While the number of hikers attempting a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail each year is around 2500 range, it has no reflection of the total number of people who interact with the trail. With day hikers, section hikers, and visitors to places such as Mt. Washington, Greylock and Newfound Gap the number of people visiting parts of the AT are estimated in the millions (GSMNP alone had: “More than 9.4 million recreational visits in 2010” http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parkmgmt/statistics.htm) All of this traffic from human interactions has an impact: damage of the environment and risks to the wildlife. As a thru-hiker you will be an important part of preventing some of this impact and minimizing your long-term footprint on the AT.
On 19 November 2014, Jensen Bissell, the Director of Baxter State Park (BSP) wrote a letter to Ron Tipton, Executive Director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), regarding the negative impact AT thru-hikers are having on the park. His letter listed examples of negative behavior attributed to thru-hikers, noting “we are concerned about the impact on the wilderness experience for Park visitors on Katahdin,” and an indication this could result in “relocating key trail [AT] portions or the trail terminus would be an option.”
You can read the full letter here:
Although I knew of “outdoor ethics” from my military field training days I had not heard of the principles of “Leave No Trace” (LNT) until I started hiking the AT. The only mention of LNT I had heard prior to my hike was at Warren Doyle’s Appalachian Trail Institute where, on a five-day class that covered hiking the AT successfully, he stated that we should NOT follow the principles. Note: There was a lot I didn’t not see eye-to-eye on with Mr. Doyle, and this was just one of them.
However from the start of the trail, the principles of LNT are well advertised; they are included/identified in AWOL’s guide, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy maps and guides, the sign boards at trailheads, posters in outfitters. Indeed the LNT principles are as common a sight as 20 year-old guys with beards.
Does following the LNT principles require work? Yes, a little….but hiking the AT is work! The whole experience isn’t just about walking up and down mountains and eating cereal bars; it’s about the trail, the environment, and the nature. It’s about finding a place outside the materialistic crass throw-away society we live in and returning to a place and time where your bigger concerns are water, shelter and the next cold soda…..I mean chance to shower.
The LNT principles should be second nature; they are not difficult to follow and should be part of your everyday routine. If they are, then you have gained a respect and love of the wilderness and what it gives you in return for looking after it. And don’t start to think you are “just one person” and that your actions won’t make a difference. They most definitely will! You can prevent bears being attracted to trash at a shelter. You can prevent contaminating a water source. You can set a great example for others to follow. What I did find when hiking the trail is that thru-hikers are viewed as the “professionals” in the hiking world. Day and section hikers will talk with you about how you do things, what gear you carry, and what do you eat, and if you follow LNT principles, they will be more likely to follow them as well.
I found that the longer I spent hiking the trail the more I became part of it (I don’t just mean the smell because boy, do you smell). I started to feel the trail was part of me. I learned the rhythm of the trail and its “life”, and I marveled at the beauty, even in New Jersey and New York sections. I did became protective of the trail; trash annoyed me, noisy day visitors would get my scorn, and those that caused graffiti in shelters would be cursed to a plague of a 1,000 fleas on their genitals!
On one occasion we hiked into a shelter and could immediately smell a bad odor; Hanging from the bear line was a white trash bag FULL of junk. On reading the shelter register it became apparent the bag had been left by a group of weekend hikers and had been there for five days. People were writing comments about the smell and that it was attracting wildlife to the shelter at night. My son, being outraged by the situation collected the bag and hiked 5 miles to dispose of the trash correctly.
In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there is a warning sign about someone feeding a bear a McDonalds (we know it wasn’t a thru-hiker as they would never share a burger). The woman attracted the bear right next to her with McDonalds wrappings on the ground and, after the bear bite her foot it was deemed dangerous and shot and killed. The situation epitomizes totally unethical behavior resulting in the death of an animal for no other reason than someone decided they knew better than all the advice.
Post-trail I decided to complete a Leave No Trace trainer course and now teach the subjects to hikers. I hope that simple education of these principles will assist in maintaining the trails’ beauty for centuries to come and protect its wildlife.
Seven principles of Leave No Trace:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impact
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
The Leave No Trace organization even provides a free printable document relating the Leave No Trace principles to the Appalachian Trail:
So don’t think one person cannot make a difference, each and everyone one of you can. You are a potential AT thru-hiker; make the title mean something!