You’re hiking the Appalachian Trail this year? Well so are millions of others, pal. To help everyone enjoy the experience, together, thru-hiker, Michelle Michaud, shares her tips for etiquette on the trail.
Three million hikers get on the Appalachian Trail every year.
Let that sink in. Three million people leave their footprints (and their waste more often than not) slopped along the wilderness of this monumental, 2,000-mile footpath.
For millions more, the A.T. has been a source of inspiration for nearly a century. They go for the forest and wild lands, fulfillment and friendship, solitude or any other which reason… but no one goes to see trash or rundown huts along the way. Unfortunately, that’s what happened during the pandemic. Big time.
The most important thing we can all do now is protect and preserve the historic path. If we keep the spirit of the original builders in mind, treat the wilderness kindly, and approach hiking the A.T. with proper trail etiquette, we can ensure others get to enjoy this legacy for centuries to come.
The Real Trail Magic of the A.T. Is Leaving No Trace of Your Visit
Either in my free time or as a professional guide, I’m on the trail a lot. Somehow, it’s already 25 years since my first thru-hike, and I thought I’d seen it all—wrong. I’ve never experienced anything like the onslaught of hikers as the pandemic rolled on.
Sure, it’s your trail as much as anybody else’s, but with usage on the rise, nature suffers. Suddenly we’ve got abandoned coolers, tents, cans and bottles, and a worn path double the size it was a few years ago. When that happens, parts of the trail and surrounding areas have to get closed down to let it heal.
Keeping the A.T. the A.T. is no easy feat and from the beginning, it has been a community effort: it was built by private citizens and is maintained today through a cooperation of volunteer clubs, non-profits, the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. A real for the people, by the people project.
I’ll always advocate for spending time in nature, but as a shared space it really only works if folks act responsibly out there. If you’re looking to enjoy time on the A.T., in a sustainable way, here are some tips for hiking the Appalachian Trail and good to know etiquette for when you’re out on it.
Tip 1: All About the Prep
Being a responsible hiker starts with being well-prepared, and this is what the first rule of Leave No Trace is all about.
So let’s say John, who goes on a hike every now and then, decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. He googled a bit about how to prepare for the A.T., but he’s just going to wing it and go with the flow when he gets there.
He soon realizes that his backpack is way too heavy and that maybe he doesn’t need four books and three pairs of jeans. John’s phone battery is dead and he has no idea how close the nearest camp is. His brand new hiking shoes aren’t really the perfect fit. And the sleeping bag he took is just not warm enough for those cold Georgia nights.
To enjoy the feeling of adventure and spontaneity don’t necessarily preclude thorough preparation. Afterall, you don’t want to get lost, misplace toenails, starve, or freeze to death. Back in the day, gathering the know-how on the Appalachian Trail was a bit difficult but today all you’ve got to do is google it and let a tsunami of info wash over you.
What you should do:
Research and prep: Find a format you like the most—borrow books, read blogs, follow vlogs—and soak up everything there is to know before even setting foot on the trail. I’d also recommend taking advice from your peers. For example, if you’re a young woman, find a similar thru-hiker who shared their experience and possible obstacles.
Then it’s time to do some planning. Well, a lot of planning. Start date of the hike, gearing up, having a food plan, physical training, respecting Leave No Trace guidelines, dealing with possible injuries… Being prepared makes way for a more relaxed journey ahead, trust me.
Know yourself and your limits: We’re seeing lots of hikers over 50 thinking they’re 20-year-olds and they push themselves too hard. The Appalachian Trail isn’t a race, so take it easy, watch your heart rate, and take breaks. Make sure you’ve got your meds with you and it’s great to carry aspirin as well. If you want to hike alongside your peers, this guided Appalachian Trail hike for over 50s is a good option.
Understanding the journey ahead: Once you get into the woods, you’ll need to know about upcoming shelters, water sources, road crossings, town stops, crowdsourced updates, trail hazards, and much more. My favorite app for this is the offline-supported Far Out, but just in case technology fails you, having a physical guidebook, such as The A.T. Guide, is a must. And always have some extra money set aside in case of an emergency.
Tip 2: Be Mindful of Your Fellow Thru-Hikers
This one is really simple. Don’t be rude or inconsiderate. Everyone on the Appalachian Trail wants to have the best time without the worst music in the world blasting at full volume, snorers keeping them up at night, or people urinating from the shelter because they’re too lazy to put on their shoes.
What you should do:
Just use your common sense and be kind.
If you see an aspiring thru-hiker sporting Chuck Taylors and carrying a 60-lb. backpack, try to advise them without being condescending and making them feel bad. There’s also an outfitter in Neels Gap at Mile 30.7 where they give hikers a shakedown and advice.
Don’t bring your boombox on the trail: While you might enjoy striding along pump-up tunes, people venture into the wilderness for quietness and tranquility. No one wants to hear Jon Bon Jovi screaming his lungs out while trying to reach a place of harmony with nature. Use earbuds instead, but for safety reasons, please keep one ear open—otherwise you won’t hear any possible threats, critters coming up behind you, people calling for help, or hikers trying to bypass you.
Be courteous in shared spaces: If you’re taking a trip to Snore City every single night, it might be best to keep away from shelters or at least give other hikers a heads up. In general, don’t do anything too disruptive in shared spaces such as shelters—tired hikers won’t enjoy your calls on loudspeakers, drones buzzing over them, or noise early in the morning and late in the evening.
Ask permission to film and photograph others: You may want to video document the whole thru hike. While it’s great having your journey on film, remember that some people aren’t there to be on camera or social media. In fact, some of them are actively trying to avoid it, so make sure everyone around you is comfortable being on film before whipping out your camera.
Tip 3: Managing Your Waste on the Trail
It’s a very windy day. You walk over to the pile of rocks by the shelter to secure some of your things. You grab the rocks and OH MY GOD there’s a pile of poop underneath. Sure, this particular camp doesn’t have a privy, but that doesn’t excuse leaving unsightly traces for others to uncover.
Other than that, defeating amounts of trash fill up the trail during the bubble in March and April.
Apart from obviously being harmful to the environment, another downside is that leftovers and packaging—even if you burn it—attract animals. And the last thing you need is black bears barging into shelters and mice scurrying around.
What you should do:
Essentially, make sure to dispose of all other waste properly.
You know the drill — pack it in, pack it out: Carry a trash bag with you and leave the place cleaner than you found it. Likewise, don’t leave any food behind just about anywhere around the shelter. If you brought way too much food or you want to treat some other hikers, use food lockers found at some shelters or bear canisters.
Disposing of waste: While most shelters on the Appalachian Trail have their own privy, don’t always count on it. Sometimes you might not make it to a shelter or a privy might be under maintenance. In this case, make sure you’re at least 200 feet away from the trail, from camp, and from water sources to prevent contamination. Walk those 80 steps, scout out your spot, dig a cathole with a trowel, do your business, and bury it.
If you’d like to go an extra mile, carry WAG bags. Remember, anything other than poop and toilet paper has to be packed out and thrown into trash—this includes wet wipes and tampons.
This also goes for your four-legged friends. While I really don’t recommend thru-hiking with your dog, if you insist on taking them along: 1) please make sure they’re leashed and 2) pick up after them and throw it in the trash.
Tip 4: Respect the Wildlife — You’re in Their Home Now
You’re in bear country now, meaning that you have to act in accordance with their rules. You’ll be passing through forests, meadows, rocks, grassy balds, and everything in between possibly for months; meeting animals along the way is just a part of the experience.
Unfortunately, some people take the liberty of carrying a gun on the trail. They shoot the bears and/or scare them away, after which rangers have to be called to shoot the aggravated and wounded animal. Anything like this or even just bothering the wildlife is an obvious no-go, but let’s talk about…
…What you should do:
Respecting wildlife is one of the key Leave No Trace principles.
Again, some preparation and common sense are vital here. The most important thing to do is to maintain a safe distance. Don’t feed them, don’t try to get closer, or use flash photography on them. Remember that animals are unpredictable.
Shelters often have permanent tenants: mice. They will nibble on your food, destroy your gear, and there’s even a chance of transmitting disease. If you’re staying in shelters, be extra careful about them and adjust your sleeping arrangements accordingly.
While dangerous animal encounters are rare, in case of an emergency, such as a snake bite, call 911. Also consider carrying an EpiPen if you have a history of severe allergic reactions.
Tip 5: Preserve the A.T. For Upcoming Generations
Back when I started hiking the Appalachian Trail, there were maybe 200 people actually completing a thru-hike each year. Sustainability wasn’t a huge thing back then. Nowadays, with 3 million people yearly on the trail, it’s never been more consequential to abide by Leave No Trace principles.
You’ll find closings on the trail because of trash being left behind. And I’m not just talking about wrappers or wipes, people are actually leaving their tents and chairs out there. How can the vegetation, wildlife, and wildness thrive in these conditions?
What happens then is that many areas get closed down to let them heal. For example, Max Patch in North Carolina was a favorite of day hikers during the pandemic, but after all the litter and impact, a two-year camping closure was announced.
What should you do?
Stay on trail and in designated areas: If you see an area that’s already a bit more arid, don’t go trampling there back-and-forth for hours on end. Stay on the trail, don’t shortcut switchbacks, and avoid expanding existing trails and campsites. And just some extra info here: not all campsites will be marked in guidebooks, so if you already see a camp there, go ahead and join them. Don’t pitch your tent just about anywhere off the trail, though.
Pack-in, pack-out: I know that I’ve already rambled enough about not leaving anything behind, but I’ll say it again and again: not even that one cigarette butt or your chewing gum.
Think of water sources as your holy grail on the trail: Wash dishes, clothes, or yourself at least 200 feet away from water sources. Biodegradable soap is alright, but use it sparingly. And if you’ve got layers of bug spray or sunscreen on you—as you should, watch out for those UV rays—rinse it off at a safe distance from water.
Obey one of the 10 Commandments of the Trail: “Don’t go carving into trees or yanking out bouquets of flowers.” Plants have feelings too, you know.
You’re the Biggest Piece of the Puzzle
I’d be lying if I said that’s all, folks! There’s always more to learn and pay attention to, but I think this is a good start for anyone wanting to spend time in the wilderness.
Whether you make the trail your home for a day or a few months, remember that you’re just a guest. And when you’re a guest somewhere, you don’t litter, disturb their peace, or try and agitate your host. Be courteous and generally go above and beyond what you think is expected of you.
Those who live close to the trail often go out and volunteer. You can also visit ATC’s volunteer opportunities, join numerous Facebook groups about maintaining the trail, or contact state clubs and local organizations. Help is always much appreciated! If you’re able to, you can also brighten someone’s day by being a trail angel and treating them to some snacks and drinks. Don’t forget to pick up the waste, though.