The freedom to enjoy the Appalachian Trail comes with the responsibility to be informed, prepared, and alert to our surroundings.
Although the Appalachian Trail is safer than most places, it is not immune to criminal behavior—including crimes of violence. Acts of kindness and “trail magic” are so common on the A.T. that it’s easy to forget you could encounter someone who does not have your best interest at heart or who may even seek to harm you. This is more likely to occur near roads or occasionally at shelters, but it can happen anywhere.
In heavily used areas, A.T. “ridgerunners” and “caretakers” act as roving “eyes and ears” for Trail managers and for public education. Some carry two-way radios that may enable them to radio for help where cell phones do not work. However, many areas of the A.T. are remote, and help may be far away. ATC has no law-enforcement authority but can readily contact those who do in a particular area and help them help you.
Safety awareness is one of your best lines of defense, and your brain provides one of your best weapons.Here are some suggestions:
Be mentally prepared for the risks you may encounter. If you encounter trouble, chances are a law-enforcement officer or ranger will not be nearby and a cell phone may not work. Think through scenarios ahead of time, and decide how you might respond. Learn to trust your instincts, and be prepared to act on them.
Let someone know your plans. If you are going on a day-hike, let someone know where you will be and when you plan to return. On a long-distance hike, leave behind a copy of your itinerary, and a guidebook such as the A.T. Thru-Hikers’ Companion. Check in regularly, and indicate when you expect to check in next. Establish a procedure to follow if you fail to check in or show up when expected. If you change your plans, be sure to let someone know; otherwise, family members may worry and initiate a needless search. Be sure your contact knows your trail name, if you have one, as well as details about your gear.
Always carry current Trail maps, and know how to use them. In an emergency, you need to be able to describe your location. If you need to leave the Trail in a hurry, maps can tell you the best way to get to a road or town or someone who can help. Avoid bushwhacking—getting lost or injured in unknown terrain will compound your problems.
Stay alert. Pay attention to details of your surroundings and people you encounter, and look for anything that does not fit or sends a red flag. It is easier to avoid getting into a dangerous situation than to get out of one. Trust your instincts about strangers.
No matter how much kindness, friendship, sanctuary, and beauty the Trail may show you, remember that the Trail is not insulated against the problems of larger society. Maintain awareness at all times, and remember you are responsible for your own safety.