The Wild Effect
In the months following the premiere of the movie Wild in 2014, the Pacific Crest Trail Association's web gurus noticed something peculiar: traffic to the PCTA site had increased by over 300%.
In 2015, more hikers than ever set off to walk the PCT, overwhelming already-strapped trail resources and prompting the PCTA to cap thru-hikers starting at the southern terminus to 50 per day.
When A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's popular account of his own thru-hike, was published in 1998, it similarly turned heads to the Appalachian Trail. Now that Robert Redford's cinematic rendition is looking forward to its world premier this week, the ATC anticipates a surge in interest. Using Wild's influence as an indicator, Ron Tipton, the executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, predicts a record number of hikers using the Appalachian Trail, to the tune of about 3 million pairs of boots.
A Sport Steeped in Controversy
Redford's movie won't be the first publicity the AT has seen in recent months. Scott Jurek's set a new thru-hiking speed record in July. Baxter State Park rangers greeted the ultra-runner with citations at the trail's norther terminus for traveling in too big a group and for spilling champagne. Now, questions about overuse and commercialization thicken the air over Katahdin. Naturally, the ATC is concerned that irreverent treatment of the trail will become more common after A Walk in the Woods. But, Tipton says, Baxter State Park's approach isn't characteristic of the whole trail.
"Their management philosophy is different from that of the park service," he explains. The ATC views the trail not as wilderness saved only for the "hardy hiker," as Baxter's original land donor intended, but as a public space for everyone to use and enjoy.
Advertising Their own Brand of Wilderness
"We're open for business," says Tipton. And for that reason, the ATC doesn't begrudge the publicity—and increasing number of hikers—Redford's project promises. Instead, he and other officials from the ATC worked closely with Redford and his team to make sure the movie portrayed the trail in a positive light.
"We wanted a movie that shows the beauty and challenge of the trail but not inappropriate trail behavior," Tipton says. As an example, he mentioned the character Katz's tendency to strip off unwanted clothing as he walked and leave it on the trail. Tipton wanted to make sure the movie encouraged no such practices.
That was the first step to mitigating any potential damage movie-inspired overuse might inflict. The second—promoting the film in a way that would benefit the trail—begins now. For starters, the ATC took charge of the A Walk in the Woods world premier, putting it on at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. The ATC also had Redford write a cover letter in the next issue of the ATC newsletter, encouraging readers to volunteer, donate, or otherwise support the ATC in their efforts to protect the trail for future use.
Mustering the Troops, Redefining the Hike
The ATC is talking to hikers, as well. The Conservancy wants to redefine what "thru-hiking" means. They encourage section hiking, "flip-flopping" (hiking to a terminus from the trail's midpoint, then shuttling back and hiking the other half), and other alternative ways of getting in those 2,200 miles. Such alternatives would spread out usage and prevent large-scale trampling.
Particularly, the ATC hopes to shrink the annual stampede of north-bounders at the trail's starting line. A team of researchers from Duke University has been working closely with the ATC to examine trail impact in Georgia. After analyzing their data, the team will devise a more specific plan to manage trail use and minimize damage.
Almost a year ago, the organization put together a task force to manage expansion of the trail's capacity. They've been reaching out to trail maintenance clubs, some of the AT's oldest and most constant friends, to spread awareness about the impending influx. The task force is also in the midst of raising $600,000 to expand their resources.
This money will go toward hiring more Ridge Runners and trail caretakers, strategically stationing staff to monitor heavily trafficked areas, and educating the public. The campaign will encourage hikers to register online on a system that allows them to visualize trail usage and avoid busy areas. The same system may soon include online lessons to introduce registering hikers to LNT practices.
The Trail's Open Arms
The bottom line, Tipton says, is minimizing impact—not the number of visitors—especially since the ATC is still trying to encourage hiking among minority groups.
"This is America's trail. It's not about limiting use. It's about enhancing the enjoyment of the trail with reasonable and thoughtful management strategies."
Mandatory registration, education, and caps on parking and camping could be the future if hikers don't comply, Tipton concedes. However, the ATC is holding those ideas in reserve until crowds—or trail misuse—necessitate them.
The AT welcomes the anticipated swell of visitors with open arms—for now.