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Leave No Trace: Lessons on the Appalachian Trail

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.

QuestionAnswer- YesAnswer- No
Do you think Mister and Yma are cute?12872
Mister and Yma received a phone call and they are in trouble. Do you know
what they are in trouble for?
Have you seen graffiti on the Appalachian Trail?89111
Are you a Hiker?75125
Do you know who cleans up graffiti on the Trail?44146
Are you familiar with LNT Principles?76124
Do you know that graffiti is considered inappropriate and may intrude on the experience of others?2000
Do you know about Shelter Registers72128

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?

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?2000

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.

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15 Responses to Leave No Trace: Lessons on the Appalachian Trail

  1. Dan April 14, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    Very thoughtless people.

  2. Sandi Adams April 15, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

    This is a great post about an often overlooked issue on the trail. With many first time hikers popping up on the trails, the more education on Leave No Trace the better. Thank you Harriett for putting it out there!!! I will be sharing!

  3. Michael Schill April 16, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    I find it hard to fault hikers who leave their names written or carved into a shelter. The shelters are man-made and are an embodiment of people’s presence on the trail. Trash, feces, damage to natural features are what we really should be concerned about.

    • cenazwalker April 17, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

      I’m going to go with Michael on this one. While I wouldn’t bother to write my name on a shelter, I see it as no more intrusive that the shelter itself, let alone the blazes which are painted on trees, rocks, etc. Leaving as little impact on the environment as possible should go across the board, if you believe in the philosophy, you don’t get the convenience of deciding which “graffiti” is inappropriate. Painting on trees, writing names on shelters, none of it belongs.

    • Uriah April 17, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      I agree with Michael. The trail itself is a form of trash upon the land, and all the bridges and the signs and the raised wooden walkways and the shelters and the privies cannot be considered anything but litter upon the land, the natural landscape.

      Edward Abbey (in The Journey Home) wrote about tossing his beer cans out along the roads, but yet he’d pick up whatever man-made crap he’d find deep in the canyon country. His logic was that the road was the real litter, the real vandalism, and that it would do the most damage (ask any roadkill or all the plants mowed down to pave the road). No sense polishing the trash, after all. Cities are trash too, and landfills aren’t “landfills”…the land doesn’t require filling, last I checked.

      But we only see the stuff that bothers us. LNT rarely makes mention of clean air, and I’ll bet most hikers flew in large commercial airplanes to the start of their thru-hikes. Keep in my LNT is the same organization with paint all over their gas-guzzlers, advertising their cause.

      All told, humans do leave a trace. Always have, always will. But someday, long after we’re gone, the planet will rebound and recycle itself, as it always has and always will, in one shape or another.

      • Christian May 14, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

        “But someday, long after we’re gone, the planet will rebound and recycle itself, as it always has and always will, in one shape or another.” ……..and then the sun will engulf the planet, and everything — including humans AND vegetation — will be burned to nothingness and it won’t matter anymore 🙂

        Writing on man-made shelters — who cares? Writing on trees and rocks — not good!

        Wish people were as serious about treating others as they would want to be treated in their daily human interactions (i.e. The Golden Rule) as they were about LNT. The world would be a much nicer place.

      • Bob May 19, 2015 at 7:49 am #

        “LNT is the same organization with paint all over their gas-guzzlers, advertising their cause.”
        Every one of the Leave No Trace Subarus is a hybrid so they are doing what they can to reduce emissions. Someone has to be out there educating the public and they have to travel to get there. I see it as a net positive effort and as this article shows the message and education is very much needed.

  4. Hebba April 16, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    I can see that Harriet is passionate about this subject, but I am unclear about how blowing up a microwave has any relevance to LNT. Nor how, once again, Bill Bryson is faulted as the clear source behind any and all poor hiker behavior on the trail. That being said, I certainly try to follow LNT practices and I applaud her efforts to educate hikers.

    • dave April 20, 2015 at 8:15 am #

      No one ever told her son not to put metal in microwave. She just assumed he knew like you might think it is common sense not to leave a trace you were there. People might need to be taught the principles.
      Bill seems to be a funny example of wrong way of thinking that would lead to leaving a trace of his walk in the woods.

  5. Angelfire April 17, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Great article! BTW, I knew instantly where the second photo was taken! One of my favorite places on earth!

  6. Karen April 17, 2015 at 11:51 am #

    I think all hikers on public lands everywhere should be required to pass a test and get a license. Seriously, absolutely serious here. Make them prove they understand how to behave when using something that belongs to everyone.

  7. ny breakfast April 20, 2015 at 7:16 am #

    this is a great idea. it’s getting more frustrating of the neglect that goes on. i just had a neighbor through a cup of coffee out the window of his car and asked him to go back and pick it up, acted childish said sorry and speeds up,later that day i seen an officer sitting at the end of my street, and asked if they could just give a talking to them don’t want to make a fuss about it. officer said he would and hopes he just feels dumb about it and learns his lesson

  8. Dieter May 18, 2015 at 11:44 pm #

    The shelters need a guest book or something similar. Better have a policy “please write here and only here” than “don’t write at all”. I can understand why somebody would write their name on shelter walls. Poop, trash and vandalism are an entirely different matter, though.

  9. JT May 19, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    Writing on the walls of shelters is Graffiti, the shelters were not built with the intention of them to be used as personal note books. The vast majority of people don’t care to see that you and your friends were here last year or yesterday. One peice of graffiti will lead to more and when they run out of space they will tag everything around it. The best way stop it is to remove it as fast as it goes up.

  10. Elle June 3, 2015 at 4:58 am #

    Who was the phone call from and what happened? And did they leave their cell phone # in the shelter, is that how the phone call came?

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