Plan and Prepare

Safety

Learning about the hazards you may face when hiking the Appalachian Trail and how to avoid or prepare for them is the best way to stay safe.


Report an Incident

While the Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe place to visit, that does not mean that there are not 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 our visitors.

 

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 post offices and NPS buildings, including visitor centers.

More information about laws pertaining to carrying firearms in various locations along the A.T. can be found here:

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.

Emergencies

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.

Report

Environmental considerations

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.

For more important information see:
Lightning Safety on the A.T.

Lightning

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.

Avoid:

  • 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.