The most common question we have been asked about making a long-distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail has been “Is it SAFE?” The short answer is YES! The most significant way to be safe is to plan ahead. I’ve done extensive research to assure myself that this is a reasonable endeavor. I’m not generally a risk-taker about physical things. I’m careful without being fearful. (*Except heights…I’m terrified of heights*) Obviously, I would never want to cause nor allow harm to my daughter.
“A prudent camper is always asking ‘What if?’ in anticipation of potential human and natural hazards.”–from Hiking and Backpacking by the Wilderness Education Association
A number of friends have asked if we are carrying mace or pepper spray. Some have even wondered if I have a conceal/carry permit. Sprays have limited usefulness—needing to be kept close at hand and only being accurate at a short distance from the threat. In addition to being extra, unnecessary weight, guns are banned from most park service lands, including much of the Appalachian Trail corridor.
Many folks worry about human violence. Statistically, far fewer violent crimes occur along the AT than in any city. Backpackers are poor targets. They rarely carry anything of value. In addition, few criminals have any interest in hiking miles of challenging trail for the possibility of robbing or attacking someone. It is far easier to commit a crime and quickly escape while in an urban setting. We will take basic precautions such as camping further than a mile from any road crossing and not sharing details of our hiking plans with anyone—in person or online.
Others worry about being attacked by bears. This is actually a very rare occurrence. Black bears live near much of the AT, but these bears are shy and prefer to avoid humans if possible. It is recommended to sing or whistle while hiking so any bears in the area have time to move away. To avoid attracting bears (and other critters such as porcupines or raccoons) to our sleeping area, each night we will hang all food in a “bear bag” from a high tree limb at a distance from camp. While looking for illustrations for this point, it was interesting to see that the only photos of vicious looking bears were grizzly bears which are not found in the Eastern United States.
So what hazards are we likely to face? Driving to and from the trail is likely the most risky part of the entire trip! We also need to carefully avoid poison ivy.
Health precautions such as filtering all water, burying human waste, and using hand sanitizer helps prevent illness. Being aware of weather conditions and taking appropriate measures avoid hypothermia are important. If one of us is injured, we are carrying basic first aid supplies. (Plus, I have training in Outdoor Emergency Care and as an EMT.)
For more safety tips, check out this page from the National Park Service. (But only if it will not make you MORE afraid for our safety!!)
While we are SAFE in the woods, be careful out there in the crazy world of modern life!