A new (voluntary) step for thru-hikers

2013 thru-hikers Ninja, Bluetick, Ado and Smooth celebrate their arrival at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy//Harpers Ferry, West Virginia//Photo courtesy Chris “Smooth” Cage//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant 

Thru-hiker fever has officially set in. And with the general preparations like gear shakedowns, meal planning, mail drop logistics and (in some cases) quitting your job to hike thousands of miles, there’s another way the class of 2015 is getting ready for a thru-hike: voluntary registration.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) launched its Thru-Hiker Voluntary Registration system this year with the goal of not only better managing the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), but also enhancing the thru-hiker experience. With movies like “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” drawing attention to two of America’s national scenic trails, something had to be done to spread out the volume of thru-hikers who hit the A.T. at peak times. This voluntary registration system is one way the ATC hopes to address potential overcrowding, especially at the southern end of the A.T. in March and April

Currently, more than 800 people have registered their thru-hikes through this system, allowing hikers to see how many have plan to start their thru-hike on a particular day and giving them a chance to see when crowded conditions will exist. Prospective thru-hikers can see on what days thru-hikers have registered not only for northbound  and southbound thru-hikes, but also for thru-hikes starting in Harpers Ferry or other locations.

This planning feature is especially appealing to hikers like Barbara “Firefly,” who will set out on a thru-hike this year with her 26-year-old son:

“When we started planning, we intentionally looked into the traditionally crowded start days and tried to avoid those as well as avoiding a weekend start. I really think for many people, being able to look and visually see days that are already packed will help future thru-hikers spread themselves out.”

Hiking the A.T. is practically a lifelong dream for Firefly, who began planning her hike when she was 12. Back then, she was using the library and snail mail to gather information while also getting firsthand experience by working on trail crews. Yet it wasn’t until now that she felt like she could to take the amount of time off that’s required for a thru-hike, and when she began planning again, she realized that the A.T.—and the process of planning—had changed.

“I was a bit sad at a lot of the negatives I’ve heard concerning problems resulting from overcrowding, especially at the both ends of the Trail. As a lifelong dream I couldn’t let go of the idea of a traditional thru-hike, even though the cool breeze option looks awesome. The reality is we are approaching our hike with a degree of flexibility, evaluating our progress along the way and if needed changing to an alternative itinerary.”

Firefly’s willingness to embrace an alternative plan if necessary is a sentiment that is growing among potential thru-hikers. It’s good timing, too—as the popularity of long-distance hiking trails increases, the A.T. will benefit from those who recognize that a thru-hike doesn’t have to start at Springer Mountain, or even Katahdin. After all, the journey isn’t so much about the destination, but the process of getting there.

To everyone who has registered their thru-hike, and especially those who made an effort to avoid popular start dates or even selected an alternative starting location, thanks for making the A.T. an incredible hiking and camping experience—and for helping it stay that way.

Have a comment about our voluntary registration system? Email AT-ThruStartDate@appalachiantrail.org

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Erasing a trend

Heading to Springer Mountain from Forest Service Road 42//Photo by Anne Baker//Text by Robert J. Collins, guest blogger

Just what does it take to clean up graffiti at a shelter along the Appalachian Trail? Here’s a firsthand account from a shelter overseer who is not only attempting to clean up the mess, but also stop it permanently.   

Modern day petroglyphs? Self-expression art? An expected rite of passage? Vandalism? The definition of graffiti depends on who you ask. Prehistoric men and women felt a need to mark caves with drawings of animals or to scrape signs and shapes on rocks. Were these messages for others traveling through the area, or were they sitting out a thunderstorm in a cave, bored? Today we can still see the overwhelming urge that humans have to leave their mark—even along the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).

Springer Shelter

Late last year I was asked by Susie McNelly, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club overseer at Woods Hole Shelter, to help her haul wood chips. While we were at Woods Hole, she showed me how she was trying to remove the graffiti that was beginning to cover the shelter. As the co-overseer of Georgia’s Springer Mountain Shelter, I was very familiar with graffiti in both the carving and marker forms.

I began thinking that since most thru-hikes start at Springer, it is probably the first shelter new hikers see. If they see graffiti all over the shelter left by past hikers they probably assume this is an acceptable and almost expected way of announcing to the world that they were there and where they are going. It’s sort of like a wilderness version of Facebook or Twitter—only this “social media message board” is destructive, at times very vulgar and demeaning, and is in fact a criminal act.

I decided that this behavior was not conducive to an enjoyable experience for everyone and decided to try and change the graffiti permissive culture to one aligned with the principles of Leave No Trace. As with any cultural change, it will take education, diligence and most of all time. Thirty years ago smoking in office buildings, restaurants and even hospitals was a completely acceptable behavior, but today, you would not only be stared at and ridiculed but would be subject to a hefty fine. Peer pressure is a very powerful tool.

I discussed my graffiti eradication plans with my co-overseer Frank Wright, trail supervisor Marion Mclean and district leader David Stelts, and they all agreed it was a good idea. We wanted Springer to set the bar with hopes that if hikers stopped leaving their mark at Springer it would carry over up the Trail at other shelters. So with the help of my wife Patty, Frank and I waited for a day when the temperature was above 50 degrees and began our project.

We decided to first fill in all of the deep carvings with Elmer’s ProBond professional wood filler which is stainable and is approved for exterior use, and if it worked well, to return and take care of the less noticeable carvings. To remove Sharpie writings we used “Goof-Off” and sand paper. We waited a couple of days for the filler to dry (it normally takes 24 hours to dry, but with overnight temps in 20s it took longer) and I went to the tool shed and got a couple of gallons of the original stain used when the shelter was built.

We applied the original stain, but since it was transparent, the gray wood filler bled through and it looked worse than the graffiti!  But after talking with a professional in the paint and stain department at Lowe’s, Patty and I were able to select a cover stain in a reddish brown color, enabling us to try and match the wood of the shelter and not be as noticeable.

Again we waited for a 50+ degree day and went back and sanded the original stain off of the wood filler and then applied the new cover stain. It worked! It not only covered the gray wood filler but was a very close match to the wood. The shelter was returned to her original glory—and instead of looking like an ogre in the woods, she had the warm welcoming glow of a Thomas Kincaid painting offering tired and sore hikers a dry, clean and graffiti-reduced haven.

I realize that every time I go to clean the shelter I will have to bring my can of cover stain and wood filler to remove new graffiti. But if we can begin to see a reduction in new graffiti within the first year of this project, it will be an investment that will pay big dividends in the future.

Robert J. Collins is the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club co-overseer of section 3.1 (Springer Mountain Summit to FS 42) and got his trail name “Psycho” after years of skydiving and BASE jumping.