Are Thru-Hikers Too Entitled?
The sun is setting over an AT shelter crowded with hikers. Some are thru-hikers, while others are out for only a night or two. Everyone begins to quiet down and settle in for the night.
Suddenly, loud crashing footsteps approach. A man appears, ragged and reeking. When he speaks, it is in an impatient and demanding voice.
“I am a thru-hiker and hiked 20 miles today. Make room.”
This story is based on a comment in this Whiteblaze thread. Though this kind of behavior is the exception rather than the rule, sometimes thru-hikers act as though rules (like first-come-first-serve at shelters) don’t apply to them.
Is thru-hiker entitlement a problem? Is it only a few people, or is it a more systemic issue? Is it getting worse? And, most importantly, what can we do about it?
The Endless Debate
What’s clear from various online debates is that, while many agree that some thru-hikers can be entitled, people often disagree about the extent of the problem. Is entitlement a systemic issue or the result of a few bad apples? And when thru-hikers make do with the situation they’re in, is that a reflection of entitlement that they are in that situation in the first place?
Mac, from Halfway Anywhere, calls this the Thru-Hiker Superiority Complex. He describes the feeling setting in: “Daywalkers, weekend warriors, even section hikers will start to drive you crazy. And you cannot explain why. These people harbor you no ill (in fact they usually are quite impressed with you), they have done you no wrong, and they are simply out enjoying nature, same as you–yet you cannot help but imagine them slipping and perilously tumbling down the mountainside… Then, you arrive in town and you begin to expect things. Discounts at stores, special treatment at restaurants, to be exempt from the societal norms that you abandoned so many miles ago, and you come to the realization that you are better than all these people (and you’re an asshole).”
This Entitled Hikers WhiteBlaze thread from 2013 is split about whether or not hikers are too entitled, and whether or not this entitlement has to do with more than just a youthful lack of manners and experience. “I have met many older hikers, even those my age that have this sense that each town and hostel and shuttle driver owes them something,” said one user. “The vast majority of hikers are great folks,” countered another.
There was also a thread in 2017 about whether or not shelters should be only for thru-hikers. Some thought the suggestion implied entitlement on the part of the thru-hikers, while others felt that weekenders who only will only be out for a night are entitled for using the shelter. “Some thru hikers think they are entitled to special privileges,” said a user. “Just as the ATC encourages alternative thru hike itineraries to avoid overcrowding, weekenders can help by avoiding AT shelters during periods of high use,” argued another. The sense that I got from this is that it’s really easy to interpret people’s actions and words in the least charitable way possible.
In this 2021 Facebook post, commenters debate whether it’s entitled to set up hammocks in an AT shelter’s covered picnic area or whether it’s more entitled to expect said covered picnic area to be clear for breakfast in the morning. “One word, entitlement… I’m glad you’re so entitled that you can take it over the designated cook area at 1:00 am in the morning, waking up all the campers and folks in the shelter. Leaving the rest of us with no place to eat in the morning,” said the initial post, with a picture of hikers setting up hammocks in a covered picnic area. “I’m confused! What makes you more entitled to it than they? Since when do hikers need a covered picnic table to eat our breakfast?! They needed shelter and they found it. I say, nice work after a long day,” countered someone in the comments. Here again, people really did assume the worst about others, their intentions, and their expectations for their hikes.
A lot of the discourse around hiker entitlement (like much online discourse) assumes the worst. It’s hard within all this to try to figure out if there is a kernel of truth to the claim that hikers are too entitled, and to figure out what that nugget might be. So, we sent out a survey about thru-hiker entitlement. We got 25 responses. To be fair, this is a very small sample size, and it is pretty self-selecting (the hiking Facebook groups didn’t let us share it—I’m sure they’ve put out too many fires before.)
That being said, 68% of responders think that thru-hiker entitlement is a problem, and 84% have witnessed at least one example of entitled behavior among thru-hikers.
These numbers, while high, are not overwhelming. Many respondents emphasized that any entitled behavior they witnessed was the exception, not the rule. Others thought that this entitlement was a more systemic byproduct of the increased numbers on the trial.
While the most egregious examples are certainly the exception—for example, a hostel owner I spoke to shut down his establishment after a hiker physically assaulted his daughter—others were things I had done myself or seen others do frequently enough to know that they are real problems on the trail. For example, not offering to cover gas when given a ride by a trail angel, trying too hard to bargain down prices with business owners, or having an attitude of superiority towards day/weekend/section hikers. As Mac described above, since day hikers aren’t doing something nearly as “epic” as a thru-hike, thru-hikers sometimes start to feel like they “deserve” accommodations that these hikers don’t, like guaranteed shelter space, discounts in town, and rides without paying for gas.
Several respondents also noted an increased reliance on trail angels for logistical challenges, and an underappreciation for those who devote their time to helping hikers, including hostel owners and shuttle drivers.
Phoebe, a frequent hiker in the White Mountains and a 2019 Mountains-to-Sea thru-hiker, said that she frequently sees AT thru-hikers “complaining about paying for the backcountry sites, illegally camping above treeline on fragile alpine ecosystems, expecting to be given work-for-stay at a hut regardless of timing, and (my personal least favorite) scratching out the trail names on a sign and replacing with the AT symbol.”
Scott Herbert, a 2016 AT thru-hiker, reframed the issue of “hiker entitlement” in terms of a culture clash between thru-hiking norms, and general society. “Thru-hiking is a subculture,” he said, “and most of the time, when I was on the AT, I was almost fully immersed in it. But when in an environment where it is not the prevailing culture (e.g., surrounded by ‘normal’ people in a lodge), there was an expectation from some that those people needed to be more accommodating to thru-hikers’ attitudes rather than thru-hikers recognize that they were the peculiar ones outside of ‘their’ element and needed to be more conforming. When in Rome. Also, if you haven’t showered in a few days, are wearing dirty clothes, haven’t had a haircut in months, and look a little disheveled, people may have reservations about you.”
Entitlement can also show up when the ever-frugal thru-hiker encounters the costs of a bougie town or a nicer lodge. “I thought many thru-hikers were unnecessarily impatient or unappreciative of caretakers and hut croo. There was definitely a sense among some thru-hikers that whatever limits or prices set by the AMC was BS and I saw a few times when this frustration was directed at people just trying to do their jobs,” said Terry Rice, a 2021 SOBO AT hiker.
Is it just the “bad apples?”
In 2014, Baxter State Park issued a letter about violations of park policy by AT thru-hikers. It pleaded with AT hikers to respect the rules of the park concerning group size limits while summiting Katahdin, public alcohol consumption, and illegal stealth camping. But the crux of the issue, claims the letter, is this:
“AT hikers are open and deliberate in their desire for freedom from all rules and regulation during their thru hike, but fulfilling our Park mission at times involves the use of some regulations.”
This is the “culture clash” that Scott mentioned earlier. Part of what is so appealing about long-distance trails is the freedom: being beholden to nothing but your own physical needs, able to walk when you please, sleep where you please, and enjoy a beer when you feel like it. And, in cases in which rules are unknown, unclear, or ill-enforced, many thru-hikers will defer to thru-hiking norms and culture in a way that can come across as entitled to the people on the outside. And this is in addition to those who actually do act as though rules don’t apply to them because they’re thru-hikers.
And as the number of thru-hikers grows, this problem in many ways is only getting worse. The full saying is “a few bad apples spoils the bunch.” Not only could a few hikers who blatantly disregard rules ruin the reputation of all thru-hikers, but also those that set bad examples of thru-hiking cultural norms can very well rub off on other people.
Baxter State Park, at the end of its letter, expresses concern that “any significant increase (in visitors on Katahdin) will strain the current system beyond its capacity.” Entitled behavior, overburdened wilderness areas, and overcrowding go hand in hand. They then suggest a permit system for the AT or suggest relocating parts of the trail or the terminus. And this was in 2014, with around 900 registered NOBO hikers. In 2021 there were almost 4,000 registered NOBO hikers.
These drastic measures feel difficult to reconcile with the character and culture of the AT. I’m conflicted about them myself. Maybe there are simply too many hikers, and as long as the trail is at its capacity, these issues will be chronic. But, what we can do in the meantime is be kind, considerate, and courteous, make the extra effort to research rules and regulations, and always display deep gratitude. For example, here is a guide about how to adhere to regulations in Baxter State Park without compromising the character of your thru-hike.
And in general, it’s important to be conscious of behavior and how it can come across to other people, especially non-thru-hikers. While it is understandably frustrating and annoying when everything seems to be catered to those with more money, there is a fine line between expressing these frustrations and acting in ways that communicate that you think you deserve more affordable accommodations, a free ride, or a cheaper burger. And while it can be very freeing to be able to behave and present in ways that are not always socially acceptable in the front country, when you impose backcountry norms onto restaurants, hotels, or lodges that are not catered towards thru-hikers, it can come across as obnoxious and entitled. And, of course, always follow local regulations.
We could all do better to model this behavior for others, and call out (kindly, and in person, not online please) behavior that we see that does not reflect the values of the thru-hiking community. Assume best intentions, and aim to educate, not shame. We could all brush up on the Thru Hiker’s Code of Conduct. Ultimately, this is what will ensure that we can preserve the trails and trail culture that we love so much.
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