Appalachian trail experts share hiking tips for beginners community idea stations

The scent of bug spray and sunscreen fills the air as members of the group lace up their hiking boots, preparing for the trek ahead. Excitement radiates from their faces as they anxiously wait to start the hike up 4050 feet of Hawksbill Mountain at Shenandoah National Park. Two members of the group, Karen Lotz and Jim Fetig, stand out clutching a hiking stick in each hand. Having hiked the entire Appalachian Trail(AT), Lotz and Fetig are the experts in the pack. I, on the other hand, known for my aversion to nature, join the outdoor enthusiasts in tennis shoes, trying not to scream every time a bug flies by my ear.

Both Lotz and Fetig are part of the Appalachian Trail C onservancy(ATC), a nonprofit established in 1925 that works to protect, preserve, and celebrate the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world traveling through fourteen states along the Appalachian Mountain Range from Georgia to Maine. Lotz is the Regional Director for the Appalachian Trail Mid-Atlantic Region that runs from the New York-Connecticut line to the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. Fetig, a retiree who volunteers for the Conservancy, manages the Richmond program by serving on committees and helping to maintain the beautiful wilderness trail.

Lotz and Fetig didn ’t randomly decide to hike all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), they planned their trips and gradually built up to longer hikes. In fact, Fetig hiked the trail overtime, in sections. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy , over 3,000 people attempt to complete the entire trail in a single year. For those just getting into hiking, it’s best to begin on shorter, less arduous trails and work towards longer, more difficult ones. Most national parks rate the difficulty level of each trail. For instance, Shenandoah National Park, identifies five levelsof difficulties for its trails, ranging from “ Easiest” to “Very Strenuous.”

Before the hike began, Lotz and Fetig made sure everyone had on sunscreen and bug spray. Fetig warned that the real danger for hikers comes from “ticks carrying diseases.” There are about 300,000 new cases of Lyme disease a year, the most common tick borne illness. Fetig also reminded us to check ourselves for ticks after the hike because they are attracted to odd, hidden places on the body like the armpit.

This tip cannot be understated, always make sure to bring plenty of water and continuously hydrate throughout the hike. According to the National Park Service, “the average human uses a quart of water per hour on a hot day.” Take that equation into account, along with the length and the amount of time you will be on your hike when preparing for you day trip.

Hiking is sure to work up an appetite! Bringing snacks is a smart way to keep your energy up, but make sure to follow the Park’s “ Leave No Trace” policy and pick up leftover trash. Leaving food will attract animals to the area. “The problem with almost any animal is when they get a food reward, either they will start to associate [the food] with people or they start to associate [the food] with places or things,” said Fetig. Otherwise, Fetig emphasized, wildlife normally leave people alone. If that’s not enough of an incentive to clean up, it’s also illegal to feed the wildlife.

Furry friends are welcome in the Park, as long as they’re on a leash. While enjoying the view on top of Hawksbill Mountain, a man and three dogs without leashes, strode past us. Fetig informed him that pets must be on a leash to prevent them from disturbing the wildlife. A leash also protects the dogs from creatures such as snakes, coyotes and raccoons.

National parks cover a vast amount of land and have multiple trails with different experience levels. Research the trail you want to visit. Know its exact location and length. “Just doing your homework and knowing where your start point and end point are and what the side trails are, you can put together a number of opportunities to match your skill and experience level,” said Lotz, as we carefully made our way back down the mountain. Personally, I didn’t do enough homework before this hike and got lost driving in Shenandoah National Park, searching for our starting point, with no solid way of contacting anyone because of spotty cell service. So yeah, lesson learned, do your homework and print directions!

As we descended the mountain, Lotz shared the history of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act. In 1968, President Johnson signed the Act, making the AT the first national scenic trail under federal protection. According to Lotz, getting the Act passed was a significant feat, emphasizing that “having open space and protected public land allows people to reconnect with nature.” Currently there are 11 national scenic trails, 19 historic trails and thousands of national recreation trails.

Lotz and Fetig’s passion for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy comes from their love of the outdoors and their desire for more people to enjoy it as often as possible. “You know the physical benefits of being out on the trail, but also the mental health benefits of being out on the trail. And then there’s a spiritual connection with just reconnecting with the natural world. All of that is very important to us,” said Lotz.