Dedicated Volunteers are Taking Care of the Appalachian Trail

Maintaining this hiking trail is a labor of love.

A hiker on the Appalachian trail in Maine

(Andrew Repp /

The Appalachian trail is a hiker’s paradise that extends nearly 2,200 miles (3.540) kilometers and goes through 14 states in the Eastern US. It is the longest hiking route in the world and over 3 million people hike parts of the trail every year. Completing the trail is a major accomplishment.

So how do you clean and maintain this national treasure?  According to The Trek, an online resource for hikers, there are 31 trail clubs that are all managed by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), and a slew of volunteers.

Volunteers are the heart and soul of the trail
The trail would not exist without the dedicated volunteers who contribute 240,000 hours every year to preserve and protect it, according to the conservancy. These volunteers actively do on-the- ground stewardship like maintaining the paths as well as repairing shelters. Volunteers also man the visitors’ centers.

“All long-distance trails depend on volunteers to keep them open and them well-maintained,” Josh Kloehn, resource manager for the Appalachian Trail’s Central and Southwest Virginia regional office told The Trek. “Having a good volunteer capacity is important for the ATC, the Forest Service, the Park Service, and all the clubs. Without volunteers, it’s hard to imagine what the trail would become.”

The volunteers, who are all trained, follow a few basic rules, reported The Christian Science Monitor. They are to keep the paths free of weeds, litter, and fallen trees so that people can walk unobstructed. And they are to report anything that they cannot fix themselves.

Work continues through the pandemic
The pandemic has made things harder because more people went outdoors when indoor gatherings were not allowed. But these novice hikers didn’t know hiking etiquette and left the trail a mess.

While the motto for experienced hikers is “leave no trace,” the newbies don’t understand that concept and have left litter along the trail and have actually damaged it by spray painting boulders and other vandalism.

“When you see stuff that frustrates you, you don’t like it, but you realize that’s why I’m here,” Jim Fetig, who manages the PATC’s program of paid seasonal trail ambassadors known as “ridgerunners” told the CS Monitor.” “You just rise to the occasion and take care of it and move on.”

This extra work didn’t stop the volunteers from coming either. In fact, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club which oversees 240-miles of the trail, worked 2,000 more volunteer hours than before the pandemic. The first maintenance crews in the 2022 season were a third larger than usual.

This response shows that people understand how important the trail is, according to Wayne Limberg, one of the PATC’s district managers in Shenandoah National Park. He told the CS Monitor, “We want to make sure that it can be enjoyed by those of us living now and also [for] future generations.

Volunteers are graying
This dedicated crew of volunteers are getting older, according to The Trek. Many of them are having to cut back on their work or stop working altogether. The problem is that not enough younger members are taking their places.

“It makes sense that a lot of our trail maintainers are retired individuals, because now they have the time,”  Kim Peters, 62, the trail maintenance coordinator for the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club told The Trek.

College service groups come to do volunteer projects on the trail in the early season. Some of the local clubs require all members to participate in a minimal amount of volunteer hours. But, Peters has her own solution. She would love to see every hiker on the Appalachian Trail give something back.

“If everybody donated just one day a year, it would be awesome,” she said. “If all the people who hiked would just, after their hike, volunteer one day, that would be so helpful. This work is fun and extremely rewarding. If we expose enough people, it’s going to take with some of them.”

So even if you can’t commit to volunteering, be kind to nature and leave no trace when you hike on this amazing national treasure.

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