AT Stewards Prep for ‘A Walk in the Woods’

Walk In The Woods1

When Bill Bryson’s book, “A Walk in the Woods,” was published in 1998, the number of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail increased 60 percent within two years, said Ron Tipton, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

After the film “A Walk in the Woods” is released this week in 1800 theaters, another large wave of hikers will likely flood the AT.

“The surge of hiking on the AT is going to be significant,” said Tipton, adding that the 2,180-mile AT typically attracts about 3 million visitors a year.

He expects the number of hikers to increase partly because he’s already seen how the Pacific Crest Trail was affected by Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild,” as well as the film.  “We work closely with the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association), and we’re pretty aware of how the book and movie affected them,” said Tipton. “For a couple of months, hits on their website were up more than 300 percent.”

As “Wild” put long-distance hiking in the spotlight, it not only caused more people to hike the PCT, but also inspired more people to visit the Appalachian Trail.

So far this year, the number of hikers on the AT has increased at least 10 percent, said Tipton. Also, the ATC has seen its sales of guidebooks and maps increase 10 percent, whereas sales were flat or declining over the past five years.

“We think this is happening because of “Wild,” said Tipton.

While he’s happy that the Appalachian Trail is receiving significant attention, he and other stewards of the AT know there’s a risk that people might love it to death. As people flood the trail, they could damage the landscape and prevent people from enjoying peacefulness and solitude.

“We’re going to invest heavily to make sure the hiking experience stays at a high level,” said Tipton.

Working with a preliminary budget of about $650,000, the ATC is funding a series of projects to educate the public, limit impact and promote responsible behavior on the trail.

“We do have a fair number of people who attempt to hike the whole trail who aren’t very well prepared,” said Tipton. “That type of hiker is going to be more prevalent, and they’re going to be even less prepared if we aren’t able to direct them toward resources.”

To address these people, the ATC is creating an online training program that will let people know what to expect before they begin hiking. In addition, the ATC is encouraging people to read its book, the “Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion,” which stresses the difficulty of the hike and details facilities available along the way.

To reduce physical impacts on the trail, the ATC launched a voluntary registration system for thru-hikers. As people planned their thru-hiking itinerary, they could use this tool to see the start dates of other hikers and avoid logjams.

When traffic increases on the trail, the biggest physical impact occurs from overnight camping and things like litter and fire rings, said Tipton. “We have done an intensive inventory of all available campsites, especially in the South, we’re planning to add campsites so you can disperse people more and avoid harming the landscape,” he said.

While most hikers begin in Georgia and hike to Maine, the ATC is also dispersing people by encouraging them to “flip-flop,” or start in the middle of the trail to first hike north and then go south. “If you do that and time it right, you’ll see a lot fewer hikers,” said Tipton.


To keep a better eye on the condition of the trail, the ATC is increasing the number of ridge runners who hike certain sections of the path and help hikers. “We’ll also expand the number of caretakers that are stationed at certain busy places like shelters, especially between Springer Mountain and the Smokies,” said Tipton.

As the ATC works to control conditions along the trail, Tipton and his colleagues also want to stress the idea that hikers on the trail are a community and should care for each other.

“Instead of just telling people what not to do, we’re giving people an opportunity to be rewarded for good behavior,” said Tipton, explaining that the ATC has launched a social media campaign at

This year, hikers doing good deeds are receiving Trail Karma pendants with a hashtag on the back, such as #TK001. These people can post a picture of why they were given the pendant, use the hashtag to thank someone else for a good deed, or pass the pendant to someone else as a gift. Over the course of the thru-hiking season, the pendants will make their way up and down the trail, recording acts of goodwill.

As traffic on the trail swells, Tipton hopes the Trail Karma campaign and other projects will remind people that the AT was established to help people escape the stress of city life, connect with nature and make new friends.

“We encourage people to enjoy the trail,” said Tipton. “And I think a movie about the joys and challenges of hiking the trail is a good thing.”

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