Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: June 2009

For many people, a visit to a national park is a chance to experience nature and visit this country’s wilderness. For thru-hikers, visiting a national park is like going to the big city, full of modern conveniences, crowds of people, and bureaucratic regulations. About a hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail passes through Shenandoah National Park. For nearly that entire length, the trail follows the ridgeline. The park’s main road, Skyline Drive, follows the same ridge. The trail and the road cross each other dozens of times, so the thru-hiker never feels far from civilization. More importantly, the trail comes within close proximity of several camp stores, wayside snack bars, and restaurants. I never heard a thru-hiker complain about the lack of wilderness. Everyone was thrilled at the prospect of food that wasn’t added to a pot of boiling water.

The park is also a place where thru-hikers come into close contact with their civilian counterparts. People come out from the city for a few days of hiking and invariably cross paths with thru-hikers. At the crowded shelters, these two groups eye each other with suspicion.  I’m hardly roughing it at all, thinks the weekend camper. I’m more removed from civilization than I though, thinks the thru-hiker. Even more interesting are the encounters with people who visit the park without ever venturing far from their cars. (“I drove Skyline Drive” brags one sticker for sale at a gift shop.) Thru-hikers can hardly contain their disbelief that someone could go to the mountains without sleeping in the dirt. But deep down, we’re all a little jealous that they get daily showers.

After hiking a few miles one morning I came across a large lodge on the road. Leaving my pack outside, I went in and was seated in the dining room for breakfast. Cloth napkins, table service, a menu that extended far beyond instant oatmeal, I was set. Looking around at the cotton-wearing tourists around me, I was very pleased to have momentarily returned to human society. At the table behind me were some German visitors. “Excuse me, sir?” said the German woman in a heavy accent. “Yes?” I responded, expecting a polite question about hiking the trail, or living in America. “You have a small animal on your shirt.” She pointed to the back of my shoulder. I went to brush it off with my hand, then remembered my manners and used my napkin. The waiter hurried over to help me remove the hard-to-reach creature. Probably a caterpillar. So much for rejoining society.

Walking with two other thru-hikers past an RV campsite one evening I watched the campers watching us. We must be a strange sight, I thought. They probably didn’t even know there was a trail next to their picnic table. I thought it might be helpful for the park service to add thru-hikers to their informational signs. It would help hikers co-exist with city folk in our shared national park. Here is my proposed text:


Among the many natural wonders of Shenandoah National Park is its location on a major migration route for thru-hikers. If you are visiting in early summer, look carefully. You may see up to 30 thru-hikers a day heading north on the trail you see in front of you! Thru-hikers are closely related to the humans you are familiar with in your everyday life. Every year, hundreds of thru-hikers migrate through the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. When they get there, most of them just get in an airplane and fly home. Since they don’t seem to be following comfortable weather, scientists are still not sure why thru-hikers make this journey. It’s just one of the many mysteries of nature to explore in the Shenandoah!


  • Thru-hikers can carry up to one-third of their body weight.
  • Thru-hikers regularly walk up to twenty miles in one day. That’s more than their human relatives walk in two months!
  • Thru-hikers walk upright just like we do, but most walk with their arms as well using long “trekking poles.”
  • When they are not migrating, some thru-hikers are productive members of society. You may even have one as a neighbor!

    An encounter with a thru-hiker can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a visit to Shenandoah National Park. Keep these tips in mind to ensure you get the most out of your encounter.

    • You can easily identify a thru-hiker by its backpack and synthetic clothing.  Male thru-hikers can be identified by their large beards.
    • Tip: In places with poor visibility, you may smell a thru-hiker before you see it.
    • Thru-hikers are passive creatures that very rarely attack. In fact, park visitors are more of a threat to thru-hikers than thru-hikers are to visitors.
    • Thru-hikers are very friendly, but because of their lifestyle may not be used to social customs you practice every day. Keep your mind open to their unique customs.
    • Thru-hikers have unusual names, but don’t laugh when you hear one. Your name probably sounds strange to them too!
    • Ask thru-hikers questions and they may tell long stories about elevation gains, rodents, or ultra-light gear. It is polite to always act very impressed.
    • YES, it’s okay to feed the thru-hikers! Thru-hikers have very poor natural diets, and most seem to rely on humans giving them food for basic sustenance.
    • Do NOT touch the thru-hikers! They have very poor hygiene and may carry diseases. If you accidentally come into physical contact with a thru-hiker, immediately wash the affected area with warm soap and water. Seek medical attention if symptoms develop.


    -June 8, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.