Friday, January 19, 2018

Advice for New Virginia Hikers

Over the New Year's weekend I celebrated a milestone.  I first began really hiking in Virginia on December 31, 1992, which is twenty-five years ago.

I still remember my first hike: it was on the Appalachian Trail over Tar Jacket Ridge, culminating at the top of Cole/Cold Mountain.  I remember taking in the view from Tar Jacket Ridge and being absolutely mesmerized!  I grew up near Chicago, after all, and those kinds of views just aren't possible where I came from.

I owned a copy of PATC Map 13 and could not wait to get back down there, so I could hike the relatively new Old Hotel Trail, and come back again and hike the Pompey Mountain-Mt. Pleasant Trail, later named the Henry Lanum Trail. By that April, I had organized a group hike consisting of my friends to hike from the Tye River up to the summit of The Priest, a 3000 foot climb.  I've been back to do these hikes many times since 1993.

I had hiked some in Virginia during the eight months I had lived here since moving from Maine, but my first hike to the summit of Cold Mountain really hooked me.  I've since been back to hike every single trail in the GWNF's Pedlar District where my original hike is located.  And every trail and fire road in Shenandoah National Park.  And every mile of the Appalachian Trail from the Virginia/ Tennessee border north into Pennsylvania - over 600 miles.

Since that first hike, I now have a GPS library of over 250 Virginia hikes. I led trail map revisions for the PATC covering the Blue Ridge from Shenandoah National Park down past the James River - the latest revisions in a series of maps dating back to the 1930's. I've led hikes for the Boy Scouts, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, and the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. I am leading five hikes this year before the end of March.  I've maintained this blog since 2009.  I write for the website Hiking Upward. I own a large personal library of Virginia trail guides. Yet I am still far from the most knowledgeable person around here when it comes to trails.  There is still much to explore!

But twenty-five years ago I didn't know the local trails and I wanted to know the mountains better. So I joined a hiking group.  They showed me trails around Sherando and taught me that Winter hiking in Virginia is spectacular.  They took me into Three Ridges Wilderness before it was a wilderness - in the snow, when there was no one else there.  They showed me Elliot Knob and its spectacular views. They convinced me to purchase an annual pass to access trails in Shenandoah National Park. I am forever grateful for their expertise and the knowledge those hike leaders passed on to me.
From Ellot Knob.
Thanks to the internet, there are many more options for learning about hikes today, and many groups where you can sign up and participate on hikes. Many more options than I had! But some are much better than others, and here is why.

I cannot recommend strongly enough to new hikers that they hike with one of the local trail clubs.  Most new hikers won't do this - they will join a Meetup group instead. And I like Meetup groups - I am a member of several. There are hiking meetup groups for folks living in every part of Virginia. There are Virginia-based meetups sponsored by outdoors stores.  There are meetups for folks wanting to hike with dogs or with babies.  There are meetups for folks wanting long hikes or short ones.  There are meetups for singles.

But nearly every single Meetup falls critically short in several critical areas if you are an inexperienced hiker.  So before you join any hiking group, ask the leaders these questions:

1. What does your group do to help maintain trails in our area?
Most new hikers don't immediately go out and maintain trails, but without volunteers to maintain our trails, they fall into disuse.  The trail groups I link to at the end of this post all maintain trails in addition to offering hikes.  You don't have to be a member of the trail group to go on the hikes, and you don't have to maintain trails to be a member of a trail group.  But becoming a member of your local trail group allows the group to have the money to purchase the equipment to do trail maintenance.  I believe that every avid hiker owes it to the community to give back a small portion of the time, and am a trail maintainer for a section of the Appalachian Trail, as well as a participant in trail groups maintaining trails in Ramsey's Draft Wilderness. I believe that every hiking group is responsible for promoting a percentage of time devoted to trail work.  Ask your hike leader if s/he volunteers to maintain trails and if the group sponsors trail work - you may be surprised that they do not!

And here is an added bonus.  I hike regularly with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Club, linked below.  Often, their Saturday hike routes are the same trails that their Wednesday trail crews cleaned up earlier in the week!  So a hike with the NBATC is almost always on newly maintained trails.

Does your hiking group do this?

2. What training does your group's leaders have in Wilderness First Aid?
Nearly every hiking group is going to ask you to sign a waiver which waives liability if you injure yourself on the trail. But if you do get hurt when out hiking, don't you want your leader to be experienced in the ways to get you back to civilization with a minimum of risk? And shouldn't your leader bear some blame if s/he takes you to a place the leader should have known is dangerous? I re-certified for Wilderness First Aid in January.  Certification lasts two years, and I've been certified three times.  Each time I have to give up an entire weekend for an exhausting 20 hours of classroom and practice time.  Most of the other hike leaders in my trail club have done the same - in fact, my trail club contributes to the cost of recertification!  I feel I owe it to the people who put their trust in me as their hike leader. Anyone can be a hike leader, but not everyone goes through the training.  And without the training, your hike leader won't know what First Aid equipment to bring in case of an emergency. And, while not every trail group hike leader has Wilderness First Aid training, I've found a higher percentage do in the trail maintaining clubs.

3. Has the hike leader actually hiked the trail s/he is leading, or did she read about it in a book or on a website like the one that I write for - Hiking Upward?  Does s/he have maps?
There was a story a few years back about a scout troop that backpacked on the AT near my home.  It snowed overnight and the scout leaders did not know how to get out without retracing their steps over suddenly icy trails.  They didn't know the area and had an insufficient map, so they didn't know they were very near an easy bugout route that would return them to civilization.  Instead, they called the rescue squad and ended up in the newspapers. Remember: anyone can find a hike online and lead a group there.  Because trail groups include members who work on the trails, their knowledge is likely much higher.  At a minimum, your trail leader should know the hike and have hiked it before during the time of year you will be going. (Not just Winter!  I've been on trails totally overgrown and hard to follow in Summer that were easy in other seasons.) When I hike with trail maintaining clubs, often not just the hike leader, but many of the participants also know the trail exceptionally well - and participants often have special interests, like birds or flowers, that can add greatly to the hike experience.

4. How many other hikers are going?  
Depending on the location of your hike, there are federal regulations restricting the number of hikers that can hike together. Areas include federally designated wilderness areas, such as St. Mary's. Devil's Marbleyard, Hanging Rock in Three Ridges, The Priest and Ramsey's Draft.  Does your hike leader know about this restriction and account for it?  If your hike is projected to be in a wilderness area and your hike leader has opened the hike to 15 hikers, there is something not right.

If you are new to Virginia and enthusiastic about additional hiking opportunities, I encourage you to check out and join your local trail maintaining group. There are links below to many of the clubs in Virginia, and most have links to their upcoming schedules and/or newsletters.  You do not need to live near the club to join!  I am a member of several of these clubs. Trail maintaining groups in Virginia include:

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club - Maintains trails in Shenandoah National Park, 250+ miles of the AT, and a large number of National Forest trails.  They have chapters for local areas, including:
PATC Charlottesville Chapter  (Here is a link to their blog describing previous hikes: Link.)
PATC Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter (Harrisonburg and Waynesboro)
Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club (Lynchburg and Lexington)
Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club (central Virginia including Richmond)
Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club (southeastern Virginia)
Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (includes Christiansburg, Radford, and Blacksburg)
Outdoor Club at Virginia Tech (open to the public)
Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers (mostly North Carolina, with Virginia members)

I know your membership will prove to be a rewarding experience. It has for me.


  1. Too bad so many inexperienced hikers don’t feel welcome hiking with you because they either struggle to keep up or get left behind... Also, excellent job putting down your community partners who support you.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Pepper. Since you coordinate a local Meetup, I understand your frustration. I have heard great things about your hikes and hope to meet you sometime! I note that your comments do not address the points that I listed. I hope you will use your influence within your Meetup to encourage more trail workers so that we can improve the incredible trail system we have in Virginia. And I also hope you will encourage your hike leaders to gain as much first aid experience as possible. We all owe it to the hikers who sign up for our hikes!

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