There are many good things about hiking lists including peakbagging lists, high point lists, trail lists, and some bad things. But, on balance, I think hiking lists are a net positive. Still, they do get a bad rap sometimes as being boring, artificial, or a sign that you’re an obsessive-compulsive nut-job.
The Good Things
There are hundreds of hiking lists in the United States that people seek to complete. Everything from the White Mountain 4000 Footers, the Colorado 14ers, and the Adirondack 46ers to the Triple Crown of National Scenic Trails. While they all involve hiking, I view them largely as community constructs composed of people from all walks of life and age groups that share a common set of goals, rites of passage, skill sets, and shared experiences. In many ways, they were the precursors to the Facebook Hiking Groups and Hiking Meetups that we have today.
So what’s good about working hiking lists, beyond the exercise and outdoor recreational benefits?
- They teach perseverance in the quest to finish a challenging goal. It doesn’t matter how old you are, that’s a lesson you can harness in many different areas of your life, including school or work.
- They’re fun, even if it’s type II fun.
- They build confidence as you achieve major milestones in your quest that can also translate to tasks outside of the hiking realm.
- They require new knowledge and skill acquisition like map reading, navigation, or layering in inclement weather.
- You can form new friendships or strengthen existing ones with others working toward the same goal.
- You can learn leadership skills by mentoring beginners and setting an example.
- They can teach the importance of stewardship for preserving the outdoors for future users.
Those are just a few of the gifts that working on a hiking list can provide you with.
The Bad Things
When talking about the bad aspects of hiking lists, I think it’s important to differentiate the physical impact that hiking lists, especially very popular ones, can have on trails and destinations from the negative behaviors that some bad actors engage in to the detriment of a hiking list community.
Unfortunately, hiking lists, especially very popular ones can lead to unsightly overuse, erosion, and loss of animal or plant habitat. On the flip side, they do at least concentrate the use so that other pristine areas can be preserved. Still, the balance between the two can be a terribly difficult task for land managers to navigate. The reality is that if the hiking list in question didn’t exist, the overuse would probably not occur.
You may disagree with me, but I think there are a few pathological behaviors that crop up around hiking lists that bear scrutiny. They’re not limited to hiking lists but proliferate widely in our credential-focused culture.
- Grand-standing: Hikers that flaunt their superiority over others who are less accomplished than they are in order to seek attention. This happens on social media a lot.
- Dilution of the challenge: Hikers who deface routes by hacking blazes in trees, taping off-trail routes with colored tape, or publishing GPS routes on AllTrails to make it easier for aspirants to check off a destination rather than requiring them to acquire the skills required to bring it home by their own wits.
The Bottom Line
Net net, I still think the benefits of hiking lists far outweigh the negatives and that they’re a force for good in many people’s lives. What’s your opinion?
Grand-standing. Yeah, the entire FKT movement is a case in point. All to often it’s done to generate publicity on social media and not as a private personal challenge. Not the fault of hiking lists per se, but social media, when used as a vehicle for vanity, is a big turnoff.
All my kids climber the 4000 footers and it was a great experience for them for all the reasons you cite. It was so much fun planning and hiking it with them and strengthened my bond with them. I’m so grateful for having shared hat experience with them and it’s a fantastic way to develop a can-do attitude in your kids. Love your website. It’s always educational and inspirational.
Concentrated overuse is one side of the coin – but I would say that some aspect of “listing” also disperses use. While redlining I’m exploring trails and area’s that I never would have otherwise.
From a public health standpoint if someone is going to be OCD about something they could certainly pick worse things to be OCD about.
Grand-standing – one more reason to stay off social media.
I vote net positive.
The 4000 footer list in the White Mountains was originally intended to disperse traffic away from Mt Washington. But it’s increase there and on the other higher peaks (many are actually left off that list) is more an artifact of population growth and increased access than anything. It’s not social media. I mean if you route an interstate through Franconia Notch or pave an auto road up Mt Washington, you’re bound to get concentrated use regardless if those mountains are on a list or not. But we’re in violent agreement :-)
With redlining becoming so popular and every hill seemingly marked with a cannister it’s certainly become more difficult to have an immersive wilderness experience. Add in the endless parade of people ****** and I’ve developed a very sour taste in my mouth for any list with a facebook group.
I think it’s far less worse than you make it out to be. I still rarely run into people on my wilderness jaunts. Avoid the weekends and you’re golden.
Unfortunately, that’s not an option for the vast majority of people who work. The only place I can manage to reliably avoid people is the middle of a stream, and even then I’ve run into you :)
Indeed, lot’s of us have limited non-weekend days. However, any of winter, dark, and rain reduce the number of others to a 10th (probably 100th if you have more than one).
Personally I love the winter while shifting some outdoor activities to rivers and the ocean during the summer. I’ll also hike/bike in dark hours for “day” trips.
I predominantly backpack on the weekend, but I generally get to the trailhead in the afternoon and hike out by mid day the next day or the day after (long weekend). I have done Sat-Sun overnight trips in WMNF where I didn’t see a single person the entire trip. What traffic I do generally see are dayhikers going the opposite way when I’m hiking in or out.
The only hiking list I have really kept was back in 2016 when the Hoosier Hikers Council created a Bicentennial Hikers Challenge to celebrate the Indiana State bicentennial (1816-2016). Track your hikes from a list of trails provided by the HHC and when you reached 200 miles you got a patch and a certificate. It was fun.
As I slowly make my way through a couple of lists, I find the greatest benefit is that it takes away an onerous part of the planning process: deciding where to go. If I’m looking for a new hike, I can just choose one off the list and head on my way.
Good point. I’ve experienced that too.
I second the planning part. When you’re spoiled with choices, having a concrete challenge to work on makes weekend hike decisions easy.
I think lists are useful as a guide, but I find they’re pretty arbitrary and not something I actively pursue. I think I’ve done about 35 of the WMNF 4000 footers, but they are not something I specifically pursue and who knows if I will ever do them all – I just end up going over a lot of them during my backpacking trips. I very casually am tracing all the WMNF trails, but there are so many cross trails I’ve passed by that I have little interest specifically pursuing just so I can check them off. And plenty of peaks under 4K that are better than the 4Ks imo like North and South Baldface.
As far as concentrating traffic on the main trails to the 4K peaks, it’s probably a good thing. Although some of those Wilderness Area trails I’ve had a hard time following – they could use more traffic.
For my oldest son, the 4K list was a gateway drug. From there he soloed the Long Trail when he was 16. In college, his hiking experience led him to the outing club where he made lasting friends and became a cyclist.
One unmentioned disadvantage is that some hikers may feel that they “need” a peak and press on in bad weather. Not to say that dubious decisions to continue in bad weather don’t happen when no lists are involved as well
From a mile high viewpoint I think the lists are helpful. I’ve certainly learned about a lot of hikes I may have never known about had it been for the 4000 footer list or 52 WAV and etc etc, But at the micro level, on social media, FB in specific, it was a definite negative experience for me. I joined the 4000 footer FB group last fall and through the winter I saw what to me amounted to a series of posts from avid hikers that basically shouted out “look what I can do”. After the two hiker deaths over the winter I didn’t have the appetite for what to me seemed like posturing so I left that group and I am glad for it.
I agree – that facebook group can be pretty toxic. Lots of grand-standing. But there’s zero reason you have to pay any attention to those FB groups to hike the lists.
I wish there was a WMNF backpacking FB group (maybe there is and I don’t know it). As I don’t really care about dayhiking the 4Ks and am not a big winter hiker when it seems that group is most active, I find 90% of the traffic there irrelevant to me and bit toxic.
Reddit has a group. It’s mostly focused on UL backpacking, but they’re much more focused on backpacking and wilderness immersion rather than strutting.
The 52WAV list taught me how to hike. The 48s strengthened a friendship and we shared amazing adventures together. The T25 presented physical and mental challenges helping me get through an incredibly difficult period of my life. The NE100 got me comfortable with bushwhacking and took me beautiful, remote areas. I, for one, am thankful for the lists. ? ??
I’m pretty sure I’ve read more than one accident report about a fatality in which the person had one more peak to check off their list.
That’s not the fault of the list now is it?
I believe most of the negatives are social media and group-driven, Facebook, Meetups, and AMC group hikes. The New England Over 50 Meetup group is the worst of the bunch. They have no shame in taking 30 people on a list/peak bagging hike. Personally, I’m just as happy to check off a random peak on Peakbagger as anything on a list.
I don’t mind big groups so much, but at least split up a bit. Last summer trip in August, I was coming down Tuckermans headwall in the morning when there was a group of probably 40 college students coming up slowly in a conga line. Thankfully the rocky trail is wide enough there I could come down parallel to them. Otherwise, that’s when I say the rule is “smallest group gets right of way” rather than those ascending. :D
One thing that I will add as a positive is that if you complete a well-known list, it gives a small boost to your hiking resume. I don’t really feel like getting into a big discussion about gender and hiking and how a certain gender can seem less experienced than a certain other gender, but I will say that being able to tell other people that I’ve hiked all the New England 4ks and many of them multiple times and in the winter does seem to reassure people that I know what I’m doing. Just saying “I hike a lot” doesn’t necessarily cover it. I think around here if one said “I’ve fully hiked about 50% of the trails in the WMG” or “I’m really close to finishing the 48” would also give needed reassurance in a way that simply saying you’re an avid hiker doesn’t. But then, I like concrete things, hence the reason I like lists and being able to say that one has completed certain lists or trails.
I agree fully with what others have said about lists being helpful for choosing where you want to hike in a world full of decision paralysis. My friend and I were planning some trips just last night and the fact that she’s trying to section hike the AT means that our choices are narrowed down considerably. Do I still try to talk her into hiking other places? Sure, sometimes, but other times I don’t feel like going through every possible choice and it’s nice to limit the options.
Getting back in to hiking a couple years ago after decades off I find the the 4000 footer list very helpful and it maybe a false sense but I feel a little safer following the list. I day hike solo in the winter and I certainly check out guide books and read maps but getting current trail reports online is a game changer from 30 years ago. I don’t have friends that hike and it would be very challenging for me to have any confidence to get in to winter hiking without that information. What I find is there usually are trail reports for trails on the lists. I certainly don’t count on it but I usually see a couple other people on those trails even weekday winters. Again I don’t rely on it but if I started on a trail or went down a trail in the winter that was on the 4000 footer list that didn’t have tracks in the snow even when if it snowed the night before I certainly would question whether I was on the right trail. I remember years ago misreading the words in a guidebook and I could see myself making a mistake and picking a mountain or trail that was too dangerous by mistake. I can completely understand there being too many hikers on these trail in the summer but it has guided me from a seemingly over whelming number of choices of trails and peaks to something more manageable where I can gain experience . I certainly wouldn’t imply that the 4000 footer list is easy but I know they are ones I am physically capable of doing and maybe they keep others with less experience like myself off less maintained trails where we could get in more trouble
If you need to tell someone else about your hiking accomplishments you may be hiking for the wrong reasons. Most everything in social media looks like a contest.
There are FB groups for some lists that are more focused on Q&A and supporting one another, but they’re also generally composed of more seasoned hikers. I’m thinking of the Aspiring Gridders, and Hiking the White Mountain Guide groups (formerly called Redlining), and NH500. They’re also invite only and heavily/well moderated to prevent self-promotion.
Tell that to the thru-hiker lobby.
Hi Scott! I’m guessing you’ve never been out in the woods and had someone tell you something completely obvious about hiking that you already know because they think you are a complete novice. It helps to have some concrete evidence to show them that you know what you’re doing. Also I’ve been a leader with various hiking groups and people are more willing to trust you as a leader if, again, you have something concrete in your background to show you know what you’re doing.
I think what might be consider bad trail behavior depends on where you live. If you are in an area with limited wilderness, then not publishing routes or flagging them makes sense, to preserve trail finding and navigation opportunities. If you live in an area with infinite wilderness and limited trails, then flagging and recording new routes up unknown and attractive mountains is a benefit. Where I am located, one could not climb the visible mountains in many lifetimes. However, there is a large adventurous population with relatively few and largely overused trails. Here marking (with tape) and recording new trails is an advantage. There are still hundreds of mountains which are largely unclimbed.
As I’ve matured in my hiking vocation I view the lists as challenges and goals, as you have said, but one key aspect for me was not listed. When I found hiking I became fascinated with the varying terrain, flora, and rich history of the region. I use the list(s) as a destination guide book! Currently I am actively seeking to complete the NE4Ks (planned finish on GW to double up the NH4ks) and NEHH, but I find that if I want some other off-the-beaten-path experiences there are plenty of peaks that are generally on some other lists, haha.
Thank you Phil for posting some of your obscure trips. The skull cairn trail up Chocurau is something that really interested me!
If you want an adventure, scour old maps and retrace lost trails!
Completing lists is and has been the highlight of my love for hiking.