A Walk In The Woods? As Films Popularize Thru-Hiking, The AT Looks To Minimize Impact

Each year, thousands of people attempt to hike 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail,  a small section of which crosses through Vermont.

But this year, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is worried that high profile movies such as Wild and A Walk in the Woods are going to entice un-prepared hikers to attempt their own adventure on the trail.

Kevin Metheny, who goes by "Hawk" on the trail, is the New England regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. He joined Vermont Edition to talk about the 2015 hiking season and new initiatives they are trying out to help keep the trail safe and clean.

Metheny says there is a good chance the films released this year will be inspiring enough for people to take 5 months out of their lives to attempt the Appalachian Trail. “Historically, when the trail has been profiled in popular media, either through books or movies, we’ve seen a corresponding spike in visitation to the trail,” he says. “And the fact that two Hollywood movies that are getting a fair amount of attention … could lead to an even higher increase than we’ve seen.”

"We have to make sure people are informed about the experience they are undertaking, that they are prepared and aware of the Leave No Trace practices so that they minimize their impact when they are out there." - Kevin Metheny, New England regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Metheny explains that although they are excited to get more people familiar with the trail, there is also a risk involved for new hikers and the conservation of the trail itself. “We have to make sure people are informed about the experience they are undertaking, that they are prepared and aware of the Leave No Trace practices so that they minimize their impact when they are out there,” he says.

Only about 25 percent of hikers who attempt a thru-hike actually make it from one end of the trail to the other.

The attrition rate for the Appalachian Trail is fairly consistent year to year, says Metheny. He explains that through collecting fairly accurate data each year from hikers starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and at Mount Katahdin in Maine, only about 25 percent of hikers who attempt a thru-hike actually make it from one end of the trail to the other. Some only make it 30 or 40 miles, he says. “So, while a movie can show the glamor and fun side of a thru-hike, there are realities out there, from terrain, to constantly changing weather, to getting used to carrying a pack every day, and just the rigor,” says Metheny.

Metheny is familiar with the rigor of the 2,180 miles, as he’s completed the hike himself. “It is an incredible experience. It’s what I would call a true adventure, a true challenge,” he says. “It’s a four-to-six month undertaking, so it becomes a significant part of your life for that period of time. It is your life; it’s your lifestyle.”

He says that you become immersed in the landscape and the community of the trail. “[You] discover things about yourself that you may not have the chance to realize if you’re busy working and juggling family life and all. So, it was a very influential experience in my life,” he explains. Since finishing his thru-hike in 1993, Metheny has been involved with the trail in one way or another, most recently with the Conservancy.

"It is an incredible experience. It's what I would call a true adventure, a true challenge."

To help ensure hikers have the same positive experience Metheny had, and to help keep the trail from overcrowding, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has set up a voluntary online registration where hikers can sign up for the day they will start the trail. Metheny says it wasn’t just in response to the new movies that came out this year. There has been a solid 10 percent increase in hikers on the trail in the past six to seven years: “So we’ve developed this system that allows people to go to our website and register when they are expecting to start their thru-hike. They can see on a graph how many others have registered and whether or not that is a particularly popular time or less so."

"We have limits on how many people can be accommodated at an overnight site on a given night."

Since the program was launched several months ago, Metheny says they have seen a leveling out of the number of hikers starting each day, which on busy days in the past could have been up to 100 and now averages 20 to 25. “It’s a better experience for the hiker and for the resource,” he says. “We have limits on how many people can be accommodated at an overnight site on a given night. In the past there might have been 40 to 50 people on one site on a night, and on the next night there were 10. So we’re just trying to even it out.”