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Is the AT Thru-hiker Culture Family Friendly?

family hike Appalachian trail

The start of our hike on March 31

This past summer our family thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. We turned my husband's lifelong personal dream into a family adventure and creative video project. It was an audacious undertaking, all around. All of this left a question. Is the Appalachian Trail (AT) culture family friendly? Going into our hike there were a mind-boggling number of things to worry about. Would we have enough funds? (No.) How would five of us get to town from the trail? (Kind strangers and friends.) What would we do to protect ourselves from Lyme disease? (Permethrin and vigilant tick checks.) How would we keep the kids on-board? (Audiobooks, trail friends, and treats.) Finances, logistics, safety and mutiny were just a few things to consider. It didn't occur to me to question how family-friendly the trail is until I got a comment from a blog reader about her unpleasant experiences with partying on the trail. Up until that point I had read so many good things about trail culture - trail angels, the kindness of strangers, hiker solidarity and camaraderie - it hadn't occurred to me that there might be a seedy or morally questionable "darkside" to the experience.
Siler Bald Shelter

Our kids join their thru-hiker friends on the roof of Siler Bald Shelter in NC

You don't notice the trail culture so much while actually hiking. It isn't till you converge with other hikers that you will experience the best, and worst, of trail culture. This is somewhat obvious but the part that surprised me is how often we'd be congregating with other people. I had imagined the trail as a Thoreau-type wilderness experience but it was surprisingly social. This turned out to be good thing. Our family made many wonderful friends and truly appreciated the mix of different people in our hiking cohort. The stimulation of new people was a welcome relief when we had grown sick and tired of each other.
crowded campsite at Cold Spring Shelter

Early April, a crowded campsite at Cold Spring Shelter, NC

It's the social interactions in places where hikers come together - shelters, campsites, road crossings, trail towns and hostels - where you will experience trail culture. At these gathering points you may encounter activities and behaviors that are downright inappropriate for children, and off putting to many adults. I would never discourage someone from hiking the trail because of the potential for these encounters, but if you are thinking of weekend hiking, section-hiking or thru-hiking the trail with your kids there a few things you might want to know going in.
Locust Cove Gap

Early April, trying to squeeze in our tents at Locust Cove Gap in NC

1. A lot of people smoke, and not just cigarettes Our usual crowd of outdoor friends are super health conscious and like to swap organic smoothie recipes. The trail does attract health-conscious sporty and crunchy granola types but it also attracts wanderers and pilgrims and a bit of society's Riff Raff. (There is an infamous group of hiker alumni who go by that name and host a trail magic camp in May enroute to Trail Days in Damascus.) I was surprised to observe that among the 18 to 30 year old crowd of hikers, which accounts for a significant number of people thru-hiking the trail, smoking is quite prevalent.
fire at Locust Cove Gap

An evening fire at Locust Cove Gap, NC

From a health perspective this baffles me, but from a parenting perspective it wasn't that hard to deal with. Every smoker we encountered was very considerate around not just our children, but also us. Most people would discreetly hide their lit cigarettes behind their backs if we came near or leave the area to finish smoking somewhere else. As for marijuana I don't remember anyone smoking it in front of our family but there were many times we smelled it. Second-hand smoke and the behavior altering affects of drug use aside, the overall message sent to kids seems more damaging than anything. Yes you can be a young, fit, athletic person and smoke! Thru-hiker kids look up to their fun adult cohorts. But as in off-trail life smoking is a part of our society and these are messages parents must deal with regardless.
Hiker Trash

Hiker Trash

2. Parties, Alcohol and R-rated language There are some people who hike the trail as a means of foot transportation to get from party to party. However the number of these hikers decreases as you get farther north in the summer hiking season. If you hike the whole trail though you are almost guaranteed to come across some partying. If you're only out for a summer weekend don't plan to stay at shelters less than two miles from a road crossing, where even a tired thru-hiker can carry in a six pack.
alcohol on Appalachian trail

Thru-hiker friends Nemo (left) and The Fonz (right) enjoying refreshments at the NOC

We made the strategic error of staying at the Fontana "Hilton" on a Friday night, in the height of April's hiker bubble. From the Hilton it's an easy hitch, or shuttle into the small town of Fontana Dam to pick up drinks. And drink they did. That was a raucous night but we survived and our kids got to see first hand how ridiculous people look and act when they are drunk. That was an education in itself. In some situations the best strategy may be avoidance or an early exit. For example, in mid-May we hiked through the aforementioned pre-Trail Days party-fest hosted by the Riff Raff and were welcomed by hiker friends and strangers alike. We played a little frisbee and then moved on. Hike your own hike as we say.
kids Appalachian trail

Otter (13), Tenacious Bling (11), & Padawan (15)

Our worst late night party experiences were in town stops actually. We stayed at the cheap motels in Virginia, just like the other hikers on the trail. (Southern motels are the best deal going for families seeking town accommodations.) On top of our usual hiker fatigue one of our kids was violently ill and the partying outside our door was just too much. However, because we hiked with these people they knew us and so when I politely asked them to quiet down, because "one of their own" was needing rest next door they complied. This illustrates what I think is the best approach to encourage family friendly behavior on the trail, and that is to form relationships with people. Our goal was never to reform anyone's behavior or clean up their language but when you are friends with someone, they get to know you and respect who you are. And so when your thru-hiker kid needs some sleep they accommodate.
Gunpowder and Tenacious Bling

Good friends Gunpowder and Tenacious Bling

And you don't need to be a prude either. Respect goes both ways. Though we don't pepper our speech with profanity, get drunk and party late, or do drugs in our family it's actually a really good education for our kids to experience a bit of this (with their parents close by). Because like our 9 year old thru-hiker friend told his somewhat mortified mom, after one encounter with a foul-mouthed hiker, "I've heard worse on the playground mom”.
family thru hiking

Otter holding Robin Hood, Padawan, Tenacious Bling holding Cartwheel. Thru-hiker kids from the class of 2014.

That being said, it's probably best to steer young children clear of the trail registers or pre-screen their reading. Uncensored accounts of sometimes graphic R-rated activities sprinkle these otherwise interesting records of trail life, which is unfortunate. People are the best part of the trail. Don't let the possibility of a few pot-heads, partyers or loud mouths scare you off. You are far more likely to be shown respect as a family unit, especially when you take the time to get to know your trail mates. Almost all the thru-hikers we met on the trail, from the cussing longshoreman to the pot-smoking hippies, were kind and considerate to our family. They were our friends.
Jim Murray's property in NJ

Thru-hiker friend Ungerwhere relaxing at Jim Murray's property in NJ

Written by Trail Ambassador Renee Tougas and Editor

7 Responses to Is the AT Thru-hiker Culture Family Friendly?

  1. Rockman December 10, 2014 at 12:02 am #

    Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it thoroughly! Incidentally, I was next door in the middle of that raucous party in Marion. That was definitely the rowdiest gathering I witnessed or participated in on my thru. Sorry for the late night noise!

    Also, I believe we chatted a bit about GG the following morning. I thought I’d add that my GG Mariposa held up marvelously over my hike. I blew out one line of stitches (only cosmetic), that’s the most significant wear on the pack. Pretty amazing!

  2. Sugismama December 12, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    Based on this description, I have just crossed the AT off my list forever. That’s ok; I can focus on other dreams!

    • Spudhiker January 3, 2015 at 1:46 am #

      I agree. It’s a sad day for hikers that want to enjoy wilderness. They must let others degrade the trail in order to stay impartial of their actions, for the sole reason to protect your family. Was a time when modesty was viewed as a virtue. I will continue hiking and cordially invite other hikers over for a cup of morning java and discuss the newest gear, but I’ll have bear spray handy for the must unruly. I will also investigate blogs such as this to get an opinion of areas to avoid. AT are you family friendly? How are the trails governed? What ways could allow for families to skirt known party areas to let those people enjoy their cultural dance? ….

  3. Bestbuilder December 12, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    Renee, thanks for posting this. Franks and striaght forward. You addressed a question I had in the back of my mind as I followed you video updates.
    Thanks you for doing something others only dream about.

  4. CharleyGirl December 12, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    How did you address traditional education for your kids while on the thru-hike? This is something I’d love to do but am not sure how to manage that aspect. Did you do a few weeks of home-schooling while on the trail to make up for the end of the spring semester?

  5. emails4sammy December 12, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    Thank you for your balanced and fair judgements, your objective sentences about some foolish behavior and conclusions about mutual respect on the trail. Children can be wise enough to figure out when things are getting out of hand and then decide to act better than their elders, especially if they are encouraged to be independently thoughtful by parents. Life on the trail in a thru-hike is one kind of special enriching education with a few minor rough edges, harmless when witnessed from within the safety of the family. In the photos your three youngsters (and the adults too) look wonderfully healthy and happy so obviously all have enjoyed the benefits of the achievement. You are all so fortunate!

  6. preyingjaws BK 'TRAIN' December 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Thanks Renee, for also being supportive of the solo hikers like myself. One simply doesn’t hike as a family unit without touching the lives of those around. TRAIN

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