How Crowded is the Appalachian Trail Really?
How crowded is the Appalachian Trail really? Keeping in mind only 50% of thru-hikers start their journeys at Amicalola Falls State Park, the data below was gathered from the archives there and represents the number of thru-hikers who registered as of April 14 each year.
A predictable pattern of a 25% increase each year has remained steady despite Hollywood’s recent attempts to bring more people out into the wild. Only about half of these hopeful thru-hikers will make it to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and one quarter will make it to Katahdin. The impact of the crowds decreases as the masses thin, but the southern 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail suffer widely from its popularity.
From erosion and severe land compaction, to overflowing privies and bear cables that break under the weight of so many food bags, the A.T. in the south feels the effect of the large number of bodies crowded into one narrow, two-dimensional trail we temporarily call our home. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy started an initiative in 2015 to encourage thru-hikers to register online pre-hike. Click here for the ATC’s registration link. This is in an effort to disperse hiker start dates to alleviate strain on the trail. Noting the graph, it appears to be having some positive effect. No days show hiker numbers reaching the daily maximum capacity.
Data source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy as of April 14, 2016
The ATC has striven to increase the accuracy of this data by placing five ridgerunners on the GA section of trail, one specifically on site at Amicalola to ensure that hikers have been counted online. Being the lucky one who landed that spot, I, (Clarity) register the eager thru-hikers as they embark on their journey and on multiple occasions, individuals have stated they chose their start date based on the information they gathered from the registration chart.
As great as it sounds that we have not neared maximum hiker numbers, what is not included on this graph are section hikers. Tacking these on adds another thousand this year who have used the southern sections of the Appalachian Trail as of April 14, 2016. To illustrate the magnitude of this point, let’s look at a specific day in time. On March 19, seventy-five total hikers left Amicalola to spend at least one night on the A.T. The Springer Mountain ridgerunner reported a total of 88 people enjoying Springer on that same day, 54 of whom stayed overnight. So is our trail past its capacity limit? Yes. Not only is the trail negatively impacted by this overuse, so are some hikers’ experiences. Many of us get out into the woods to get away from societal crowds, right? However, the masses follow us to Springer Mountain and beyond.
What are some good solutions?
- Consider an alternative thru-hike such as a flip-flop! You can read more about advantages of choosing your own path here. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” ~Robert Frost
- Use the ATC’s registration data charts and plan your start date on a less busy day.
- If planning an overnight or small section during the busy months (March and April), consider enjoying yourself in a place on trail north of Georgia.
In summary, if three is a crowd, three thousand is a tsunami. Using the data that we have on hand, 1,520 registrations from Amicalola, 1,000 from Springer, plus 1,000 section hikers, this 2016 hiking season easily tops 3,000 trail users. Setting a good example and educating one another on our Leave No Trace responsibilities as users of the trail is crucial in ensuring the trail’s future. Pay it forward for all the trail will teach you. Take care of it.
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I chose to flip flop because I feared the crowds in Georgia would negatively impact my experiences on the trail. The environmental impact of so many people crammed into a limited number of spots has to be significant. I started at the Mount Roger Headquarters near Marion, Virginia. I’ve only been faced with a full shelter once and that was a glorious weekend that brought out a bunch of campers who filled the shelter, but gave me some steak. If you love trail, you should do a flip flop or SOBO.
I have theory… Could our stories/blogs actually inspire others to follow in our footsteps?
Wow, those are some big numbers.
I live closest to the Georgia section of the AT — the most heavily used.
I don’t think I will do any overnights on the AT. There are other trails I can consider.
Even after the crowds, I worry about the safety of camping after the hordes have passed. Can a mountaintop handle that much, you know, human waste? Will the water be safe?
There are other options, other trails, until this heavy usage dies down.
I’m planning on a 2018 thru hike and will be doing a flip flop as well. There is no chance I want to be part of huge crowds in the southern stretches. If I wanted to hike with huge crowds, I’d just put my backpack on and hike to work every day. I’ll be starting at PennMar and heading north with the spring, having the trail much more to myself, then turning around and hiking south with the fall, with even less competition and much more peace and quiet. I can’t wait and honestly can’t imagine why anyone starts in Georgia in March. Ugh.
After reading about the crowds starting in GA. It took the wind out of my sails. I like your idea of choosing a different starting point
I live about 5 miles from springer Mt.
So not starting there is a drag
My plans are for 2018
If you want to thru-hike in the Spring in the South – consider the Benton MacKaye Trail. Plenty of solitude and nearly 300 miles of Trail through the same national forest and national park. And you don’t need six months to do it.
I was just going to say the exact same thing. Beautiful trail, less traveled and no crowded shelters.
I am also flip flopping and this just further reinforces my decision. I’ve had soliatary days and small social evenings, although they have mostly been speedy nobos or sectional hikers I dont expect to see again. Started in Shenandoah and just beat the fires.
I’ll be starting my Flip Flop in Harper’s Ferry next week! Definitely glad I decided to skip the crowds!
I’ve been a bit jealous of everyone already on the trail, but definitely not of the reports of overcrowded campsites.
The physical impact is undeniable. Thanks for your efforts to manage it.
The experiential changes may be more significant, because they are compounded by the frequency of hiker feeds in the south, which may be growing even faster than the number of hikers. Judging from this year’s journals, there are organized feeds at virtually every paved road crossing in Georgia on a daily basis.
I think the growing section and weekend use during the height of the bubble arises from much the same place as the feeds: a desire by a growing trail community, including many former thruhikers, to connect or reconnect with the distance hiking experience. In doing so, we change it. Sure it’s gratifying, but I think we should give more thought to our impacts not just on the trail, but on the thru hiking experience as well.
My wife and I were originally planning a slightly late SOBO to avoid the crowds but later decided on a Harper’s Ferry flip-flop after looking at the weather patterns. Avoid the hot low elevations around New York in the summer? Yes, please. Maryland and southern PA also make for wonderful conditioning grounds. Flip flops might not be the romantic terminus to terminus hike that a NOBO or SOBO is, but it’s not like we are doing this to get a medal or anything. We’ll just have to reorder the pictures after the hike 🙂
Strangely enough we have somehow been between bubbles the entire month we’ve been on the trail! There are days we ONLY see section hikers…but we don’t focus on the party aspect very much. Probably dumb luck because it’s in such contrast to others experiences (loud, crowded, smokers in/near shelters, trash in fire pits, etc.). The ridge runners and volunteers do such a wonderful job of maintaining shelters and privies despite the crowds-thank you!
If I am able to do so five years from now, my thinking is to attempt a thru hike at age 70 in 2021. Due to the crowding issues, I am contemplating taking the Benton Mackaye Trail for the first 300 +/- miles from Springer Mountain to the north end of the Smokies. How workable would that be?
How Crowded ? This past Monday I had Breakfast at MOJO’s in Damascus, VA…..Local hot spot for hikers…..While there 8 thru hikers came there for breakfast plus others past b y on the trail just out front. That afternoon I hiked from US 421 Low Gap, TN to Double Springs Shelter…a 3.5 mile trip and met 16 more along the way in that short distance…..and that is 468 miles from Springer…….That is 460 miles from Springer…..
My wife and I plan on thru hiking in a couple years ….
I am planning a two week section hike, starting from Springer on June 2. Any tips would be great, regarding heat, water availability, crowds etc. First time on the AT, so very excited.
While I understand the going popculture sales mentality states the more provocative the ad the better, and in the case of your article perhaps it’ll prove true, however, I fear you overreached. After all, your article concentrates on the “beginning” of the AT and not the trail as a whole – where, I might add, by its very nature, the beginning is and will always be its filtering out point, regardless how many hopeful souls arrive at Springer. As such, I believe the more honest and apt title would’ve been Is Springer Too Crowded – vs leaving a more lingering proverbial bad taste in your readership’s mouth by implying the entire trail’s ruined because some sacred backwoods secret was revealed to the masses. And, FYI, backpacking (particularly the long distance variety) is a counter/subculture endeavor, and there aren’t enough wanderluster pilgrim hippies in the world that can and will simultaneously converge on Springer to the point of causing irreparable damage. The AT’s a resilient b-word and she’ll be here long after the crowds wane, with our without the misguided fear mongering campaigns waged by warrior poets. Much love and safe journey!
A buddy and I are wanting to do the Ga section in october this year. This will be our first trip. Would october be good or bad time to hit that section?
Great article, loved it! Thanks for sharing 🙂
I recently published a definitive guide on “How to Hike the Appalachian Trail”. Mind if you have a look and share your thoughts on it?
Here’s the link: https://backpackerverse.com/appalachian-trail/
Thanks in advance,
I have an opportunity to do a 30-day section hike starting early April. My objective is to experience the trail; I don’t have a target mileage or destination, but I would like to avoid crowds and snow as much as possible. My thinking: the through-hikers will overtake me if I start in Damascus, but I’ll be surrounded by flip-floppers if I start in Harper’s Ferry. There’s likely to be snow if I begin any farther north. Any suggestions on where to start?
I’m Clarity, the article’s author. I flip-flopped from Harpers Ferry, West Viriginia and I HIGHLY recommend it! You can read about the benefits on my blogsite here: https://appalachiantrailclarity.com/2016/02/17/why-a-flip-flop-is-more-comfortable/
Let me know if you have other questions! 🙂 Cheers!
Clarity, thank you for the data. So glad we were already planning a flip-flop starting in Shenandoah.