Home / Editorials / Interview with the American Long Distance Hiking Association’s Whitney LaRuffa

Interview with the American Long Distance Hiking Association’s Whitney LaRuffa

Whitney LaRuffa, President of ALDHA-West
Whitney LaRuffa, President of ALDHA-West

What is ALDHA-West and what’s its mission?

ALDHA-West or the American Long Distance Hiking Association West is a west-coast based non-profit hiking association. Our mission is to promote fellowship and communication among long distance hikers and promote long distance hiking in our communities.

What is the value of long distance hiking in today’s world?

Long distance hiking provides a platform for hikers to leave behind the technology and fast paced society we live in and take the time to reconnect to nature. The trails also provide the hiker with a unique experience as they link wilderness areas together with town stops. The town stops often provide the hiker with the local history, culture and way of life of the region they are hiking in. I personally feel that long distance hiking gives you the opportunity to see the world at human speed, so you may savor the experience you are having at the time.

What are the biggest challenges facing long distance hikers and long distance trails and how is ALDHA-West working to address them?

The biggest challenges facing Long Distance Trails is a lengthy list, so I’ll pare it down to the two that I see being the biggest ones as of now; lack of youth involvement and loving our trails to death.

(1) Over the past 18 plus years, I have been actively involved in volunteering my time with various outdoor groups and have often been the youngest regular on the scene. Take a look at any trail organization and the trail maintainers and you’ll see a trend: they all are aging and many of the most active people building, maintaining and advocating for our trails are either retired or close to being so. Until we can engage our youth and even 20-40 year-olds to step up and help maintain our trails, they might eventually be lost.

(2) Loving our trails to death-I love helping people get out doors and enjoy backpacking and hiking, however there are places that are now getting loved to death. I have personally witnessed this in the PNW where I live. Places like Goat Rocks Wilderness used to be a place to escape crowds, enjoy high alpine regions, and have wonderful wilderness experiences where you could get away from it all. Now thanks to a few magazines featuring this area year after year, trip reports on the Internet, etc…..I witnessed no less than 250 cars at two trail heads this past July. We need to make sure that we help others explore the wilderness and disperse ourselves accordingly as users.

ALDHA-West is actively calling on our members to step up and get involved with trail clubs and advocacy groups in their local areas to act as ambassadors of long distance hiking. We also encourage our members to give talks about their hikes and encourage others to get involved in the hiking community. Behind the scenes, we work with trail organizations to help promote them in the community, and lend advice when asked for it. I personally communicate withe the PCTA and CDTC, and will be traveling to Washington, DC for the annual Hike the Hill event on behalf of the CDTC.

ALDHA-West

For Long Distance Hikers the challenges are also many so I’ll speak on the two I’ve seen the past few years that have given me reason to take pause: lack of wilderness skills and training, and not unplugging while on trail.

(1) Everyone has to start somewhere, but some people don’t even try before heading out. The internet is a wonderful place to start your intended trip; sure you can do research on gear, and what to bring with you, but having fancy lightweight gear doesn’t make you an outdoor expert. I have met so many hikers in the past 3 years that can not do the following; read a map or navigate without a gps or cell phone, know how to properly take a crap in the woods-this includes the distance from trails and water, depth of hole, and handling Tee Pee. I think better training prior to trail would help hikers more than worrying about what gear to own.

(2) Addicted to electronics. I sit in front of a computer most days, so I take my time in the back country as a way to unwind and get away from email, Facebook, twitter and just technology as a whole. I do appreciate blogging etc…as a way to keep people informed of how a hike is going, but seeing people with a constant live feed from the trail is not allowing the hiker to unwind and appreciate the setting where they are. In my opinion, long distance hikers need to keep the updates on the hike for town stops, and just sit and relax in nature while they have this wonderful opportunity.

But who knows maybe I am just old-fashioned and long for a simpler life when on trail. I am sure John Muir is rolling in his grave every time a live blog post gets posted from the Sierras.

ALDHA-West is helping these two issues by running rucks in the winter where we spend a day or weekend with prospective hikers to help them dial in their hiking kit, learn skills like snow safety, navigation, LNT, and trail food. These events help hikers in the off-season, work towards being proficient when they hit the trail

What’s the difference between ALDHA and ALDHA West? Are they different branches of the same organization or different organizations altogether?

The two organizations are completely separate. ALDHA-West was modeled after ALDHA when our founder Ray Jardine met Warren Doyle, or so the story goes. ALDHA (East) focuses on the AT and represents the AT community well. ALDHA-West encompasses all long distance trail and routes etc…many our our members are pioneering new routes in the west and around the world.

The other main difference are the gatherings. I have attended many ALDHA gatherings when I lived on the East Coast. They were always fun and educational, but having multiple classes each hour made it feel like I was in school. The ALDHA-West gatherings are smaller and more intimate. This year we had about 150 people attend and that was the biggest group yet. We only have one presentation per hour and almost everyone attends all the sessions as a large group. I always say the gathering is like a family reunion, except you actually want to see this family.

Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors

Is ALDHA-West just for thru-hikers or do other people belong to the organization as well (for example, section hikers, weekend backpackers, day hikers, trail angels, trail maintainers, etc)

ALDHA-West is not just for thru-hikers. In fact we are working to make the organization more welcoming to non-thru hikers. We have many members who are section hikers, enthusiast weekend backpackers, trail maintainers and many trail angels. We actually award the Martin Papaendick Award for outstanding trail angel of the year at the gathering so many of the trail angels come to see the hikers they helped throughout the year and honor each year’s recipient. We welcome all at our events and many people find that ego’s are left at the door when you arrive. No matter how many trails you have hiked, someone there has hiked more. Really, we all help encourage each others’ next trips and many people use our events as a way to get boots on the ground knowledge from others.

What are the benefits of becoming an ALDHA-West member?

For the low price of just $15, you get the following benefits: a quarterly gazette newsletter and a $15 discount on attendance at all events throughout the year. We are working to get special member discounts with gear companies in the future.

If you’re interested in joining ALDHA-West, click here.

How many members does ALDHA-West have today and what kinds of new members do you want to attract?

As of last count we had close to 300 members. We want to attract families that hike, back packers, section hikers and current thru-hikers throughout the year.

How does ALDHA-West work with the PCTA, CDTC, and ATC and other long distance trail associations?

We work by helping get the word out on events they have coming up. We also are working on developing a mentor program where past hikers in our organization can help newcomers with info on long distance hiking. With the PCTA, we work together on PCT Days in Cascade Locks, Oregon, by providing logistical support, volunteers, planning, etc…With the CDTC we are full, on partners helping with everything from awareness and fundraising, to advice on the trail, ways to engage their budding trail towns, hike the hill, and lastly also our VP “Snorkel” Liz Thomas is the CDTC’s new information specialist.

ALDHA-West Officers

What is the triple crown and how many people have completed it?

The Triple Crown (TC) is awarded to hikers who have completed in full, the entire length of the AT, CDT, and PCT. The hikers go through an application and review process by a board of five current triple crown holders to verify the hikers information. We set this in place to help preserve the integrity of the award. We do accept alternative routes due to trail closures and only ask that the hiker has completed the hike with continuous footsteps, i.e. no skipping.

Since 1993, we have awarded 233 Triple Crown Awards. This year we inducted 37 new hikers, our biggest group yet.

Does ALDHA have plans to create other awards for hiking shorter long distance trails?

Man, this idea gets kicked around a lot by both the board and our general membership. While we would love to recognize achievement outside the triple crown, logistically, it is not an option at this time. It takes a tremendous amount of work 100 hours, plus, each year just to do the Triple Crown Awards, and with growing numbers, that is a major burden alone.

The two main ideas that have come up are totally lifetime mile achievement awards and a grand slam (triple crown and 1 east to west trail). While awards are nice, I think they send the wrong message about long distance hiking and why these hikers hike the trails. We encourage our members to hike because they love being out there, not for awards and bragging rights. As one of my advisers said to me, “no reason for more awards or qualifiers, we are not the Ripley’s Believe It or Not of long distance hiking.”

We do award the Martin Papendick Award to the outstanding trail angel of the year. This award, more than any other, means the most, as it is a way to honor the thankless souls who help hikers achieve their dreams.

What kinds of educational programs does ALDHA-West run?

Currently we are running Rucks, which is German for a backpack. These day long workshops are a mini regional gathering and beginner long distance hiking workshop. We bring together members, many of who are thru-hikers or Triple Crown holders. We run classes that cover Ultra Light techniques, pack shake downs, cover trail food and nutrition, river and snow crossing safety, navigation for the trail, and LNT. The day allows for attendees to talk one on one with thru-hikers to gain insight as to what lies ahead. We have two planned in 2015: one in Portland, OR Feb 28th, and one in Denver in conjunction with CDTC on March 14.

Hiker Trash
Hiker Trash

How is ALDHA-West Financed?

We are financed by our membership dues, funds raised at our events through gear raffles from donors, small merchandise sales like t-shirts, and funds generated at PCT Days from their massive gear raffle. We have a small nest egg we work from, but frankly I am always amazed on how well we run on a small tight budget. But you know long distance hikers tend to be cheap and resourceful.

What role do outdoor companies play in financing ALDHA-West and what benefits do they receive as corporate sponsors?

Outdoor companies are a huge part of our financing: we ask for gear donations not monetary ones as it is easier to manage that way. At each event we have a gear raffle and all the funds generated during the raffles go directly to things such as thru-hiker scholarships to attend our events at 50% off or free depending on the situation, a hiker pancake feed at PCT days, and some other trail magic throughout the hiking season.

What kind of educational programs does ALDHA West sponsor?

Currently the only educational programs we sponsor are our own events, however we have told our members, that if they need help to put on event in line with our organization, we will be more than willing to lend support both logistically and some amount monetarily. Our board is currently working  to decide how much more educational work we can take on throughout the year.

Thanks Whitney!

16 comments

  1. I volunteer quite a bit with the Keystone Trails Association in Pennsylvania. The first challenge Mr LaRuffa talks about it spot on. I’m in my 30’s and I’m almost always the youngest person at our trail care events by 20 years. I’ve noticed this with the Patomac Appalachian Trail club as well. Too much grey hair to sustain these trails. It is somewhat depressing really but I don’t know what the answer to this problem is. I know quite a few younger people who backpack a lot their interest in the trails only extends as far as walking on them. When I have brought up the maintinence and volunteer aspect nobody seems interested.

    • I was struck by that comment as well. I wonder why that is and how to get more hikers involved. Trail maintenance is fun in a different kind of way than hikin, but very rewarding.

      • Why is the trail maintainer crowd an aging one?

        Well I was born in the first 1/4 of the baby boom years and by and large our parents left us to organize ourselves. Want to play ball? … show up at the playground and pick teams among whoever was there … adapt the rules to compensate for not having enough to cover the entire field. . Sure, there were organized activities for all kinds of things from debate to football but most of us spent more time in self organized activities than the organized versions.

        So what did we do for our kids? We upped our organizing game and handed them “better” play lives than we had … except that it wasn’t better, we deprived them of the opportunity to learn how to make things happen on their own. They are accustomed to things being there for them.

      • Jim, that does statement not hold water.

        I think a more valid reason for not seeing more trail maintainers in their mid-20s to early-50s is for the simple reason that most of this age group is married, working full time and raising a family.

        The fact that I can even get in 4-5 days of trail work a year is more because my wife and I do not have children. If I was raising a family, I doubt I’d be hiking as much never mind doing trail work.

        Let’s look at real reasons and not tired old sayings about “Back in my day…”

      • I think you’re both correct to a certain extent. In defense of Jim, our cultural mores have changed since he was a boy. As someone who grew up in the “Don’t ask what your country can do for you” era, I can tell you we don’t live in that country anymore.

      • “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

        This was written in 1907 by a Cambridge college student as a satire. :)

      • I have some other thoughts about why younger people aren’t doing trail maintenance. Here goes:

        1) trail maintenance is a highly “local” calling done by people who live close to the trail or hike it regularly and repeatedly. Given the transitory nature of people 40 years old in our culture, they simply don’t have time time become intimate with a section of trail to the point where they realize they want to care and maintain it.

        2) It simply takes time (age) before you can step back and realize the refuge that hiking has given you over the years. The process of becoming a trail steward is a slow and subtle one. You might start by leading and teaching other hikers, writing about hiking, carrying a hand saw to prune blowdowns blocking the trail, before you even realize that you’re ready to take on a heavier trail maintenance role.

    • There is some young involvement around here in the Whites atleast. When I took the Above Treeline Trail Workshop there were 3 of us taking it with me being the oldest(mid twenties).

  2. I think trail clubs need to involve college outdoor groups throughout the school year and help provide a way for them to take ownership of special project. When I was at Virginia tech we maintained 40 miles of the AT, many times the weekend work trips were some of the most fun we had all year. There is no easy answer to engaging the next generation but as a community we need to so the trails survive

  3. I do feel like I see a lot of younger people maintaining trails and working the huts in the Whites. Along the AT it’s generally older folks.
    My new years resolution in 2015 is to join a crew and do some trail maintenance. I often stop and marvel at the amazing work these people do! It’s all volunteer and a labor of love. It’s time for me to give back after spending years walking over their art.

  4. I’d agree that we are not seeing many younger people out there, helping to maintain trails. Hopefully, I can offer a glimmer of hope, and tell you that some of our newest trail maintainers with the Mount Hood Chapter of the Pacific Crest Trail Association are in the 30-40s category. It is certainly an encouraging sign. Moreover, it looks like we are going to outgrow our meeting space at the Clackamas REI.

  5. I think you see more trail maintainers in their retirement years as, frankly, that is who has the most free time overall. People post-college/grad school have a small window, but soon most of them are in the career building/family phase many of the people in their 30s and 40s are typically doing.

    I try to get some trail maintenance in ever year myself. But my and I wife also don’t have children so our time in more flexible vs our friends who have children.

    The other trail maintainers I do know who are very active on a regular basis (as opposed to someone like me doing it a few times a year) are 55+.

  6. I volunteer for the search and rescue, Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. At 36 there is one other man my age and one younger, 2 women, out of 38. Youth and young adults are not volunteering for very much of anything! I plan on hiking more this year than last I will look into setting aside a weekend or week for a trail crew, it would be a good lesson in volunteering for my daughter.

  7. Michael Brouillette

    I’m a member of ALDHA and ALDHA West, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Continental Divided Trail Coalition , the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Ice Age Trail Alliance , and the North Country Trail Association. We here in the Midwest have been thinking about trying to start a Central Chapter of ALDHA or something along that line because we have a lot of great trails here with the North Country and the Ice Age Trail being our main two. We were kidding around during the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Expo last month and we were also thinking about a Grand Slam. The Thinking was like Denny’s Restaurant it should have five trails to complete and our thinking was the AT ,PCT,CDT the North Country Trail and for the Fifth it would be the hikers choice of a trail of at least eleven hundred miles. the Arizona trail the Florida trail the Ice Age Trail something along that line. At this time I believe only twelve people have completed the North Country Trail. So like the Triple Crown it would be an elite group of long distance hikers. We are only in the Beginning stages of our planning but we have been talking with Rod Johnson the Owner of Midwest Mountaineering and we were thinking our gathering would be held at the same time as an expo so we could use and work with the different outdoors groups that attend the Expo and we have been talking with the University of Minnesota outdoors clubs about working with them also. Like I say we are just in the talking stage right now but we feel ALDHA would benefit by having a central group and we are wondering how ALDHA and ALDHA West would feel about our idea. So far I only have the Appalachian Trail and the Mississippi River from the Head Waters to the Gulf under my belt but I start The PCT on April 5th (I know I’m Leaving Early but I’m a Slow Hiker)

  8. As a PCT section hiker I really enjoyed reading the interview with Whitney and learning about the ALDHA-West. It was great to hear that an organization exists to support fellowship among, and mentorship of trail hikers, both newbies and “old school” hikers alike. We all have the responsibility to improve personal trail skills and LNT practices in order to lessen avoidable callout of SAR personnel, as well as our collective environmental impact on popular trail corridors, particularly as related to the problematic burial of human waste referenced by Whitney. Also, as a trail builder with the Carson Valley Trails Association in the Lake Tahoe area, I echo the observation that the vast majority of trail building ‘regulars’ are 50+ and retired. I enjoy giving my time to build trails as a way of giving back to others. While I would occasionally volunteer my time while I was still working it was difficult to find the time to do this and still maintain balance with other time priorities.

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