Hey thru-hikers—are you looking for a way to pay your way down the AT, or perhaps just a really cool hands-on hiking experience while you're there? You're in luck: While the recession may be crippling some people's trail dreams, others are working their way down the trail on organic farms.
With record numbers tackling the trail in this economically glum year (roughly 1,400 this season), many have hit up the mountains looking to swap work for shelter and food. Up and down the Appalachian Trail, organic farms have taken to staffing their farms with backpackers seeking a warm place to stay and a hot meal. In the wake of the economic crisis, farm jobs give unemployed backpackers, sustainable stewards, and “athletic hippies” alike an opportunity to explore the majestic Appalachian Mountains while supporting themselves by unconventional means. Many revel in the chance to enjoy some common ground with backpackers from different regions and economic backgrounds while experiencing a nontraditional, frugal lifestyle.
"If you do this on the trail, you're a hiker," said The Druid, a 48-year-old south-bounder from Tennessee. "If you do this off the trail, you're a bum."
All of which doesn't mean they're exactly loaded: Call 'em hikers or hobos, many budget a dollar a mile for food and an occasional hotel stay when farm work is not available.
But hikers and farmers report seasonal farm work is usually available—even plentiful if you possess a strong work ethic (and back). Hard up from the recession, farm owners who struggle to pay local farm hands up to $75 a day seem to be happy to swap room and board for labor. One Appalachian farm owner explained that in some years, Appalachian Trail trekkers account for more than 50 percent of his farm's labor needs.
Thinking about working your way down the AT next year? Hit up our comprehensive guide to the entire Appalachian Trail first.