You’re Trash, and That’s Ok

If you’ve been keeping up with my posts as I prep for my 2022 Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt, you might find my tips and explanations a little obvious. That probably means you’ve had plenty of exposure to the hiking community, which is awesome! You’re already hooked!

If you find my writing insightful and informative perhaps, you’re still in the pondering, researching, dreaming, or preparing phases of multi-day hiking. I’m hoping to help you avoid some of the growing pains I experienced when entered the long-distance hiking world.

There’s one thing that some find difficult to adjust to: being called trash.

I accepted the term “Hiker Trash” without much second thought, but early on some hikers didn’t receive it well. While being seated for dinner at the Fontana Village Resort, my group passed a table full of disheveled and hungry-looking hikers. One of my friends jovially called out to them, “What’s up fellow Hiker Trash?!”

The response was decidedly angry. “I’m not Hiker Trash!” the man yelled. No offense had been meant and my friend tried to explain himself. Why couldn’t we convince this man that “trash” had been a compliment? No one else had ever seemed to mind.

That incident stuck in my mind because that reaction seemed so appropriate from an outside perspective, but to us hikers was totally unjustified.

I decided to get some input on the term from several large online hiking pages. Respondents seemed to mainly fit into three groups: non-hikers or newbies who disliked the term, hikers who wore the name proudly or aspired to it, and non-American hikers who were unfamiliar.

While there were some experienced hikers who merely tolerated the moniker, it seems as though the term is misunderstood by outsiders and tends to slowly grow on those that spend time on the trail.

The Origins

I learned that the label was, if not invented, then certainly popularized, by David “Lonewolf” Blair in 1987. Walking down the street with a fellow hiker in Hot Springs North Carolina, a hiker passed by “with no shirt on, a pair of rain pants, eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s with a stick.” Blair turned to his friend and said, “Look at that hiker trash.” For the remainder of his thru-hike, Blair and his friends used the term in shelter registers and in conversation. Blair insists the term was always one of endearment.

Like the dirtbag rock-climbers, beach bum surfers, river rat kayakers, and ski bums, hiker trash are those that throw themselves whole-heartedly into their hobby, often to the exclusion of “normal” behavior.

What It Doesn’t Mean

Embracing the moniker doesn’t mean disregarding your environment or being disrespectful. Leave No Trace principles and good manners are always important. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when hikers weren’t welcome in many of the towns along the Appalachian Trail. Signs forbidding backpacks were common, and hikers looking for a hot meal were often “encouraged” to take their food to go.

As hiker numbers increased the trail towns became more familiar with hikers, and more reliant on their wallets, customer service has improved significantly. That said, hikers would do well to remember that while we choose to be around dirt, grime, body odor, and our fellow weirdos for extended periods of time, the denizens of these communities didn’t.

In 2013 a laundromat owner in Kent Connecticut banned hikers from her establishment, the only laundromat in town, due to their poor behavior. Soap and toilet paper were frequently stolen. Gear was often strewn around, making it difficult for other patrons to use the facilities. The owner also claims that on more than one occasion she found hikers lounging nude while washing their clothes.

We are fortunate to spend a large portion of our hikes outside of traditional civilization, where necessity forces the abandonment of many social norms. When we scramble from the woods, dirty and battered, we receive aid and comfort from generous locals. They provide us with the goods and services that make our journey possible, and significantly more comfortable. Remembering our manners is the least we can do to repay them.

Embrace the hiker culture: get dirty, eat with your hands, wear the wacky clothes with pride, ignore the ten-second rule, and if someone yells out “Hey Hiker Trash!” just know it’s a compliment.

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Comments 3

  • Anonymous : Mar 11th

    Amazing to me that people who get offended for calling someone “latino” instead of “latinx” aren’t offended by someone calling them “trash.”

    For context, I thru-hiked the AT in 2016. I never self-identified as “Hiker Trash.” I tried to not look like a bum on Trail – I cut my hair very short before I started, put on a fresh shirt in town, and shaved regularly. I was a single male hiking alone and I never thought it was hard hitchhiking into town (in Maine I did grow a beard); maybe that’s because I was more presentable. “Hiker Trash” also creates an “us v. them” mentality – in other words, I think it encouraged people not to adopt the mentality you espoused in your second-to-last paragraph. I thought there was a lot of unjustified resentment of day hikers in the Whites at the Huts by thru-hikers.

    Despite thru-hiking being a relatively anti-establishment lifestyle choice, I still thinks it’s important to conform to a lot of what the rest of the hiking/general community expects. After all, those are the people maintaining the Trail. And even today when I’m with my local ATC chapter doing maintenance work, I hear complaints of thru-hikers – I suspect a lot of those complaints are directed at the sort that like to be called “tra

  • Walkabout John : Mar 11th

    Hiker Trash: It is very American. We took the British song Yankee Doodle intended as a derisive term and adopted it with pride. Our enemies called us Devil Dogs, Devils in Baggy Pants, Dog Faces, and we adopted the names with pride. Call us Infidel, heck yes I’m an infidel in the eyes of some. Army guys call Marines Jarheads and are called Army Pukes by them. We both call Navy people squids. Backpackers go for more than a week without bathing. There is little difference between well off and not so well off backpackers. A tent is a tent, WalMart or Dyneema. We are temporarily homeless except for our tent. We relish ramen. We poop behind bushes. So, to an unkind observer we may be considered HIKER TRASH. Wear that name with pride.


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