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Reader Poll: Crowding on the Appalachian Trail and the PCT

Take to the Trail
Take to the Trail

The number of thru-hikers hiking the Appalachian Trail and The Pacific Crest Trail has grown so large that crowding is really starting to become an issue. Are we loving these trails to death and destroying the “primitive experience” they were created to protect? Litter, shelter vandalism, human waste disposal, campsites stripped of all burnable wood, widespread campsite proliferation, interpersonal conflicts, negative wildlife interactions: life on the trail just isn’t the same as it used to be. How can we protect our National Scenic Trails so that overuse doesn’t destroy their essence?

Leave a comment below that with your opinion on how to address the following issue:

Examples

We should make all thru-hikers buy a permit in order to hike a National Scenic Trail. This would cut down on the numbers by eliminating the people who are vagrants and live on the trail while capping the number of people who can hike it each year. The use fees could be put into maintaining the trail and the shelters and keeping them pristine.

The problem isn’t with the thru-hikers: the population of other hikers and campers who use the trail is much greater and they are the reason the trails are so over-crowded and dirty.

All thru-hikers should be required to spend 2 days on trail and shelter maintenance crews to hike the AT and PCT.

Education is the answer. The ATC should hire more trail runners to educate hikers along the trail regardless of whether their thru-hikers or not. That program did a lot of good when I saw it in action in Connecticut and Maine.

I realize that this is a heated issue, so please be respectful of other commenters opinions, even if you strongly disagree with them .

155 comments

  1. Education and peer enforcement are very important aspects of this problem. The perception of whether the problem lies more with thru-hikers or weekenders is an interesting one; but merely a perception. The thing is, in some way the thrus can be more involved with one another, but the weekenders seem harder to reach as a group because they aren’t necessarily accessing the resources that thru hikers do. I would love to see some of the major retailers also include LNT and other education materials with their shipments, or prominently in their email campaigns. Who likes encountering litter, hot firepits, or other signs of neglect and overuse? Best way to not ruin your weekend or months-long backpacking trip: clean up after yourself.

  2. Sadly the only ones that will get a permit are those that care about the out come. It is next to impossible to create oversite (Re: rangers policing those lacking permit) without ruining exactly what we are trying to experience and preserve. My positive observation is that at at every major entrance both passive and active educational opportunities be put in place. The only real solution is educating the masses especially the youth about how to enjoy and take care of our precious resource. While I do not believe permitting will stop the abuse it is the source of funding to underwrite the the education efforts

  3. Would like to think education would help but I’m not convinced that it will have much of an impact. There are too many offenders and not enough educators. Spent Saturday above treeline and watched one day hiker after another use the fragile alpine grasses as the path. I’ll admit that after a while I stopped trying to educate because my trip was being negatively impacted. Notices at trailheads and along the trails will be ignored – rarely, if ever, do people stop to read what is posted. Since hiking is becoming more popular LNT education may need to become more mainstream.

    • I talked to the Alpine Steward on Lafayette about this on Saturday. He said, “it’s no use trying to educate people when so many show up on a nice day in summer.” There were 600 people who went up Falling Water/Birdle Path alone. There were so many people off trail, tramping the alpine vegetation.

      • I actually yell at people when I catch them doing that. I remember distinctly one woman wearing cowboy boots along the gulfside, just trampling along parallel to the trail, ridiculous! When I told her what she was doing, she said “oh, I didn’t know” and got back on the trail.

  4. Oddly enough, I don’t think that education is the answer for much of anything. We should be one of the best educated societies in the world, but that hasn’t made us more respectful of the world that we live in. I do believe that the casual hikers are probably more of a threat than those who regularly hike, whether through or section hikers. I wonder if permits based on the number of successfully completed hikes would help.

  5. How to avoid: Litter, shelter vandalism, human waste disposal, campsites stripped of all burnable wood, widespread campsite proliferation, interpersonal conflicts, negative wildlife interactions? Common sense! Respect! Education! That’s it.

  6. I don’t think there’s a complete solution to these problems. In large part, they are simply the natural result of these trails’ increasing popularity. Any permit measures ought to be directed at education—say, requiring hikers to pass a simple test on responsible trekking, similar to California’s fire permit system. I would strongly oppose any measures to reduce the volume of hikers by increasing the cost to hike.

    A nominal fee for trail maintenance is fine, but anything expensive enough to “price out” poorer hikers would be, in my mind, an economic injustice. A key feature of the wilderness is its accessibility to all socioeconomic levels, and gentrifying these trails would be no less than a crime against their very ethos. If we can achieve some progress through education, I support that, but over time those who want to truly escape the problems incumbent upon overpopulation will simply have to find new trails.

  7. I think a harsher permit process like the one for the JMT would be a smart idea but I also think the addition of more long distance scenic trails would also help. Maybe give people more choices with similar benefits

  8. Education can help, but it has to be creative. Showing the cumulative effect of human abuse of the trails could help. This would need to be supported by increasing efforts to provide access to receptacles for waste

    • The problem with waste receptacles is you need someone to pick up the waste (who will pay to maintain that) and most of the time the trash I find is scattered along the trail and around the summits, not near the parking lots. The type of people that litter do not care about LNT and won’t carry the trash out just because there was a trash can back at the parking lot.

  9. I think the most damaged areas are the areas visited by tourists who are just coming by car and do a liitle walking. In all the wild areas that I visited the number of hikers is not high. Only the scenic places with easy access are overcrowded. These areas should be better organized. As an example is Mount Washington observatory where hugh percentage of visitors are the tourists not the hikers.

    • Yes I couldn’t agree more. Another example is Tripoli Road access to Mt Osceola, the Mt Osceola Trail. I was stunned at how much trash was left on the trail and I know it was from all the campers day hiking the mountain. I picked up as much as I could, but I’ve also never been back there again out of disgust.

  10. Trail life reflects human behaviour every where else. The individual is only thinking about own enjoyment not the community as a whole. LNT principles should be mandatory teaching in school and life.

  11. A permit system that requires people to participate in trail maintenance is definitely the way to go.

  12. I would go with the thru-hiker permit and a yearly quota of about 1000 people. The drawback is that the enforcement is quite difficult to achieve. In the meantime, other US long-distance hiking trails should be promoted and raised to a coolness-factor as high as the Triple Crown.

  13. The BWCA issues permits to limit the number of canoes on the trail at one time. This works well in the BWCA but I think the headaches would outweigh the benefit on the AT or the PCT. Having never hiked the AT or PCT I don’t know if these already exist or not but would posting some expectations at every trail head and campsite help with education? Flyers could even be available at heavily trafficked trail heads. Maybe having big LNT pushes in trail towns to remind hikers of their obligation to the trail. Without making these expectations part of trail culture all along the trail you will not get hikers to buy into it.

  14. A couple hours north of me is Turner Falls, a pretty park and waterfall. It is also one of the most overused and abused places I’ve ever been to. There’s a huge contrast between it and the National Parks I frequent, which often seem to have onerous regulations, however, the regulations do help to preserve the beauty of the place for future enjoyment.

    A thru hiking permit after receiving some training and education appears to be an answer, but on a two thousand mile stretch with hundreds of access points, it is hard to achieve and enforce. A lottery would be nice but many might just ignore it and hike anyway if they didn’t secure a permit. Spacing out the thru hike start times might lessen some of the damage but there is a relatively short window available for thru hiking.

    All of the above being said, it brings to mind what I heard at a safety meeting before a large volunteer construction project. The moderator asked “Who is in charge of safety here?” and received several replies, pointing out different overseers of the project. He then told us, “Repeat after me, ‘I am in charge of safety!’” The point he was making was that it wasn’t someone else’s responsibility, it was up to each one of us–I am in charge of safety. On the trail, I am in charge of preserving it. I can only undo so much of the careless damage of others, but I can do my little part by not contributing to it, cleaning up and mitigating what I can, and trying to educate as tactfully as possible those who are adding to the problem. I don’t think “in your face” confrontation works because it puts a person on the defensive. They might pick up their litter after being yelled at and then drop it around the corner, just to spite the person who dressed them down. I train my grandkids not to litter. When we hike, we have trash bags with us and pick up all the trash we find on the trail. I always want to leave the place better than I found it. I am in charge of safety. I am in charge of trail preservation.

    Another illustration I heard once was: A large storm had washed millions of starfish onto a beach. For miles, the shore was covered with them. An old man saw a boy stoop down, pick something up, and throw it in the water. He then repeated the process again and again. Curious, the man approached the boy and asked him what he was doing, whereupon the lad replied, “I’m throwing these starfish back into the ocean.” The man sternly stated, “Look at all of them. They’re everywhere, what possible difference can you make?” The boy picked up another, tossed it in the water and said, “I made a difference to that one!” If every one of us tries to make what little difference when we can, hopefully the problem won’t get worse. OK, no environmental debates about what starfish overpopulation is doing to the coral reefs–I’m just repeating the illustration and the point of it.

    I am in charge of safety. I am in charge of trail preservation.

  15. I’m so torn on how to answer this. Permits would be an easy and trail use reduction solution. However I have a hard time turning over even more control of the use of the peoples land. I’m left with the solution of more education on LNT principles even possibly reevaluating them. Possibly creating levels of LNT education – wouldn’t we all went to be Master Hikers and lead by examples!

  16. I don’t believe restricting access is acceptable, we invented national parks and all citizens pay for this, so it’s everyone’s land. Let’s not punish the many for the sake of the naughty few who do not practice LNT. So NO to permitting, besides this does not prevent anyone from hiking without a permit. If we can’t guard the entire Mexican border, do you really think we can enforce permit hiking at all the trail heads?

    Further, if you see someone litter, confront them. If you don’t see who littered, pick it up, don’t leave it. I know Woodsy the Owl was kind of a cheesy public education icon, but this was effective for me as a child. I don’t have a tv but I’m willing to bet they do not broadcast public messages like they did in the 1970’s and 1980’s for eating well and not polluting etc. The littering and general LNT principles is a core cultural issue with Americans. You have to change public attitude if you really want to get anywhere. And I am willing to bet 97% of the population has NO IDEA what LNT is, or really means. So I guess it’s time to write our Congressmen.

  17. My wife works in transportation for the local school district. One day, a student threw trash on the ground and she confronted him. He replied, “Someone will pick it up.” She responded, “You’re right. Someone WILL pick it up, and that someone is YOU. Now, pick it up!” And he did. However, his attitude showed the mindset so many have: “Someone else will do it.”

  18. As someone who has just started section hiking the AT in the last year, I have witnessed the most damage to the trail on popular and/or easy access parts of the trail. I can always tell when a road is ahead by the increase in trash – trash left behind by day hikers, local kids that have found a place to party (and in PA at least it is also due to hunters abusing and ignoring LNT in state game lands that overlap the AT.) To address these concerns, I like the idea of trash and recycling cans being available at road and parking sites. Also, hunters should be required to take LNT education before obtaining a license.

    For general trail health, I believe an increase in the number of privies and an absolute ban on fires would help.

    To address the overuse at the start of the trail, I think there should be more encouragement of alternative forms of thru hikes, such as the flip flop thru hike.

  19. Perhaps a required bit of education, on proper maintenance and respect of the land. However, another solution may have to be harsher penalties and fees(for littering and such).

  20. It would be nice to have a fancy ad agency create an awareness campaign and donate some media space to this. That would hopefully educate/guilt people into respecting nature.

  21. A purchased permit, rather unfortunately, would not deter rich hikers (thru or day) with a tendency to an entitled attitude, who might be the ones to litter, destroy and disregard LNT. A permit in return for volunteer hours would be better, but would preclude foreign hikers who can’t get a visa long enough for a thru-hike and the required volunteer hours.

    In the UK we have “volunteer holidays” run by organisations like the National Trust, where volunteers pay a small amount in return for bed and board, and go out to maintain mountain trails, or look after national monuments and stately homes during the day. It’s not quite the same crowd of people as the thru-hikers, but offers a nice solution to the conservation issue.

    A way to deter the inconsiderate version of the regular hiker might to be to make it less easy to hike something like the AT (which is sad for the rest of us) or to engender such disapproval from the rest of the community that it’s not a fulfilling experience for the disrespectful ones (though if they travel in groups, or are day hikers, this seems less effective). As always education, fostering respect for others and the environment, is not an overnight change, but the only guarantee of success.

  22. Agreed–in my hiking in the White Mountains, it’s usually the poorly prepared day hikers or overnighters with little or no understanding that cause the problem. That said, I also see a lot of backpackers online in forums talking about the best ways to get away with stealth camping near the AMC huts and so forth. More enforcement then? So I agree–charge us hikers and backpackers like hunters and fishermen get charged. We consume the wild too, just in a different way, and should do our part.

  23. 1) Enforcing better the few rules that there are, would be much more effective than adding more rules that would be hard to enforce. Because of the hundreds of entry points onto the trail, it is unreasonable to require registrations or permits for backpacking. 2) In the long term it would be helpful to buy up more land and make the trail less accessible rather than more accessible. The more difficult it is to get to a place, the less chance of people disrespecting it. 3) Allow for more dispersed camping, especially for hammocks. Develop a permit system that requires training that would allow the backpacker (thru-hiker or section-hiker) to be exempt from other regulations. The permit holder would be able to stealth camp in places where it is now not allowed and the reason is that the permit holder would know how to do it safely, courteously, and LNT compliant.

  24. Sydney Evans won the Bear Bag Raffle. Congrats Sydney!

    And many thanks for all of your excellent comments about how we can mitigate overcrowding issues on our National Scenic Trails. That was a good discussion.

  25. As a postscript – Virginia Tech professor Jeff Marion is leading a team to study hiker impact on the AT and make recommendations:

    http://www.timesnews.net/article/9078619/virginia-tech-professor-to-lead-team-studying-hiker-impact-on-appalachian-trail

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