Why Are People Scared of Hikers?

As I stood in line at a store checkout in Lincoln, New Hampshire, I caught from the side of my eye a woman staring at me. I looked at her and she was giving me an ugly look as she scanned me up and down. Not surprising really, with my beard, unkempt hair, dirty hiker clothes, and no doubt a bad smell. But what struck me more than anything was her look of disgust – the total distaste that I was in “her” store and the feeling that her obvious desire was that I leave.

I paid for my few food items which consisted of typical hiker fare: Ramen, a few candy bars, peanut butter, Nutella and some tuna pouches. As I walked out, I turned to see the woman talking to the cashier and clearly aiming her comments at me as she motioned her head in my direction. The cashier looked embarrassed as I watched but the woman continued to give me the same look of distaste.

This one incident probably gave me more feelings of anger and frustration than any other on the trail. More than the time I woke with mice in my tent having eaten through the brand new Cuban beauty I had purchased; more than brushing my teeth with Lamisil anti-itch cream instead of toothpaste; more than the pain I felt in my knee when it exploded like a soccer ball. What got me so angry was the realization she was judging me. Judging me without knowing a thing about me. Judging me based on my appearance. Judging me instead of knowing a single thing about me.

I won’t go into any details, but my life has been an adventure. I have been gifted with a talent that has saved many lives and I have served my country and am proud of what I have achieved. Yet, I was being judged on my appearance, which was, in fact, a result of hiking along the Appalachian Trail for several months with my son while raising funds for Wounded Warriors. But that didn’t matter. In her eyes, I was less than perfect and shouldn’t even be in a public store.

What frustrates me more than anything is how homeless people are treated with the same distaste and judgment. The opinion that they shouldn’t eat in the fast food restaurant, go into a store and buy a beer, or sit in the park with other people to while away the days……but doesn’t that sound like a hiker? Isn’t it fair to say we, as long distance hikers, are a group of homeless people? The main difference is that we had a choice; we chose to live the lifestyle and, in the majority of cases, can choose to stop it anytime we want. We can return to a comfortable home and, in a lot of cases, we have the opportunity to work and have a source of regular meals.

So why is this relevant to a trail experience? Those that have hiked the trail know the changes we go through (especially post trail) are strong. We change as people. I certainly did. In fact, I know I did! I am very much more sympathetic to people not as advantaged as I. I get very frustrated with inconsiderate people to the point I will verbally intervene when someone is acting unfairly. I have a strong desire to do charity work and give back much more now. And I believe more than anything that my experience in that Lincoln store had more effect than any other. I have given homeless people rides – something I would not have done pre-trail. I take them meals when I see them, I have given them money, and I’ve just said hello at times when I had nothing else to offer. I get very upset when I see a homeless person and the way we treat the homeless frustrates me. What the trail did was teach me a level of compassion I didn’t know before and I actually like the new me.

Now, the acts of kindness have not always gone the way I imagined. On one occasion, I was driving to work and I see a guy stood outside a gas station. He was eating a pot noodle for breakfast, which he must have bought in the gas station and cooked in their microwave. His clothes were torn and dirty and he had an old holdall bag by his side. His hair was unkempt and he had a stubbly beard. Looking at him, I felt I wanted to help so I went over and I offered him some money. He looked at me puzzled and didn’t take it and I told him he was welcome to it. It was at that point he told me “I am not homeless man, I am waiting on my ride to work!”

Why is it we will cross the road when we see a homeless person? Or walk around the park instead of through it? Or never go to the arches where the homeless live? Why is it that some people look at hikers the same way and feel they are to be weary of?

Firstly, they cannot understand them, and not being able to understand someone must be scary. After all, society expects us to conform; to get a nice job, marry, have kids, buy a house and two cars, and retire. Hikers don’t fit that model. They give up everything to spend months in the woods, they don’t work, and they don’t settle into a mundane lifestyle; they hike! I wrote in a previous blog about a coworker that flipped out when I told him I was leaving work to hike the Appalachian Trail. He could not understand why anyone would not want to work and fit into the “normal” expectations of society. Some people question why hikers are even on the trail, thinking that we must be running from the law. Movies stereotype that people who live in the woods are scary and more likely to attack you. Of course we know that we are just ordinary people who decided to hike a trail.

We tried hitching a ride a few times and we often found we were not successful. But thinking about it, I can understand. My son is over 6ft and built with a beard and hiker clothes he looked intimidating. Then there is me, stood next to him, a 5’ 8” grey-bearded old guy…..no wonder people thought we was a risk to pick up! In the end, we realized the best way to get a ride was to find a female hiker and stand by her when we hitched.

Hikers are usually dirty and wearing stained, sometimes even torn, clothing. People do not generally like to be around dirty, and especially smelly, people. A friend collected us after a month on the trail so we could spend a zero day with friends in a cabin near the Smokies. We thought we were pretty presentable; however, she informed me we smelled so bad she was trying not to gag. This was pretty bad, seeing as how we had taken a shower three days before!

There is also a worry that a hiker may rob you and try to take your belongings. Because hikers don’t have much, it’s easy to assume they want to steal material things. Little does the public know that, as a hiker, you want to shed weight; the desire to own and carry materials items, especially those that don’t have multiple uses, are very low indeed. This is not to say that there have not been incidents of theft on the trail, just as there are incidents of theft off the trail. But as a rule, hikers are trustworthy; after all, we will drop our backpacks on the trail and run into the woods when Mother Nature calls and expect it our belongings to be there when we get back.

Being looked upon like I wasn’t fit to be in the store in Lincoln taught me a very important lesson. One I am grateful for and another positive trait of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

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Comments 7

  • Nelson Fields : Jun 23rd

    Hello Big Tex, she may suffer from being judged someday. She probably has never been dirty in her life lol. Carry on brother you are doing an honorable trip for the warriors! Thanks for your service too!

    • G p r : Nov 26th

      Carry on sir!
      I am not a veteran, but believe in helping and supporting our disabled troops.
      My freind was a veteran and ended his life a while back. When my daughter graduates. I plan on hiking the AT with a official burial american flag all the way to Katahdin.
      Then presenting it to his daughter.
      When im done.
      People hate what they don’t understand.
      A pilgrimage on the AT is not understood by most. Carry on brightly

  • Chris : Jun 24th

    It’s never occurred to me to be frightened of hikers, and I’ve never had anyone look at me in my hiking gear with anything but weird curiosity (then again, I’m female and live on the outskirts of Pittsburgh where hiking is very common). I lived homeless for a couple years when I was younger, though, and I can absolutely tell you why I and many others avoid the obviously homeless: many are unstable. After seeing a few hobo fights, witnessing people shoot up, snort, and smoke all kinds of drugs, and watching how they behave, I kept to myself and avoided other homeless. Those who end up homeless and don’t want to be have a way about them, and we don’t stay on the streets long. The people with years of filth caked on them and jittery hands? They’re mentally disturbed, junkies, or both. It’s sad, but it’s reality.

  • Albert Leo : Jun 25th

    We hate what we fear, and we fear what we don’t understand.

    — A flash of insight at age ten, watching “Dirty Japs” get shot down in a WWII flick.

  • elklovers : Jun 28th

    I wish you would have been in PA this past week-we camped at Pine Grove Furnace and had loads of trail magic available. We made daily trips past the store to see if anyone needed a ride, resupply items, or even a hot meal or shower. I think the biggest draw was the fresh fruit! I admit I don’t pick up hitchhikers unless I’m in a trail area-I find hikers to be of the friendly sort. Other times I don’t simply because I always travel with my kids, and I can’t risk putting them in danger. We do however always make it a point to help anyone and everyone in need-whether they be homeless or not. I’m proud to say that my kids are growing up knowing the value of helping others,

  • Lois Stallard : Jun 3rd

    I wouldn’t take it that seriously we’re always being judged and we’re all judging. you were judging her maybe just maybe she wasn’t thinking what you thought she was. Never can tell, I prefer to look at the bright side. Your a very fortunate man to be able to do this it was my dream to hike the trail I’ve have hiked. parts of it but my health issues kept me from going any further so enjoy the time you have to do this happy trails

  • Jordan aka vermont : Jun 6th

    One time, after a long day of hiking, I came to the lost mountain shelter. I had just pushed a 27 mile day and came in draging ass. I was disheveled, dirty, sweaty, and I’m sure fairly ripe in terms of stench…

    As I entered the site i was talking to my dog and (I hadn’t seen the family of weekend warriors on the other side of the shelter). I’m sure I looked like some crazy hobo lol. Once I got around the corner I was like “yay people” (in my head… Cause I hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone I days lol) I said hello and and so did they… To an extent… The wife gave me that same damn look you talked about! Thinking nothing of it… I went about 50ft away and set up my hammock. (Rather than be a dick and point out that shelters are for thru hikers)

    As I sat there preparing my dinner, some of their kids wondered over in my general direction… The mother watched them like a hawk occasionally peering over at me with that disgusted look… Then she called her kids over and I heard her instructing them to stay far away from me.

    At this point… It hit me like a ton of bricks! These people think I’m some crazy homeless murder person or some shit! I could help but laugh to myself thinking about how shy and doscile I actually am.

    Then, because I was bored, i wanted to take the opportunity to change their opinion… (And the story they would tell their friends)

    first, I walked over and politely asked if they would do me a favor… She replied with, ” we don’t have any cash but we have some food if your hungry.”
    With a chuckle I said,” no thank you, I’m not hungry, I was just hoping yall would keep an eye on my stuff while I go find some water ?”
    “Oh… Yea… No problem .” She said… Now looking puzzled and embarrassed lol. ? hehehe

    When I came back, I walked over , sat down at the picnic table like I owned it, and began to mix my nightly protein shake. It wasn’t long befor one of the kids asked why I was so dirty lol. ( you can always count on toddlers to to point out the elephant in the room lol.)

    This is where I took the opportunity to educate them on thru hiking… That I’m not homeless. I’m just a highly motivated individual, with huge goals,aspirations, and a large appetite for adventure; who had walked over 400 miles, And that I planned on continuing for thousands more!

    It was at this very moment I became the coolest “stinky” person these kids had ever met ? I sware… I was like a celebrity lol. Not to mention the mother apologized for making assumptions!

    I explained that I understood and probably had made the same assumption at some point in my life… And that I was happy To educate them ?

    So now when they go home… Rather than telling a story about a stinky, insane, serial killer hobo that wandered into their camp… They will now tell the story of how they met “Vermont” an aspiring thru hiker and hiking gear company entrapenoir!


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