The Thruhiking Papers

Personal Safety

This is a subject that comes up continually because sooner or later nearly every prospective thruhiker asks questions about safety and security . There are a lot of different aspects to it, but I'm only gonna discuss two of them here. The first is family and friends - and the second is personal security. Along the way I'm gonna discuss some things that you might not think about as "safety and security", but I consider it all part of the same package.

Family & Friends

Most of us have family and friends, or at least someone who cares about us. And if you're going to thruhike, then they're a part of that hike whether you want it or like it or not. You might want to give some thought to that situation. How are you gonna break the news to your mother - or wife - that you'll be gone for 5 to 6 months? How are they gonna take it? And if they don't like it, what will you do about it? How will you handle their fears and worries and objections?

Some time ago I got an email message from a young lady who was looking for advice. She had a friend who was very worried about her and extremely pessimistic about her chances of surviving a thruhike without sustaining major injury or even death. Her friend had even consulted with a person who led NOLS hikes and she had been fed the "Never do anything without getting formal instruction - Always go in groups - Women are always at risk in the wilderness" philosophy. And she believed it.

This was an extreme case, but it's not completely atypical of the reactions of a lot of friends and family when they realize that you're really planning to spend five or six months on the Trail. Their perception of the AT is that it's wilderness. And they conjure up all kinds of dangers that can kill or maim you and that you won't be prepared to deal with.

So -- what do you do when a friend or brother - or your wife or mother - panics at the prospect of you being out there with the wild animals (either 4-legged or 2-legged) in the rain and snow and heat and mud, with all those nasty bugs and getting blistered and sunburned and starving to death in the wilderness and sleeping in those dirty shelters and breaking legs and arms and catching your death of pneumonia and ...who knows what all can happen to you out there?

Well -- you could just blow them off, but that's really not a good idea. As I told the young lady mentioned above, her friend "has legitimate concerns and she obviously cares for you. That's not to be taken lightly because good friends are hard to find." Obviously, the same kind of respect should be given to family concerns.

You need to realize that for the most part their fear is the result of ignorance. And that's not a condemnation - we're all ignorant about a lot of things.

For example, I'm still ignorant about kayaking, ice climbing and hang gliding. The people who are concerned about you need to know more about what a thruhike is and what it isn't and why you want to do it. And it's your job, it's a part of your hike, to educate them. Keep in mind that most people won't understand, but at least you can try.

There's a thruhiker world that most people - even most backpackers - know nothing about. And very few people understand it. If you haven't thruhiked yet, then you don't really understand it either. But you're a lot closer to understanding than someone who's never heard of it, doesn't know anything about it and doesn't have the dream.

Your explanations may not convince them that it's safe or that it's something they want to do - or want you do to. But at least they'll know that you've given it some thought and that you're not headed off on some idiotic, thoughtless quest that's gonna get you killed or maimed.

Also keep in mind that getting into arguments doesn't help because nobody wins an argument.

Something else to consider is that, in spite of their ignorance, they KNOW the Trail isn't easy, so don't blow your credibility by trying to minimize what you're doing or feeding them a line of BS about it. They know you - and they'll pick that up faster than you can believe.

If you're gonna tell them about how safe the Trail is, make sure you have your facts straight - and that means you've got to get educated about the AT first.

So let's answer a few of the questions they might ask - and then you can go to the ATC or the books or the email lists or the thruhiker who introduced you to the concept for more information.

Also keep in mind that a lot of the problems that thruhikers encounter can happen anytime, anywhere - even to Saturday afternoon day hikers. Thruhiking really isn't that much different in some respects.

Death and Dismemberment

The first question you'll get is obvious - and is usually presented as a statement - "You're going to DIE out there!!!". To quote the above-mentioned NOLS instructor -

"The chances of her getting seriously hurt or dying are pretty high."

I read that line to my wife - and she couldn't stop laughing. She's thruhiked the AT twice. She did it alone the first time, and she started alone the second time. To her, the idea that the AT is too dangerous a place for someone who's young, strong and determined is just too funny for words.

And the facts really don't support that conclusion at all. If they're thinking about murder, there have been 7 AT-related murders over the last 60 years. Considering that there are over 4 million visitors per year to the AT, that's pretty much a minor-league homicide rate. There are very few small towns that can match it. With respect to murder, you're safer on the AT than you'd be in any city or large-sized town in the United States.

As for other deaths on the AT - there have been very few. In 1997 there were 4 reported deaths on the AT, including a heart attack, a brain tumor, a 200 ft fall and a heat stroke. Not good - but, in some respects, not bad either, considering the numbers of hikers and the type of activity that they engage in.

There are also other types of crime - there's an occasional rape. But it's much less common on the Trail than on any large college campus.. There's also theft - usually because a thruhiker gets careless about their pack and it disappears. But with normal precautions you shouldn't have that problem. If you want more specific information call the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Broken legs, sprained ankles, tendonitis, etc. - these are legitimate concerns, but while a broken leg "might " end your hike - or it might just postpone finishing to another year, there's usually no reason for it to be a life-threatening disaster. Even if you're alone and break a leg, if you use some common sense and don't get off the Trail, there will be someone along to help you. The AT is a busy trail and it passes near roads frequently. You're never more than a day, and usually no more than a few hours from help.

It might be a good idea to take a wilderness first aid class if you can. But it's not the dire necessity it would be if you were doing the CDT. I doubt if 10 % of AT thruhikers have any serious First Aid training. And so few of us need it that it's not even heavily promoted by the ATC.

Other objections

You'll get all kinds of objections from all kinds of people, but for now let's go back to that NOLS instructor, who said -

The only people who attempt what you want to do have been backpacking for fifteen or twenty years.

Until recently, most of the people thruhiking the AT were either in their teens and early 20's or retired. And few of them had that kind of backpacking experience. The age distribution has changed somewhat in recent years, but the lack of experience hasn't. And neither age nor lack of experience make any statistical difference with regard to completing a thruhike in any case. Many of the thruhikers I know who finished had little or no backpacking experience before they started the Trail. Bill Irwin is blind and had no hiking experience - and he finished. If you read the Kushman's trail journal - they're in their 50's - again, no experience before they started the Trail. They had never carried a full pack before the approach trail to Springer. Some time ago there was a study which concluded that 40% of the people who were starting at Springer Mt. had never carried a backpack before they started their thruhike. I don't personally think that's the best way to do it, but -- some of those people made it anyway.

You'll starve

Well, your mother thinks you will - and she may be right. While some don't, if you're male you'll probably lose a lot of weight. I lost 45# by the time I got to Harpers Ferry. It scared me because I knew I'd need some reserves if I was going to get through the Whites - and if I kept losing weight there wouldn't be any reserve when I got there. So I started a serious eating program.

If you're female you probably won't lose much weight and, in fact, you may gain a few pounds as fat is replaced by muscle. But you'll get your revenge later - the men almost always gain back all the weight that they lost on the Trail - and usually a few pounds extra.

Heat, rain and snow are normal thruhiker hazards and they're not likely to kill you on the AT.

Bugs may be annoying, but if you're carrying a tent and/or insect repellent at least you'll be able to sleep. And that's important - if you're chronically tired your probability of injury increases dramatically.

The shelters are a great idea for some people, but I learned to hate them. Your mother's right on this one - the shelters are generally not "clean". In additon, they have hard floors, they draw a lot of "snorers" and in the Smokies they tend to draw the bears. And they do have mice, skunks and/or snakes, but some people love them anyway. You'll have to decide for yourself.

And then there's another comment by our favorite NOLS instructor -

These [bad] things DO happen, so frequently that a lot of people who know what they're doing choose not to try such massive hikes. It's like racing the Grand Prix when you barely know how to drive, or trying to sail the Atlantic in a raft -

I want to make it clear that I'm not here to trash NOLS or NOLS instructors - or even this young lady. But her mindset is fascinating and provides a wonderful example of one of the extremes that thruhikers run into. This lady is obviously a very organized, sensible individual. She's one of those people who probably NEVER does anything without getting formal instruction first - usually in a group setting. She's also been indoctrinated by the "Women in the wilderness are constantly at risk" philosophy. None of this is "bad", per se. But it means that, while she may be an "expert" with regard to group trips, she'll probably never understand the mindset or motivation of those who thruhike long trails or enjoy solo backpacking.

One of the things that a lot of thruhikers run into is a total intolerance and/or incomprehension with respect to the freedom, the courage, the tolerance for physical pain, the dream - and the hunger - that are the driving motivation for a thruhike. Her inability to understand our dream, though, doesn't make us any better than her - just different.

To answer her question/statement - some people don't thruhike because they accept the alarmist philosophies about the dangers of the wilderness. Those philosophies are not completely without foundation, but they're based on fear and they're generalizations of specific incidents. And the facts don't support that kind of generalization. One of the things I re-learned on the Trail was that fear is not a reason to either do or not do something. There's a Winston Churchill quote that fits here:

"Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is carrying on despite the fear."

Some people have never learned that. Some never will.

But I think the large majority don't thruhike simply because they're not willing to give up their home, family, security, job, pension, etc. in order to go on the Trail. I know - there are a lot of people who are waiting for retirement so they can do it. But if I'd waited that long, I wouldn't have been physically capable of walking the Trail.

The Bottom Line (for me)

Is the AT dangerous? Yes, it has it's dangers. But at the very worst, it's less dangerous than walking down the street in any city in America. As everywhere else in this world - the most dangerous animal you'll meet will be your fellow humans - but very few of them are really dangerous. I've been asked whether I'd thruhike again, and the answer is that I did - in 1999 and again in 2000 - but not on the AT. I've also been asked if I'd encourage my children to thruhike and I answer that this way - I know what the AT is like and I've got a daughter - and I wish she would thruhike the AT. She has no backpacking experience, but if she wanted to thruhike, I'd take her to Springer myself. If the AT were really dangerous I'd certainly not take that attitude. So let's move on and talk about personal safety on the Trail --

Personal Safety

Personal safety on the Trail is a concern, but not nearly as big as some people would have you believe. As a prospective thruhiker once told me -

"People with ill intent seem to read people ... like dogs smell fear. It is important to present confidence at all times. And almost nothing ever happens to people who do that."

Anyone who lives in a city knows how true this is. In fact, that's one of the problems when you finish the Trail - you're so used to the kindness and friendliness that you meet along theTrail (the Trail Magic) that you've forgotten the "city attitude". I know several people who lived in cities and hated going home because they felt like prey when they got there. You generally get over that - but it takes time.

One of the lessons from the Trail was a re-connection with the "inner voice" that knows what I need to hear. I've learned to listen to the inner awareness that tells me when a situation or person doesn't feel right. And when that feeling is there - I leave. Even when there's no logical reason to do so. Not everyone finds that connection, and not everyone can keep it when they return to "civilization". But I don't discount it - it's saved my life more than once.

Generally, if you treat people with respect, they'll return the attitude. If they don't, get out of there - fast. I spent some years in various martial arts and I was taught that the best weapon I would ever have was my own legs - if I was smart enough to use them to run.

Carrying guidebooks and maps that show the side trails is a good idea - it gives you an added measure of security. For our CDT hike in Colorado in 1997, one of the things we did as part of our planning was to mark all the "bail-out points" on the maps. As it happened, we needed to use one of them. Plan ahead -- it wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark.

I'm not gonna get into a big discussion about this, but I used hiking poles and they were a part of my security system. In addition to saving your knees, they're useful against dogs and other pests (including human pests), they can be used as part of a tarp or tent setup and about a million other uses.

So what other aspects of safety do you need to know about? Let me count the ways -

Created: 30 June 1997
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
Copyright © 1997-2017 Spirit Eagle