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PAT STITH: Amid news of crime on Appalachian Trail; injury, illness, failure are bigger worries

May 26, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pat Stith began backpacking after he retired in 2008 from The News & Observer in Raleigh – where he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. In the last two and a half years he has posted almost 300 stories about his life and times, including 21 backpacking stories, beginning with a 16-day hike the John Muir Trial, the most beautiful trail in America.

An Appalachian Trail hiker was murdered earlier this month and a second hiker escaped death by playing dead after they were attacked in the middle of the night by a mentally disturbed man with a knife.

That murder was a tragedy but it was also a rarity, only the 11th murder on the A.T. in the last 45 years, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages and conserves the trail. During that period, beginning in 1974, tens of millions of people have hiked part of the trail and thousands have hiked all of it, from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine.

Thetrek.co, a hiker-oriented blog, has posted an interesting analysis comparing the murder rate for the United States as a whole to the murder rate on the trail and concluded that the U.S. murder is more than 800 times higher.

This season about 3,000 hikers are trying to walk all 2,192 miles of the A.T., through 14 states, and they have worries. But what they worry about may surprise you. Backpackers are a lot more concerned about ticks and the diseases they carry, including Lyme disease, than they are about being assaulted or killed. Or mauled by a bear or bitten by a rattlesnake.

Their concern is well founded.

“The greatest risk to your health and safety while hiking the Appalachian Trail is contracting a tick-borne disease,” the Conservancy says.

I thru-hiked the A.T. in 2015 and the main concerns of hikers I met, after ticks, were:

The hiking community is not like the communities where you and I live, it’s more like family. I just returned from a three and a half day, 60-mile section hike of the A.T. in Virginia. I was hiking south so my friends and I encountered scores of hikers headed for Maine and almost all of them, strangers, greeted us. Some wanted to stop and talk.

Hikers introduce themselves when they arrive at a shelter, three-sided huts, usually with a privy and a spring nearby. Most have trail names and that are easy to remember: “Iceman” carried ice to an injured girl and she named him; “Temper” had worked in a candy factory where she tempered chocolate; “Between” was 17 years old, between high school and college. My trail name is “Lucky” because I was fortunate to have the health to attempt a thru-hike and a wife who said Yes.

Most thru-hikers I met, including women, began their hikes alone. But after the first day or two, they are not alone – they are part of the hiker community that looks out for one another. They also take precautions:

I don’t carry a pistol nor have I ever seen or heard about another hiker who was armed. I think they would be ostracized. Other hikers would fear them and, literally, walk away. And there’s another good reason for leaving your pistol at home – a loaded Glock pistol weighs almost 30 ounces.

In case you don’t know, the three most important things about backpacking are pack weight, pack weight, and pack weight.

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