Grassroots to organized – The changing nature of thru-hikes

The nature of  The Triple Crown hiking trails are changing rapidly. Here’s the how, why and what the changes (possibly) mean.


From LinkedIn


While the number of backcountry users have gone down, the number of people hiking the more well-known long distance hiking trails have actually gone up.

These wilderness pilgrimage paths are swelling with people hiking along the trails, experiencing nature and interacting with the culture and community found along these paths.

AT Nobo thru-hiker Start Date graph 2010-2014 jan-june

A high daily  average for people starting the Appalachian Trail between 3/1 and 4/1. Courtesy of the ATC.


From the PCTA, the number of permits grew a lot just between 2013 and 2014. The numbers for 2015 already indicate another record year.


Between 2011 and 2014, the number of permits issued for people hiking the JMT have more than doubled in three short years. From the NPS.

Whether the increased usage on the long trails is good or bad is up for debate. I can’t answer that question. There are pros and cons to whether more people on the hiking trails are destructive or helpful for the more well-known long distance paths.

What I can say for sure is that these increased numbers mean changes for the linear community, a re-defining of what is considered a thru-hike, and a spill-over to less known but increasing popular trails or even routes.

  • The popular media brings out more hikers..which in turn brings out more books, videos and perhaps movies. Obviously Wild and Walk in the Woods are the most well-known examples. But there are other popular works that fuel the increased trail use, too.  And as more people do the long trails, there will be more media that portray the journeys on the trail.  Needless to say, the various channels of online exposure is part of the trend as well. And the cycle continues.
  • More of a social experience.  Closely related is the more of an emphasis on camaraderie over a wilderness trek. A very good point brought up by Mike Henrick. More people , and more people connected by social media in particular, means that hiking is more of a social experience.  More The Way and less the PCT as portrayed in the 1990s based Wild. The wild-ness aspect will always be there. But the shared experience is of as much importance, if not more so in some cases, than experiencing the wild.
  • More section hikers. Obviously with more people wanting to hike the long trails, there are also going to be more people who do chunks of the trail as well. Not everyone can dedicate four to six months of their life to a hiking trail. But, I was thinking more along the lines of people who forgo thru-hiking and hike chunks of trail as a choice rather than something that circumstances such a job or family life dictate.  Cherry pick the seasons, fewer people and perhaps more of a wild experience vs hiking with many other people and/or competing for town resources. I still think doing a two or three large chunks of the CDT is the better way to hike that trail, for instance, versus a thru-hike.
  • The grassroots aspects of the trail will fade.  This trend has been happening on the Appalachian Trail for years. The free church basements, fire stations, and community picnic shelters gave away to for-profit hostels.  The free services can’t fill the demand and are overwhelmed. There is nothing wrong with for-profit businesses. And these for-profit places are often equipped to handle the larger numbers. But the fading away of grass roots places does show the changing nature of the trail experience. On the PCT, one very well-known trail angel/hostel shut the doors after eighteen years. There is some controversy over the closure and the cause,  but this trail angel was very generous and giving. Handling that amount of people, and more, year after year is amazing. Probably not sustainable for every hostel up and down and increasingly popular PCT.
  • Speaking of Trail Angels…  Traditionally, trail angels are those who perform unexpected acts of kindness for hikers on their journey. In recent years, the “trail angel-ing” has become much more organized to the point that they have become hiker aid stations similar to what are seen in organized runs.   As there are more hikers, and these caches and hiker feeds become larger and/or more prevalent, I suspect various federal government and state agencies may put a kibosh on them and/or require permits.  Something along these lines has already happened. Even on the less popular, but getting busier, CDT.  Not saying the more organized hiker aid stations are good or bad. But they ARE on the radar now and will be part of the regulation process more and more I suspect.
  • Formerly obscure trails or routes will become more popular and the cycle will repeat to a certain extent  With such routes/trails as the, The Colorado Trail, the Hayduke Trail and the Sierra High Route (among others) having more established maps, resources and even a community of people hiking on them, similar results may happen too.
  • Trails that are even lesser known, with little no resources for them, may be explored more. At a recent show  Cam “Swami” Honan did about his “12 Long Walks, he stated that he enjoyed the smaller and/or lesser known trails as much as the Triple Crown Trails, if not more in some cases. He was surprised at how much emphasis there is in the American hiking community on the Triple Crown. These lesser known gems may get a bump in use as more people seek out a more solitary and a wild-like experiences.
  • More of an emphasis on DIY adventure.  Grab some maps and plot your own route and adventure. No guidebooks, apps or trail-specific maps needed.   Does not have to be something as difficult (and impressive!) as a solo hike through the Brooks Range, but plotting out (for example) a two-week solo wandering in The Winds may start to become more appealing to people who are used to long trails. This kind of hiking, of course, is called “regular backpacking” to people who have no desire to hike a long trail or have an alphabet of soup of initials in their hiking experience. 😉

The trail experience will change. There is no doubt about it. I suspect many people will mourn the different nature of the long trails. Some people will (have!) become infuriated about the trail experience changing. Others will adapt or move on.

As I’ve said before, take the trails for what they are, not what you want them to be.

The long trails, however or when they are hiked, are wonderful experiences.

However, depending on the type of person and what that person’s expectations may be, a different type of thru-hiking experience may better.  The traditional “Big Three” trails and the experience and way of hiking them have changed.  A non-traditional way of hiking the trails, or even a different trail or route from the Big Three, may be better for some hikers.

At this point in my life, I know it would be for me.

Here is a companion piece of sorts I wrote a year or so ago.


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9 years ago

Nice article, Mags. I especially appreciate the objectivity.

9 years ago

Mags, that link to alternate versions of the AT is intriguing! I have many times told myself I’d like to thruhike it when I retire and finding a way to do it where I can have a bit of my “own experience” without totally excessive crowds is something I’ve pondered – this is a great inspiration.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

…and the possibilities for my bucket list just got a bit longer.

9 years ago

Increased popularity has some downsides, but I hope it brings some positives like more wilderness defenders and resources for trail building/maintenance.

Tim Wilson
Tim Wilson
9 years ago

Great post Mags. Well thought out and balanced. Nicely done. And even in ’98 the AT was far more social than what I expected and, to my surprise, the social bits are among my favorite memories.

9 years ago

Psssst….there’s lots of solitude on the Florida Trail, folksl. 😉

Another Kevin
9 years ago

You know, your thinking is a lot like mine, even though I haven’t done any of the major thru-hikes. I live maybe 1.5 hours from the nearest AT trailhead, but I’ve put in very little AT mileage in recent years, because there are so many other nice trails calling to me. I’m mostly a weekender, so I’ve been more into peakbagging lately, but even that has been the less-well-know Catskill 3500’s rather than their big brothers the Adirondack 46 – which are considerably more popular, and correspondingly more regulated. The only thru-hike I’ve ever attempted was the 135-mile Northville-Placid Trail.… Read more »

Jim Mingle
Jim Mingle
9 years ago

Much to think about in this post. If the number of back country users is down and the number of hikers on the most popular trails is up…well there must be a lot more empty places out there. The temptation of course is to go to the accessible and the familiar. Your comments renew my interest in finding and taking the less traveled road. Thanks!

9 years ago

Hello Paul,
I enjoy hiking for the peaceful solitude. I don’t enjoy over crowding of trails with social camaraderie. Seeing more than one or two people over the course of a trail is too many for me. Great post.