Leave No Trace on the Appalachian Trail
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So far this year the number of hikers photographed at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) visitor center in Harpers Ferry is up 10 percent. The big question is how many more will jump on the trail next year motivated by the movies Wild and A Walk in the Woods. The latter will be in theaters Labor Day weekend.
Obviously, more hikers will bring more impact on a trail that we’re already loving to death. But we shouldn’t expect the increase in numbers to be confined to the southern end of the trail alone. Sure, Georgia will feel the effects of extra bootprints, but it’s prudent to expect more section- and weekend-hikers along the entire length of the AT. Every maintaining club should expect its fair share.
I serve on the ATC’s “A Walk in the Woods” working group. This is a collection of ATC employees and volunteers, working with various partner agencies and organizations including trail maintaining clubs. It is charged with determining the most feasible ways to respond to the increases in the numbers of hikers the two movies are expected to generate.
For my part, the first thing I did was head to Georgia to witness the dynamics of thru-hiker season firsthand. I volunteered to function as an unpaid ridgerunner during the month of March this year. After completing training, my first patrol started on Feb. 26.
My expectations were neutral. I knew there would be crowds and that many hikers would be ill-prepared. I also knew I’d find a lot of discarded gear and trash heaved overboard by overloaded trekkers. All of that was true. Yet, I was stunned by the number and range of Leave No Trace transgressions I encountered every day.
Some lapses were probably due to laziness, plain and simple. Others also could be due to ignorance. The lapses ranged from such as trash left in fire pits and toilet paper flowers scattered about to various forms of micro trash such as the small pieces of plastic that sometimes get dropped when hikers tear open snacks.
Bags of trash and food scraps left behind at shelters attract critters large and small, including mice, skunks and bears.
The worst transgressions were, and there’s no other way to put it, gross, thoughtless and discourteous to say the least. Who would defecate right next to a shelter or water source? I even found used baby diapers left by a young family hiking over spring break.
Keeping up with privy maintenance is a pain. The signage is ubiquitous and obvious: Wipes and feminine hygiene products don’t compost and must be fished out of the privies by another human. Leaving them along the trail is equally inconsiderate. It does not matter that some of the packaging may say they are biodegradable. They don’t compost and they stick around for a long time.
In time it became obvious that more than a few people don’t know the difference between frontcountry and backcountry. I met novice hikers who didn’t realize they’d be expected to pack out all their trash. They thought the shelters and road crossings would offer trash cans.
Almost daily I met hikers sharing their favorite tunes through their phone’s speakers, discovered illegal fire rings and signs that live branches or saplings had been cut for firewood. Of course, with the extraordinary numbers of hikers present, camping on durable surfaces seemed like an unachievable aspiration. Sadly, not everyone offering trail magic did a good job cleaning up.
Since March I’ve become the ridgerunner coordinator for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). Our five intrepid ridgerunners patrol 240 miles of the AT from Rockfish Gap in Virginia to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in southern Pennsylvania. Sadly, they report the same Leave No Trace transgressions that surprised me in Georgia. It’s time to take action.
Leave No Trace is all about respect. That means respect for nature as well as fellow hikers. The only way we can address these issues is by working together as a community to creatively communicate the Leave No Trace message, and by leading by example when we’re on the trail. The audience is each and every one of us.
The “Don’t Be That Guy” videos are a new and entertaining way to help all hikers understand Leave No Trace practices. The videos are a short series of vignettes that tackle the challenge with a touch of humor, one principle at a time.
These videos are but one tool in our communications arsenal. Please enjoy and share them. Most importantly, be the example and show your love for the AT, the natural environment we all cherish, and for our fellow hikers.
Jim (Sisu) Fetig is a member of the ATC and PATC. He maintains trails in Shenandoah National Park, including the AT section he oversees, is the ridgerunner coordinator for the PATC, and volunteers at the ATC visitor center in Harpers Ferry. He thru-hiked the AT in 2014.
A hundred folks a night at a campsite or shelter? The tremendous amount of **** is likely to completely pollute the water sources not to mention the stink. I can’t even imagine why anyone would like to have such a crowded back country experience. I think it must be time to bite the bullet and regulate the number of hikers and if there’s too much trash, start fining those not coming out with a zip lock bag full of their trash. Or start charging a fee sufficient to pay personnel to properly maintain the sites and their associated facilities.
Yep, the time may have come to require registering before starting in Georgia and then checking for permits. Even just five dollars per person would do a lot to pay for more ridgerunners, etc. You could find trash all along the AT, but in my experience by FAR the worst sections were Georgia and North Carolina. I think the biggest reason is because most people start here and learn Leave No Trace principles as they go.
Another idea is to have an incentive program that future AT thru-hikers could apply for where you could get paid for picking up others’ trash. I’d rather steer away from fining people unless absolutely necessary. I believe that positive reinforcement is more in the spirit of the AT than negative.
Not only registering but also making everyone who want entering AT do get a one-day minimum of a course to be sure they understand its regulation.