The Appalachian Trail is relatively safe. Most injuries or incidents are consistent with comparable outdoor activities. Most hazards are related to weather conditions, human error, plants, animals, diseases, and fellow humans encountered along the trail.
Many animals live around the trail, with bears, snakes, and wild boars posing the greatest threat to human safety. Several rodent- and bug-borne illnesses are also a potential hazard. In scattered instances, foxes, raccons, and other small animals may bite hikers, posing risk of rabies and other diseases. There has been one reported case (in 1993) of hantavirus (HPS), a rare but dangerous rodent-borne disease affecting the lungs. The afflicted hiker recovered and hiked the trail the following year.
Plant life can create its own brand of problems. Poison ivy is common the length of the trail, and more plentiful in the South.
Hiking season of the trail generally starts in mid to late spring, when conditions are much more favorable in the South. However, this time may also be characterized by extreme heat, sometimes in excess of 100 °F (38 °C). Under such conditions, hydration is imperative. Light clothing and sunscreens are a must at high elevations and areas without foliage, even in relatively cool weather.
Further north and at higher elevations, the weather can be intensely cold, characterized by low temperatures, strong winds, hail or snow storms and reduced visibility. Prolonged rain, though not typically life-threatening, can undermine stamina and ruin supplies.
Violent crime, including murder, has occurred on the trail in a few instances. Most have been crimes by non-hikers who crossed paths relatively randomly with the AT hiker-victims. The official website of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy points out that the number of violent crimes is extremely low when compared against the number of people (3 to 4 million) who hike on the trail every year.
Nine homicides have been documented on the trail since the first reported homicide in Georgia in 1974. In 1981, the issue of violence on the Appalachian Trail received national attention when Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay, both social workers in Ellsworth, Maine, were murdered by Randall Lee Smith. Another homicide occurred in May 1996, when two women were abducted, bound and murdered near the trail in Shenandoah National Park. The primary suspect was later discovered harassing a female bicycler in the vicinity, but charges against him were dropped, and the case remains unsolved.
Having completed fifteen years in prison, on May 6, 2008, Randall Lee Smith, the killer of Mountford and Ramsay in 1981, shot two fishermen near the trail in Giles County, Virginia, not far from the site of his 1981 murder; he then stole their pickup truck but crashed it and was imprisoned. The fishermen survived, but Smith died in jail four days later, most likely from an acute pulmonary thromboembolism incurred when he crashed the pickup truck.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail logo
Trail hikers who attempt to complete the entire trail in a single season are called "thru-hikers"; those who traverse the trail during a series of separate trips are known as "section-hikers". Rugged terrain, weather extremes, freedom from illness or injury, and the desire to commit the time and effort required make thru-hiking difficult to accomplish.
Traditionally, only about 10% to 15% of those who make the attempt report to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that they completed it. However, since 2001, the number of people starting out in Georgia to do a thru-hike (or at least registering to do so) has dropped considerably, yet the number of people reporting that they have completed a thru-hike has remained approximately the same. This has resulted in an apparent increase in the completion rate to 29% (as of 2006). The ranger station at Amicalola Falls (the beginning of the 8.3-mile (13.4 km) approach trail to Springer Mountain) changed the policy on hiker registration at about the same time.
A thru-hike generally requires five to seven months, although some have done it in three months, and several trail runners have completed the trail in less time. Trail runners typically tackle the AT with automobile support teams, without backpacks, and without camping in the woods.
The current unofficial speed record for through-hiking the AT was set by trail runner Andrew Thompson in 2005, at 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes. Thompson made the trip southbound, from late June to early August.
Thru-hikers are classified into many informal groups. "Purists" are hikers who stick to the official AT trail except for side trips to shelters and camp sites. "Blue Blazers" cut miles from the full route by taking side trails marked by blue blazes. The generally pejorative name "Yellow Blazers," a reference to yellow road stripes, is given to those who hitchhike to move down the trail. There are also those who hike the trail in sections known as "sectioners" as opposed to those who hike the whole trail as one course.
Most thru-hikers walk northward from Georgia to Maine, and generally start out in early spring and follow the warm weather as it moves north. These "north-bounders" are also called NOBO (NOrthBOund) or GAME (Georgia(GA)-to-Maine(ME)), while those heading in the opposite direction are termed "south-bounders" (also SOBO or MEGA).
Part of hiker subculture includes making colorful entries in logbooks at trail shelters, signed using pseudonyms called trail names.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy gives the name "2000 Miler" to anyone who completes the entire trail. The ATC's recognition policy for "2000 Milers" gives equal recognition to thru-hikers and section-hikers, operates on the honor system, and recognizes blue-blazed trails or officially required roadwalks as substitutes for the official, white-blazed route during an emergency such as a flood, forest fire, or impending storm on an exposed, high-elevation stretch. As of 2010, more than 11,000 people had reported completing the entire trail. About three-quarters of these are thru-hikers.
Introduction, History | Extensions, Animals, Plants
Topography, Hiking the trail, Navigation, Lodging and camping, Trail towns
Hazards, Trail Completion | The Route and the States