Connecting on the Appalachian Trail
How to get involved with other hikers, from sharing stories to volunteering
Intrigued by the Appalachian Trail but don't have the time or energy to complete the entire 2,200-mile trek? There are other ways to get involved without breaking a sweat.
Each year in mid-May, Damascus, Va., (nicknamed "Trail Town, USA") plays host to hikers past and present for Trail Days, the single largest gathering of Appalachian Trail hikers and enthusiasts. Thru-hikers, those who walk the entire trail, often plan their route to pass through the town during the festival, which features food, music and a lively parade through the streets of Damascus.
The Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) also hosts an annual convention, The Gathering — which is billed as a kind of "Homecoming" for thru-hikers of all ages. This festival takes place each fall at various places along the trail, and provides attendees with workshops, film screenings, and plenty of opportunities to bond with fellow hikers. Each convention is an annual destination for many former thru-hikers — it offers them the chance to reconnect with friends they made on their trek, and to relive the memories of their hike.
"Trail magic" describes planned acts of kindness that people who live by the trail provide for hikers. It can be anything from handing out cold drinks to thirsty travelers at a highly trafficked crossing to opening your home and providing hikers with a place to stay for the night. These so-called "trail angels" are people who simply want to support hikers or perhaps people who've done the hike in the past who now want to give back.
Many past hikers believe there's no better way to stay connected to the trail than to give back to the trail itself — by volunteering with a trail maintenance club. It takes a lot of effort to keep the trail in safe shape for hikers, but plenty of people are willing to work toward that goal: The ATC estimates that volunteers clock over 200,000 hours of trail maintenance work each year. There are 30 trail maintenance clubs, whose headquarters span from Georgia to Maine. Even if you're not suited for the physical labor that trail maintenance requires, there are plenty of other ways to get involved. Volunteering on the trail not only gives you a chance to connect with other past hikers, but also allows the cycle to continue so that future hikers can experience their own life-changing journey.