The Thru-Hiker’s Code of Conduct

If you take one piece of advice away from this website, let it be this post.

Recently, the Baxter State Park Authority issued a letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy voicing concerns about the behavior of thru-hikers.  Instead of paraphrasing the letter, you can read the important sections for yourself below (click to enlarge).

BSPA ATC Letter 1

BSPA Letter 2

bspa letter 3

bspa letter 4

 

Some in the thru-hiking community have taken issue with the tone of this letter, as it appears that the few bad apples have spoiled the thru-hiking bunch in the eyes of the BSPA.  To those who are upset, I ask you to please drop your guard.  The thru-hiking community has nothing to gain from adding more animosity to the situation.  The BSPA’s goal is to preserve and maintain one of the country’s most beautiful parks.  Our sole focus should be on how we can support this very important mission, whilst doing our part to maintain Katahdin as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail- a reality that could very possible change.

There is no defense for the actions of those who blatantly disregard park regulations, however, I will say that during the year of my thru-hike (2011), I was unaware of many of the park’s rules, including the limit on group size while summiting Katahdin, the availability of campsites for friends and family, and a ban on alcohol.  As it just so happened, I summited with a rather modest sized group (I believe there were seven other thru-hikers) and I was met by no friends or family at the park, but this was a result of chance rather than design.  I did however drink a beer at the summit and thought nothing of it.

Since the release of this letter, I have spoken with several other thru-hikers who were also entirely unaware of these regulations and the unilateral friction amongst park staff and the thru-hiking community.  Park rules in the White Mountain National Forest and Great Smoky Mountain National Park are widely understood amongst thru-hikers, and I’d venture to guess that a lack of compliance is less of an issue because of it.

Regardless of who’s at fault, one thing is certain, there needs to be better public advocacy for BSPA’s rules.  It is the responsibility of hikers themselves to become familiar with these rules- but more importantly, it is the responsibility of those who have the bandwidth, including the ATC, AWOL’s website and Guide, White Blaze, and this site, amongst others, to ensure that we’re doing our part to promote these rules.  We will dedicate a separate article to outlining Baxter State Park’s rules; in the meantime future hikers should familiarize themselves here.

Despite the negative attention this letter has drawn, I am happy that it’s brought light to a problem, as that’s the first step in finding a solution.  Unfortunately, the problem that the BSPA has addressed is only the tip of the iceberg.

Although the vast majority of hikers I encountered during my thru-hike and since have been nothing but respectful of the AT and the culture that surrounds, it is the disrespectful minority who pose a very serious threat to the future of the Trail.

There is growing contention with some hostel owners, local businesses, and park authorities towards thru-hikers; oftentimes citing that hikers display a sense of entitlement.  Instead of gratitude, some thru-hikers expect trail magic.  Some thru-hikers expect restaurants to store their sweat-soaked packs while they ravage their buffet.  Some thru-hikers expect hostels to host the party, drive them around town, do their laundry, and provide clean sheets and a bed for $10-20. And apparently some thru-hikers deceive authorities in order to sneak their pets.

Most hiker-friendly businesses, especially hostels, make little to no profit.  Oftentimes, they exist to serve hikers because the majority of hikers brand the community with a positive reputation.  The majority of hikers are thoughtful, adventurous, selfless, funny, trustworthy, endearing, grateful, but above all, respectful.  They take nothing for granted, and appreciate every ounce of help that is offered along their journey.  Those who lend the helping hand recognize this, and their incentive for helping is merely the positive feelings that come in part with altruism.

Similarly, most thru-hikers honor the principles outlined in Leave No Trace, not only because it’s the rules, but because they love the Trail and recognize it does not belong to them.  You shouldn’t refrain from carving your name into a tree because it’s a rule, you should refrain carving your name into a tree because wilderness is precious, and leaving your mark compromises that.  You shouldn’t shit on the surface of the ground 10 feet from the trail because it’s a rule, you shouldn’t shit on the surface of the ground 10 feet from the trail because no one wants to walk through an above ground sewer.

As a result of increased exposure of long distance backpacking in the mainstream media, highlighted by a pair of major motion pictures- Wild and A Walk in the Woods– as well as sites like this one (and we unabashedly support people getting out into the mountains!), the popularity of thru-hiking, section-hiking, and overall use of these precious trails is on the rise. A very possible consequence of this is a rise in the uninformed and/or disrespectful minority of hikers.

The bad news: if the trend of entitled, disrespectful, and rule-breaking thru-hikers continues to grow- we risk losing the Appalachian Trail as we know it.  The hostels shut down, more businesses close their doors to thru-hikers, re-routes take us away from iconic Trail highlights, and above all, the ATC and other trail maintaining groups lose their ability to upkeep the trail at a pace to meet its growing demands.  In other words, we destroy the thing we love most.

The good news: we can prevent this from happening.

The following is not a shaming of past or present thru-hikers.  How you behaved on the Trail is irrelevant.  This is only about what needs to happen moving forward in order to preserve the Trail.

The following is a code of conduct for future thru-hikers, created by former thru-hikers (thank you Kenny, Carlie, Maggie, Madison, and Mariposa), those who have had their lives transformed by the trail for the better and want to see this unbelievably special opportunity remain accessible to all who wish to take part.  Most importantly, it is EVERYONE’s responsibility to ensure that this code of conduct is being upheld.  If you see someone deviating, doing or saying nothing makes you every bit as responsible.  If you see someone doing something wrong, speak up.  Their actions impact your ability to enjoy the trail moving forward. As fellow Appalachian Trials writer Maggie Wallace so eloquently put it, “I think the trail itself needs an advocate more than the hikers do right now.”  Be this advocate.

The Thru-Hiker’s Code of Conduct

  • Learn and adhere to the principles of Leave No Trace.
  • It is your responsibility to both learn and adhere to the rules and regulations of each park the trail passes through (part of LNT).  Even if you don’t agree with a particular rule (e.g. a restriction on pets), you run the risk of damaging the park’s relationship with all thru-hikers with a consequence much more everlasting than a single fine.
  • Be respectful of park authority.  Their job is to protect state and federal land, no sensible hiker would dissent from this.
  • Be respectful of all local businesses and their rules.  Take no liberties, ask for permission when in doubt, and be polite.  Remember, your behavior is representative of all thru-hikers.
  • When possible, refrain from forming massive groups on the Trail.  If you are in a large group, make a conscious effort to not monopolize limited capacity amenities such as shelters or campgrounds.
  • Enjoy alcoholic beverages responsibly and mindfully. We are not teetotalers ourselves- just be conscious of the appearance huge parties have in town and on the trail.  The greater the numbers of people, the more likely things are to get out of hand.  Refrain from hiking (or yellow-blazing) at a pace purely to maximize party opportunities as the byproducts (i.e. litter, excessive noise, irresponsible behavior) put the Trail at its greatest risk.
  • Take nothing for granted.  Yes, if you’re thru-hiking the AT NOBO (esp. if leaving in March or April), there’s just about a 100% chance that you’re going to encounter trail magic (and likely several instances) during your journey.  Sites like Appalachian Trials are responsible for such expectations.  That doesn’t make an angel’s gesture any less magical.  In addition to the traditional forms of trail magic, you may also encounter several other acts of kindness / benevolence.  Remember that these are complete strangers who are giving you their time, energy, and resources solely to make your day.  Make it known that they are doing so.

Again, this Code of Conduct is not meant to be a holier than thou lecture.  I’m not claiming to have followed these guidelines 100% strictly during my thru-hike nor are the other thru-hikers who have offered input in its creation.  The point is, with growing numbers, future thru-hikers will need to be held to higher standards in order to maintain the AT that we all know and love.  The alternative, as the BSPA has already alluded to, could be dire.

Lead image via Jeffrey Stylos

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Comments 12

  • Joe Ellis : Feb 4th

    Glad you guys have the AT. I truly think all of the different types of lands managed for public use are the last tie to the natural world most
    people today will ever experience. For people born in the mountains, raised in the mountains, with a social and family history tied to the mountains and the people who were here when they settled in the mountains sometimes it is easy to view people with the time to do something we could not afford to as the future home builder who wants to scalp out a place for all creation to see. With no regard for the mountain. Their were no houses to view on the side of a mountain until people brought money that was earned in the mountains to build them. As you hike just remember their are living in the place you visit. People who know they might do better else where but love where they are the same as family. Hope you guys get to keep your trail in one piece for everyone to enjoy , learn and grow from from now on
    .

    Reply
  • Flickamuse : Feb 15th

    Thanks for this article. To be frank, as a thru hiker, I have to agree
    with BSP —the collective integrity that is needed to produce and maintain a
    healthy trail community was not always demonstrated by the action of hikers
    this season. I felt there were many people using the trail and the identity of ‘thru
    hiker’ as a physical and social space where they could enact their coming of
    age journey (whether they were aged 18 or 58). That’s fair enough –however,
    some people’s understanding of personal “freedom” seemed to be informed by an adolescent ‘chip-on-the-shoulder’
    rejection and disdain for any kind of ‘authority’—rather than viewing park regulations
    and common social etiquette as a collaborative and contributory way in which adult
    citizens share and maintain common lands and public spaces. Too often I heard
    hikers say, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” in
    relation to how they treated townships, hostel owners and park authorities. It was hard to watch and certainly made me
    think that perhaps the PCT or CDT—which take more effort to plan and self-reliance
    to complete due to their remoteness might be more authentic back country experience
    of nature appreciation and focus on long distance endurance hiking—SELF RELIANCE
    and INTEGRITY: If you don’t bring them to the trail—hopefully the trail will
    teach them to you—that used to be the way of it. I hope this code of conduct is
    picked up by the larger AT hiking community—good work!

    Reply
  • Blaise : Feb 11th

    I have been a bit surprised that Appalachian Trials has not been more proactive about informing the number of bloggers who are planning on hiking with their dogs that these pets are not allowed in Baxter State Park.

    Reply
  • John Longino : Mar 20th

    The guidelines are great, the post is awesome, but can you imagine that the park ranger is complaining that there is a petition to extend the AT? Extend it and most of his complaints disappear. Petitions are democracy. Petitions are helpful. Opposing petitions is tyrany.

    Reply
  • robert : Jul 14th

    It’s interesting that the letter cites videos and documentaries as inspiring people to do this trail, when they had the exact opposite effect on me. Northbound hikes seem like one long party, and while I love a good party, it’s kind of the opposite of what I have in mind when I go hiking. SOBO hikes eliminate 60% or more of the crowds you’ll see, but even that is about 98% more than I want to encounter in the woods.

    The last AT set of videos I watched was Dixie’s Homemade Wanderlust series, and that pretty solidly hammered the final nail in my AT pipedream.

    I’ll just hike the eleventy million other totally amazing, and unpopulated trails in this country.

    Reply
    • Max : Jan 16th

      You didn’t like Dixie’s videos?

      Reply
  • Mumble : Mar 29th

    So sad that it’s all come to this. Thank you for the post though, you guys rock (:

    Reply

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