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Appalachian Trail Sign Defacements: Help Us Stop Them

Why do people deface local trail signs and scratch in the "AT" instead?
Why do people deface local trail signs and scratch in the “AT” instead?

The Appalachian Trail would not exist if were not for the tireless efforts of volunteer trail maintainers and local clubs that maintain the trail from Georgia to Maine. Whenever I meet trail crews, volunteer trail maintainers, shelter caretakers, ridge runners, and trash picker uppers, I say hello, and thank them for the work they do. They all love the trail and the community of like-minded souls that it has brought together for a common cause.

What I don’t understand is why some people feel the need to piss on the locals who help maintain the trail system by scratching out the names of the trails that the AT runs along. This doesn’t build up the trail or celebrate the efforts of the local people who maintain it.  It’s a crude insult that threatens to unravel the fabric that holds the AT together.

Every time someone defaces a trail sign along the trail, it demeans the people who maintain it. I’ve been a volunteer trail maintainer and if someone scratched out the name of my trail I’d be very sad, resentful, and angry.

Take the sign pictured above. It’s on a segment of trail that runs through of busy section of New Hampshire’s White Mountains and is seen by many more day hikers than thru-hikers. What impression do they take away about people who hike the Appalachian Trail, when they see that the trail signs in their beloved National Forest have been defaced?

This isn’t an isolated issue. AT trail sign defacements are rife in New England.

I’m not saying that thru-hikers or section hikers are responsible for defacing trail signs. But if they were, I’m sure it would be a very small handful of angry people who think this is a fun joke. Regardless of who’s responsible, I do think it’s important for anyone who hikes the AT to remember that many locals make the global totality of the Appalachian Trail a reality. If you see someone defacing a trail sign, ask them to stop and explain why it’s important that we respect the local volunteers who make the Appalachian Trail possible.

We’re all guests when we hike the Appalachian Trail. Please respect the people who host us.

Written 2017.

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  1. How can someone do such a thing?! :(

  2. Phil,

    This is a well written article, and one that is way overdue. I remember staying on a shelter and someone was scribbling thier name in a sharpie. I asked why the person was doing it. I was told to let people know that they were there. I told them no body really cares. If you wanted to let people know that you were there, leave the place better than you found it, and send pictures when you summit at the end.

  3. Great article. Thank you for creating awareness. I have been making signs since last November as a USFS volunteer giving hundreds of hours to replace those sign in the article as well as others. There are plenty of signs that need to be updated because of there age. It’s a shame we have to focus on others vandalism. JS

    • Thanks for making new signs Jeff. pretty sure most of these photos are pretty recent, so maybe they’ve struck again.
      I took that top photo 4 days ago…

      • Wachipauka was taken 11/2016. Webster and Crawford were 9/2016.

      • Philip I was at Zealand Hut last weekend and there were two brand spanking new signs outside. Literally fresh wood shaving below each. I also took the AT to Mizpah and sort of noticed what you showed in your pics.
        Whomever is doing this is doing it intentionally and needs to be called out. As a resident of NH all my life I find it flat out nefarious and totally disrespectful of what it means to be a “hiker”. Not cool at all.
        Bravo to YOU for making this come to light and pointing it out to the rest of us. TY

  4. It isn’t just the signs. While hiking outside of Hot Springs, someone put up a water faucet and wrote in marker on the shelter wall “free dehydrated water.” Later, outside of Erwin, I saw their names written on a shelter wall. I met these people in Hot Springs and they mentioned they were going to put up the faucet. I thought they were kidding. These people appeared to be at or near retirement age, so no blame can be put on younger people, which some are quick to do.

    I met so many great trail maintainers who gave encouragement, it’s disappointing to know others make their efforts more difficult.

  5. I cannot fathom why someone would do this. I hike in NY and NJ and the AT through Harriman for example runs concurrent with parts of the Long Path and Ramapo-Dunderberg. I feel bad for the day or section hiker who doesn’t know this is a “thing” and starts to wonder if R-D terminates and if their map is out of date. (If you hike in Harriman you know there are junctions ALL over the place…its definitely a “map in hip belt pocket” sort of park.)
    The trail signs (presumably) match the local trail conference’s map. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this “dangerous” but its certainly a navigational nuisance.

  6. Wow. Just looking at those mangled signs pisses me off immensely. I’m as puzzled as the rest of you as to why anyone would do such a thing. I don’t think I’ve seen this happen out here in California, but maybe I’m just blind to it; I will definitely be putting a much keener eye on trail signs from now on.

    • Seeing that sign on my last backpacking trip finally pissed me off enough that I decided I needed to speak up and use my reach to try to make a difference. Turns out that this same problem is experienced by other NST trails that share miles with existing trail systems (like the CDT) and that sign vandalism is more far reaching on the AT than just the White Mountains in NH. I feel bad for the volunteer trail maintainers who are so enthusiastic about contributing their time to the AT just to have their efforts pissed on by these vandals who want to leave their mark.

  7. Steve "Crocamole" Babler

    Certainly I don’t agree with defacing any signs. There is just no need, it’s immature and insulting. However, it would be nice if all signs on the AT In the Whites noted this fact. On my thruhike last year it seemed at times as though the AM was making an effort to make thru-hikers feel unwelcome and the vague signage combined with a noticable decrease in the frequency of white blazes were just two examples of that.

    • I presume you mean the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club). The signs are made and placed by the US Forest Service not the AMC. You should direct your ire to them. They are the government after all. The USFS also makes all the rules about blazing which is usually performed by volunteer trail maintainers, not the AMC.

  8. I completed a thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail in August, and while that trail is generally well-marked, at least at essential points, I was amazed to find that many of the triangular signs designating the trail had been pried out of their postings. I guess some people want a souvenir, but I wish they’d realize that they were robbing other hikers of sometimes essential information. There are all sorts of mementos available from the TRT website, and I imagine from every other trail website. You could probably find their brick-and-mortar shops, pop in while nobody’s looking, and steal anything you want.

    Kudos to all the volunteers who maintain all the trails we love to hike on.

  9. You can be 100% certain that the people doing this are the same liberals ruining America piece by piece. Few have integrity. Everything is negotiable and up for sale. Ethics and integrity don’t exist. History and the hard work of others be damned. Those who want to speak up to rightly say this behavior is unacceptable, will be shouted down, chastised, claimed to be one “ist” or another, and lies will be told of their prejudices and intolerance. Make no mistake, the destruction of these signs is just another symptom of a larger problem. Go ahead and admit it isn’t.

    • Once people with chronic diseases can get health insurance coverage, this kind of thing was bound to happen.

      • veering off topic. Please return to the main thread or I’ll moderate. Both of you.

      • I’ve hiked several hundred miles of the AT and met many wonderful liberals and conservatives. I’ve always loved the trail because it brings people together with one common interest. Long walks in the woods. Let’s not politicize an indecent act. Let’s just call it what it is. An immature act that is offensive to all people who enjoy the trail.

        I’ve always marveled at how clean the trail is. When you think about the thousands and thousands of people that walk through those trails daily, it’s a wonder it isn’t filled with cigarette butts and candy wrappers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve walked through sections that make me shake my head (cough cough, New York), but by in large the AT is pretty clean.

        Then you have the man made structures. Shelters and Signs. For some reason, people feel they have the right to carve their names or draw pictures all over them. Or worse, leave piles of trash in the shelters. It’s deeply upsetting. I have so much appreciation for the hard work volunteers do on the trail. They dedicate time, energy and even money so that guys like me can go enjoy the trail for free, any time we want.

        Before I had kids I use to do trail magic in Vermont and MA a few times a year. I would cook hot dogs and bring snacks, cases of water, beer and fruit and stay until it all ran out. It was my way of trying to give back to the trail and the people who make it so special.

    • AC, it never occurred to me that defacers of our heritage might belong to one party or another. My experience with back country hikers is that they’re on the whole focused on either their goal or on the moment. I haven’t encountered any who espoused a political preference. They’ve all been pretty much like me: astounded and feeling fortunate to be one with the great beauty and bounty that the American wilderness still provides. Maybe you should get out more.

    • “You can be 100% certain that the people doing this are the same liberals ruining America piece by piece.”

      One can be 100% certain that this is complete and utter nonsense.

    • This political comment is just inappropriate to the topic.

  10. My mother and father taught us to respect others and the environment. Mom caught my 7 year old sister carving her initials into the oak arm rest on a chair that didn’t belong to her and made her sand it out and refinish the wood. She never did that again. To this day, I try to leave a place cleaner for my having been there and my grandkids also help with the trash pickup. Defacing property like that can’t be excused–it’s not funny, it’s not a joke, it’s thoughtless, selfish vandalism. I also cannot understand how someone can take a heavy full container of beer or water a couple miles into the backcountry but is unable to carry the lightweight, crushable empty back out.

  11. Not condoning this in any way, but is this some sort of “cultural protest”?

    For example the “Ethan Pond” sign, is there some idea that it should be called something else?, something local/native/historic?

    Example, here in Australia we have Ayers Rock vs ULURU, the traditional local name.

  12. Consider setting up trail cams to identify the vandals at spots of frequent occurrences.

  13. This is really vandalism and in my best opinion – judging from the “AT” markings – stems from entitlement of “This is the AT, why aren’t you focusing on that?” – without knowing that the Whites were there first. The USFS could probably prevent this by highlighting the trail to follow with a white AT blaze or white paint. USFS could also do a better job in general, IMO. I know that the signs are historic, but every time I’m in Europe I’m amazed at how clearly their hiking trails are labeled with distances, directions, and travel times (just google “europe hiking sign”)

  14. MOTTO: Take only photographs, leave only footprints.

    Seriously, is it any harder than this?

    Just finished a piece regarding Tread Lightly with the scouts this past weekend and once we got through all the crap and I boiled it down to that simple ideal, the best response was “Well why don’t they just say that?”

    Sometimes it is the simplest of concepts that are the hardest to follow.

    Sort of like ‘Do unto others…”

  15. People are jerks…this is somehow a surprise?

  16. There always seems to be general agreement that defacing public signs in a park area is not acceptable conduct. Defacing the landscape by camping on areas which have been designated as ‘restricted’ is somehow more socially acceptable as ‘stealth camping’. There are way too many hikers bragging about how many miles they hiked in a day, yet they do not spend the time/energy to find a campsite which meets a parks’s requirements, too close to water, trails, fragile meadows, picking rare flowers, fires at high elevations, etc. Markings carved on trees is not cool, marks left by hikers using hammocks, OK? Maybe defacing human made signs is not a bad deal, at least it keeps folks busy and away from damaging precious resources.

    • If someone’s hammock is damaging trees, they’re doing it wrong. Maybe these signs can take a page out of a tree’s book and fix themselves!

  17. These are people who’ve hiked enough of the AT to feel they have some ownership of the trail. So they erase any names except the AT since they decide calling it anything but the AT is disrespectful. There’ll always be some yahoo that pulls this sort of crap. Every year there’s a new crew.

  18. Timely post. Now that the prime camping season is over here in the Allegheny National Forest, I’ve been shaking my head at the “campsites”, graffiti, trash and yes, sign defacements left behind. The Leave No Trace ethic is anathema to some people, I guess.

  19. Good on ya, Phil, for bringing this up. Alas, idiots can be found everywhere, and in any “community.” Hard to say which, if any, subgroup the offenders might belong to. And egregious behavior isn’t limited to vandalism. On my recent Pemi-loop hike, i saw numerous through-hikers camped in places that violated the regs. In one case, two women were tented, literally, 10 feet from the trail just at tree line.

    Years ago, in Vermont, someone went through packs at a shelter we were staying at and took money out of wallets. Not sure if it was someone who came in from the road or a hiker. Since then, anything of value stays in my sleeping bag or inside my tent.

    Couple of years ago i saw something i had never seen before in New England backcountry; graffiti spray painted on rocks right next to the trail. Tuckerman Ravine Trail not far from Pinkham.

    Then there’s just the “usual” trash. Bits of plastic around camp. Pistachio shells and orange rinds around peaks. Toilet paper just off the trail.

    Granted, considering the amount of use on some trails in certain areas, the level and number of these acts is relatively low, but it should be zero.

  20. This past July I spent a week on Isle Royale. In one of the shelters I saw that someone had written on the wall bragging about how many cairns they had destroyed calling them “hiker litter.” It is the same mentality as defacing the signs; a sense of superiority. These type of people are different than the ones who don’t bury their toilet paper, however both are equally dangerous to our outdoor spaces. I am just a regular person trying to spend time when I can hiking and camping. I pick up after myself, I don’t play loud booming music, I bury my excrement; I treat our parks like they are precious. Oh, and then there are the dogs and the little plastic bags of dog crap along the trail left for someone else to pack out from the area that is not open for dogs. A couple of years ago, a friend and I went on multi day beach hike in the Olympic National Park. It was the section that is very remote, about about 30 miles long. I was stunned at all the toilet paper because people won’t bury their waste. It was not in the sand, it was in wooded area away from the beach. It was disgusting.

    Maybe it is my age, but I just don’t understand what has happened that makes this type of behavior acceptable to so many.

  21. We have a similar problem in South Africa. Morons take great delight in stealing trail markers as ‘souvenirs’.

  22. Shame on these sign defacers and disobedient abusers to LNT.
    Set up a hidden wild-life, motion sensitive “deer” camera and catch the rascals.
    Then publish or send video to local authorities.

  23. I have no clue why people do these things but I’ve noticed time and time again that the defaced signs are near more touristy areas.

  24. The reason for the defacement of signs in the White Mountains is simple if understood from a thru-hiker’s point of view. That is not to say that it should be condoned, just put into perspective.

    I recently completed an AT thru-hike, and as you are, I was disgusted by seeing defaced signs. Nonetheless, I was also annoyed that most signs in the Whites listed a local name, then added (AT) as if it were an afterthought. In some cases, the AT was not included at all.

    This not a matter of arrogance, as if the AT is the only trail that matters. Along with reading signs, thru-hikers navigate the trail using white blazes, AWOL’s printed guide, and/or Guthook’s smartphone app. The guide and the app never mention local trail name, so seeing them on a sign is not helpful. It is not giving confirmation to the hiker that the correct route is being followed.

    All a thru-hiker wants to know is which way the AT goes. When the sign fails to say that, as it does in the Crawford Path sign shown in this post, the thru-hiker has no useful information. Adding “AT” in parentheses is helpful, but is not as clear as a sign that spells out the name.

    Compounding this problem in the Whites is the fact that there are several long stretches of the trail which contain no white blazes, or where the blazes are severely faded.

    Some thru-hikers have taken it upon themselves to help others by marking the signs to aid other thru-hikers. Again, this is inappropriate and annoying to us all, but it is being done because there are some parts of the AT in the Whites that are not clearly marked.

    The trail maintainers in the Whites do a tremendous job in difficult terrain, but as a thru-hiker it often seems as though those efforts are primarily made for day hikers and peak baggers.

  25. I don’t get this at all. I would be embarrassed as hell if I left anything at all to show I had been there, let alone this kind of destruction. Why on earth do people do it?

  26. Deliberately failing to identify the AT when there was plenty of blank space on the sign seems mind numbingly incompetent. The AT is supposed to be clearly marked from end to end. The omission stinks of a an unwelcoming attitude towards thru hikers that the Whites have long been well known for.
    I don’t in any way condone vandalism but I’ve met a lot of thru hikers and while many have loved the white mountains as mountains (how could you not) not one person has ever mentioned that they were treated particularly well by the hut system, the campground hosts, or the rangers.
    To me the Whites are like the Bear Mountain zoo the AT really doesn’t belong there, it’s really crowded, the trails clogged with locals, and there’s no where to camp; but there’s just no where else to put it.
    I would suggest that the vandalism keeps repeating precisely because the conditions that provoke it keep repeating.
    Frustration doesn’t fall from the sky. As one travels north the trail gets less and less friendly; in one snotty blue blood town in Connecticut there is a giant highway sign on trail that threatens to arrest anyone who gives food, or water to a hiker. Is drinking water not a universal human right?
    Are you really so blind you can’t see that some lost soul’s anger spilled over and that one momentary act of rage by just one person is now used to justify a litany of inconsideration by a very large number of people who are not lost souls and very much ought to know better and behave better?
    You wanted to know why: well there it is… I’d volunteer to fix it if I could, it wouldn’t be that hard, but I live too far away.

    • As a native northeasterner that has traveled to many other parts of the country please understand that we tend to be (by comparison) unfriendly and unwelcoming by nature. Thru-hikers aren’t special in the way they’re treated – everyone is treated the same way. Walking down the street in many cities strangers say hello when you make eye contact. Generally doesn’t happen here. I can’t speak to the CT thing but agree, if true, seems over the top.

      Are you really complaining that the trails are too packed with locals? The last time I checked the trails were developed by locals, or local organizations, for the enjoyment of all that care to come to them. The trails in the White’s pre-date the “AT” so is your position that when the “AT” became a thing, any trail should have been renamed it if it was part of it? I agree in many cases it wouldn’t take much to just at (AT) onto the trail sign. If someone gets lost because they can’t align a map to the trail sign – sorry, that’s on them and doesn’t justify vandalizing anything.

      If you’re hiking a popular trail – which as you point out there’s a good reason many of these are popular – you can’t complain about the crowds since you’re in. The shelters don’t seem to be at any longer of an interval than they are at other sections of the trail so not sure what your beef is there.

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