My hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia from May 13 to June 16 was only the second time I’ve been right in the middle of the hiker bubble in the South, so it was a jarring experience for me. After last spring and summer on the AT, where I spent the same amount of time on the trail and saw a grand total of less than 10 through-hikers (in one notable section, I went four days and saw fewer than 10 people of any stripe), this was totally shocking. The trail in Virginia was crowded. There is no other way to describe it.
At times I hated it. Other times I really enjoyed the company. It all depended on who I was hiking with. There were plenty of genuinely nice people, enjoying life on the trail and being thankful for their good fortune. Unfortunately, there were too many people– I won’t say “hikers”, because their primary goal wasn’t to be on the trail, but to live a perpetual party– who treated the generosity of others along the trail like their birthright, complaining whenever they didn’t get all they wanted. I was pretty sick of the attitude by the end of the hike, and it took about a week after returning home before my memory of the hike reverted to mostly good times with good company.
Too Much Food
In about 350 miles of the Appalachian Trail, I passed more than a dozen coolers left by road crossings, and more than 7 hiker feeds (350 miles because none of this was happening in Shenandoah). In most cases, the hiker feeds weren’t over-the-top extravaganzas, but the coolers and food left by roads were generally trash-filled and poorly maintained. I’ll admit I took sodas at most coolers, but that doesn’t change my opinion of them. Forest Service officials I spoke with confirmed that they’ve monitored some of these caches and found that they do get raided by animals often enough to be a problem, though the people who put them there claim otherwise.
What really bothered me, though, was the disconnect between feeding hikers and caring for the trail. Only one through-hiker that I met on this trip was a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (or any other trail club), and none had worked on trail maintenance. Many complained about trail conditions, shelter conditions, campsite crowding, and full outhouses. They often talked about plans to give free food to hikers next year, but none said anything about volunteering to work on the trail. The reasons for the disconnect? My guess is that feeding hikers is easier, and that trail work is anonymous.
Giving food to a hiker generates instant gratitude from the hiker, and that gratitude is specifically associated with the person giving the food. Trail work doesn’t generate the same mutual glee– trail maintainers enjoy trail work, but most hikers only notice trail work when it is lacking. Either way, trail maintainers don’t get the same appreciation from hikers as the people providing food, because trail work is anonymous– you do your work, and then thousands of hikers walk over your work without ever knowing that you did it. So rather than many people choosing to make a lasting beneficial impact to the trail, they choose to bring food to hikers and get the instant gratification that comes from happy, soda-filled bellies.
The Music Never Stopped
Last year, I noticed a lot of through-hikers walking along oblivious to their surroundings because they were listening to their earbuds. I got kind of annoyed by this because if I tried to pass someone, I couldn’t get their attention with a normal “excuse me” or “can I get by?” Instead, I would wave my trekking pole’s handle (the soft part) over their shoulder or tap them on the back of the leg with it. That usually startled the shit out of them, but at least it got their attention.
This year, I saw fewer oblivious hikers with earbuds in, but I saw a lot more hikers with portable speakers instead. I find this to be very obnoxious. I’ll accept crowded trails and excessive hiker feeds as inevitable, but can we at least agree that walking through the woods and hearing someone else’s music blaring is not what anyone wants? Stick your earbuds back in, please, or go back home where you can make all the noise you want.
Conclusion: I’m an Elitist
Okay, I know all of the previous observations make me sound like a pessimistic elitist, which is partly true. I think the hiking community can hold itself to a higher standard, but I’m not pessimistic about that. I’m certain the trail community can police itself very well– the problems I see tend to be caused by a minority that only looks like the majority because they’re loud and obnoxious. If more people would speak out against behavior that is distasteful, or educate those who don’t know differently, problems would be fixed more quickly. I saw this happen a few times, but not enough. It can always be better.
Where Have All The Light Hikers Gone?
Here’s a more benign observation from the hike: I saw exactly one ultralight backpack other than my own and Joe’s. There were a few packs that would definitely be considered “lightweight”, though. In conversation with a past PCT hiker, it sounded like all of the ultralight backpackers were far, far ahead on the AT, which makes sense. I finished this trip at Harper’s Ferry (mile 1018, approx) on June 16. Seven years ago, in 2007, on June 16 I was over 1100 miles further north on the trail.
What was just as interesting to me was the lack of cottage industry packs. Almost every pack I saw was an Osprey (as it has been since 2008 or 2009). I attribute this to the fact that Osprey is pushed very hard at REI, EMS, LL Bean, and pretty much every other major outdoor retailer. I saw 1 Gossamer Gear pack, 1 ZPacks pack, three ULA packs, and no Mountain Laurel Designs or Six Moon Designs packs. That was startling to me, since lightweight cottage industries have seemingly become more mainstream in the past few years. I guess not mainstream enough.
I did notice three or four Hyperlight Mountain Gear packs, each of which was packed so tight it looked like the seams might burst. Hyperlight seems to have done a very good job marketing in the past few years, but that’s all the commentary I’ll make about them for now.
Sawyer Owns the Water
The other major trend I noticed was that the Sawyer Mini has completely taken over the world (at least on the AT). Two years ago was the first I’d heard of the Sawyer Squeeze, from an AT hiker while I was on the Long Trail. A lot of AT hikers had the Squeeze then. I didn’t notice the hikers last year, but this year, I’d guess that roughly 80% of hikers were using the Mini. There were significant issues with clogging of the filters in Virginia, since the streams we filtered from were often thick with particulate matter, but many hikers carried the backflushing syringes with them. We had quite a few backflushing parties, including one point where I got a 2-gallon bucket of water from a restaurant in Buena Vista and proceeded to clean out half a dozen of the damn things.
I’m still super happy with my Mini, and my Squeeze, after this trip. I had no issues, other than decreased flow after a few weeks due to clogging of the filter. But it was easy enough to clean the filter. A through-hiker even showed me a nifty trick to clean them better– if you bang the filter on a hard surface a few times between each blast with the syringe, a lot of the gunk inside gets dislodged, and a lot more nasty stuff comes out with each backflush. Try it out– it’s pretty amazing how brown the water coming out of the rear end of the filters was.