Trailpocalypse 2016: The End of the Trail As We Know It?
Avast ye hikers!
Broadly speaking, you’re one of four kinds of people.
Either you: a) are already deeply ingrained in the hiking culture, as a sectioner, former thru-hiker, or a long-distance/long-duration woodsy bum;
b) are in the middle of an attempt at a thru or a section and decided to escape from the Trail with some precious moments of connectivity and… more Trail talk;
c) are fetishistically interested in all things hiking and think the AT is in your eventual destiny;
or d) are my mother, and think this sentence is much too long.
(You might also be a regular person, in which case welcome to Appalachian Trials. You’ll fall into one of the categories above soon after reading these blogs.)
As a group, let us all four types take a deep breath and imagine ourselves on Springer Mountain, in late March 2016.
Let’s say it’s the first day of Spring. Northern Georgia is brown and dead, with trees so bare you’d think they might never bud again. And it’s cold – that kind of mountain cold that punishes flip flops and tank tops when you step into the shade.
You’ve got your pack, stuffed to the gills with carefully selected gear. (Lightweight, R-valued, moisture-wicking, EN-rated, dehydrated, and not-from-concentrate-ed… it’s all there, on your back.)
You put in some good miles this first day. Well, good first-day miles, anyhow. You ache in the corner of your knee’s medial collateral ligament. You wonder if you need that one anyway. You name it Bob; that first ache or shooting pain is always Bob, isn’t it? Bob thinks you should stop at Hawk Mountain Shelter. The guidebook says that’s only a few tenths of a mile farther on. Bob thinks the guidebook is a liar.
Then, blissfully, you see the blue blaze trail and turn off to find a place to camp.
All at once, an overwhelming barrage of noise and color assaults you. The whole area is full of people. The shelter is a jumbled mess of gear and bodies. Every hook, post, and railing is draped with clothing, and decked out in packs, like some nightmarish Christmas tree. Mismatched sleeping bags crowd every surface, twice the density of a daycare crayon box.
Fine, you’ll tent. Turning away from the shelter, you see the rest of the scene come into focus. Every tree thicker than a lamppost is strung with a hammock; every piece of open ground has a tent. You could hopscotch to the privy without once touching the ground, so tight and so numerous are the plastic domes.
You settle in for the night. It’s restless. It’s loud. It’s trashy. Few bear bags are hung. You find a questionable branch, a little too close to your tent, but it’s something. You bend your first two tent stakes beyond use. The ground is cold and hard and angry.
You resolve to get up early, pack up camp, suck down some oatmeal and/or coffee and get the heck out of here in the morning. You manage to wake up in time. You get yourself changed and ready to hike, prep your stove, curse spring for coming right after winter, and pump out your quick breakfast. As the light comes up, you finish organizing, heft your pack, almost forget your poles again, and start off toward the trailhead.
The campsite is a wasteland. You pass by the hammockers and can hear one’s teeth chattering. (Forgot to get an underquilt.) You weave through tents, careful to avoid the mounds of trail mix and trash that herds of mice have stockpiled in the night. Half-eaten candy bars, spilled Ramen, and still-smoking fire pits litter the ground.
You book it to the Trail, clenching your fists to warm them up, and bang the first two miles out at top speed. At the next stream you throw off your pack.
It’s sick. It’s horrible. Where the hell are you? There must have been 200 people at the shelter site last night. Where is the peace, the solitude? Where is the rare yet quirky and fragrant hiker contact that restores your faith in humanity?
It’s gone. It’s dead. It’s been suffocated by yards of rip-stop nylon, and the widely-read musings of Bill Bryson.
Oh, right. Now we’re getting somewhere. You get it. You decided to join the hiker class the first year after the Walk in the Woods movie was released. Of course.
But, months of this mess? 2,200 miles of filth, crowding, unnecessary fires, mutilated undergrowth, and a frat house atmosphere… I’m here to tell you that it could well be your fate. (Like this terrifying childhood gem)
But it doesn’t have to be.
Be Good Stewards
There’s actually a lot that individual hikers can do to reduce crowding along the Trail and lessen their collective impact or “footprint” on its culture, structures, and ecosystems.
As to crowding, the most interesting new feature of thru-hiking has got to be ATC registration. On the Conservancy’s website (https://www.appalachiantrail.org/hiking/thru-hike-registration) there is now a way to post your planned start date to the public web. The numbers get updated fairly often from what I have seen, and for the general viewer it’s anonymous. Meaning, you can plan your thru-hike next year for what looked like a down time this year (eg. not the very beginning of spring, or the first of April). If your plans closer to your launch point are flexible, you could also use this feature to shift your start by enough to avoid the “bubbles” that inevitably form on such a well-trafficked route.
Personally, though, I think the best thing current and future hikers can do to invest in the condition of the AT is to follow Leave No Trace principles every day. The LNT website (https://lnt.org/) has excellent information on low-impact hiking, and I encourage you to check it out, but for kicks and in the hope that I can get through to a few of you, here are three of the seven key points:
Plan Ahead and Prepare
There is a ton of information out there about the conditions you’ll encounter while hiking the AT. Appalachian Trials alone is a great resource, but as you likely already know there are other sites and sources of information both formal and informal to draw from. Begin your research early; ask questions, even those that may seem dumb as I guarantee another future hiker will thank you; and for goodness’ sake, take a hike! Test out the gear you plan to bring. Make discoveries about what winter camping is like before stepping out into the snow. Use the hikes to break in your boots, clothes, pack, etc. Note any adjustments and improvements you should make, rinse and repeat.
I recommend starting with the Ten Essentials (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Essentials) and working outward.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Relative to other long-distance trails, the AT is heavily traveled and fairly wet. These two conditions combine to create real erosion problems across the entire Georgia-Maine corridor. Vermont is famously muddy, but look around and you’ll start to see trail damage and bad hiking habits taking their toll in every state.
It’s easy to say this one and then to ignore it in practice, but trust me: hike on the trail. Trail widening is a real problem in muddy spots, where the best route looks to be the one that skirts puddles and thicker muck. (Keep in mind, you’re in the woods and you’re going to get wet no matter when or where you try to hike.) Do your best to chart a course through mud as close to the center of the trail as possible. You’ll reduce the overall impact of thousands of pairs of feet tramping through, and give the soil and streams on either side of the trail a chance to recover.
It’s a similar story with camping spots. Camp in designated sites, where the ground is even, and you won’t be crushing saplings and undergrowth. In many delicate locations along the route, tent platforms are installed to help you reduce your footprint. Take advantage of them.
Dispose of Waste Properly
This one should be easy. Pee and dispose of greywater (from cooking, etc) 200 feet from camp and the Trail. Some hikers even cook meals that allow them to clean their pots by swirling their last noodle water and drinking it down, to reduce greywater.
As to more solid waste, I recommend you take the time and do some research. (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/77377.How_to_Shit_in_the_Woods) The main takeaways for Leaving No Trace are: bring a backpacking trowel (they’re super light, and it only takes the one time not having it in a trailmergency to make you regret trying to save weight in the wrong place.), dig yourself plenty of space (six inches deep and four across is the recommended dimension), keep your cathole tidy (it’s easy to pack out excess toilet paper that didn’t play the lead role – tissues too – otherwise the woods will be littered with wads of TP), and keep yourself healthy (clean your hands thoroughly after doing your business with something like Wet Wipes).
I’m going to save the other four key concepts:
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impact
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
for my next post. Keep an eye out, as I will also be helping to roll out some new Trail-related media. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to help film several short videos demonstrating Leave No Trace principles. Follow their release on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Appalachian-Trail-Leave-No-Trace) “Morning Moose” is toiling over the final cuts even now, and when they are released I’ll be sure to link them here.
Subscribe to my Trials posts and follow me @ponchohikes to sound off on your Trail experiences, positive and negative. How do you foresee this movie affecting the AT? What’s the worst example of Leave No Trace you’ve seen? How about the best?
Bottom line: #DontBeThatGuy #RespecttheAT
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