Safety and Crime Prevention
- The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is safer than most places, it is not immune from crime or insulated against the problems of larger society.
- Stay aware of your surroundings: where you are, what you are doing, and who’s around.
- If your safety is threatened, call 9-1-1 or 1-866-677-6677.
- Share your plans with someone at home but not strangers, on line or in person. Check in with home as often as feasible.
- Pay as much attention to your mental preparation as your gear.
- Cellphone reception is unpredictable and in places nonexistent; consider a satellite-guided messenger device for long treks.
- Carry a map; no batteries required for that app.
Although the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is safer than most places, it is not immune from crime. In heavily used areas, A.T. “ridgerunners” and “caretakers” act as roving eyes and ears for Trail managers and for public education. They are not law enforcement. And, many areas of the Trail are remote, with little or no cellphone coverage, and help may be far away.
Safety awareness is one of your best lines of defense, and your mental preparedness and concentration on your surroundings provides your best tool in responding to situations. Here are some suggestions to minimize crime-related risk on the A.T., whether you’re day-hiking or thru-hiking.
Leave your hiking plans with someone at home and check in frequently
- Establish a time you will check in upon completion of your trip, as well as a procedure to follow if you fail to check in. Be sure your contacts and your family know your “Trail name” if you have one. On short hikes, provide them with the number of the land-managing agency for the area of your hike—information available on ATC maps or easily found on the Internet once you identify the federal or state agency.
- On extended hikes, provide someone at home the ATC Incident Reporting link at appalachiantrail.org/incidents. Long-distance hikers should check in regularly back home and be mindful that any deviation from a set pattern will likely cause anxiety and possibly an unnecessary search. Also let folks at home know when you are entering more remote areas where you may not be able to get cellphone service for an extended period.
Sharpen your situational awareness
- Situational awareness—in English, staying aware of your surroundings is one of your best defenses against crime. Be aware of what you are doing, where you are, and with whom you are talking. Remember to trust your gut—it’s usually right, even when your brain can’t explain why.
- Before you go, think about what could go wrong and how you will deal with it.
- Be aware that cell phones and earbuds may distract you and prevent you from seeing or hearing cues that could help you avert a dangerous situation.
- Always carry an outer layer of clothing that will protect you from wind and rain in the event you have to spend unplanned time in the woods during inclement weather.
Use extra caution if hiking alone
- You are safest with a group; neither a single partner nor a dog is a guarantee of safety. Moreover, do not succumb to a false sense of security when trekking with a partner. If you are by yourself, there is no need to broadcast that you are hiking alone or give information about your plans.
- If you are by yourself and encounter a stranger who makes you feel uncomfortable, say you are with a group that is behind you.
- If you encounter someone who makes you feel uneasy, avoid engaging them, and put distance between you. Move on; try to connect with another group of hikers. Always pay attention to your instincts about other people.
Be wary of strangers
- Be polite, but cautious. Don’t tell strangers your plans. Avoid or get away quickly from people who act suspiciously, seem hostile or unstable, or are intoxicated.
- If your safety is threatened, call 911. Do not feel you need to decide what’s a crime first—that’s law-enforcement’s job. Most importantly, telling the world on Facebook does not count; law enforcement seldom monitors Trail-related social media.
- If you see something suspicious, stay safe, and tell us about it. If you are unable to call 911 or 1-866-677-6677, notify local law enforcement as soon as possible.
Use the Trail registers (the notebooks stored at most shelters)
- If someone needs to locate you, or if a serious crime has been committed along the Trail, registers entries may be helpful to authorities. Sign in so that family back home will know it’s you (let them know if you have adopted a Trail name). When signing in, consider not using gender-specific names or revealing personal information that may increase your vulnerability. Leave a note, and report any suspicious activities in the Trail registers.
- Be wary of posting your location or itinerary on online journals or social media in real time. A password-protected blog or site can offer more protection.
Be aware that you may encounter different cultural norms along the Trail
- Hikers on the A.T. are an eclectic bunch. Actions, clothing, or language choices that may be viewed as simply freedom of expression in the generally accepting culture of the A.T. or your own social circle can be viewed quite differently in some local communities or by individual hikers on the Trail.
- The A.T. has an extraordinary culture of kindness, tolerance, and generosity and is sometimes viewed as a sanctuary from the ills of the modern world. However, remember that the Trail is not insulated against the problems of larger society, and no personality or other tests are required to step foot on the A.T. Maintain awareness at all times, and remember you are responsible for your own safety.
Carrying firearms on the A.T. requires a lot of forethought and planning
In general, ATC discourages the carrying of firearms on the Trail for the reasons noted below. On federal lands administered by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), possession of a firearm must be in compliance with the law of the state in which the federal land is located. Many hikers feel the carrying of firearms is unnecessary and contrary to the social nature of the Trail. Firearms can be turned against you or result in an accidental shooting and are extra weight. If you plan to carry, be sure to acquire training beforehand and mentally prepare yourself for using the firearm. Because laws related to carry and concealed carry vary by state and land unit, it’s best to contact the forest, park, or state land unit through which you’ll be passing to ensure that you are aware of the relevant laws and have acquired any necessary permits. Firearms are not permitted in NPS buildings, including visitor centers.
More information about laws pertaining to carrying firearms in various locations along the A.T. can be found here:
- Firearms in National Parks (NPS guidance)
- Laws Regarding Firearms on National Forest Lands (USFS Guidance)
- Regulations regarding firearms on NPS A.T. corridor lands (with links to state statutes on firearms in the 14 States the A.T. passes through)
- ATC’s Hunting page (Safety tips for hikers and info for hunters)
Avoid hitchhiking or accepting rides
- Hikers needing to get into towns are safest making arrangements beforehand and budgeting for shuttles (or ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft where they are available). Remember that cell service may not be available at many trailheads.
- In an emergency situation requires you to hitchhike, be sure to have a partner, and flag down a vehicle yourself, so you chose the vehicle, not vice versa. Let someone know your plans ahead of time. Make a careful evaluation before entering a vehicle. Size up the driver, occupants, and condition of the vehicle. If anything just “doesn’t add up,” decline the offer.
- Before you accept a ride, make sure you have your phone (with some battery life left), ID, and wallet on your person. Do not get separated from your pack. Photograph or write down the license plate and note the make, model, and color of the vehicle. Note that hitchhiking is illegal in some states, and carefully consider the risks you are taking. Riding in the back of a pick-up truck is extremely dangerous from a crash perspective and should be avoided. If you have a negative encounter, report it to the local police.
Eliminate opportunities for theft
- Don’t bring jewelry. Hide your money. If you must leave your pack momentarily, hide it, or leave it with someone trustworthy. Don’t leave valuables or equipment (especially in sight) in vehicles parked at Trailheads, and don’t camp near roads.
- More tips for leaving a parked vehicle can be found on our Parking, Shuttles & Transportation page.
In an emergency, first determine your location as best you are able and then call 911. Report your location and the emergency, and then ask the dispatcher to contact the National Park Service 24-hour communications center at 1-866-677-6677.
In an emergency
- Call 911 (If you have a phone and can get a signal). Tell the dispatcher you are an A.T. hiker, and provide your location (include name and approximate distance of nearest town and road if possible). Report the emergency, and then ask the dispatcher to contact National Park Service dispatch 24-hour communications center at 1-866-677-6677. A.T. maps and guidebooks often list other numbers in case 911 does not work.
- If you don’t have cell service, activate an SOS call on your satellite messenger or personal locator beacon, if you are carrying one.
- If you don’t have a phone or can’t get a signal, the standard call of distress consists of three short calls, audible or visible, repeated at regular intervals. A whistle, which should be a standard piece of gear for any hiker, is particularly good for audible signals. Visible signals may include, in daytime, light flashed with a mirror and, at night, a flashlight. Anyone recognizing such a signal should acknowledge with two calls—if possible by the same method—then go to the distressed person to determine the nature of the emergency. Arrange for additional aid if necessary.
Carry a map so you can describe your location
- In an emergency, assistance may be delayed if you cannot describe your location in detail. A map will help you describe surrounding landmarks to rescuers or law enforcement (who may be unfamiliar with the A.T.), show access points and routes, and provide you with the names of the nearest town and the county in which you are located. ATC-published maps aspire to show the area within three miles of the footpath.
- Keep in mind that, while cell phones and apps can be useful navigation tools, they cannot be relied on exclusively in the backcountry. Not only is cell phone reception spotty, but batteries can be drained within hours or minutes. Cell phones have limited or no functionality in cold weather and rainy or snowy conditions and in bright sunlight can also be hard to use.
- A variety of satellite- and GPS-guided messenger devices (SPOT, Garmin’s InReach, other personal locator devices) are an alternative for long-distance hikers, because they do not require a cell signal to either reassure family of your location for the night or alert law enforcement by pushing the SOS button.
Don’t panic if you’re lost or injured
- Most of the A.T. is well-enough traveled during times of popular use that, if you are injured, you can expect to be found. However, if an area is remote and the weather is bad, fewer hikers will be on the Trail, especially after dark.
- Keep your pack with you. If it is necessary to leave a heavy pack behind, be sure to take essentials in case your rescue is delayed.
- Don’t leave marked trails and try to “bushwhack” out. You will be harder to find and are more likely to encounter dangerous terrain: yet another reason why a hiking map is an essential safety tool.
- Afterward, when everyone is safe and accounted for, follow up by filing an A.T. incident report and a report with local law enforcement.
Know your cell phone’s capability
- Cell-phone reception on the A.T. is unpredictable and varies significantly with service providers. Mobile phone companies have online maps showing their area of coverage. Reception is best on ridgelines or peaks and may be poor or nonexistent in gaps, hollows, and narrow valleys. Trail shelters and campsites are often located in areas without service. Do NOT seek the high ground during storms; shelter as best you can until the storm passes.
- Remote areas such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina, Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area in southwest Virginia, and most of the Trail in Maine in particular are areas you may not find service for extended periods. Keep in mind you’ll need to conserve your batteries. Be sure to tell folks back home in advance you may not be able to call as frequently as you have been.
Report an incident
While the Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe place to visit, that does not mean that there are no potential dangers while you are hiking or camping. If you see something, say something — this will help us keep the A.T. as safe as possible for Trail visitors.
Flora and fauna
The Appalachian Mountains are home to many plants and animals. Educate yourself about best practices to avoid negative encounters with the few that have potential to harm you.
Black bears live or pass through almost all parts of the Appalachian Trail corridor. While attacks on humans are extremely rare, a startled bear may react aggressively. Especially at overnight sites where hikers have been careless about storing food, bears may become habituated and may become aggressive in pursuit of human food. Be aware that bears have an exceptionally keen sense of smell.
The best way to avoid an encounter while you are hiking is letting a bear know you’re there.
- Make noise by whistling, talking, etc., to give the bear a chance to move away before you get close enough to make it feel threatened.
- If you encounter a bear and it does not move away, you should
- Back away.
- Speak calmly and firmly.
- Avoid making eye contact.
- Do not run or “play dead” even if a bear makes a “bluff charge.”
The best defense against a bear encounter in camp is preparing and storing food properly:
- Cook and eat your meals 200 feet away from your tent or shelter, so food odors do not linger.
- Carry a bear-resistant personal food storage container to reduce negative human/bear interactions and keep you, your food, and bears safe; here is a list of certified personal food storage containers.There are a number of benefits to carrying a bear-resistant canister.Bear canisters seasonally required for camping between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap in Georgia. See the Georgia section of our Trail Updates page for more information.Alternatively, carry all the items necessary for a proper bear hang when food storage devices are not provided. Allow 45 minutes at the end of the day to find a suitable tree that is 200 feet from your campsite and cooking area, and to successfully throw a rope over a limb. Your bag should hang 12 feet from the ground, 6 feet below the limb, and 6 feet from the tree’s trunk. Hang not only food but cookware, toothpaste, personal hygiene items, and even water bottles (if you use drink mixes in them). The PCT Method of hanging is recommended if you are hanging your food. Practice at home first!
- Where bear boxes, poles, or cable systems are provided, use them, but don’t count on them. Many overnight sites do not provide food storage, and they can be full or damaged. Never leave trash in bear boxes, feed bears, or leave food for them. Know the regulations for food storage before you go.
- Do not leave food unattended unless stored in a way that a bear cannot get to it. In other words, do not leave your food at your campsite or on a picnic table while you fetch water, visit the privy, etc.
- Do not burn food wrappers or leftovers or leave them in fire pits, which may attract bears.
- Avoid becoming complacent when storing your food. Just because there have been no reports of bear activity in the area does not mean that bears are not present. All it takes is one food bag that is not hung properly to change a bear’s habits.
- Improperly stored food may lead to a bear becoming habituated to human food.
- Aggressive behavior on the part of bears seeking easy food sources may result in damage to personal property, injuries to campers, and ultimately to removal or euthanization of bears.)
- Whether a bear is fed intentionally or unintentionally, a fed bear is a dead bear.
Encountering a bear in your campsite:
- A bear that enters a campsite or cooking area should be considered potentially dangerous. Yelling, making loud noises and throwing rocks may make it go away; however, you should be prepared to fight back if necessary. If you are actually attacked by a bear, you should fight for all you are worth with anything at hand.
For more information, visit the Black Bear page of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Venomous and nonvenomous snakes are widespread along the Trail in warm weather, but they are generally passive. Watch where you step and where you put your hands. Snakes are active at night in hot weather, so use a flashlight and wear shoes. Respect Wildlife – please don’t kill them!
Snake bites are rare, and bites from venomous snakes do not always contain venom. Very few people die from snakebites in the U.S.
If you are bitten by a snake you believe to be venomous:
- Try to remain calm.
- Call 911 and seek medical treatment as quickly as possible. In the backcountry, this may mean walking out to a trailhead instead of waiting for emergency personnel to reach you.
- Wash the wound with soap and water.
- Do not apply ice.
- Do not apply a tourniquet.
- Remove rings or other jewelry that could function as a tourniquet if swelling occurs.
- Do not use a “cut and suck” method to try and remove venom.
Spiders are not aggressive, but may bite when trapped or touched. Be careful around wood piles and other dark, dry places. Inspect footwear and clothing for spiders and shake them out before putting them on, especially if left outside overnight.
A few hikers have reported bites of recluse-type spiders that required them to leave the Trail and seek medical care. Wash any bites with soap and water.
Symptoms of a spider bite include:
- Redness, intense pain, and a blister at the bite site that becomes ulcerated.
- The development of a rash.
Poison ivy grows along many parts of the A.T. (except the highest elevations of the South and in parts of northern New England) and can cause considerable discomfort if you have touched it. Learning to recognize it is the best way to avoid contact.
The leaves are in clusters of three, the end leaf with a longer stalk and pointed tip. Poison ivy is most often seen as a vine trailing near the ground or climbing trees, sometimes with a thick, hair stalk. The vine can send out horizontal limbs from a large vine that at first glance appears to be the lowest branches of the tree.
If you have touched poison ivy:
- Wash immediately with strong soap (but not with one containing added oil) and cold water.
- If a rash develops in the next few days, apply over-the-counter products from a pharmacy to minimize discomfort. It usually takes several days for the blisters to disappear.
- Do not scratch.
- If blisters become serious or the rash spreads to the eyes, see a doctor.
Sudden weather changes, river crossings, and lightning on the A.T. introduce environmental risks to hikers. Take sensible precautions. Walking in the open means you will be susceptible to sudden changes in weather, and traveling on foot means that it may be hard to find shelter quickly. Pay attention to the changing skies. Sudden spells of “off-season” cold weather, hail, and even snow are common along many parts of the Trail. Hot weather, particularly in Virginia and mid-Atlantic summers, poses the risk of heat-related illnesses.
Virtually every part of the Trail has the potential to receive snowfall through early April. Winter-like weather often occurs in late spring or early fall in the southern Appalachians, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Mountains in the South, especially those above 5,000 feet, can receive snowfall – sometimes deep. The highest peaks in Tennessee, North Carolina, and southwest Virginia receive an average of close to 100 inches of snowfall a year.
In the northern Appalachians, it can snow during any month of the year. In Maine and New Hampshire, snow can linger until June. The locations that receive the most snow are often the most remote. Be prepared for the conditions you may encounter.
The following websites can help you become acquainted with weather patterns along the Appalachian Trail:
- National Weather Service National Snowfall Analysis – Current and archived snow maps and other data on snow
- ATWeather.org – Weather forecasts for shelters along the A.T.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park Weather – Average high and low temperatures, average snowfall by month, weather data from the last 24 hours for the highest mountains on the Trail (in Tennessee and North Carolina)
- Mt. Washington Observatory – Weather data at the summit of the highest peak on the A.T. in New England and Higher Summits Forecast – Forecasts for elevations of 4,000 ft and above in the White Mountains
- Weathercarrot’s AT Snow Maps – Average annual snowfall for the entire A.T.
A cold rain can be the most dangerous weather for hikers, because it can cause hypothermia (or “exposure”) even when conditions are well above freezing. When the wind blows, its chill effect can make you much colder than the temperature would lead you to suspect, especially if you’re sweaty or wet. Hypothermia occurs when wind and rain chill the body so that its core temperature drops if the condition is not treated in time.
Avoid hypothermia by dressing in layers of synthetic clothing, eating well, staying hydrated, and knowing when to take refuge in a warm sleeping bag and tent or shelter. Cotton clothing, such as blue jeans, tends to chill you when it gets wet from rain or sweat, increasing your risk of hypothermia. Natural wool and artificial fibers such as nylon, polyester, and polypropylene all do a much better job of insulating your body in cold, wet weather.
Hot dry summers are surprisingly common along the Trail, particularly in the Virginias and the mid-Atlantic. Water may be scarce on humid days, sweat does not evaporate well, and many hikers face the danger of heat stroke and heat exhaustion if they haven’t taken proper precautions.
Common types of heat problems:
- Sunburn: Occurs rapidly and can be quite severe at higher elevations; hikers in the Virginias and southern Appalachians are often surprised by bad sunburn in spring, when no leaves are on the trees.
- Heat Cramps: Usually caused by strenuous activity in high heat and humidity, when sweating depletes salt levels in blood and tissues.
- Heat Exhaustion: Occurs when the body’s heat-regulating system breaks down. A victim amy have heat cramps, sweat heavily, have cold, moist skin, and a face that is flushed, then pale.
- Heat stroke: A life threatening condition that occurs when the body’s system of sweating fails to cool a person adequately. Body temperature can rise to 106 degrees or higher.
The odds of being struck by lightning are low, but if a storm is coming, immediately leave exposed areas. Boulders, rocky overhangs, and shallow caves offer no protection from lightning, which may actually flow through rocks along the ground after a strike. Tents and convertible automobiles are no good, either.
Sheltering in hard-roofed automobiles or large buildings is best, although they are rarely available to a hiker. If you cannot enter a building or car, take shelter in a group of smaller trees or in the forest.
- Tall structures (such as ski lifts, flagpoles, and power line towers)
- The tallest trees
- Solitary rocks
- Open hilltops or ridges
River and Stream Crossings
Fording streams and rivers may be the most dangerous challenge hikers confront. River crossings can be deceptively hazardous. Even a very shallow, swiftly flowing body of water can pack enough force to knock you off your feet. Use caution and common sense.
If a section of the Trail is closed or presents a serious safety hazard, hikers may take an alternate route or skip those sections entirely and still be eligible to receive 2,000-miler status. Read Safety Tips for Fording Streams and Rivers for advice.
Where to Hike
Our Favorites for a Winter Adventure
These hikes are not only enjoyable, but also safe for a colder day
What to Know Before You Go
Wide-open views, crisp air and solitude make for a cool hike, but when winter hiking, being prepared is key.
By Marina Ritchie
Wherever you are on the Appalachian Trail, birds offer sweet companionship. Yet, as hiker numbers soar, bird populations tumble.
Where to Hike
Our Favorites for a Winter Adventure
These hikes are not only enjoyable, but also safe for a colder day
What to Know Before You Go
Wide-open views, crisp air and solitude make for a cool hike, but when winter hiking, being prepared is key.