Thru-Hiking ethics

Style = Your Relationship with the Backcountry

When hikers talk about their "backpacking style," it usually refers to pack weight and gear preferences. However, there is no right or wrong pack weight, despite the amount of time, book pages, and gigabytes spent arguing about it. What you carry is a matter of personal preference. Hike your own hike. So let’s redefine “style” and make it about the hiker’s relationship with the backcountry.


How do you view the relationship between yourself and the backcountry? Is it harmonious or antagonistic? How does that view change your behavior while you are hiking and camping?


For so-called “survivalists” the backcountry is a menacing place, filled with threats, almost as if the land was actively trying to kill them. Their emphasis on “survival” implies they are at war with the natural world, and they even use manuals written for soldiers in wartime like the US Army Survival Manual and the SAS Survival Guide. During a walk around BassPro Shops, you might think they were outfitting customers for guerrilla warfare, not camping and fishing trips.


On the other hand, our editors believe that human activity threatens the land, and advocate a low impact, low profile backpacking style.


For example, we would never scar the land by trenching a tent, as the Boy Scouts taught in the past. We don’t even light campfires, since collecting firewood tramples the forest understory, robs the land of valuable decomposing wood, and leaves a charred scar on the land that persists for years. Wind blows ash and coals from fire pits across campsites. Unethical hikers treat fire pits like garbage cans, leaving trash behind and expecting someone else to burn it.


We try very hard to leave the backcountry as good or better than we found it. And basic preparation prevents survival situations from ever occurring. We hike and camp because we love the outdoors, and so we should be working to protect and preserve the outdoors in perpetuity.

Treatment of Other Hikers

  • When offered food, never put your hand into a bag of food. Let the person pour it into your open palm. This prevents the spread of infections and disease.
  • When two hikers going in opposite directions meet, give the person going downhill the right-of-way. They may have momentum that’s hard to stop, and it gives the uphill person an opportunity to break. 

Giving & Receiving Trail Names

Trail names are a unique tradition in thru-hiking. There are no rules about how to get a trail name or what it should be but questions come up. First-time thru-hikers can be confused about etiquette — and there are a lot of first-timers on the AT — so we decided to answer some common questions here: 


Can I Name Myself?

Typically hikers do not name themselves, but sometimes they do. For whatever reason, more women name themselves than men. Most hikers wait to earn a name organically through some incident, that way there is a story associated with the name. Couples often name each other.


Do I Have to Take a Trail Name?

You can always reject a trail name if you don’t like it. And of course, you don't have to have a trail name if you don't want one.


How Do I Give Someone a Trail Name?

Respectfully, and only after becoming friends with the person. Do not aggressively try to give someone a trail name. Just because someone does not have a trail name yet doesn’t mean they need one immediately. Trail names should happen organically, and have a story behind them. Too often someone ends up with a name like “Trash Bag” because they happened to have a trash bag during the first week of the hike. 


Should I Keep My Old Trail Name?

If you got a trail name on another trail, you can use it on the AT. Keeping an old name makes it easy for friends from other trails to follow your blog, et cetera. Of course, if you want a new trail name, you can wipe the slate clean and start fresh. 

While in Town

Hikers around the country have embraced something called Leave No Trace +Plus. We think of leaving no trace while in the wilderness, but we should also "leave no trace" when staying in towns along the trail. In the same way we want to leave our campsites clean for the next people who use the site, we should also leave behind goodwill in the towns where we stay.


Arrogant, drunken, or other obnoxious behavior from one hiker can leave behind a wake of bad feelings in townspeople, who then treat the next hiker who comes along with disdain.

Treatment of Trail Angels

Unlike the PCT, the AT has a lot of trailside trail magic. The AT is better known, closer to major population centers, and there are a lot of hikers. Trail angels will set up near the trail at a road crossing or trailhead and start cooking burgers and handing out sodas to any hiker who comes along. 


When you take food, soda, beer et cetera from these folks, you should offer them money, even if it is only a few dollars. You can bring up the subject with a joke like, "Do you have a tip jar?" They probably won't take the money, but it's respectful to offer. Many times these trail angels are former hikers who cannot pay back the strangers who helped them on their thru-hike, so they are paying it forward. 


On the PCT there are a surprising number of trail angels in towns who let hikers sleep at their house. There aren't as many on the AT, but they are out there. Usually you'll hear about one of these folks in a register.


Always be respectful of someone who lets you stay at their house. Unless they explicitly give you the green light, don't light up a cigarette or a bowl. Don't get drunk. Don't invite other hikers over to hang out, and don't stay up late making noise. Always offer to do the dishes, clean the kitchen, or help with some other household chore.

On Hiker "Entitlement"

While perusing facebook and other message boards we have seen curmudgeons, sometimes long-time trail angels or someone who thru-hiked decades ago, complain of hiker “entitlement.” They claim that hikers “today” are different from hikers "in the past" (when they first got involved with the Trail). Supposedly today’s hikers expect that people will do things for them and give them free stuff just because they are a thru-hiker, which awards them special status.


For our editors this is hard to see as anything other than one generation judging the next as unworthy. Every generation has judged the one that followed as being somehow inferior. Currently there is a rash of 30 and 40-somethings writing articles critical of “millennials,” who have been corrupted by cell phones and social media. They too are supposedly "entitled." Throughout ten years of hiking we have never seen a thru-hiker behaving as if they were spoiled or entitled by their thru-hiker status.

Leave No Trace

By now, everyone knows the expression "leave no trace" even if they cannot name the seven principles from memory. Below are the principles as outlined on the Leave No Trace website.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

  -  Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
  -  Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  -  Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  -  Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
  -  Repackage food to minimize waste.
  -  Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.


2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  -  Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or


  -  Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.

  -  Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.


    In popular areas

     -  Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.

     -  Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.

     -  Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.


    In pristine areas

     -  Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.

     -  Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.


3. Dispose of Waste Properly

  -  Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack

     out all trash, leftover food, and litter.

  -  Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water,

     camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.

  -  Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.

  -  To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use

     small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.


4. Leave What You Find

  -  Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts.

  -  Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.  

  -  Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.


5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

  -  Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for

     cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.

  -  Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.

  -  Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.

  -  Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.


6. Respect Wildlife

  -  Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.

  -  Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and

     exposes them to predators and other dangers.

  -  Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.

  -  Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.

  -  Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.


7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  -  Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.

  -  Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.

  -  Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.

  -  Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.