It is obvious that thru-hiking has changed a lot from the days of Earl Shaffer and Grandma Gatewood, some of the first to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. But I was amazed by the changes I noticed in just the five years between my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2011 and my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2016. Below I'd like to take a closer look at the two changes that stood out the most to me. This isn't going to be "back in my day there were only uphills" or "back in my day it rained every day, was 100 degrees during the day and 20 below at night", but I will be looking at the pros and cons of these changes.
Is this Disney World or the Appalachian Trail?
If you just go for a day hike around April or May in either Georgia or Southern California you are bound to be amazed by the number of hikers you pass heading north on a 2,000 plus mile journey. But if you don't have the chance to get to those places, all you have to do is look at the numbers.
Number of Northbound PCT Thru-Hike Permits
Number of Northbound AT Thru-Hikers
This increase in hikers takes a toll on these trails in many ways. The most noticeable is the impact that they have on the environment. That impact can come in many forms whether that is just from so many people hiking and camping in the same places day after day or from the increase of uninformed/apathetic hikers which can be seen in the form of "shit tickets" right on the side of the trail. Another negative to the growth of hikers is the lack of solitude; many people go to the woods to escape and be at one with nature. That can be hard to do when you see countless people in a day.
The PCTA is trying to alleviate this problem by issuing long distant permits which helps to spread out the crowd. The ATC is doing something similar with their voluntary thru-hiker registration which allows hikers to share their start date to avoid "the social and ecological impacts of overcrowding". It is also important for informed hikers to help share Leave No Trace principles with hikers who may not know them.
But as with most changes, along with the negatives, there are also positives. Just getting more people outside is a great feat on its own. People could just as easily choose to stay in the comfort of their homes and watch someone else hike on YouTube (not saying hiking vlogs are a bad thing; probably inspire people to get outside). And now that more people are spending time in nature, they are starting to see the benefits from it. And there are a lot more than just having an awesome Instagram feed. Studies have shown that getting outside can restore mental energy, provide stress relief, improve concentration and mental health, reduce the risk of early death, and more.
Another positive is the increase of advocates for the environment. There is no way that you can spend 5 months in the woods and not come out loving and caring for them. And as our public lands shrink to make way for drilling, for example, Mother Nature needs as many voices speaking for her as she can get.
If Only Trees Had Wi-Fi
This is true not only for thru-hikers but for everyone. The advancements in technology have made our lives easier and sometimes better but have also taken away from our ability to be present in the moment with others. As I sit at my favorite bar during trivia night there is a break in the rounds. I look around at all the groups, and instead of enjoying each others company, they are lost in their phones. I just wonder what could be so important. Then I think back to my PCT hike and realize it was no different out there when we would happen upon service.
Navigation has definitely changed between my two thru-hikes. While on the Appalachian Trail I used a simple guidebook which marked important waypoints like shelters and water. But when between those waypoints, it was a guess as to where I was based on how many hours had passed. However, on the PCT I used an App on my phone which would tell me where I was down to the tenth of a mile. That might seem like a great thing, but when I was at the end of a thirty mile day and just wanted to get to camp, I found myself checking my phone every few minutes just to see how much farther I had to go. This took me out of the moment of enjoying what was around me. On the other hand, the App is a great tool. If you happen to get off trail, just check your phone. The App will say to you, "You are off trail. Would you like to go back?" You hit yes, it calculates and says "the trail is 700ft SW of your position," and then points you in the right direction.
Another App that I feel has changed the hiking community for the better is Instagram. One thing it allows is for future hikers to reach out to past thru-hiker for advice. When I was planning my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, the only advice I got came from a REI employee who had done a 50 mile stretch on the AT and felt like he knew best and suggested that I would need an 85 liter pack and a hatchet but wouldn't need trekking poles. Luckily I learned early on what I actually needed. Instagram also creates a tighter community by allowing people to share stories with other hikers they may never meet in person or with people who might never get the opportunity to experience a thru-hike.
These are just two of the main changes that I have noticed. I am sure there are plenty more. One thing that has stayed the same: the people. Whether those are the thru-hikers or the wonderful trail angels, it is the people who really make the trail special. So, get out there and do your best to Leave No Trace, and maybe next time you are watching the sunset with friends, put down the camera and just enjoy their company. Who am I kidding? Get yourself an awesome photo and then go enjoy it with your friends.
Chart 1: https://www.pcta.org/our-work/trail-and-land-management/pct-visitor-use-statistics/
Chart 2: http://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/community/2000-milers