Hikers Debate Whether the AT is Overused
By Matt Chaney
For this story, we asked hikers on online forums and in phone conversations whether they thought too many people were using the Appalachian Trail. Here is what they said.
Trail Name: Cap
Thru-hiked northbound in 2015. Along the way, he collected more than 1,000 pounds of trash as part of a group he founded called Pack it Out.
Looking back, we were ahead of the bubble most of the time. About crowding, from anecdotes I heard back in the bubble, there’d be nights where there’d be 30 people in a site one night, 30 tents in some of these areas. When that happens, you’re not sleeping on durable surfaces — not everyone at least. In doing that, we’re increasing that impact.
It’s pretty easy to step on a flower, but it takes a lot longer for that flower to grow back. How you stop it, how people go around — it is tough, because it’s good that people want to go hike the AT, and I think more and more people are going to.
Trail Name: Papa
Section-hiked the entire AT from 2012–2015.
Down in the Smokies, it got real crowded. Not overcrowded in the sense that there were too many people; overcrowded in that the National Park Service couldn’t handle them very well. They could have better shelters, and bigger shelters, or bigger tenting areas and solve that problem of overcrowding there. The shelters were overcrowded … Some nights, there’d be 20 people in the shelters, [and others] trying to tent around the shelter where there’s no level ground, and of course, in the Smokies you can’t sleep anywhere but shelter areas. It was overcrowded in that aspect in the Smokies.
Shenandoah National Park, we hit a long holiday weekend and it was packed. … The AT sites weren’t too bad. They didn’t seem that crowded. I mean, there were people, there were probably 15–20 at every site at night, but there was enough room there that it really wasn’t that crowded.
Trail Name: Doubleback
Section-hiked Georgia-North Carolina in 2015. Worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains.
I worked in the White Mountains for three seasons, one of which was near Mount Lafayette, in Greenleaf Hut. It’s down the hill about a mile because the summit area is not a place where you can put a building. But that’s one of the most done hikes on the East Coast. On Labor Day while I was there, they had 900 people do that ridge. It’s an exposed saddle, so you could see a line of people waiting to walk for a hike. And then you add thru-hikers to that situation and I think it’s less pleasant for the thru-hikers. It’s a huge human traffic jam.
Trail Name: Milo
Thru-hiked the AT northbound in 2011.
I don’t think the AT is overcrowded. I do think that it has seen an increase in inexperienced users who aren’t familiar with Leave No Trace guidelines. Organizations like the ATC [Appalachian Trail Conservancy] and Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics are key to educating these new users. Donate to help them carry out their missions. The responsibility also falls on all of us with backcountry experience. If you see someone doing a no-no, speak up and teach them in a positive way (aka without a negative tone that embarrasses them).
Trail Name: Odysseus
Thru-hiked the AT northbound in 2014.
I think that thru-hikers serve as a good clean-up crew, even if they do damage just by hiking at higher volumes. But they also foster the appreciation to leave no trace, and [the will] to support the environment, that you carry after the trail and in future hikes. I think it’s good for thru-hikers in fostering those values and carrying them forwards afterwards.
I don’t know if I’m just biased, but it did seem like it was predominantly day hikers [negatively impacting the trail]. And AT thru-hikers aren’t perfect, obviously, but it seemed like that community was helpful in spreading and enforcing and growing that ideology.