I would like to start off first by defining a few keywords so as to not confuse anyone about the meaning of this article…

  1. RIGHTS: A moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. “She had every right to be angry” synonyms: entitlement, prerogative, privilege
  1. WANTS: A desire to possess or do (something); wish for: “I want an apple” synonyms: desire, wish for, hope for, aspire to, fancy
  1. NEEDS: Circumstances in which something is necessary, or that require some course of action; necessity: “The basic human need for food” synonyms: necessity, obligation, requirement, call, demand
  1. FIGHT: To commit an act of battery in a fit of aggression
  1. ARGUE: To aggressively debate an issue verbally

This article is not to discuss the “RIGHT” of anyone to carry a gun on the Appalachian Trail but rather instead to discuss the “NEED” for doing so. I do agree those legally allowed to own a gun have every “RIGHT” to carry one wherever a gun is legal to be carried. I own several guns of many types. I carry a gun daily everywhere I go in the city. I also hunt and I am an Army Veteran. I am pro gun and feel everyone should own one with a proper background check. With that said I believe we can all agree this article is not about the “RIGHTS” but instead it is about the “NEED” or “WANT” to carry a gun while backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.


Just How Many People Are Out There On The AT?

Roughly 3-4 million people utilize a section of the Appalachian Trail yearly. (That’s all inclusive counting day users, through hikers, section hikers, and campers) Around 1,800-2000 people attempt to through hike the entire trail yearly.

“According to the ATC’s records as of this December, 1,385 northbound thru-hikers, or those who walk the A.T. from Georgia to Maine, have passed through Harpers Ferry, resulting in an increase of 9 percent over last year’s data. The number of southbound thru-hikers, or those who walk from Maine to Georgia, has increased by 14 percent to total 192. The number of those who choose to thru-hike the A.T. in an alternative, non-contiguous way that disperses use has increased dramatically, with 291 people passing through Harpers Ferry, an increase of 139 percent.”


A pilot study was done to get an estimate on the number of people using the Appalachian Trail:

“For the pilot study, the authors developed a survey design using two instruments—exit-site tallies and a survey questionnaire—to make visitation estimates on a section of the AT. They also used a model-based design for comparison purposes. The initial survey was performed over a 75-day period on a 109-mile stretch of the AT from Harpers Ferry, WVA, to 10 trail miles north of Boiling Springs, PA. The design-based approach visitation estimates were 66,967 and the model-based approach estimates were 70,912 with coefficients of variation of 23 and 16 percent. Using these numbers, the researchers extrapolated annual visitation for the entire trail at 1,948,701 with a coefficient of variation of 20 percent.  by Patty Matteson”


Read more about the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Pilot Study: http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/39411

So we can agree, I presume, that there is a LOT of people roaming around on the AT right?

One might come to the conclusion that due to the numerous amounts of people on the AT at any given time that there might be a lot of violent human activity…

My personal experience:

I have been backpacking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) consistently now for 10yrs. In that time I have never come across a single incident where I felt the need to have a gun. I’ve never met another hiker on the trail either who claimed they felt the need for one. I’ve section hiked basically the whole southern half of the trail from Georgia to West Virginia in increments of 50-100 miles at a time. In all this time I’ve never seen a fight or any kind of violence among hiker on the AT. Now I have seen people argue.

FIGHT: To commit an act of battery in a fit of aggression

ARGUE: To aggressively debate an issue verbally

I have seen maybe 3-4 arguments take place on the trail which resulted in the people involved going their separate ways within a few moments. Most people put a lot of effort, time, and money into going out on the AT that they find it is not worth losing it over a disagreement. Many people just ignore those they get a sense of not being on the same wave length as they are, if you catch my drift. The motto of the trail is “HIKE YOUR OWN HIKE” and most people adhere to that.

Now I have heard of fist fights breaking out on the AT here and there over the years but I’ve never personally seen one. The people involved in them claimed there was no need for a gun.


For my article I spent several weeks searching for news reports that would give us reason to “NEED” a gun on the AT. This is all I found…

2015 – Federal authorities captured fugitive James Hammes, who had been hiding on the Appalachian Trail. He had been on the run for six years. Hammes is alleged to have embezzled millions from his employer, Pepsi. Though not investigated for murdering someone on the trail, authorities are investigating Hammes for the murder of his wife, who was killed in a house fire when the Hammes’s home burned in 2003.

(Not a violent crime but last known excitement and I was there for it, I met the man)

2011 – A male hiker from Indiana died on the Appalachian Trail. The Roanoke Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said the man died of “asphyxia by suffocation,” and as of today the murder appears to be unsolved. Here is an http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/appalachian-trail-hiker-s-death-ruled-homicide/article_d1245d42-b927-550b-a6f5-dea7098a7802.html

(Not even sure if it was murder but a gun would not have made a difference)

2008 – Randall Lee Smith shot two fishermen on the Appalachian Trail. Both survived, but Randall Lee Smith was charged with two counts of attempted murder. Randall Lee Smith was convicted of the death of two hikers in 1981, crimes for which he served 15 years in prison from 1981 to 1996.

(I will give you this one; a gun might have made a difference here)

2001 – A Canadian woman was murdered in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The woman was stabbed to death near the Glen Boulder Trail head just south of Pinkham Notch.

(Not enough info to go on but they say not to bring knife to a gun fight)

1996 – Two women were found slain in the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia from incisions to the neck. A collection of articles and various updates can be found http://users.fred.net/kathy//at/tragedy.html#earlyon .

(You will have to draw your own conclusion here)

1990 – Two thru-hikers were murdered at a Cove Shelter outside Duncannon, PA. The male hiker had been shot and killed, and the female hiker had been raped, tortured, and killed, according http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20115243,00.html . The murderer was then 38 year old drifter Paul David Crews.

(2 against 1 means depending on who had the gun it may have made a difference)

1988 – A young man, Stephen Roy Carr, fired his rifle eight times at two women, Rebecca Wright and Claudia Brenner, having sex in the woods in a Pennsylvania State Park. He struck both women with several shots, and Wright died as a result of those shots.

(These two ladies had no idea what was coming and therefore a gun would not have saved them)

1981 – Randall Lee Smith killed two thru-hikers, Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay, while they were hiking along the Appalachian Trail.

(Not enough info to go on but betting they were not given warning)

1975 – Paul Bigley murdered Janice Balza of Wisconsin, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. Bigley killed her with a hatchet, reportedly for her backpack that he coveted.

(Not enough info to go on)

1974 – Ralph Fox murdered Joel Polsom of Hartsville, South Carolina. Polsom was murdered at the Low Gap Trail Shelter along the Appalachian Trail in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

(Not enough info to go on)

ABOVE INFO COPIED FROM: http://adventurepossible.com/adventure/murder-on-the-appalachian-trail/


The above incidents, which as you can see by the dates of each, are extremely rare. Especially when taking into account the vast number of people on the AT at any given moment along any given section as per discussed earlier. That’s 41 years with only 9 incidents between 1974 and 2015 of violent crimes where a gun in the hands of the hiker may or may not have made a difference. Let’s face it crime is so rare on the AT that it is probably safer on the trail than sitting in your living room if you live in a city. I felt more afraid to go to high school in the 90’s than I do going on the AT.

In my conclusion, as far as a “NEED” to carry a gun on the Appalachian Trail due to “Human Violence” I see no reason to have a gun while hiking for the purpose of “Self-Defense”.

Now there is another case to be heard for the “NEED” to carry…


Many people think that there are dangerous predators lurking behind every tree along the Appalachian Trail. While there are predators in them there woods I wouldn’t say they are behind every tree myself.

There are bears, coyotes, feral dogs, various snakes, etc… on the AT that if you do not know how to act around them, then they could be very dangerous to your well being.

I can say the only animals I have ever seen or heard of people regularly having problems with on the AT are these ponies…


They LOVE to mug you for treats and if you don’t give them something they might just knock you down and rob you lol. But that is mainly because they have grown accustomed to getting snacks and now expect it. It is best you do not give them anything.

Does this mean you “NEED” a gun? I don’t believe so.

There are so many things you can do to prevent a dangerous encounter. For starters you just need to take a little time before your trip to learn how to react to the wildlife in the area you are heading into. Animals are actually very predictable. This means you can learn what not to do around them so not to trigger an attack. I will post several links at the end of this article to assist you in your learning how to not trigger attacks from wildlife.

The best way to prevent the need for a gun on the AT for use against wildlife is “PREVENTION” 🙂

Here are a few tips to prevent animals from attacking you:

  1. Make your presence known before you enter their space (use a bell or make some noise while hiking. This alerts the animals that you are coming so you don’t startle them causing the animal to think they need to defend themselves)
  2. If you see an animal on the trail give it plenty of space. Remember this is their home and you are the visitor. If your actions cause the animal to alter theirs then you are to close.
  3. Don’t camp on animal trails as they generally lead to their homes or food/water sources etc… and will make them mad if you block them.
  4. Do not eat in or near your shelter or use yourself or clothing as a napkin. The scent of food carries in the air for a long ways and can attract them. They might not be after you but just want to try a taste of whatever it was you were eating and then misunderstandings happen and someone gets hurt. Best to eat in one location, shelter in a separate location, and store your food in a bear bag or bear vault in a third location. Be sure that your shelter is up wind of your food.
  5. Animals are early risers. They like to get going at sunrise. So to avoid conflict on the trails with animals heading to their feeding grounds and water sources in the morning consider waiting an hour or two after sunrise. Besides the coldest time of the day is 1.5hrs before to 1.5hrs after sunrise anyhow.
  6. Stay alert. Don’t hike with headphones on so you cannot hear your surroundings. Snakes and other animals very often give warning sounds before they attack. They generally don’t want a confrontation with you as much as you don’t want one with them.
  7. If you encounter an animal remember sudden movements and loud noises are stressful to them. Try to remain quiet, do not approach or try to feed. Do not force animals to flee. (Unless in bear country then see link below referencing black bears)

For more tips visit the links below referencing animals and leave no trace skills.


I feel there is no “NEED” to carry a gun if you follow these simple rules of engagement with the wildlife. Knowing your enemy or in this case your wildlife is a better weapon than a gun because it can prevent the “NEED” of ever having to use your gun in defense. I have followed these tips for the last 20yrs of my hiking experience and the last 10 of those years have been on the AT. I can proudly say I have never had a wildlife encounter that was not wanted.

Hopefully you enjoyed this article. I hope it helped you to understand the difference between the “NEED” and “WANT” and “RIGHT” to carry a gun on the Appalachian Trail. In my opinion of both cases of defense against humans and wildlife there is no “NEED” for guns on the AT. People may “WANT” to carry a gun and they certainly have a “RIGHT” to but ask yourself this: is it really necessary on the Appalachian Trail?

Appalachian Trail Conservancy Sees Record Number of Hikers in 2015

Appalachian National Scenic Trail pilot survey | Publications | SRS

How Many People Hike the AT Every Year? – CompassLive

Murder on the Appalachian Trail

Murder on the Appalachian Trail | Outside Online

Safety – Appalachian National Scenic Trail (U.S. National Park Service)

21 Appalachian Trail Statistics That Will Surprise, Entertain and Inform You – REI Co-op Journal