Backpacker etiquette

The following story appeared in the winter ’95-96 issue of The Long Distance Hiker, explaining ALDHA’s Endangered Services Campaign, as illustrated by the copy of our campaign poster below.

Ethics poster
By Bill O’Brien

As responsible members of the hiking community, ALDHA has been taking a fresh look at the issue of backpacker behavior for the past year and a half. In 1990, ALDHA put together a list of guidelines for hikers to follow when staying in hostels, but year after year, as more and more people take to the A.T., more and more problems arise in towns where public perception of the hiking community is vital to the very existence of the Appalachian Trail.

At the 1994 Gathering in Hanover, N.H., a workshop on this very subject filled a room to capacity. Ron Keal, then coordinator, appointed a group to look into the subject and report back at the 1995 Gathering.

There were loads of concerns from all perspectives. On one hand, many people do a thru-hike for the express purpose of trying to get away from society and all its rules. On the other hand, people who provide services to these hikers have been getting burned, abused and downright ripped off by that small percentage of hikers who ruin it for others by their behavior. How do we address that without destroying the “Thoreauian spirit” of the trail? Are we our brother’s and sister’s keeper, even in the woods?

Some folks quoted popular phrases, others went right to Scriptures. “Treat others the way you’d want them to treat you,” we heard. But also heard frequently by all of us: “Hike your own hike, man.” Or: “Get off my back, I’ve already got a pack.”

Let’s face it. Without public support there would be no trail. Agreements with private landowners, arrangements with local, state and federal government agencies, compacts with the public over the stewardship role we all play when we lace up those boots . . . all of that will evaporate if the public continues to become disgusted with our worst behavior.

The trail will wither and vanish without public backing. And without the trail there will be no long-distance hiking community called ALDHA. It’s simply that simple.

Something needs to be done. So, taking a positive approach, with perhaps a little humor, we dubbed our efforts the Endangered Services Campaign. Just as some plants and animals along the trail are endangered, so, too, are some hiker services. Already we’ve lost the pavilion at Shea’s Pine Tree Tavern in Sheffield, Mass., and the O’Lystery Community Pavilion in Ceres, Va. Some businesses no longer welcome us, and some hostels are reconsidering staying open.

We’ve even heard horror stories about thru-hikers kicking other people out of shelters because they believed -- incredibly -- that somehow they were entitled to shelter space solely by virtue of being thru-hikers.

All of these incidents show hiker disrespect for the rights of property owners and other hikers. Present trends will continue to take their toll unless we begin to act responsibly.

At the Pipestem Gathering in the fall of ’95, we set aside a block of time with nothing else scheduled except a groupwide discussion on what we came up with. Many of you had excellent suggestions, some of you complimented us on what we developed. Others were rather skeptical.

So, with a little fine-tuning based on those comments, we’ve come up with a poster (reprinted here, in reduced form) to help get our message out.

For starters, we’re in the process of getting these notices posted at hostels and some businesses that have complained in the past about certain hikers’ behavior. We’ve also asked the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to include a copy in the packets they send people who are planning thru-hikes.

Our hope is that hikers will eventually adapt the “Leave No Trace” camping ethic to their activities in towns, not just to their behavior in the woods, and do it without even thinking twice about it. Just as you wouldn’t leave behind a burning campfire, so, too, you wouldn’t want to leave a hostel in ruins because you didn’t think that “no smoking” sign applied to you.

Or, more importantly, this endeavor will encourage you to speak out when you see someone else threatening yet another endangered service on the trail.

(Note: Working on this project were Monica Cook, Dania Egedi, Noel DeCavalcante, Al Sochard, Cindy Ross and Bill O’Brien.)


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