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.
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.
- Increased numbers mean more regulation. The amount of people thru-hiking the John Muir Trail has affected the number of permits available for the national parks overall. So much so that the National Park Service has instituted new changes in the way JMT specific permits are granted. And on the Pacific Crest Trail, a permit is needed for a specific start day along with a 50 person cap for each start day. This new permit process is in effect this year. Finally, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy initiated a voluntary self-registration process for Springer Mountain starters this year. Will a similar PCT-style permit be in place for 2016? The increased number of hikers ARE impacting the initial start of the trail and possibly the experience for others. Ridge runners, LNT volunteers and spreading out the impact of the hikers seems to be needed. Will larger numbers mean increased regulation of the well-known trails in the future?
- Redefining what is a thru-hike. The more popular, esp on the PCT, mode of walking north to the border so as “to walk with Spring“is going to be less emphasized. The ATC has had alternate methods of hiking the trail listed for a while now. The PCTA is starting to emphasize going southbound or flipping as a viable alternative to the traditional northbound approach.
- 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.