How the Appalachian Trail Works

Hello everyone, I’m a new contributor to Appalachian Trials.  Zach has graciously agreed to try me out for a bit, so let’s see what happens.  I’m both an active hiker and a trail volunteer.  While I’ll never have the patience to thru-hike, I do like section hiking.  Seeing new parts of the Trail and meeting and chatting with hikers of all kinds is an experience I look forward to every year.  I’ve got about 15 years of experience as a maintainer, trail builder and volunteer trail manager both for my trail club and ATC.  And, just to be clear, the opinions in this space are mine alone, and should not be construed as policies of the National Park Service, the Appalachian Trail Conference or my local maintaining club.

 How do you keep a footpath functioning and intact through 14 states, 6 National Parks, 8 National Forests, a few Wilderness Areas, and over lands managed by more than 30 other state and federal entities?  Not to mention 31 volunteer trail clubs.

 As you can imagine, this can be a bit like Thanksgiving dinner.  It works because the people involved all share a passion for the Trail.  What to you might be a “them” or “they”,  to me is “we” or “us”.  Consider me your  backstage pass to the inner workings that result in the performance that is the A.T.  And who knows, maybe you’ll want to work backstage yourself someday…

 Plays Nicely With Others

The AT is maintained by volunteers from 31 different clubs along the trail.  Each club has its own section, and performs traditional tasks like clipping brush and clearing blowdowns, campsite and shelter maintenance.  Some clubs perform additional tasks including monitoring of Trail Corridor lands for inappropriate use and/or checking and monitoring rare plants within the Corridor.  All of this work is typically performed in collaboration with Federal partners (National Park Service–NPS, US Forest Service–USFS) and in some cases state partners as well.

ATC (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) publicly advocates for the Trail, provides information to the public, coordinates efforts of the trail clubs, and guarantees to NPS (the lead agency with overall legal responsibility for the Trail) that volunteers will be trained and work will be performed to agreed standards.  This “Three-Legged Stool” of Volunteers, ATC and Agency partners is the foundation of all A.T. Management.  All three legs must work in combination to make all this happen.  If one leg is unequal to the others, the stool collapses.

 Being partners with government agencies has it’s benefits:  funding (your tax dollars), expertise (environmental, land acquisition, legal and law enforcement) and continuity (dedicated career employees).  It also means we need to quantify what and why  resources are being used to support the Trail. Even if the A.T. were a wholly private entity, we’d still need a definition of what it is and why we are dedicating resources to it.  You and I know that the A.T. is just about the greatest thing there ever was. But we need to prove that the Trail is worth a share of our collective resources (public and private).  It has to compete with everything else, so we need to define what it is we are seeking to preserve and maintain.

 What is the AT?

Here is a definition of the A.T. from ATC’s Appalachian Trail Management Principles:

 The Appalachian Trail is a way, continuous from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, for travel on foot through the wild, scenic, wooded, pastoral, and culturally significant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. It is a means of sojourning among these lands, such that the visitors may experience them by their own unaided efforts.

In practice, the Trail is usually a simple footpath, purposeful in direction and concept, favoring the heights of land, and located for minimum reliance on construction for protecting the resource. The body of the Trail is provided by the lands it traverses, and its soul is the living stewardship of the volunteers and workers of the Appalachian Trail community.

I find this pretty damn poetic for a bureaucratically created document.  But what are the qualities of this trail that attracts visitors and keeps many returning time after time?  We need go further–to define an experience that differentiates hiking the A.T. from a walk in your local park.  The A.T. appeals to people from many different backgrounds and levels of experience.  Visitor’s goals are equally varied–a thru hiker, a 12 year old boy scout out for his first overnight, or a young woman on her college freshman orientation.  The Trail is open 24/7/365 to anyone who makes the effort to visit, and is a short drive from many large population centers.  So we need to define this experience in some fairly broad terms, but ones that capture the essence of the Trail.


The Hiking Experience

To define what it is to hike the Trail, some “First Principles” have emerged and been accepted over the past couple of decades by all the legs of the stool.  ATC’s 1997 Policy on the A.T. Hiking Experience says:

The Trail Experience…is intended to represent the sum of opportunities that are available for those walking the Appalachian Trail to interact with the wild, scenic, pastoral, cultural, and natural elements of the Appalachian Trail environment, unfettered and unimpeded by competing sights or sounds and in as direct and intimate a manner as possible.


  • Opportunities for observation, contemplation, enjoyment, and exploration of the natural world;
  • A sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization;
  • Opportunities to experience solitude; freedom; personal accomplishment; self reliance; and self-discovery;
  • A sense of being on the height of the land;
  • Opportunities to experience the historic and pastoral elements of the surrounding countryside;
  • A feeling of being part of the natural environment;


  • Opportunities for travel on foot, including opportunities for long-distance hiking.

 A lot of “Opportunities’ there.  The implication is that the user’s (we prefer “trail visitor’s”) experience is to a large degree, self-directed.  Unlike so called “square parks” (the term of art for the type of National Park that most people conjure up when asked–with lots of rangers, interpreters, signs, tours, bathrooms, etc), experiences on the A.T. are pretty much up to the hiker (that’s you).   How does the Three-Legged Stool make and preserve these opportunities?

  • Create a base of land dedicated solely for the Trail.  This can take the form of a relatively narrow strip of land purchased specifically for this purpose.  It is also often  “management corridors” within larger protected areas such as state parks and National Forests.  While the larger area may permit activities that are considered incompatible with the Trail’s principals, the area immediately adjacent to the footpath is typically managed only for the A.T.  For example, in Massachusetts, several state parks through which the A.T. passes allow ATV use, but there is a management zone surrounding the trail where motorized traffic is prohibited.
  • Locate the Trail to make the most of the natural and/or historical landscape.  Get up on ridgelines, connect areas of natural beauty such as viewpoints, streams, waterfalls, mature forests, open fields, archeological sites.  While this is the goal, since the A.T. is often overlaid on existing landscapes, or there are limited opportunities to purchase corridor land, the Trail may not always be in it’s optimal natural location.
  • Trail construction should be the minimum necessary for preservation of the treadway.
  • Make the trail continuous while reducing/eliminating road walks, infrastructure crossings.
  • Provide the opportunity for overnight camping that minimizes impacts on the natural environment, and is far from the sights and sounds of the “built world”.
  • Keep human-built elements to a minimum.  Blazing and signage (AKA “wayfinding”) should be the minimum required for safety and traveller information.  Shelters should be simple and use as much unfinished material as possible.   For example, logs and rough cut lumber instead of 2×4’s and plywood.  Stained instead of painted finishes in dark/natural colors.  Earthen tent pads instead of platforms.

 While the land base (after many decades of effort) is secure, other elements are still in progress.  For example, the number, type and style of overnight sites is still a sometimes contentious issue. While ATC provides some guiding principles, clubs often find that shelter and campsite construction can be a useful way of attracting volunteers.  Humans with the “beaver gene” are prone to “improving” A.T. overnight sites for the convenience of hikers.   One merely needs to experience shelters along the trail to understand that this interpretation of the Trail Experience has considerable variety.  Personally, I find this expression of local flavor refreshing, even if I may disagree with some of the resulting elements.  FYI, as you may have noticed, hiker convenience is not one of the “First Principles”….

 A Social Experience

Convenience aside, experiences not officially quantified, but often sought by long-distance hikers may be equally important.  Among them are:

  • Your first encounter with a helpful stranger
  • The camaraderie of shared challenges met and overcome
  • Freedom of choice regarding pace, schedule, and behavior
  • The day when you first “get it”, the moment that you know you can really do this
  • The next day, when you can’t imagine taking another step–but you do anyway
  • The incredible smell of charcoal-grilled burgers at a road crossing 4-days from your last resupply.

So a successful Trail experience could perhaps more fully be defined as one that combines an opportunity for a relatively immersive natural experience, and a chance to engage with ourselves and other humans on terms that are different (and somehow better) than we experience on the “outside”.  Measured by the number of visitors to the Trail, these efforts are definitely successful.  With the release of “Wild”, and soon, “A Walk In the Woods”, we will all be faced with the challenges created by even more visitors seeking the AT Experience that we so successfully create by our shared efforts.

 Paying it Forward

The AT is (basically) free to use, easy to access and can be enjoyed by both the novice and the old hand.  It’s also a trail that has been made and preserved by many ordinary citizens like yourselves.  It’s not them who does it, it’s us.  So as you sit around the campfire this spring–check your pronouns.  Whether we are behind the scenes clearing waterbars or we are principal players hiking towards the goal of a lifetime, it’s Us that needs to care for the Trail like the rare and precious thing it is.   You are not just hiking your own hike, you are hiking our hike too.


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Comments 2

  • Miss America : Jan 27th

    Wonderful article and very well written. Maintaining the trail is very rewarding work, in my opinion. “Us that needs to care for the Trail like the rare and precious thing it is. You are not just hiking your own hike, you are hiking our hike too”. What a beautiful quote. So honest and true. Thank you for giving me that ‘Step”.


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