appalachian trail

"This isn't a joke I'm afraid, Amy said. It's actually very serious." Caleb was lost in his own contemplations when he looked at Amy. Caleb was short, thin and crooked with a wiry beard and sleepy eyes. "What are you talking about?" he asked. Amy huffed loudly swinging around to meet his lazy gaze. Her angel kissed lips parted and she began to speak again slowly. "We shouldn't have done that." "Done what? He asked. She set the phone down and walked outside.

Nine months earlier Caleb and Amy decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. They couldn't have been more excited. They spent the past months planning, choosing gear and deciding when they would set out to hike 2189 miles together from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin. Caleb thought he would ask his sweetheart to marry him when they reached the northern terminus. Hiking was new to them. They had spent time in the backcountry on many day trips but not too many backpacking trips. The wilderness was their way to find themselves and each other.

appalachian trail hikers

Amy and Caleb's trail names were Mister and Yma. Yma is Amy spelled backwards and pronounced "Yima." The day had come for them to start their journey. Mister bought Yma a beautiful Springer Mountain trail charm and gave it to her wear on their first day hiking. They climbed up the trail and disappeared into the wilderness. It was official… their journey had begun. Yma got out her phone and snapped a picture of their first day on the Approach Trail.

Late that afternoon they arrived at the Springer Mountain Shelter. Yma set her gear down and laid back against it gazing at the walls of the shelter. She read all the etchings and names across shelter walls out loud to Mister and they decided quickly to write their names in a cute little heart to add to the collection of other thru hikers. They snapped a picture of their "art" work and posted it on Instagram for everyone to see. Their journey continued all the way to Mount Katahdin.

I don't think Mister and Yma were malicious in writing their names on the shelter wall to profess their everlasting love to one another. I just think it was a "copycat" effect coupled with a lack of education. Actually, I wanted to find out what other people thought so I created a survey for 200 people and the results are as follows:


An estimated 2.5 million people hike some portion of the Appalachian Trail each year. In the spring, about 2,500 thru-hikers set out from Springer Mountain in Georgia with the goal of making it all the way to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. The trail crosses 14 states and passes through eight national forests, six national parks, and numerous state forests as it traverses one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.

I reached out to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to find out what problems were unique to the AT. Laurie Potteiger, Information Services Manager explained that tagging/graffiti in recent years has become a major issue. Can you imagine if only 1% or just 0.5 % of the 2.5 million decided to write or etch on shelters, boulders or trees to leave their mark along the trail?

Appalachian Trail Graffitti

The survey was given to 200 people. 75% of the survey population is located in the Southeast and surrounding area of Atlanta. 25% of the survey population is located in various locations around the United States. The population also consists of non-hikers, hikers and elite hikers. The questions were prepared and sent via email, Facebook or in person. Responses were tallied from submitted answers on line and on paper.

Question Answer- Yes Answer- No
Do you think Mister and Yma are cute? 128 72
Mister and Yma received a phone call and they are in trouble. Do you know
what they are in trouble for?
152 48
Have you seen graffiti on the Appalachian Trail? 89 111
Are you a Hiker? 75 125
Do you know who cleans up graffiti on the Trail? 44 146
Are you familiar with LNT Principles? 76 124
Do you know that graffiti is considered inappropriate and may intrude on the experience of others? 200 0
Do you know about Shelter Registers 72 128

My conclusion to the survey is there is a direct correlation to the following questions between hikers and non-hikers:

  • Mister and Yma's cuteness
  • Hiker or Non-Hiker
  • Familiarity with Leave No Trace Principals
  • Information about Shelter Registers

It does raise a red flag at the following question:

Mister and Yma received a phone call and they are in trouble. Do you know
what they are in trouble for?
152 48

There is apparently a percentage of hikers that don't consider writing on the shelter actual graffiti or tagging. That may indeed be the small percentage of thru hikers that may not consider it inappropriate or intruding on the experience of others.

Do you know that graffiti is considered inappropriate and may intrude on the experience of others? 200 0

I do think that we can all agree that everyone participating in the survey thinks that graffiti can intrude on the experience of others.

This reminds of me of a story when my children were young. My sweet Andrew, (the youngest) blew up our microwave twice. The first time I heard a big thump as a bowl hit the top of the microwave. I ran in the kitchen yelling "Andrew, what the heck are you doing?" He just shrugged his shoulders bewildered. The second time I had to look at myself. Andrew was the fourth child and I just assumed that he knew what he was doing because everyone else knew how to use the microwave. I never sat him down and actually told him that he couldn't put a spoon in the bowl and turn it on. No metal in the microwave.

Thinking of my youngest son Andrew and this survey made me reach out to some of the 2015 Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker Class. I didn't want to just assume that they knew everything about Leave No Trace. I reached out and opened up the conversation.

appalachian trail hikers

Let me introduce you (from left to right) to Colton Harris, James Perkins, Kori McMurtry and Rory Harris. These young men just began their journey on the A.T. We discussed the two main concerns of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and how we could help to eliminate this problem. We talked about my survey and how the results indicated that thru-hikers may not know that graffiti affected others on the trail. The other problem we discussed was disposing of waste properly. The one thing we all agreed on was that pooping near a shelter is just plain wrong.

leave no trace

Disposing of waste properly is the second issue that the ATC is concerned about. It seems to be a trend among thru-hikers to not carry digging equipment and relying on their boot heels or trekking poles to dig a cathole.

"I also said no to a first-aid kit, sewing kit, anti-snakebite kit, $12 emergency whistle, and a small orange plastic shovel for burying one's poop, on the grounds that these were unnecessary, too expensive, or invited ridicule. The orange spade in particular seemed to shout: 'Greenhorn! Sissy! Make way for Mr. Buttercup!''" (A Walk in the Woods,Bill Bryson).

The previous quote is definitely a funny part to the book. What's not funny are the consequences of not properly burying your poop: the contamination of water sources, contributing to the spread of disease, and leaving a present for others that is something like the opposite of trail magic.

The community of hikers is governed by hikers not by the police like the cities. We need to have an open dialogue about the issues on our trails. We have to do our part to protect what we love: Love, nourish and teach. We need to reach out and teach Leave No Trace Principles. It's that simple. We cannot assume that everyone is on the same page. Colton, James, Kori and Rory agreed to do their part too. Our open dialogue will start their conversations about issues at campfires and in the shelters all along the trail. They will ask the next hiker to extend the same dialogue.

Beginning this year, 2015, there is an interactive website called Trail Karma that helps educate about how to properly care for the trail. The site has a Tagboard that collects the entries from social media sites that have the hashtag #trailkarma and displays the tags all in one place.

trail karma

Hikers are encouraged to shoot a photo, hashtag it and share the story. Sporting a Gossamer Gear pack, shelter, or other gear? include #gossamergear for a chance to be featured in an upcoming newsletter! Trail Karma Pendants are traveling up and down the Trail right now. The pendants are used to for thanking folks who take care of the Trail during their hike with a little good Karma.

This post was contributed by Trail Ambassador and Leave No Trace Master Educator, Harriett Lane.

April 14, 2015 — Brian Fryer