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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.