The answers to this survey were so diverse and thoughtful, I put off writing this for a long time because I was trying to figure out a way to do it justice. The responses were surprisingly diverse, with people from every region of the US, an equal number of past thru-hikers and aspiring thru-hikers (20% of each), 40% people who don’t hike often, and a few people from Europe. An unexpected issue with the survey was the number of people who didn’t answer arbitrary numbers of multiple-choice questions (I expected this with the open-ended one but got more/better responses than I imagined), and because of this combined with the modest sample size I think the results are not going to be statistically super scientific. That being said, here are some of the things I noticed/my favorite responses.
Trail Maintenance Around 30% of respondents named at least one trail club. The most mentioned was WTA (only 4 mentions, one of which was me) and the rest of the answers were totally unique. People named big clubs, local park organizations, or said simply “there are none in central Kansas.” I think this is pretty good, considering only around half of respondents hike at least once per month. Only 40% of previous thru-hikers in the survey do trail maintenance, though. We can do better!
Beautiful Reasons for Hiking Spiritual reasons were the most often cited as reasons to hike, as well as getting away from other people, communing with nature, and mental clarity. Some of my favorite reasons mentioned were “chasing waterfalls” and “meeting people with dogs.”Sphagnum P.I. gave a good description of what you see when you are on foot and in nature: “There are endless discoveries waiting out there, whether they’re bugs, birds, plants, or people. The speed of walking to a destination allows chances to see everything in a detail we can’t get by any other mode of transport.”
Why We Walk For hiking, the most important factors among those listed were a good workout, an interesting destination, and a lack of crowds. This makes sense given the number of people who specifically mentioned that they hike to get away from people. Convenience of location and availability were surprisingly middle-ranked for most people; I thought they would be major factors. Three people put “the hike is close to my favorite pizza place” as the number one factor. I can get behind this.
For walks around town, the most important factors were that the walk took people somewhere useful and that it was less than five miles long. Weather and attractiveness of the route came next. Some of the least important factors were someone to walk with and walks less than a mile. I was encouraged by people’s willingness to walk more than one mile! Some people mentioned specific problems that kept them from walking, such as lack of trees and confusing intersections.
Walkability and Urban Planning On average, people rated their neighborhood 57% walkable, even though a lot of the respondents were from rural/suburban areas. Predictably, people in the northwest and northeast as well as Europe rated their neighborhoods most walkable, and the midwest did worse (except someone who loves walking around Columbus, Ohio! You go Columbus!)
A couple of people made the totally valid point that public transit and bike lanes/paths make a lot of difference in the navigability of the city. Of course, in order for buses to work, a city has to make it easy to walk to the bus stops, and bikes and pedestrians often share paths, so these things go hand-in-hand. They are just as important for making a city feel livable, for sure.
Several people mentioned a need to encourage making “walking a part of our culture again” (Mouse) and that cities tend to be “designed with cars in mind” (Kathy). Many felt that they had no idea how to advocate for walkability or that these concerns were largely ignored. Some people expressed excitement about new developments to aid in walkability or expressed specific concerns, such as a person in Spain who was distressed about the lack of available dog poop bags to help with a waste problem.
I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail earlier this year (2016). My dad thru-hiked back before it was really even much of a thing, in 1978. Obviously, a lot has changed about the trail in 40 years, but just how much? While we were on a little hiking trip on the AT in Georgia this holiday season, I asked him some questions to compile some comparisons between our hikes. (Note: I hiked northbound. My dad flip-flopped somewhere in Virginia and walked south from Katahdin. Also I didn’t record my dad speaking so I just paraphrased unless it’s in quotes.)
Was hiking the AT fun?
Me: Usually? It wasn’t always fun, but I definitely had some of the best days of my life. Not when I was so cold I started yelling nonsense at mountains or had poison ivy… but definitely when we were cresting the ridges in the whites or finding the hot tub in hot springs it was. Maybe in 40 years I’ll think it was always fun.
How many people did you see?
Dad: There was a big northbound bubble, and I saw it coming south. It didn’t last long, though. I saw about 60 hikers a day for about 2 days and then no one. When I was hiking north I sometimes saw 5 people in a day, but one time we fit 30 people in a shelter when it was raining.
Me: I thought it was super awful crowded in Georgia and the Smokies, then other times we would sometimes have around 20 people at a campsite or shelter, but never saw too many during the day. Somehow even with crowd problems in some places there were also days-long stretches we saw literally no one. It felt like when we got into town we suddenly had 50 friends. Everyone told us we were ahead of the bubble, and somewhere or other there were over 100 people in one place, but that’s impossible to confirm.
What was your trail name/did everyone have one?
Dad: Pretty much everyone had one. I started off with the name Semi, because I was slow going up hills and fast going down them. I don’t remember who gave that to me. Then I was Aznageel, because I wrote these stories in the shelter logs and that “seemed like a whimsical name” (it’s from a T.Rex song). They were the Snifforn Stories, some people I met would remember me by them. The best trail name was probably Ann and Al Weed, who called themselves the tumbleweeds. (When talking about people, he used their real names more often though.)
Me: Everyone except maybe 2 people I met used trail names, and I didn’t usually know their real name. I was Mishap, because a guy named ETA said “after all your mishaps, you’ll be the first one on Katahdin if you make it through.” We had probably 5 Tumbleweeds, and my favorite trail name was Sphagnum P.I., who spent a lot of time carefully inspecting mosses.
Where did you stay?
Dad: Hostels where we could, but there weren’t very many and they were usually something bare bones like an unstaffed bunkhouse. We stayed in The Place in Damascus (it’s still there but there are other hostels too now), and the Jesuit hostel in Hot Springs (pretty sure that’s the Laughing Heart now, also Elmer’s was founded the year my dad hiked but he didn’t know about it), and somewhere in Rangeley. We stayed in a lot of cheap motels and a BnB in Caratunk. The shelters were there, some of them still had wire bunks at the time and almost no privies.
Me: We stayed in tons of hostels (at least…8?), in someone’s RV, in some random people’s houses, in some cheap motels, in a very nice cabin in Shenandoah as a treat, and in our friend Elle’s parents’ house. A couple of times we paid more than I wish we did to go to a hotel and dry our clothes and not get trenchfoot when it rained for many days in a row. People in New York were offering their houses to us with a frequency we couldn’t accept, for some reason. (Thanks, people in New York!) Also, we obviously camped a lot, and toward the end I got over my aversion to shelters.
What did you eat?
Dad: So much macaroni and cheese. Sometimes we put MnMs in it because we were desperate. Oatmeal, peanut butter, always a block of cheese. One time when my dad visited he brought these “Mormon dehydrated eggs” because, you know, Mormons have to dehydrate a certain amount of food to store just in case. It was the best thing ever after oatmeal for so many days. Also we picked so many berries we started carrying bags to put them in.
Me: My parents sent me boxes with dehydrated meals that were either homemade or Backpacker’s Pantry/Good-to-go meals. I think they were all actually really good. We ate a lot of tortillas and almonds, and I hate them now. We didn’t bother to cook oatmeal anymore after a while, and ate granola with powder milk. I ate so many snickers I think I kept them in business. I think Wade ate a 1lb block of cheese all at once at some point. I picked blueberries a lot, and put them in our granola. We also ate ramps in the south.
What did you carry?
Dad: When we started, my pack probably weighed 90 pounds, but I had to go back and rethink some things. My pack was military surplus. I carried a “crappy, no-name sleeping bag” and a wool blanket. It was not great when it was cold, it was definitely a summer bag. I had a Svea stove, some kind of old boy scout pot, a net hammock from K-Mart, a foam insulite pad, Georgia brand boots (with nails to hold the sole on). For clothes I had a thin wool sweater and a windbreaker, and a single shirt and pair of shorts that I would just throw away and replace occasionally.
Me: At the start, my pack probably weighed 30lb, and Wade’s maybe 38. They got probably 5 lbs lighter. My pack was an 8-year-old Kelty 40L thing I couldn’t part with, and I had a nice 20 degree sleeping bag with a liner. I had a homemade alcohol stove that weighs nothing and started with a tiny, one-person pot for both of us, which we traded for something a guy at an outfitter gave us for free because he didn’t need it anymore. I started with an air mattress, but it was about 3 times as big as me and I just got a 3/4-length thermarest instead. I carried a down jacket, 2 shirts, shorts, a hat, and 3 pairs of underwear. At some points I also had another thin jacket and long underwear, but I am more cold-natured and also started much earlier in the year.
Who were your friends? What did they do in real life?
Dad: I don’t remember many. There was Lucinda and her dog Sunshine. I almost didn’t remember her name, only the dog’s… There was a blind girl thru-hiking, who made us feel really bad when we took the easy way up Albert Mountain and we saw her coming up the steep side with her seeing-eye dog. Helen and Jerry were some grad students, and Helen and I wrote a few times after the trail. I met Allen, who was a chef, in Maine. He smoked so much pot. I specifically remember someone I met who was hiking north when I was hiking south, and we called ourselves the “thru-hiking slugs.” I think we could have hiked together.
Me: We met a lot of other engineers, some retirees, some people who owned their own businesses and took time away, some people with seasonal jobs like a farmer and someone who packed boxes for Amazon. We met a couple of people who just finished high school and some people who were about to go to grad school. I don’t want to list a bunch of people’s names because I’m not sure if any of them would mind, plus there are so many! We met so many wonderful people. We hiked with some of them for a day here and there, saw some randomly throughout the whole trail, and stayed with some on purpose for weeks at a time.
Did people think you were weird?
Dad: Absolutely. Most people knew what the AT was but had no idea how or why we were thru-hiking. There was not trail magic.
Me: In so many places we felt expected, but random passerby would still ask us 1000 questions sometimes, and you would occasionally find someone who had no idea what you were doing. A lot of businesses were geared toward thru-hikers, though, and people went out of their way to give us free stuff, almost like we were travelling monks.
Do you think hikers followed Leave No Trace principles?
Dad: As far as I know, no, because it wasn’t even a thing at the time. I just thought about not leaving an impact like based on the boy scout motto. Most people didn’t carry cathole shovels because they were heavy, and there was always a decent amount of trash at shelters.
Me: So many hikers picked up a ton of other people’s trash, but because of the trail being so popular there was still sometimes trash at shelters. I think most people tried to follow LNT, but there were some people who just didn’t care, and quite a few people got really lazy about bear bags, even in areas with a lot of bears. There were a lot of bear problems this year.
What was your favorite thing about hiking the trail?
Dad: The exercise. I had a lot of solitude and I liked that. I also miss the smells. There was a hail storm in the middle of a bunch of hemlock trees, and it smelled like Christmas. I remember it to this day. And earthy smells, even the smell of wet dog.
Me: I think I liked the simplicity of goals and routines, and the fact that everyone around you was doing the same thing. Also I miss chipmunks, newts, and tiny snakes. And my friends.
I also found some things that were still there after all of these years. I ate at the same restaurant my dad did in Rangeley, Maine. He also always told a story about seeing a sign for pancakes that were free if you broke the pancake-eating record (which of course he did), right off the trail in Maine. It’s not owned by the same person, but I’m fairly sure it was what is now Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camps. I also had pancakes there, but only twelve. If you have any more questions, let me know. 🙂 My dad is just a call away.
You don’t have to be a thru-hiker to notice some surprising physical and psychological benefits of walking. Some of the most magical effects of traveling on your own power include:
You sleep better. One of my friends on the Appalachian Trail once said, “My favorite part of the day is when I get in my sleeping bag.” Okay, maybe she meant that she was tired of hiking, but the sleep you get after being active all day is unbeatable. Endorphins not only make you happier during the day, they help you sleep better.
You see more. When you’re walking, you’re more likely to notice bugs, plants, migrating birds, unexpected roadside art, vistas. You can walk many places you can’t drive, or even bike, such as hiking trails or local park paths and alleyways. On a long-distance trek, you’ll see the in-between parts of America that you would normally never give a second glance, the roadside diners and strange country stores. You’ll have time to look for the scenic route in small trails or less-trafficked roads.
You waste less. Obviously, walking is a win for the environment compared to driving, but you’ll also save money. In addition to eliminating the need for gas money, walking is its own entertainment and will provide a vacation in itself without expensive attractions. When traveling by car, time in transit feels wasted. But traveling by foot, the means is the end. In a way, your time is used more meaningfully as well.
You build confidence. Walking long distances and/or on tough terrain definitely makes you physically stronger. But you gain mental strength as well. It’s empowering to be able to get where you want to go using only your own body. And if you can climb that huge mountain in the rain by yourself with a duct taped shoe, what can’t you do?
You have interesting interactions with strangers. I have always been surprised by the amount of friendliness I have seen when walking to my destination. People will want to share a meal or conversation just because you have an interesting story. From my experience, being in a car makes us want everything to happen instantly, but when you are putting in a lot of effort to get somewhere, a break for a chat is more welcome. From waitresses to fellow backpackers to Airbnb hosts (some of whom make great conversationalists and some less so), you’ll probably meet some people you wouldn’t have met otherwise.
You become more mindful. Slowing down gives you plenty of time to reflect. If you’re alone you can think, meditate, sing, or truly enjoy music. If you’re with a friend, long walks are the perfect time for uninterrupted, fluid conversation. Carrying your belongings also brings an opportunity to be mindful about what you bring and what you truly need. Most importantly, I’ve always found I feel more grounded in my connection with my body and its relationship to the world.
The first day, google maps estimated I would walk 25 miles to get to my first Airbnb host. I was still thinking in hiking terms, so I started at 6AM thinking there was no way I’d finish before dark. It was strange walking around with a backpack in the dark. I couldn’t tell if people in Seattle thought I was homeless or just walking very far home from a bus. Eventually, though, I started to see people putting out signs for their coffeeshops or walking their dogs. As I got closer to the water, I saw people with rollerboard suitcases obviously just off a boat of some kind and fishermen drinking hot chocolate under a shelter. Getting out of the city center was a little strange, but eventually I found a bike path into West Seattle and got to the ferry dock.
I chose to take a route down Vashon Island because it looked closer to the coast, which usually means more scenic… right? The ferry to Vashon was leaving in 20 minutes when I got there. I walked past a bunch of cars and waited in a room with one high school age girl to board the ferry on foot. I went out on deck to look at the water. Amazingly for Seattle this time of year, the sun was out and the water was sparkling. Seagulls were everywhere. I stood in the wind for a while and then went inside to read my accidentally relevant book, Sarah Canary, which takes place, largely on foot, around Puget Sound.
When I got to Vashon Island, a man who had been standing next to me on the ferry dock offered me a ride into “town” (which obviously would have defeated the purpose of this trip). My Airbnb host was texting me offering potential routes. So far, everyone was being much nicer than expected. I decided to walk along the coast as long as possible before rejoining the main highway. I walked along some beautiful beaches and some vineyards which were closed for the season. I soon saw what everyone meant by “town.” It was a small, beachy town center with endearing public art and lots of boutiques. I stopped at a cafe, where I got a hard cider and charged my phone. My host offered a route hiking through the forest on the island to her house, but I decided to stick with the highway route because I didn’t want to leave the coast yet.
Whatever the other route was like, the small highway did not disappoint. I had been walking on sidewalks or bike paths up to this point, but now I was on a broad shoulder of a country road. It was a beautiful combination of beach-town and rural, with VW vans with crazy paint jobs, run-down shacks on beaches, and countless farmstands. I saw this awesome statue of Cool Gary, who is apparently a local legend.
By the end of the day, I was getting a little tired and leaning against a yacht club fence to take a break. Still, I hiked my 25 miles before 3PM and arrived at my host’s house. My hosts were an older couple who provided some welcome conversation and friendliness and their secluded rural home. They even treated me to dinner because I had no other real means of getting hot food. I fell asleep at 9:00 and slept for 10 hours, happy to be in a bed after a hard day.
I love walking. I think it is the most underrated form of transportation. Of course I love hiking, but it doesn’t have to be a predetermined trail or instagram-worthy trip to merit a walk. Whenever possible, I walk to where I am going, even if it involves carrying groceries two miles or walking 3 hours to a concert venue. My whole life, I have been asked incredulously, “You walked here?” This last summer, I hiked the 2189 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and it was one of the happiest times of my life, because being perpetually on foot changes the way you see the world, and the way it sees you.
As a thru hiker (a word for someone who hikes a long trail all in one go), you become familiar with the concept of “trail magic,” where strangers help you out for no reason other than that you are on a journey. You get tons of free food, free beer, a free shower or stay in someone’s house. Strangers want to help you, because by walking you make yourself vulnerable. You work so much for every meal and place to sleep, and give up a lot of freedom.
At the same time, you become more aware and grateful. You notice small sights you would never see even on a bike. You become incredibly affected by circumstances, whether they be weather or a stranger’s kindness, and learn to appreciate them more. What does a free ride mean when you could call an Uber? What does the sun mean when you can go indoors at any time? By putting yourself at the mercy of outside forces and surrendering some kinds of freedom, you become humble and at the same time incredibly free.
And so, as a recovering thru-hiker, I thought I would do a little. I told my coworkers and friends, “maybe I’ll walk to Olympia this holiday weekend.” (A one hour drive from where I live in Seattle.) They all responded in some way like: “Can you really do that?” “By yourself? Aren’t you worried about getting murdered?” “Where will you stay?” and eventually some version of “No one really does that, but I guess I don’t see why you can’t….”
So the day before, I found some somewhat arbitrary Airbnb stops for around $50 each, basically did no other planning, and packed my AT backpack with a bunch of impractical things like extra sweaters, a hardcover book, a pound of blackberries, and a stuffed pink otter. Then in the morning, I walked out my door and followed google maps toward Olympia.