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