The following guest post is courtesy of the the ATC, written by Jim Fetig.
The facts are indisputable. The number of thru-hikers has been increasing for decades. Mass media events such as popular books, television programs or videos have historically driven the numbers higher.
Now, for the first time ever, two feature-length films about long-distance hiking are premiering within a year of each other. History teaches us that these movies, “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods,” are likely to motivate even more people to hit the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).
The problem is that the Trail has a problem accommodating everyone if they all show up at once. Worse than that, there’s a problem even if they don’t.
During hiking season, shelter sites near the starting point have limited capacity. Once that capacity is exceeded, the crowding quickly damages the quality of the hikers’ experience, not to mention the destruction of vegetation, overload of the privies and the wear and tear on the trail itself. This damage should be limited to the extent possible.
The big numbers aren’t expected until next year and beyond, but it’s not too early to start working on the challenges they are going to present.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has formed a task force to find the best courses of action. While several ideas are in the works, promoting nontraditional hikes and voluntary registration are the first ones out the door.
Voluntary registration needs the most explaining. Its purpose is to let hikers know when to expect crowds so they can avoid them if desired.
Everyone is free to start their hike when they want, but with voluntary registration they’ll know what to expect. In that way, no one should be surprised if there’s no room in the shelter, all the tent spaces are filled, and you’re standing in line for the privy.
To register, hikers should go to www.appalachiantrail.org/thruhikeregistration. Check out the calendar, and if facilities are over capacity during a certain date, you will see an “X,” meaning that overcrowded conditions will exist. This allows you to find an open date and register your hike.
The ATC is working on a separate adaptation that will show hikers the actual numbers of starters for any given date. Until then, the limitations of the off-the-shelf software can only show when a date is maxed out.
This chart shows that certain dates have been historically more popular. It’s best to avoid the 1st, 15th, 30th and holidays like St. Patrick’s Day. (Obviously March madness is alive and well on the A.T. as well as in the basketball world.)
Registering your hike can not only reduce your stress from day one, it also can help you pay it forward. The data generated from the voluntary registration process will help the ATC determine what extra resources in the form of ridgerunners, caretakers and Trail maintainers may be needed. We all want those who follow us to have an equal chance to have a hike as good as our own.