some 40 million trees, including along the AT. Dead timber will, at some point, become blowdowns, and if there aren’t enough people to clear it, trails will become all but impassable.

Given the need, Peters would love to see every AT hiker pledge to give back to the trail, even if it’s just a day or two a year, and on a different trail.

“If everybody donated just one day a year, it would be awesome,” she says. “If all the people who hiked would just, after their hike, volunteer one day, that would be so helpful. This work is fun and extremely rewarding. If we expose enough people, it’s going to take with some of them.”

Hard Work and Fun

Volunteering is hard work, but it’s also a great way to experience the trail, for newbies and old hands alike. In many ways, my hitches with Konnarock have been a distilled version of my 2016 thru-hike: hanging out in the woods with people from diverse backgrounds, pursuing a common goal, working hard, and forming close bonds in a remarkably short period of time.

“You meet great people who want to be there not because it’s their job, but because they want to give back to the trail,” says Bob “Cool Breeze” Fennelly, who has worked on a dozen Konnarock crews since 1986. “Everyone who hikes the trail does some damage, and if we love the trail, and want it to be there for the next generation, we have to do something to make it better.”

Want to give some love back to the AT? Learn more about volunteering with an ATC trail crew or an AT trail-maintaining club.

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Comments 14

  • Cosmo Catalano : Jul 27th

    Organized/sponsored crews like Konnarock who generally take on specific projects (typically requiring heavy construction–paid for with Federal dollars) are still attracting some younger folks–probably because the work is a “one-off” stint of 5 to 10 days. Highly valuable, fun, and essential to conducting the major, ongoing repairs a trail needs.

    However, the day to day maintenance and small projects (shelter repairs, signs, etc) are performed by by small crews or individual volunteers. Leaders of clubs (who organize and support these small crews) are also a key volunteer resource. Both of these groups are graying and numbers are diminishing (we are certainly seeing it in my own club).

    Getting younger volunteers interested in joining this “old boy’s club” can be difficult. Yes, sometimes it’s like working with your parents. The cultural differences between the generations is one hurdle, but another is simply that younger people in mid-career and/or with families may not think they have the time to commit to a “regular” AT job. Trail maintenance does need to take place reliably and regularly (2-4 times a season, depending on local conditions). We have addressed this issue by supporting “co-maintainers”, that is a group of people who share responsibility for a section, this seems to be having some success in syncing with busy families and life schedules.

    I would urge readers to check out their local club, go on a few work parties, get to know the other volunteers. It will take a few visits before they consider you a “regular”–it’s sort of like finding a new bar to hang out in. If you like the work and the people, let them know you would like to do more as your schedule permits. Consistency is almost as important as frequency. Don’t worry about skills, you will learn as you go. When you are ready, there is training for advanced skills like chainsaw work and rock rigging–if you want it.

    Caring for the AT is more than just clearing trail and painting blazes. Some clubs have work off-trail on the boundary of federal lands, others monitor rare plants, more run the club’s social media efforts or maintain tools and gear. There really is work for lots of different interests.

    By the time the kids have left for college, your own student loans paid off, and your work steady, you’ll be ready to take on some leadership responsibilities as well…

    Reply
    • Pony : Jul 27th

      Thanks for the cogent comments, Cosmo. Makes me wonder who you are in “real life”!

      Clay Bonnyman Evans

      Reply
  • Laurie Potteiger : Jul 27th

    Awesome article, Pony! Thanks for writing this and all the sweat and muscle-power you have contributed too.

    Joining a trail crew and working with a local trail club are different ways to give back–you can choose one or do both!

    I like Cosmo’s analogy of finding the right volunteer group to is “sort of like finding a new bar to hang out in.”

    And if you’re not social, you may be given the opportunity to maintain your very own section of the A.T. by a local trail club with just a little training or participation in a few work trips.

    All can be incredibly rewarding in their own way. And when you’re working on the trail and a passing hiker thanks you, there’s no better feeling.

    Reply
    • Pony : Jul 27th

      I like that analogy, too.

      I had a comment from a friend who notes how difficult it is for younger people in the “gig” economy to find time for volunteering. While I certainly sympathize with that, I also think that what Kim Peters is saying in this piece about giving even one day a year should be doable for almost anyone.

      And I just think all of us who love the AT (and other trails) should think of it as giving back, rather than a headache or obstacle. The AT gave to me, as did the countless thousands of volunteers who have kept it in shape since the 1920s, so I think giving up some of my time is only right!

      Clay Bonnyman Evans

      Reply
  • Leanna Joyner : Jul 27th

    Lots of one-day or partial day volunteer opportunities are found with A.T. Clubs and with ATC at Appalachian trail.org/volunteer. Wonderful stories of your labor and love for the Trail in this piece, Clay!

    Reply
  • Robb : Jul 28th

    Remember – your local Boy Scout troops are always looking for service hours, especially conservation oriented projects. Most of them are *very* open to the idea. Just look them up in the community, shoot them an email letting them know you are there…

    Reply
  • Tom Dillon : Jul 28th

    Awesome article, and it’s all right. We have to get younger people involved somehow. I’ve been disturbed for several years that too many young people don’t seem to have the same interest in the outdoors that my generation had. It’s even bothered me that some thru-hikers I’ve met don’t intend to volunteer afterward.
    We have to attract those who are interested, and the ways we do that are many:
    1. Better publicity about the clubs and what they do, particularly using the media that younger people favor.
    2. Work schedules that are possible for people still in their jobs, which essentially means weekend worktrips.
    3. Emphasizing the collegial atmosphere of Appalachian Trail work. My workmates are, in a sense, another family, and my trail work takes me away from worry about things I can’t do anything about. For instance, yesterday I spent nine hours improving drainage on a five-mile hiking trail. It was hot and tiring, but it was very rewarding, and one of the better things about it was I didn’t think about Donald Trump once. It shows me I can make a difference.

    Reply
  • Arne : Jul 31st

    Who needs a trail when you have two feet? I have been backpacking since I was 12 (1969) and one thing my father taught me was how to land navigate with nothing more than a topo map and visual clues from the landscape. Every backpack trip involved a non-trail section, something I still do to this day. When trails are unmaintained, they get more challenging and less crowded. I would think the AT is so well traveled that all the feet on it would keep it easy to follow. Hiking boots are the ultimate all-terrain “vehicles.”

    Reply
  • Arnold "Bloodhound" Guzman : Jul 31st

    While trying to recruit ‘new blood’–luring them in with stirring speeches about promises of rewarding feelings of accomplishment and contribution to something bigger than ourselves–is a good start, we who already have been drawn to trail maintenance have got to have faith that more people, much like ourselves, are out there and will eventually come along on their own to take up the cause. When we look inward and ask ourselves, “Why do WE do it”, I’d say that many, if not most of us, will answer that it is an inherent inborn desire to do something good to a trail that has done us so much good. Yes, busy lives and busy schedules get in the way of regular attendance on work crews but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a desire buried in the hearts of these busy people. Let them get the raising of their small children out of the way, like I did, and I think you’ll see them come out of society’s woodwork when they finally have the time and situation to allow them to join. I didn’t start doing trail maintenance till I was in my early 40’s, when my kids were grown and safely launched into their own lives…and I’ve been doing it ever since. Now I’ve got one of my granddaughters joining me from time to time to help me maintain my own adopted section of the AT. Nothing makes me prouder than one day, while watching the Blackalachian, who was filming his hike on a YouTube video, I recognized this exact section of trail where one day, earlier in the year, my granddaughter and I spent over an hour with hand saws and axes cutting a large blowdown off the trail, stacking the wood neatly on the downward side of the trail to shore it up against erosion. I was so proud that she was able to see our little part of the trail in his video and be able to demonstrate to her how our hard, sweaty hour of physical labor made one hikers journey a wee bit easier. Thank you for taking the time to write this excellent article and to bring awareness to this attrition of maintainers; a concern that I think will probably always be with us.

    Reply
  • Dan Dueweke : Aug 1st

    All is not lost. To see that infusion of new blood, look no further than Bill Hodge’s Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards. Every year he brings in a hundred or more volunteers into this program. Many are young and eager to learn the way of the axe and crosscut saw along with basic trail maintenance and wilderness ethics. Last year’s newbies often become this year’s crew leaders and take that mojo back to their home clubs.

    Reply
  • Ted : Aug 5th

    This problem is affecting far more than the AT. The main reason is simple. There is a growing number of older people and a shrinking number of younger ones. This situation isn’t going to reverse in any hurry. Perhaps it will be necessary to reorganize things so the older folks work on the easier sections while the younger (and stronger) ones are concentrated in the harder to maintain parts. How about getting new immigrants interested in hiking and maintaining the trails? Putting an ancient power source (animals) to work hauling stones, etc.?

    Reply
  • Sean : Aug 6th

    I tried to volunteer with the Green Mountain Club. Had to pay to “join” the club to apply and got told that they didn’t have any openings after they got my money… Now I get asked at least a couple of times a month for more money. Totally turned me off from it.

    Reply
  • Ed Max : Feb 7th

    I wish I didn’t live so far away or I would.

    Reply

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