While you're actually on the Trail there are only a few places where you'll likely run into dangerous situations. The obvious ones - like the rock walks in the Whites and the stream crossings - are normal thruhiker hazards and dealing with them is part of your thruhike. The most dangerous places on the Trail are towns, road crossings and shelters.
So let's talk about shelters first -
You can substitute "tarp" or "hammock" for "tent" for the next couple paragraphs if you want - but the principle is the same. Some people hear about the shelter system and think "Wow, that's the way to go - I won't have to carry a tent and there'll be a shelter every night and it's a good place to meet people". Some look at it as a form of security. Some just don't like tents and some don't want to buy or carry a tent. But they overlook a few things, so let's drag a few of those things out into the light -
The first is that the shelters in the South are likely to be very crowded. I haven't personally experienced 50+ people at a 6 person shelter, but I've heard the stories - and so will you if you listen and pay attention. So -- what are you gonna do if you get to the shelter and there are already 20 people there - and you don't have a tent - and it's raining? What are you gonna do when you get to a section of the AT that doesn't have a shelter - in the middle of a thunderstorm and you need to stop? What are you gonna do when you get to the shelter and it's dark and raining and 3 drunks are already set up in the shelter and they're not gonna move over to make room for you? Or worse, if you're female and they say "Hey, come on in and let's party, honey". It's happened. It happened to a female thruhiker several years ago - and she didn't have a tent. When she told the story at the Gathering, she got no sympathy at all - the general attitude was that she should have known better and should have been carrying a tent or tarp. How would you handle the situation?
Another situation is when you come into a shelter and, even if it's not dark and/or raining, there are a couple people there, but the situation just doesn't "feel" right. What do you do? Well - you might want to simply stop for a drink - or at most, to cook dinner - with the attitude that you haven't decided whether or not to stop there for the night - that you just might move on. Then you can use that time to evaluate the situation. If you don't like what you see, you can quietly move on (so you can make a few more miles) and nobody's feelings are hurt. If you come into a shelter and immediately set up for the night, it makes it a lot harder to justify packing up and moving on an hour later - just because you weren't smart enough to evaluate the situation before you committed yourself . This happened to us in Pennsylvania - and we ended up walking another 9 miles to the next shelter (which was also the next spring) because we didn't like what we saw at the first shelter.
Whether you're male or female - a tent is security. A tent means freedom - the freedom to walk as far as you want without being tied to the shelters. More than once the next shelter was too short a distance for the day for me - and the following one was too far. But with the tent, I had the option to pick my own distance, my own campsite. That was freedom. Being tied to the shelters would have been a chain for me.
For a lot of women, carrying a tent is also a measure of security. It means that if they get to a shelter on a rainy night and the people or the situation doesn't "feel" right then they have the option to move on. It's freedom. And in that situation, it could be freedom from a really bad experience.
A tent is also freedom from skunks, mice, snorers and the myriad other miscellaneous annoyances that come with the shelter system. You'll sleep better in a tent because it'll be warmer, quieter, more private, bug-free and the ground isn't nearly as hard as a shelter floor. Tell me again - why is it that you're not gonna carry one?
Road crossings are generally not a problem, but once in a while you'll find some good ol' boy parked there in his pickup suckin' on a beer. Sometimes he's there to share Trail Magic - and sometimes he's not. I also know some women who were followed into the woods from road crossings. For the most part the follower isn't gonna catch you, because you can outhike them even with the pack on - and being scared gives you a shot of adrenaline that they don't have. But it would be best if you don't do road crossings alone. That way you're a lot less likely to have the problem.
For those who are young, single and female you're probably not going to be hiking alone very much unless you really work at it. Whether you're male or female, you may find that you have as much protection as you need simply because of the presence of other hikers. Generally speaking, they are your security - thruhikers are family and they tend to take care of each other.
And then there are towns. Yeah, we all go into town - for pizza, ice cream, a shower, food, beer, laundry, more pizza, phone calls home, more ice cream, post office, more food, etc. And for some of us, when we get to town, we find that it's a very strange place, that we no longer feel comfortable with all the things that we used to take for granted - like cars and televisions and crowds and bright lights and civilization. It's confusing, frightening even - and at some point you start wondering how you ever tolerated it before the Trail - and how you'll ever go back to it. And that can be dangerous because you've lost some of your "city survival skills". It leaves you vulnerable, and some of us, at least, can't wait to get back on the Trail.
For others, it's dangerous in a different way because they get caught in the "gravity well" and can't leave town. They get caught up in the food and the beer and the party scene. A lot of those people don't finish. Or sometimes, like the thruhiker I met in November one year, they finish very late. He was finishing at Harpers Ferry the weekend before Thanksgiving after flip-flopping. Funny thing - he wasn't into the party scene anymore. For all of us towns are the most dangerous place in terms of pack theft. While you're on the Trail, theft is pretty rare. After all who wants to carry someone else's weight? But when you're in town - or on the way into or out of town - there are all sorts of characters and you might want to keep your valuables (money, credit cards, ID, etc.) with you all the time. And don't let go of your pack. One of the problems you'll encounter is that some places (restaurants, etc.) don't like you to bring your pack inside. After all, it smells just as bad as you do. I try not to patronize those places, but if I have to then I make a fuss and make sure that the pack goes someplace safe - inside, not outside leaning against a wall. And that someone is gonna take responsibility for it. Or that one of your group is gonna stay outside and watch the packs.
I've had a few people ask me about hitchhiking. You'll have to make your own decisions about this. In some states it's illegal. It's always time-consuming. And it can be dangerous. So --- to answer just a few questions - Did I do it? Yes.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Did I have any problems with it? Nothing more than having to tolerate some of the stranger (although generally harmless) variations in human behavior. One guy was dying and needed someone to talk to.
Would I tell you to do it ? No way. That's your decision.
I know- some of you wouldn't even touch a gun - under any circumstances. But that's another discussion and there are people who do carry guns on the Trail. And others who seriously consider it. If you're not one of those people you might want to skip down to the next section.
So -- should you carry a gun? A lot of us are asked by friends, relatives or even our local friendly policeman if we'll carry a gun on the Trail. We could start something here - so, let's start with the fact that I am a gun owner, but I don't carry guns on the Trail. Why? A number of reasons - in descending order of importance:
- It's unnecessary. And I won't expound on that.
- It's heavy. Any gun light enough to carry is too light to do the job. Handguns in manstopping calibers are heavy. We're talking 1.5 to 3 # for a 9mm (and I don't consider 9mm a manstopping caliber). If you want a .45 or .44, it's even heavier. Handguns don't come in bear stopping calibers. Then there's the support equipment (ammo, cleaning gear, waterproof container, etc.) - all extra weight. Now you're up to 3 to 5 # or more. For long trail hiking my pack weight is 20# (without food and water), and I'll cut the handle off my toothbrush to save half an ounce. Adding 3 to 5# of deadweight metal to my pack is totally unacceptable. Some of the newer handguns are made of lightweight materials - but even if they weighed half as much - IMO, they'd still be too heavy for long distance hiking.
- If you were threatened on the Trail, where would the gun be - at the bottom of your pack maybe? For those who haven't discovered this yet, heavy objects always end up at the bottom of your pack. It's hard to unlimber the hardware if it's hidden. And if you carry it openly you won't make many friends on the Trail. There were some words at one time about concealable holsters - but they're extra weight too. And it's not possible to hide something like that under the standard thruhiker clothing ensemble - shorts, T-shirt, boots and socks.
- If you're not willing to use lethal force, you shouldn't be carrying a gun in ANY circumstances, on or off the trail. And the willingness to use that level of force is an attitude that's too heavy to carry for 2000 miles. I know from personal experience that carrying a gun requires a mindset that's antithetical to the reasons I'm out there. Personal opinion is that if I ever have to start carrying a gun on the AT, I'll stop hiking and find something else to do with my life.
- Paranoia and hoplophobia aside, it's illegal on much of the AT, the PCT and the CDT. It's illegal to carry a gun in the National Parks. In New York there's the Sullivan Law - and it's got teeth. And in Massachusetts possession of an unregistered gun will buy you an automatic year in jail - no parole, no appeal. Now, where did you say you do your long distance hiking?
- There are legal aspects to self-defense with a gun. Do you know them? Each state has different criteria with regard to the use of deadly force in self-defense. If you don't know all of them, you have no business carrying a gun, much less using it.
- Are you prepared to deal with the police and court system - or even worse - with the press if you use it? Do you really want to abort your thruhike because some idiot hassled you and you blew him away? Isn't there a better way to handle him?
I'll bet some of you want another opinion, don't you?
Bottom line - there's a place for firearms in the wilderness, but it's a rare long distance hiker - male or female - who's willing to carry the extra weight. Only newbies do that.
Weapons (knives and other idiocies)
My partner carried a Swiss Army knife with a screwdriver, bottle opener, can opener and corkscrew. I carried a 2", 1.5 oz. single blade pocketknife. I lost it last year and just recently started carrying a SOG Airlite (2.5" blade, 2.2 oz.). For my purposes, anything bigger would be (pardon the expression) overkill. You might want a can opener and sometimes a bottle opener, though. As "weapons" these are not likely to do any real damage to anything larger than a bagel. And that was their only purpose.
I've seen knives on the Trail that range from a 1" pocketknife to a 12" Bowie. The bigger the knife, the more weight you'll carry. For what purpose? Security maybe? Bullfeathers. If you have no knife fighting training or experience, just what do you think you're going to do with that 12" Bowie - other than getting yourself sliced and diced? Knife fighting is an art and a discipline - and a very messy business when you get down to the cutting. Very few people walk away from a knife fight without leaking massive amounts of blood. And even "winning" doesn't mean you'll live to tell about it. It's a lousy way to abort a thruhike.
Some find the knife totally unnecessary. I sometimes think they may be the smart ones.
The second most dangerous animal on the AT is the shelter mouse. Some think that dogs occupy this particular niche, but I can't agree with that. Mice WILL get some of your food if you stay in shelters. And everyone stays in shelters at some point. There is no foolproof way to keep them off your food. I've watched a mouse make an 8-ft. leap from the shelter rafters onto a food bag. Some of them aren't that smart, but I wouldn't bet my food supply on it. And there's no such thing as a mouse-free shelter.
Mice are much smarter and more persistent than you can imagine, and in fact, are much smarter than I am. The only way I managed to outsmart them was to refuse to stay in shelters. Mice also carry fleas, deer ticks and hantavirus. But most importantly, they're active at night and they interrupted my sleep - and that's not to be tolerated.
Then there are skunks, bears, raccoons, etc. Generally, the only real danger they present is that they're after your food. I lost the fight and the bear got our food at Ethan Pond.
Some shelters have skunks or snakes. Please don't feed them or mess with them - generally if you leave them alone, they won't hurt you. And they're performing a public service by controlling the mouse population. Remember - it's their home, we're only transient visitors.
Dogs are also a common danger. They can be scary, but few thruhikers seem to actually get bitten. Part of my "security" on the Trail was that I carried hiking sticks - actually, on the AT I used cheap garage sale variety ski poles. They're light, strong and cheap - and the odd stray dog has little desire to eat 4 feet of steel or aluminum pole.
A Bear Story
This is a bear story from 1992 - it isn't a story that'll tell you how smart I am.
When we got to Ethan Pond, we didn't even have to read the register to know there was an active bear in the area - there were 3 huge clear garbage bags full of obviously well chewed-on hiker trash. The shelter was full (6 other thruhikers) so we went out to the tent platforms. The bear first showed up while we were cooking dinner - and he wanted to be invited. So I took my "bear picture" and then threw rocks and sticks until he got the idea that he wasn't welcome (I got lucky and hit him on the nose). After dinner we hung the food and went to sleep - and that's when he came back.
Like the shelter mice, he was smarter than I was - he got 2 of the 3 food bags. At which point I got stupid and went out to get them back. Understand that I was bone-deep tired from 5 months on the Trail, my knees were doing BAD things to me, I had run out of cookies and it was raining - so I wasn't in a real friendly mood. When I got out there the bear was sitting on top of the food bags and I tried to scare him off. In the midst of my brain cramp I'd forgotten that bear logic says as long as I had the food it was mine, but when he got it - it was HIS. So there I was - in a Mexican standoff with a bear at 6 feet, me with my flashlight and boots (Yeah - NOTHING else) and him with his teeth, claws, hunger and nasty disposition. When he got tired of having the flashlight shine in his eyes and jumped forward 2 feet, I jumped back 20 feet and - the food was his. He then proceeded to prowl and growl for about 3 hours while we tried to get back to sleep. The only satisfaction we got was when we heard him bite into the coffee bags and gag on them. And when he choked on the Liptons dinners. To add insult to injury, we had to pick up the trash he left behind and carry it out. One interesting point is that he ate not just the food, but most of the foil containers as well.
NOT end of story. After he finished with us he went to the shelter. Some of the guys had hung their food in a small tree right in front of the shelter. So with 6 people shouting, banging pots, shining flashlights and throwing anything they could get their hands on, he proceeded to knock the tree down and raid their food bags. This was NOT a happy crew when we passed them at 0630.
NOT end of story. The next day two friends were camped about a mile from Ethan Pond and the same bear scared them away from their campsite and took their dinner right out of the pot. That was one healthy, well-fed bear.
OK, what did I tell you here - other than that I'm not always brilliant? The bear isn't after you - he/she is after your food. Bear logic says - As long as you have the food it's yours (unless the bear can scare you away from it), but if he/she has the food then it's THEIRS. And they're willing to fight for it. You don't REALLY want to wrestle a bear, do you?
The bear wasn't the dangerous part of this situation - it was MY actions that made it dangerous. Be smarter than I was - if you can scare him off while you still have the food - cool. But once he has the food, don't challenge him, just make plans to pack the trash into town. And get lots of good pictures.
End of bear story.
There are volumes more that could be said about safety and security, but for me it comes down to this - that personal safety is a matter of common sense and mental attitude. Pay attention - to your surroundings, to the people around you and to your own feelings. And don't play with things that bite. For more information, see the ALDHA "AT Companion" - it has a section on security.