Stranger Dangers


Because you will be isolated in remote and unfamiliar places, and be without a vehicle, your interactions with strangers can have an unusually threatening edge to them. While thru-hiking exercise a few common sense precautions such as:

 

  • Trust your intuition when interacting with others.
  • Hitch carefully (see below)
  • Never camp within sight of a road or close to a trailhead.
  • If you are hiking alone, never tell this to someone you don’t know — on or off the trail. Have some lies prepped and ready if someone asks. Tell them your lazy friends are dragging ass behind you, or something similar. Your delivery will make the story believable. Make a joke about it, seem annoyed at your friends, whatever, just don't sound nervous or like you're inventing the story on the spot.
  • Be rude!  The first episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt  teaches us the value of being rude. After a religious fundamentalist kidnaps four women and forces them to live in an underground bunker for 15 years, the women are rescued and appear on the Today  show. Matt Lauer asks each of them how they were kidnapped. One says. “I had waited on Reverend Richard at a York Steak House I worked at and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits, and I didn’t want to be rude, so, here we are.” Lauer deadpans in response, “I’m always amazed at what women will do because they are afraid of being rude.”  So be rude!

Hitchhiking

photo by Drozd via Wikipedia
photo by Drozd via Wikipedia

Hitchhiking is a part of trail culture on the AT and every other National Scenic Trail. We have hitchhiked into town many times and have yet to be disappointed or scared. Some drivers have turned out to be a little weird at most, but aren’t we all. That said, there is always risk from accepting a ride from a stranger.

 

If you are uncomfortable hitchhiking, we have bad news for you. The trail is so remote, hitching is necessary to reach towns and resupply locations. Alternatives to hitching are infrequent and unreliable. Taxis are occasionally an option but not often. Uber and similar services have little presence in rural America. There is only one bus that stops at the trail (by our count). Trail angels are the best alternative to hitching, and occasionally they post their phone numbers on trees near road crossings, but this is not the case for every town.

 

So you will have to stick your thumb out. To hitch safe, follow the general advice for interacting with strangers outlined above (trust your instincts, be rude…). Additional tips include:

 

 

  • Hitch with other hikers. If you arrive at a road crossing alone, wait until another hiker to arrive and hitch together.
  • Take rides from people who are clearly a part of the outdoor community like day hikers and fishermen.
  • Have a few canned excuses ready in case someone who pulls over makes you uncomfortable. Examples: "Oh no, I forgot my trekking poles back where I had lunch," or “Oops made a mistake, thanks for the offer but I gotta go in the other direction.”
  • Once in someone's car, be alert. Ask to be dropped off in a safe place (gas station, convenient store) ASAP if you feel uncomfortable.
  • Keep your phone handy and in sight while riding with someone.
  • Do not hitch at dusk or at night. 

Theft

Theft from hikers is a crime of opportunity. No one sets out in the morning with the goal of stealing a digital camera from a hiker's backpack, but if the opportunity arises, unscrupulous people seize it. While hiking the Appalachian Trail we met hikers who were robbed. We even had things stolen from us.

 

The bottom line is, never leave your backpack out of site and you won't give someone the opportunity to steal from you. We have seen a lot of backpacks left outside storefronts. Don't do it.

  • Need to dig a hole?  Take your pack into the woods with you.
  • Running into a post office to pick up a maildrop?  Bring your pack inside.
  • Eating at a restaurant?  Put your pack under the table.
  • Shopping for groceries?  Put your pack in a shopping cart and push it around with you.
  • Checking into a motel?  Take your pack into the lobby with you.

 

 

You may get pushback from a manager committed to their corporate anti-shoplifting policy who will say something like, "We don't allow backpacks inside the store/restaurant/etc. Would you please leave it outside?" Be rude (see above) and tell them you will not. Explain you are hiking the trail and do not have a car, that your pack doesn't leave your sight, and you absolutely will not leave it outside. Would they ask a woman to leave her large purse outside? Of course not.


Marijuana

The east coast is not as 420 friendly as the west coast. If your first thru-hike was on the PCT and you are planning an AT hike, you will be disappointed. The AT passes through all but four east coast states (Florida, Delaware, Rhode Island, and South Carolina) and as of 2015 no east coast state has legalized marijuana for recreational use.


Of the fourteen Appalachian Trail states, seven have legalized medical marijuana -- but all are small mileage states as this map from mic.com shows. North Carolina has at least decriminalized it.


The Trail itself has a 420 friendly culture. Plenty of hikers smoke and those who don't, don't judge. That said, hostels and hotels will often post notices asking that you do not smoke on their property, and unless a trail angel explicitly says it's okay to smoke, never light up at their house.


Carry a Gun?

No. The risk of accident alone when carrying a gun, to yourself and others, is not worth it. Additionally, all evidence shows that rather than making you safer, the presence of a gun increases the likelihood that you will be killed. Security guards have their guns taken from them at alarming rates, and you run a similar risk of having your own gun turned on you.

 

 

Male hikers are not asked if they carry a gun as often as women. Why? Perhaps it is because the NRA and others claim guns are great equalizers between men and women. In a 2013 speech, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre said, “the one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun.” It's a powerful soundbite, but no scientific study has ever demonstrated that the risk of becoming victim to a crime, any crime, is decreased by gun ownership. In fact, study after study has shown that owning a gun makes women in particular more likely to become victims of gun violence. The Atlantic examined this unique and overlooked danger to women, and the myth of guns providing self-defense has been covered recently by the Guardian  and The Los Angles Times.