Having thru-hiked the trail in 2011, I can use the changes I've seen on the trail this year to speculate about what the trail may be like in the future.
Mostly, I see more of everything: more signs, more restrictions, more fees... more hikers! I guess this was predictable. With the release of movies like 'Wild' and 'A Walk In The Woods', more people are going to explore the world of long distance hiking. Friends who started northbound on the trail this year said shelters and campsites were crowded.
The trends that tend to make me nervous are the increase in signs, permits and fees. Signs like 'No Camping' or 'Camping Only in Designated Areas'. Permits are more common, as well. Lots of agencies wanting names, addresses and 'itineraries'. These things fly in the face of thru-hiking culture. We come out here because we want to be free. They want an 'itinerary' of where I'm going to camp every night for the next week? I don't know where I'm going to camp. Can I just write "wherever I'm at when the sun goes down"?
We need more signs like this:
And fewer signs like this:
For the first time in the 78 year history of the Appalachian Trail, hikers will be charged a fee to hike through the Smoky Mountains. Technically, it's a fee to camp in the Smokies, not hike. Four dollars per night or $20 to thru-hike. Never before have we had to pay to hike this trail. Benton MacKaye must be rolling in his grave.
Additional, federal regulations include the use of a 'bear can' (a cylindrical plastic container to store your food in) for part of the Smokies. Yes, it's a federal offense to hike with your food in an unapproved container.
If I extrapolate these changes far into the future, I can picture hikers passing through the woods on a moving sidewalk; the kind they have in airports. Huge plexiglass walls on either side keep humans from interacting with nature. A permit to ride the trail will cost hundreds of dollars. Camping will only be permitted... scratch that. Camping will not be permitted.
For those of you who say that these kinds of regulations are necessary to keep the trail as nice as it is, I agree - to an extent. I just think the pendulum is swinging way too far toward the 'manage the woods' end. It needs to swing back toward the 'let people enjoy their hike' end.
Mostly, I'm just glad to be out here. Soon (hopefully) I'll have thru-hiked this trail twice. That's plenty. They can restrict, regulate and charge the hell out of future hikers. It won't do anything but make me sad.
Got an opinion? Leave a comment.