How the ATC Plans to Sustain the Appalachian Trail

Foot traffic on the Appalachian Trail is growingSince the 1930s when only 5 people reported walking over 2,000 miles, the number of thru-hikers continues to increase steadily. When “A Walk in the Woods” was released in 1998, estimated northbound thru-hiker starts rose by 60% over the next 2 years, and is increasing by 10% each year since.

The Trail has seen an approximate 10% increase in thru-hikers every year since 2010. Use by day-hikers, overnight, and section-hikers have all been increasing. An estimated 3 million people now hike some portion of the Trail each year.”
Appalachian Trail Conservancy

This year has seen yet another flourish of publicity for the Appalachian Trail with the release of the movies “A Walk in the Woods” and “Wild,” as well as two record setting thru-hikes. In July, Scott Jurek set a new supported record while Heather “Anish” Anderson set the new unsupported record in September.

Jurek stirred a firestorm of controversy following his summit day in Baxter State Park, and shortly after, BSP officials released a letter to the ATC stating that unless something changes, relocation of the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus will be considered.

This increased public interest directly correlates to a rise in the number of hikers. This exponential growth creates a sustainability issue that simply cannot be ignored. Now is the time to discuss and address the issue of overcrowding on the Appalachian Trail.

… we are concerned that the use of the AT within Baxter Park is nearing, or may have surpassed, an acceptable limit … We are concerned that any significant increase will strain the current system beyond its capacity.”
Baxter State Park Authority

Growing Thru-Hiker Statistics

The ATC estimates that in 2015, northbound thru-hikers alone equaled about 3,000with up to 70 starting per day on peak days, and generally closer to 50 per day. With an average completion rate of 26%, that puts the estimated number of completed northbound thru-hikes at about 780.

Thru-hiker starts in Georgia increase about 10% per year since 2007. Using the information above, the most conservative estimate for this decade is about 8,643 completed thru-hikes. This again does not include southbound or alternative thru-hikers from 2015-2019.

thru hiker estimate graph

Is this Increase Sustainable?

The large majority of thru-hikers choose to begin their hike in Georgia in the Spring. At the same time, there is an influx of overnight hikers and day hikers during spring break.

It is a wonderful thing that more people want to get outside and experience the beauty of the Appalachian Trail, but the rising numbers come at a huge cost. The trail suffers an increased environmental impact from overcrowding at shelters and campgrounds, decreased solitude, and a growing number of  people unaware of how to Leave No Trace.

The ATC has been hard at work trying to manage the current influx of hikers, and planning for future increases. Last year, after 2 years of planning, they released their 5-year strategic plan. This comprehensive plan includes multiple initiatives to actively and proactively manage the growth in traffic.

Aimed at more comprehensive data collection, these efforts from the ATC aggressively target key areas. Georgia to North Carolina, which receives the most traffic during peak thru-hike season, Baxter State Park in Maine, and high-traffic areas designated as “choke-points” such as the Kennebec River Ferry are the primary areas of concern.

Plans to Minimize Overcrowding

The crux of the problem is that the built capacity for overnight use of the A.T. in GA is well below the daily numbers we are currently seeing during GA thru-hike season – so reducing numbers of overnight hikers to the built capacity is crucial to preventing negative resource and social impacts along the A.T.”
-Morgan Sommerville, ATC Southern Regional Director

During peak thru-hike season, shelters and campsites in Georgia are seeing up to, and possibly more than, 70 hikers per night. Overcrowding at shelters poses significant problems not only for the environment, but for the hikers. The yearly outbreak of norovirus on the trail is directly related to overcrowding. These large numbers also create a monumental task for volunteer crews who are in charge of shelter upkeep and human waste management. 

Introducing Caretakers to Shelters in Georgia

Starting in 2016, caretakers will be placed at key locations in Georgia from March 1st through the end of May. 

Although the locations are not finalized as of December 2015, the ATC caretaker locations under consideration are Springer Mountain Shelter, the new Hawk Mountain Campsite, Hawk Mountain Shelter, and Gooch Mountain Shelter.

The addition of these caretakers is a direct result of overcrowding at shelters. Their directives will be to “… help orient campers to the site, provide Leave No Trace guidance to those who are interested, assure appropriate use of the site and call for law enforcement if needed.”

A common concern is that caretakers cannot enforce the law, and are often put in a difficult position with little authority. To combat this, there will be a US Forest Service Forest Protection Officer patrolling the A.T. in GA in 2016 beginning March 1st. As usual, Backcountry Rangers in the GRSM will be starting in 2016 at the beginning of their thru-hiker season.

No fees are planned for these sites in 2016. Caretakers are an expensive solution however, and the ATC has stated that fees will be considered for 2017 and beyond.

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Voluntary Thru-Hiker and Overnight Registration Systems

In 2015, the Voluntary Thru-Hiker Registration system was introduced. Without too much fanfare, the system registered about half of 2015 thru-hikers, and appears to have helped reduce peak numbers. 2016 thru-hikers are encouraged to participate in this year’s voluntary thru-hiker registration which is already available . Click here to visit the registration site

For more information about how to use the registration site, see “Future AT Thru-Hikers: Please Register Your Hike.”

In addition to the thru-hiker registration system in 2016, there will be a voluntary overnight registration for all overnight hikers. This system will build upon the existing thru-hiker registration, and will begin in Georgia and possibly northern Maine.

The goal is to manage traffic by allowing overnight hikers to make informed decisions about their hikes without additional regulations or intervention. The system won’t apply in Great Smoky Mountains NP as their registration system works well for them.

New Hawk Mountain Campsite

A big part of the 5-year strategic plan is the aggressive evaluation of shelters and campsites in high-traffic areas by specific standards. As per the current plans, a large project to survey every existing overnight site in Georgia is about to begin.

This lengthy and expensive process will take years, and must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. After the evaluation, sites that do not meet standards will require updating, or risk closure. Alternative sites need to be provided before any closures can occur.

For 2016, the ATC hopes to construct a new campsite .5 miles south of Hawk Mountain Shelter. One of the most frequently overcrowded shelters on the trail, it can see almost 100 hikers per night during peak season.

The proposed strategy for building new sites is to construct earthen tent pads, and encourage hikers to only use pre-existing pads, keeping impact localized and minimizing water contamination.

Hawk Mountain Campground is selected for the inclusion of a caretaker. For now, this camping area will be in addition to Hawk Mountain Shelter which is slated for close evaluation over the next few years.

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Alternative Hikes

Alternative thru-hikes, such as a Flip-Flop, mean completing the A.T. in a fashion other than the traditional one-shot north or south. Alternative thru-hikes are quickly growing in popularity, and are the fastest growing faction of the thru-hiker world. If you’re thinking about a flip flop or other alternative hike, check out “10 Reasons You’ll Love a Flip Flop Thru Hike.”

The ATC would like to promote alternative hikes in order to reduce the overload in key areas created at peak times. Spreading out will help reduce overload and environmental damage.

To coincide with the start of the Flip-Flop season, the ATC has begun hosting a Flip-Flop Kick Off event in Harpers Ferry. The second annual event will take place in the spring of 2016, and is currently planned for April 16-17. It includes workshops and talks to inform and educate prospective hikers, as well as see off any flip-floppers choosing to begin their hike that weekend. Here is a link detailing last years event.

Redirecting Spring Breakers and Day Hikers

For the past two years, there have been 3 section hikers for every 5 thru-hikers in Georgia, in addition to overnight backpackers out to celebrate Spring Break. The ATC plans to create multiple programs to encourage these prospective hikers to check out other sections of the trail for the purpose of preventing further overcrowding at shelters in the area during this time of year.

A new initiative called The 14 State Challenge encourages those who cannot commit to a full thru-hike to experience the A.T. in bite-sized pieces. The suggested hikes aim to help disperse use along the length of the A.T. 

Hikers are also encouraged to visit locations along the A.T. where more hikers are welcomed with open arms. Visit A.T. Communities for more information.

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Education

Keeping hikers informed is an important step in a long and difficult battle towards a more sustainable future for the Appalachian Trail. Many issues currently faced are hiker-created and require costly solutions. These necessary steps toward correction could be avoided completely if traditional Leave No Trace principles are always followed on the trail.

The goal of education is to inform the hikers as well as those involved in the hiking community. One such education program, Trail Karma, was born for the 2015 thru-hike season, and 500 Trail Karma pendants were released into the wild. The idea is to pass the pendants from hiker to hiker as you see someone do something good. Learn more about Trail Karma on its official website and on Appalachian Trials.

For the future, the ATC is exploring an accreditation program for influencers on the trail who are training A.T hikers. The goal of the program will be to help hikers become more successful in following LNT guidelines, reduce environmental impact, and improve the hiking experience.

To educate yourself on proper guidelines, visit Leave No Trace. 

What Will Happen If This Doesn’t Work?

Huge negative impacts are already visible on the trail, and are a direct result of overcrowding and inappropriate behavior. Even though the ATC counted a record number of volunteer hours last year, the growing sustainability issue is becoming an increasingly significant challenge.

If we don’t work together to find a balance, there will be enormous environmental impact, decreased access to the trail, and a lower quality wilderness experience.

How you can help

Final Thoughts

It is important to note that changes being made to the trail are not to discourage or deny access, but to manage the influx of hikers in a way that keeps the trail enjoyable and accessible to as many people as possible. While some of these efforts may seem extreme or restrictive, it is imperative to realize that without immediate and notable change, we all may lose access to certain parts of the trail for good.

Special thanks to Laurie Potteiger and Morgan Sommerville at the ATC for offering their knowledge to help make this article possible

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Comments 10

  • John : Dec 10th

    “Redirecting Spring Breakers and Day Hikers. The ATC plans to create multiple programs to encourage these prospective hikers to check out other sections of the trail for the purpose of preventing further overcrowding at shelters in the area during this time of year.” Interesting – I thought that the idea of thruhikers being a special class having elevated rights and privileges over mere section/day hikers existed only in the minds of many thruhikers, but it’s apparently in the the mind of the ATC also? Newsflash – someone out for the day on their first hike has the same right to use a national scenic trail as a thruhiker.

    Reply
    • Kenny Howell : Dec 10th

      John, this seems like a bit of an emotional overreaction. The creation of alternate programs for spring breakers and day hikers is not forcing anyone off the trail or assaulting their rights. It’s no different a strategy than the ATC trying to encourage thru-hikers to flip-flop instead of NoBoing. Advertising and providing access to programs and information that may introduce them to other parts of the A.T. is not denying them rights or privileges. The ATC is not stopping anybody from heading to GA in the spring, nor can they, but providing awareness about alternate options and their benefits should be encouraged for both thru-hikers and day-hikers.

      Reply
      • John : Dec 13th

        I never said ATC was denying rights or privileges – but they do seem to be of the mindset of prioritizing a hiker’s desired itinerary on their status as a thru hiker. It’s interesting that their approach (as stated in the article) is to divert “spring breakers” and day hikers to other areas, seemingly to accommodate the thru hikers. (Especially since the vast majority who self-identify as thru hikers at Springer turn out to be day hikers or, at best, section hikers when they give up.) Like it or not there is a caste system of hikers, especially in the minds of some thrus. Its just very surprising, and very telling, to see it from ATC. (I’d love to see how ATC’s membership breaks down as to day, section, or thru…)

        Reply
  • A J MacDonald Jr : Dec 10th

    2016 is the last year for no fees. “ATC has stated that fees will be considered for 2017 and beyond.”

    Reply
  • Dusty Pilgrim : Dec 11th

    Managing trails and huts are good common sense! as it has been for almost ever…fees do seem to help offset the expenses for huts, cleaner water sources, and assist in volunteering for ridge runners ect….badly needed ! All agree! Over management…. 0 to 60 all at once? Let’s speed the trouble spots up, but also create an enjoyable hiking atmosphere for trail repairs, hut caretakers, Ridge Runners , and the many clubs that volunteer hours of care and maintenance as well as hikers!!!

    Reply
  • Joe : Dec 14th

    Maybe try and encourage people to hike at different times of the year, too? I attempted a thruhike in 2007 (a stress fracture from an unhealed shin splint forced me off the trail in Virginia, though), starting in early May, and the trail ass fantastically quiet. I decided to start when I did partially because I wanted to avoid the crazy crowds.

    Reply
  • Paul : Dec 14th

    A big attraction of the trail is the freedom and solitude that is found there. It’s too bad it is going to come under more management and supervision and cost than it’s original intention. It seems like parts of the trail are being managed differently. So many sections, so many varied special interests not always beholden to hikers. The suggestion that more people mean more management mean more costs to the hiker, that’s disappointing. Every part of government seeks to gain more power and more money.

    Reply

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