APPALACHIAN TRAIL — A popular attraction sparked widespread national headlines last month, as a murder and assault occurred on the Appalachian Trail.
Despite the attacks and the concerning headlines, statistically, the trail is still an exceptionally safe place to travel.
The most recent murder rate statistics from the FBI indicate a rate of 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in the U.S. in 2017 against a total population of nearly 326 million people. That translates to 17,284 murders in 2017 alone.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2 to 3 million people visit the trail each year. A very small portion of them completes the entire length of the trail, somewhere in the realm of 20,000 people have done so. There have been a dozen recorded murders on the trail dating back to the mid 1970s. That number compares, conservatively, to about 100 million visitors in that time span.
“There are bears, but the average person doesn’t see a bear the whole time they’re hiking. Sometimes they don’t even see a deer,” Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel owner Connie Pruitt said.
The relative safety of the trail is in part due to the community that surrounds it. Trail hostels are popular places for hikers to stay as they make their way along the 2,190 miles of the A.T. The people who run these hostels are part of the trail community, and they even have their own trail names.
The hostels are not only waypoints along the trail, but they communicate with each other in an effort to keep hikers safe and alert others to potential troublemakers on the trail.
Pruitt explained that most of the people who come through from the trail are friendly.
“It is a hostel but it’s more of a ‘host’-el. You’re hosting people,” Pruitt said.
Dave Magee of The Station at 19E in Roan Mountain, Tenn., said hostels were tracking the suspect in the murder case when he was in Unicoi County, Tenn., and contacted law enforcement there.
Magee added that there are a lot of people who visit the trail for therapeutic reasons, but rarely has someone exhibiting the extreme behavior of the suspect been encountered.
“The trail polices itself, the trail takes care of itself. We look out for one another,” Magee said.
Magee said he recently had a conversation with a friend about how they had interacted with the suspect and agreed they would have taken the same steps in that situation.
Hikers often travel in groups or form groups as they hike, even if they began their journeys alone.
When there is someone on the trail who is being a nuisance or the trail network believes poses a threat to other hikers, they tend to get weeded out along the way.
Magee offered one example of some young hikers who came through Roan Mountain and damaged some walls at the hostel. When the hikers discovered it had become nearly impossible to find a place to stay farther down the trail, they offered to pay for the damages.
Magee described a recent interaction with hikers he was shuttling who knew about the situation but were not terribly concerned, though others have been more upset by the news.
“Some people it freaks out and they get off the trail, and others just continue on,” Magee said.