Is there a Sustainable Future for the Appalachian Trail?

A heads up here. This article reflects my own opinion as an official old fart, hiker and 15 year A.T. Volunteer. While I serve actively on ATC’s Stewardship Council, and am a long time member of my Trail maintaining club (AMC Berkshire Chapter AT Management Committee), the following words do not represent any official statement or policy of ATC or AMC–’tho I have quoted directly from some ATC policy documents. Yes, some of the photos are intended to be over-the-top, very few are from the A.T., thankfully.

Back in the Dayzzzz….

Those of you of a certain age may remember the “backpacking boom” of the 1970’s. Partly a reaction to the social turmoil of the times, and the growing understanding that the natural environment was being consumed at what appeared to be an alarming rate (this was before landmark environmental legislation to protect air, land and water resources). At the time, people (mostly young) began to take to the trails in what for the times were large numbers.

Thruhiking, 1973 Style.  Photo,

Thruhiking, 1973 Style. Photo,

Hikers donned their Limmers over ragg wool socks, hung their Sierra cups on their external frame packs and headed out.

The trails were not ready. Areas previously visited by relatively few people became popular destinations. There was little management or education of visitors–we hiked to get away from ‘the Man’, and didn’t want him in the backcountry. Overnight sites where management consisted of a pile of rusty tin cans behind an ageing pit privy began to look more like the town dump and expanded ever wider into the adjacent landscape as this new wave of hikers looked for a place to pitch their lightweight 4 pound tents.

Ahh, Solitude (NOT me in 1970).  Photo,

Ahh, Solitude (NOT me–or anyone I knew–in 1970). Photo,

What was once an experience where solitude was virtually guaranteed, became more and more a social event as more and more of us tried to

Line 'em up.  Photo,

Line ’em up. Photo,

“get away from it all” and be together with like-minded folk in the outdoors.

Responding (eventually) to this influx of users, trail managers and concerned hikers began to find ways to accommodate this increasing number of visitors while protecting the natural environment and maintaining a high quality outdoor experience. Typically this was through education of hikers and upgrading popular trails and campsites to make them more durable. Also, inevitably, activities also became more restricted. Camping was permitted only in designated sites or areas. Sites in fragile environments and near roads were closed, trails were re-routed off of private lands. In the west, restrictions on the total number of visitors in certain areas was implemented.

Where can we put them all?

Hawk Mt in March?  Photo,

Can you find the Shelter? Photo,

That brings us to today, where now in some locations all of these efforts over the past decades are simply no longer enough to protect the resource. Since the 1980’s the AT has been managed so that “Hiker regulations will be kept as unrestrictive as possible, and should be developed only to the extent they are proven necessary to protect the physical trail, its environment, and the interests of adjacent landowners.” (from the Appalachian Trail Comprehensive Plan, 1981)

But today, the A.T. is sinking under the weight of its visitors. 40 or more people a day start the Trail at Springer on March weekends (what does that mean for the first two campsites on Saturday night?). College students looking for a Spring Break adventure join what at times is a nose-to-tail parade trudging from one overloaded campsite to another. It’s not just Georgia, and it’s not just thruhiker wannabes. All summer, group hikes of all kinds: scouts, summer camps, churches, resorts, and schools visit the Trail to provide their members with an “AT Experience”. And it’s not only groups.  Easy to access, close to population centers, with well developed overnight sites, the A.T. is the go-to recreation opportunity for anyone seeking an outdoor adventure in the “wilderness”. From ATC’s 1997 Policy on the A.T. Hiking Experience that experience includes:

• A sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization;
• Opportunities to experience solitude; freedom; personal accomplishment; self reliance; and self-discovery…nfettered and unimpeded by competing sights or sounds and in as direct and intimate a manner as possible.

Friends, I think we may have missed the boat, it has sailed without us on the rising tide of increasing visitation. While there are definitely places on the Trail where the above is possible, they are becoming more the exception than the rule.

Not the AT, yet.  Photo,

Not the AT, yet. Photo,

You will rarely camp alone at an overnight site. You will regularly encounter other hikers on the trail. Many hikers will be talking loudly, some playing music. You will wake up to the sounds of people, not birds. Overnight sites will have accumulated trash and debris; trees will be scarred, normal undergrowth trampled to non-existence. The footpath will be trenched, wide and eroded down to subsoil rocks.

General Hand-wringing

Perhaps I’m channeling my grumpy old man pining for the olde days that never were, but bear with me a bit longer. What is the acceptable limit? When does an experience on the AT no longer become an “opportunit for observation, contemplation, enjoyment, and exploration of the natural world”? When do the physical and social impacts of of fellow hikers destroy the very thing we are (or might be) out there to experience?

If it’s so “bad” why do people still come? Does the desire for social interaction with like-minded travellers away from the constraints of the off-trail world matter more than the values described above. Or does the necessary personal internal will necessary to successfully accomplish a 2100 mile hike make all other things secondary? Perhaps the qualities ATC defines as the “A.T. Hiking Experience” are no longer the primary values most Trail visitors are seeking. Do we think it’s O.K. to camp with 30 other people? Is that “just the price we need to pay to do the Trail”? I suspect it’s not quite as binary as I’m suggesting, but from my experience, hikers will endure some real crappy experiences to stay on the Trail.

The AT as Wasteland? (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The AT as Wasteland? (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Hikers (successful ones at any rate) are by nature resilient–or become so. They must meet challenges every day–mental and physical. Obstacles, be they blown out campsites, worn out trail or a week of rain, are to be overcome. That is the heart of the problem. No matter how bad things are for hikers, nothing will stop them. Push on through today’s problems, there will be other challenges tomorrow.

If overuse is one of those challenges, pushing on through may leave it behind for the day, but it doesn’t make it go away. In fact it promulgates it as an acceptable hardship–like the rain, dirt and heat. I strongly disagree that overuse and its attendant manifestations should be considered the ‘new normal” and just another part of the Trail experience (small ‘e’).

Action So Far (So Good?)

So, what’s to be done? Here’s what we, as the community of hikers and Trail stewards, have done so far:

  • We’ve sacrificed some portions of the AT. Over time it’s accepted that some places are just not going to be ideal. We manage them so they don’t get worse, but the fight is essentially over.
  • We’ve further developed the infrastructure of the Trail. We continue to make the footpath more resistant to traffic, increase the size and number of overnight sites and their associated facilities, inevitably making things less “wild”.
  • Educate hikers and the wider community about the most sustainable ways to use the trail. We’ve increased the presence of Ridgerunners and Caretakers to interact with hikers. We’ve used multiple communication channels to spread the word to hikers before they get to the trailhead. There’s some hope here–can there possibly be a hiker on the Trail who does not understand Leave No Trace (even if they don’t regularly practice it)? Sadly, yes. Is there a scenario where crowded trails and campsites would be OK if everyone observed the Seven Principals ? I’m doubtful.
What's ahead?  Photo,

What’s ahead? Photo,

We could go further if we were willing to sacrifice (more) of the still largely unregulated A.T. world (and resources were prioritized to do so):

  • Limit use.  Zone the A.T. so that segments that are overused have visitor quotas. This would include:
    Zoning.  Photo,

    Zoning. Photo,

    • Requiring permits for hikers and reservations at campsites. Enforce regulations (see ‘the Man’, above). On some western trails , this is considered normal management policy and has been in place for decades.
    • The portions of the Trail located in Federal Wilderness Areas should be managed as such: few/no blazes, no shelters, no signage. Limited maintenance. Limited numbers of visitors (but what do we do with the overflow?).
  • Also apply these limits to day hikers? Imagine McCafee knob with only 20 day hikers–but also imagine the response of locals who are at present, strong Trail supporters when they can’t hike up there whenever they want to. Not so simple.
  • Actively discourage the public from visiting the Trail (“If you can’t love it right, then stay away.”). I’m actually not sure this would fly in any agency’s management practices.
  • Caretakers and Ridgerunners with powers to ticket hikers who disregard rules (see ’the Man’, again).
Papers, please.  Photo, Chinmusic

Papers, please. Photo, Chinmusic

You say these things will never happen? I’m not so sure. The A.T. is still growing up–it’s in young adulthood at this point, having matured in the past 60 years from its childhood and adolescence as a largely unregulated (and unprotected) footpath. Now it’s facing the ever more complex adult world. It has acquired a permanent home on protected public lands (with a mortgage to Federal agencies, so to speak), and has (to push the metaphor to the bleeding edge) a family of grandparents, parents, and a horde of loving children–who may not always give it the respect it deserves. It’s a complicated, nuanced entity that requires imaginative, thoughtful partners of all kinds.

So What Are We To Do?

  • Treat the Trail with respect–and encourage others to do the same–both in your virtual and meat-space life.
  • When you (re)visit the Trail, consider hiking on less popular sections and/or at less popular times (“Off Peak”/Flip-flop). Be sparing of large, organized activities on the Trail (such as hiker feeds, races or reunion hikes).
  • When you hike, remember that your actions will be repeated 100-fold by other hikers–both the good and the bad. Defeat the Tragedy of the Commons
  • If you are leading or sponsoring a group, respect the group size limits. Lead responsibility. Choose less popular sections.
  • Respect the few regulations that do exist for hikers.
  • Engage locally and/or Trailwide with management groups. We need creative and thoughtful people at every level.
    • Participate in a Trail club.
    • Consider serving on ATC’s Stewardship Council or Board of Directors.
    • If you live near the Trail, help your community value it as a resource worthy of respect and protection.

Like all things, “doing” the Trail will eventually (hopefully) fade in popularity someday. Maybe next year’s “A Walk in the Woods” peak will be the high tide mark.

Springer, 1973.  Photo,

Springer, 1973. Photo,

That said, the A.T. has been faithfully serving 4 generations of visitors.  With ongoing good management (by both professionals and volunteers) and respectful visitors, it can be an experience to be treasured for many more. It IS your Trail–treat it right.  That’s all for now, back to your regular programming.


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Comments 5

  • KC : Aug 12th

    I look back with regret and constantly lament the fact that I didn’t thru-hike the AT in the 70’s when it was more of an experience of seclusion and before I took on the responsibilities of a career and raising a family. I do get a chance to section-hike it now and then, but I still plan to do a thru-hike (if my old body holds up) after retirement. But I’m afraid it won’t be the AT, rather the CDT or PCT. I’ve watched far too many clips where the AT seems to be “Woodstock Revisited”, and as you well stated, Cosmo, “a social event”. You make some good suggestions, Cosmo. One of your suggestions that I heartily agree with would be to limit hiker feeds. I would add to limit (better yet restrict) trail angel activity all together. Yeah I know, that’s a pipe dream, but churches and other organizations should perhaps consider addressing the much more critical and pressing needs of the truly destitute than feeding the throngs of aspiring thru-hikers.

  • cq : Aug 12th

    I have never thru hiked the AT and don’t have a desire to do so. Distance for the sake of distance has no attraction to me. I hike to see vistas and natural sights. I have, however, read many books by persons who have hiked the AT and have some opinions based on what I’ve read. I think that liquor and pot ought to be forbidden on the trail. Get it in town. It’s also beyond belief that people smoke cigarettes on the trail. Ugh. If there isn’t one, a long-term master plan ought to be developed for the trail. Permits ought to be required, more amenities (bathrooms, safe water supplies along with improved shelters) should be added. Few reasonable people expect something for nothing. Improvements and maintenance should be funded with permit fees.

    • Cosmo Catalano : Aug 17th

      Alas, I think “improving” the physical amenities of the Trail would just drive more people to it. The more we create a “front country” experience with bathrooms and municipal water, the lower the bar will be for under-prepared hikers and their extensive learning curve. I’m not in the “burn down all the shelters” group (yet). I do think the AT should be accessible to hikers at all levels, IF they can visit with a measure of respect for the resource.

  • Robin "Miss America" Hobbs : Nov 22nd

    Many, and myself included, also see these issues on the rise. Thanks for your input and GREAT article. Ill be sharing thins one..

  • Robin Hobbs "Miss America" : Nov 23rd

    “When you hike, remember that your actions will be repeated 100-fold by other hikers–both the good and the bad. Defeat the Tragedy of the Commons”
    As a Ridgerunner, THIS is the point I try to communicate when educating hikers. Ego does not allow for questions instead, people will watch your actions and behavior. Set a good example!


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