thru-hikers

All posts tagged thru-hikers

Ten years ago today, I finished my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Since then, more than 7000 people have also finished their through-hikes of the AT. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintains that the completion rate has been consistently between 20% and 30%, so we can conservatively estimate that at least 35,000 people have attempted the AT in the past ten years. Pretty crazy!

And while there have certainly been growing pains with the number of hikers on the trail, overall I’m pretty happy about the fact that more people are getting out and enjoying the experience of long-distance backpacking. I hope that leads to more people getting involved in protecting the land and environment for future generations. Judging by the big increase I’ve seen in hikers on other trails, it’s certainly translating to hikers getting interested in more long-distance hikes. Good! If even one in ten through hikes is as life changing as mine was, I think it would be a good development for the world.

I’ve had to think often about how the hiking world has changed in the years since my hike (not to mention world as a whole), and it can be overwhelming to dwell on the changes. The obvious difference, the elephant on the trail as it were, is the introduction of smartphones which have made social media and other apps (ahem…) ubiquitous in the wilderness. I’ve also noticed a big difference in the number of businesses catering to long-distance hikers, especially hostels and shuttle services, and a vast improvement in how these services run their operations. I’m pretty happy about that, too.

It’s easy to look back at the way things used to be, and complain about the way things are now. I’ve certainly bemoaned my fair share of changes, and I count myself as lucky for having hiked the AT when I did. But I also think every Appalachian Trail hiker is lucky to have hiked the Trail whenever they did, be it 1997, 2007, or 2017. The challenges are different every year, and the culture will always change.

There will always be challenges to the experience of the Trail, and as long as there are people who care enough for it (like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and every local maintaining club), I hope it will change ever more lives for the better in the next ten years and more.

It seems the drought in California is over for the moment, as we’ve watched snow and rain pummel the state in the past few months. While the water was much needed in the state, up to a point, it’s likely to make things a little more difficult for Pacific Crest Trail hikers in the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains. If you plan on hiking the PCT or JMT this year, you should read Andrew Skurka’s excellent overview of what to expect with the snow this year.

Hikers approaching Muir Pass in June 2010.

I won’t recap Skurka’s points, but I’ll add something that my partners and I have talked about frequently in the past few years.

2010 and 2011 were the last years with above average snow pack in the Sierra. In 2012, we released the first edition of Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. Three weeks later, Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, was published. In the past five years, the numbers of hikers on the PCT and JMT have skyrocketed as a result of the book and movie, social media accounts from through-hikers, and an overall increase in popularity of through-hiking. At the same time, navigation became easier as the number of hikers with GPS units went from a small handful to just about everyone hiking the trail (regardless of which app they’re using).

Travel through the High Sierra section of the PCT in those years, from what we’ve heard from many hikers, has been vastly easier than what many of the 2010 and 2011 through-hikers experienced. With less snow, there was less need for difficult route-finding over snowfields and fewer dangerous stream crossings. When there was snow to travel across, abundant GPS options made finding the trail a simple task. And, whereas hikers in higher snow years strategized and schemed to delay their entry into the Sierra, recent hikers have had to pay little attention to timing when passing through the high elevations.

My fear, hopefully unfounded, is that after years of relatively easy hiking in the High Sierra, through-hikers this year may be a little too complacent of the dangers posed by above-average snow depth. Hopefully I’m just being a little paranoid, worrying without reason, but for everyone planning to hit the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, please be careful out there!

Crossing streams raging with snowmelt in the Sierra.

Remember, you will probably be fine as long as you spend a little extra time during your hike to prepare mentally and physically for the most dangerous parts of the trail. You don’t need to be an expert mountaineer for the Sierra section of the PCT in order to safely get through and have a great time, but be open to learning from others with more experience, changing your plans on the fly, and taking time to avoid unnecessary risks.

A few basic pointers to get you started:
1- Take your time in the beginning of your hike if you want to avoid hiking too long over snow. The longer you wait, the more will melt. You can always make up time north of the Sierra.
2- The PCT fords dozens of streams and creeks in the Sierra that will likely be raging with snow melt. Be extremely careful with these! Two of my friends in 2010 were swept downstream, and were lucky to get out without serious injury. It often pays off to scout up and down stream for better crossings, or to wait overnight to cross early in the morning.
3- Though an app will make it easier to find where the trail goes, if you’re walking across an expanse of snow, the exact location of the trail may not matter. Sometimes, where the trail goes under the snow is not the best place to walk. And sometimes it is. Decide based on the conditions.
4- Always have a backup plan. As they say in peakbagging circles, “the peak is optional, the car is mandatory.” For through-hiking, we can modify this to “moving forward is optional, getting home is mandatory.”
5- Know how to navigate without your phone. Bring maps, compass, star chart, whatever is necessary to navigate without the use of electronics. Whatever you bring, know how to use it because you may have to rely on it in unforeseen circumstances. Remember, your phone isn’t indestructible or immortal. Neither are you.

For the first time since 2010, I flew out to California last week to attend the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off at Lake Morena County Park. I’d last been there as an aspiring through-hiker, nervously joining hundreds of others to meet new partners, learn about the trail, and check out new backpacking gear. This time I was attending with my partners in app-making, Paul and Alice, and setting up camp in the vendors’ area to show off our apps to through-hikers and visitors.

Setting up the vendor booth in sunny SoCal weather.

Setting up the vendor booth in sunny SoCal weather.

We arrived on Wednesday morning, on a mild, sunny summer day. Other vendors were already beginning to set up, and hikers were already streaming into the campground. We were so busy throughout the Kickoff that we barely ventured past the vendor area. With such great friends as Gossamer Gear, Lightheart Gear, and The Stick Pic, there was no shortage of camaraderie.

Not-so-sunny SoCal weather to show off tents and backpacks in the vendors area.

Not-so-sunny SoCal weather to show off tents and backpacks in the vendors area.

Alice and Ryan

Alice and I getting our game faces on. This is serious business!

Unlike 2010, the Kickoff didn’t seem to be the time when most through-hikers began their hikes. Many such hikers were already as far north as Wrightwood and Agua Dulce, hundreds of miles north. The drought in California has allowed hikers to start much earlier than usual, and to hike further into the north where snow would normally shut them out until much later in the season. Because of the spread, it seems there were fewer hikers at the Kickoff even though there are more hikers overall on the PCT.

Paul and Ryan

Paul and I took shelter from the steady drizzle.

Even with the smaller numbers of hikers, Paul and Alice and I were completely exhausted by the end of the Kickoff, after constantly talking with visitors and demoing our apps to curious hikers for four days. The weather didn’t cooperate, with cold and rain on every day except the set-up day. On our way back to Paul and Alice’s home in Idyllwild, the rain hit harder than it had in months, drenching the parched state and a lot of not-so-parched hikers on the trail.

Hikers stopped by to see the new app features on their way to Canada.

Hikers stopped by to see the new app features on their way to Canada.

Despite the fact that I was a little sick before Kickoff, and the exhaustion pushed my recovery down by a few days, I had a wonderful time out there. Paul and Alice and I have been working together on Guthook’s Guides for almost five years now, but the crazy thing is that I haven’t seen them since 2010 when we parted ways in Manning Park, British Columbia. This was my first trip out to the PCT, and my first time seeing them, since then. We spent the next few days talking plans and programming, coming up with some great ideas for the future. I’m already looking forward to next year, when I’m pretty sure I’ll make a trip out west once again. Until then, Happy Trails to the PCT Class of 2015!

The Class of 2015 getting their picture taken at Lake Morena.

The Class of 2015 getting their picture taken at Lake Morena.

 

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

If you’ve been following social media about the Appalachian Trail over the past year, you’ve probably heard about problems caused by hikers behaving badly in towns or on the trail. It all culminated last fall when Baxter State Park Authority, the managing agency responsible for the northernmost 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail, sent an open letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy railing against behavior by many through-hikers. If you haven’t read the letter, you should, but here are a few of the issues it outlined:

  • Camping outside of designated sites, and/or avoiding the overnight camping fee in the Park, fully knowing that this isn’t allowed.
  • Bringing dogs into the Park, despite clear restrictions against them. This includes counterfeiting Service Animal registration in order to trick Park employees into letting the pets into the Park.
  • Flooding the summit of Katahdin in groups upward of 30 people (the Park’s group size limit is 12 people).
  • Drinking or doing drugs on the summit.
  • Carving names or initials into shelters and signs within the Park.

None of this behavior is acceptable. You’ve probably already heard that, because I’m not the first to say it. What I want to discuss is the reaction from the community at large.

The reaction from the hiking community has generally been split into three camps. The first set of reactions sounds like “we need to teach new hikers how to respect the gift that is the Appalachian Trail”, which I’ll call the “educators”, since their approach assumes the hikers with poor behavior just need to better understand the issues. The other reaction sounds like “we need to stop the hikers who are behaving badly”. I’ll call the second group the “enforcers”, since their approach is to fight against the behavior. The third sounds like “kids these days act like they own the world”, which I’ll call the “curmudgeons”. These viewpoints are very well displayed in the Spring newsletter from ALDHA (see the Letters to the Editor on page 8).

In person, you’ll usually find my reactions more on the “enforcer” side, but I try to keep a solid footing in the “educator” side, too. Enforcers and educators are both important in changing the culture of through-hiking, first by educating the hikers who don’t know that a certain behavior is harmful, and then by enforcing rules when someone continues with the harmful behavior regardless. Baxter State Park essentially threatened enforcement in their letter by stating they would consider closing the Park to through-hikers if behavior doesn’t improve.

The type of response to the new trends that has no place in the discussion, however, is the curmudgeonly response. When someone starts a complaint with “when I hiked the Appalachian Trail…” it’s usually about how things were better before lots of people started hiking the trail. As I pointed out last month, the number of people using the Appalachian Trail has been growing a lot, and it will never go back to the way it was. Just like people who wish for the days before computers and Internet and globalization, you can wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which hand fills up first.

The other common complaint of curmudgeons is the “hikers today have too much of a sense of entitlement.” These statements let the accuser dodge any responsibility, though the problem is really a cultural shift that has evolved over decades. If you want to get people to feel like they’re no more special than others, maybe you should stop treating them that way by giving them rides into town, free food, or places to stay. But it doesn’t matter what you do individually unless you influence other people as well. Otherwise, you’re just a complainer. Complaining doesn’t often influence anyone in a useful way. This is why the education component is so important.

I’ve mostly sworn off hiking on the AT during peak season because I know the crowds aren’t going away, and I don’t enjoy them. There are plenty of other places to go that are just as nice and have fewer crowds. And if I happen to see a through-hiker acting like a twit, I’ll be first in line to knock him down a peg or two, but until that time, that hiker is no different from any other hiker– whether he’s going 20 miles or 200 or 2000.

So I’ll say this to the curmudgeons who want to continue railing against a sense of entitlement or too many people on the trail: Find a way to fix the problems, or find another place where they don’t exist. You may enjoy yourself a lot more. Embrace change, and move forward.

Duff, Trigger, and I left Front Royal after a half day at the Quality Inn, drying out and recovering from the nasty conditions of the previous day. I’m always amazed at how quickly the body can heal with just a half day of rest on a long backpacking trip— my feet had been in a lot of pain when we got into town from the huge miles I’d done in the national park, plus the mad dash to town on the rainy final day (14 miles to town in the rain by 11 AM), but by the morning my feet felt totally fine. My mind wasn’t quite back to 100%, but I’ll get to that later.

Welcome to the jungle... of Northern Virginia.

Welcome to the jungle… of Northern Virginia.

We all decided to hike on the same schedule to Harper’s Ferry, since I had a train ticket, Duff had family meeting her, and Trigger was right on schedule hiking, all of us aiming for a Monday arrival. So we set out into the last bit of the AT in Virginia, the section between Shenandoah and Harper’s Ferry, a section that is often overlooked because it just flies by for most AT hikers. It is, after all, a section with no major mountains, little exciting terrain, and a lot of filler where the AT is routed between tightly packed roads and private property. Much of the trail in this area was practically a jungle, with undergrowth so thick it was impossible to get off trail for anything like camping or using the facilitrees.

What few views the trail passed were mostly overlooked by the through-hikers I saw, everyone focused solely on getting to the 1000-mile mark of their grand journey. I must admit, I felt much the same way, as I was now in the stage of the hike where I was mostly just eager to get home for some rest and relaxation before heading west to teach at NOLS. The heat and humidity weren’t as oppressive as they had been in southern Virginia, but they were still more than I ever care to deal with. To add another nasty side to the hike, pulling ticks off my legs was now a daily occurrence. At least none made it past my shorts, with their heavy duty permethrin treatment.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

The last few days before Harper’s Ferry highlighted the biggest problem of this trip for me— as I had feared from the beginning of this trip, I had wound up right in the middle of the giant herd of through-hikers. The crowd had thinned out since Shenandoah, thankfully, and the folks I hiked near for the last few days were all wonderful people, but the trail was packed none the less. Being so close to Washington DC, being in the middle of the through-hiker crowd, being in an area that has such mellow hiking— I can’t even count how many people I ran into on a given day.

Before long I was standing in the little office at the edge of Harper’s Ferry, just as I had seven years ago, feeling a little bittersweet about the end of the trip. I stayed at the Teahorse Hostel, a fine place within walking distance from the ATC headquarters, with a great group of fellow hikers. We all had a relaxed evening in town, with dinner and a World Cup match at a bar, and that was it. Early the next morning, I was on a train to DC, then Boston, then Portland. I had my parents send my computer to me at Harper’s Ferry, so I was able to get right into working on updating my apps.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

It’s always best after a long hike to stay busy to avoid post-trail depression, but that doesn’t stop you from missing the hiking lifestyle. I have a love/hate relationship with long distance backpacking, and this time was no different. I was so sick of the heat, the blisters, the younger partying hikers, the crowds, the humidity (again), but as soon as I changed into some cotton clothing and packed my things up for the train ride, I felt like I was leaving home rather than going there. Luckily, I had a few days in Portland with my best friend before heading further up the coast, and then a big dinner at Conte’s with one of my best hiker buddies, Uncle Tom. And I’ve been plenty busy ever since.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte's 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte’s 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.