Throngs of hopeful Appalachian Trail hikers are currently trekking north from Georgia’s Springer Mountain through the southern Appalachians, all focused on completing a grueling 14-state, 2,189-mile journey of a lifetime.
More hikers will commence the effort this month and next on flip-flop hikes, starting somewhere in the middle of the trail, hiking north to Katahdin and then flip-flopping south from their original starting point to Springer Mountain.
Still more will depart southbound from Katahdin in June and July, bent on finishing in Georgia sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Thru-hiker numbers have steadily increased since 2007, according to Morgan Sommerville, Southern Regional Director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, putting enormous pressure on the trail environment and adversely impacting the wilderness experience.
“More than 3,000 people attempted to thru-hike in 2015,” said Sommerville. “And this year down south we’ve got a lot more people on the trail much earlier.”
Devin Mason, a naturalist at the Amicalola Falls State Park visitor center at the base of the Springer approach trail, confirmed that as of mid-April, more than 1,500 hikers had registered their intent to walk to Maine, a 25 percent increase over last year.
In Georgia, overcrowding is most acute on the 32-mile section from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap, where the problem includes not only thru-hikers, but crowds of day and section hikers. That’s why the ATC is taking serious steps to ameliorate the problem on this stretch.
“We’ve got insufficient capacity for camping, more hikers than we have space for,” said Sommerville. “Our big concern has been Hawk Mountain Shelter. It’s a mess, with several acres of impact area around it.”
To reduce pressure on the Hawk Mountain site, ATC officials constructed a campsite a half-mile south, with 30 tent pads and a moldering privy. They’re also working to rehabilitate the shelter site.
“There’s not only increased use, but misuse as well – hikers that don’t practice Leave No Trace, camp outside of established sites and don’t use a trowel to properly bury their waste, for example,” noted Sommerville.
Misuse also includes ill-prepared hikers who discard unwanted gear, food and even garbage at shelter sites, and sometimes even right on the trail.
The ATC has added more ridge runners as well as campsite caretakers on this early stretch of trail to monitor appropriate use and provide Leave No Trace education.
These measures are in addition to the voluntary thru-hiker registration implemented in 2015, which Sommerville said was designed to “spread out the bell curve” of trail use in Georgia and appears to have had a positive effect.
In Maine, Baxter State Park officials have reported that between 1991 and 2015, thru-hiker use rose from 359 to 2,137 individuals, a six-fold increase.
To address these burgeoning numbers, Baxter State Park initiated a permit card system for 2016. Northbound thru, section and flip-flop hikers are now required to obtain the free permit for entry into the park; southbound thru-hikers will not need a permit.
“Our goal is to achieve a reasonable balance of people on the mountain,” said park director Jensen Bissell at a recent meeting of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. “We’ve controlled access via the park gates for years, and now we feel it’s time to do so for thru-hikers.”
AT thru-hiker behavior on Katahdin, which made big news last summer after ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek’s summit celebration of his record-breaking AT hike, is another area of concern for Baxter State Park and the ATC.
Claire Polfus, ATC’s Maine conservation resource manager, had this advice for thru-hikers: “Hike in groups of 12 or less, celebrate quietly, and keep alcohol for later.”
Regardless of where you choose to hike on the Appalachian Trail or for how long, it’s up to each hiker to do his or her utmost to protect and preserve not only the trail, but the trail experience. Be a good steward, use common sense and follow Leave No Trace principles – it’s that simple. And where necessary and appropriate, gently inform other trail users of best practices.