Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail face many challenges while striving for their goal. Just ask the Crawfords, a family of eight from Bellevue, Ky., who in 2018 became the biggest family to complete a thru-hike of the 2,192-mile trail. Sure, there’s the elevation gain over rocky paths, whining kids on the trail, and even a blizzard, but for the Crawfords the list of challenges included Internet trolls and even a visit from Child Protective Services.
That’s because the Crawfords chose to broadcast in-real-time highlights from their trek on their YouTube channel, Fight for Together. Their social media broadcasts certainly inspired many of their more than 44,000 subscribers who tuned in five days a week, but the exposure also invited harsh criticism: Most notably, how could parents Ben and Kami (both 40) put their six kids—Dove (18), Eden (17), Seven (15), Memory (13), Filia (9), and Rainier (4)—through more than 5 months of strenuous hiking?
With cellular service and WiFi hotspots now covering much of the Appalachian Trail, thru-hikers like the Crawfords are choosing to log in rather than unplug when they hit the trail. In some cases, these hikers aren’t stopping at posting the occasional Instagram update; they’re sharing their every footstep through podcasts, video blogs (or “vlogs”), and paid partnerships.
“We don’t want to be heroes to people,” Ben Crawford says. “We want to show people the honest story. If it is inspirational or better, then people should have access to the pros and cons of it and the full picture. That type of transparency is really important to us.”
Thru hikes, like the AT, require months away from jobs, are costly, and put forward some physical challenges, limiting the number of hikers who attempt the trek each year. Thanks to social media, those who can’t thru hike are still able to experience the trail. However, screen-savvy consumers should avoid being sucked into the lure of smiley selfies atop Mount Katahdin that may diminish long-distance hiking’s challenging realities.
Only 1 in 4 of the thousands who attempt to finish the AT make it, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Thru-hike costs can be as steep as the peaks, with the ATC recommending that hikers budget $1,000 per month during their journey. And that’s not even including gear. But, it’s not just hikers who are paying a price.
“We are hearing more and more often, not only from the recreating public, but our land management partners that social media is driving visitation,” says Ben Lawhon, Education Director at Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. “It’s causing people to engage in certain behaviors that create impacts. In some cases, those behaviors can be dangerous or fatal.”
Before snapping the selfie, visitors should ask themselves whether they’re promoting rule-following and Leave No Trace: “Am I at an illegal campsite? Did I build a fire during a fire ban? Am I the guy that took champagne to the top of Mount Katahdin a few years ago?” Alcohol is illegal in Baxter State Park.
“Those are the images that cause problems,” he adds.
In June 2018, the organization released a set of social media guidelines. They include: avoid geotagging specific locations, be mindful of what your images portray, encourage others to enjoy the outdoors responsibly, and give back to the places you love (and promote online).
“Thru-hikers have this mythical following, particularly AT thru-hikers,” Lawhon says. “What those hikers post on social media, a lot of people emulate…If you’re going to document it, be a champion for the environment.”
Besides an occasional photo or phone call home, Colton Kaspar, dubbed “Dad” on the trail, went off-grid for most of his 2018 thru-hike.
“There isn’t anything for you to gain by people following you along the way,” the 23-year old from Nashville, Tenn., says. “You may get encouraging replies, but it’s a journey for yourself. You have to learn how to handle your own emotions and struggles without needing others.”
At the end of the day, to share or not to share is not the question. It’s the decision, and a personal one at that.
“It’s your own responsibility to figure out your motivation for sharing your trip and decide what is best for you,” Kaspar says.
John Wigington, 68, is an active retiree from Crossville, Tenn.—he served 27 years in the U.S. Air Force and seven working in the Department of Defense. For his thru hike in 2011, he brought a flip phone, point-and-shoot camera, and SPOT satellite messenger.
Every few weeks, Wigington would call in to the local classic rock radio station from some mountaintop with cell reception, do an on-the-trail interview and “shamelessly plug contributions to House of Hope,” a local nonprofit dedicated to protecting child victims of abuse and neglect. He didn’t post to social media while on the trail, however.
“I think if I were to do it again and trying to raise funds, social media would be a boost to that,” he says. “I would do it in a way that it wasn’t affecting my time [or] experience on the trail during my hike.”
Whether you choose to connect or disconnect, and to what extent you do so, the number of people thru-hiking the AT continues to grow each year. We spoke with three other content creators about why they choose to share their stories online and what it means to go on-grid while thru-hiking the AT.
Daniel White, 34, grew tired of the relentless political banter on social media during the 2016 election, logged onto Facebook and posed a question: “Do you think I could survive in the woods?”
His cousin commented: “Go hike the AT.”
Even though White grew up in Asheville, N.C., just a 45-minute drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he hadn’t hiked a day in his life. After some research, though, he decided to give it a go, and the electrician gave his two-week’s notice.
“I was seeing a lot of instructional videos on what it’s like on the trail, that type of thing. But there were no people of color,” says White, who is black. “I thought it would be interesting to give my perspective, because I wasn’t seeing representation of people that looked like me out there.”
As a rapper, White was accustomed to entertaining and decided to chronicle his big adventure on YouTube. Then and there, The Blackalachian was born.
With an initial goal to complete around 600 miles, support from White’s family and friends kept him going. When family offered to send food, White created a page on the crowd-funding platform, GoFundMe. In just one day, he raised around $500.
In mid-May 2017, White connected with a fellow hiker at Trail Days in Damascus, Va., a weekend festival full of live music, gear re-stocking, and good eats, and learned how to monetize his daily vlogs for some extra cash. At his channel’s peak, he was receiving 100,000 views and earning around $300 a month.
White’s online presence added an extra layer to his role as a thru-hiker. While he received mostly positive feedback—something he preaches in his videos, closing off each with his trademark phrase: “Love and light”—White still had to be cautious while serving as, as he calls it, an “unofficial ambassador for colored people” on the trail.
“I had to delay my videos at one point, when I was posting them, because people were actually chasing me down to meet me and show me love, take me out to lunch,” he says. “It’s a different experience when I’m in the middle of the woods and people are yelling out, ‘Hey Blackalachian!’ I don’t know whether you’re a friend or foe at that point. So, I had to kind of protect myself.”
Today, White is kick-starting an important conversation in real-life about representation in the outdoors. “Why don’t black people hike?” is a question he gets asked often.
In response, White sought out to find a connection to the outdoors that he couldn’t make on the AT. In Fall 2018, he retraced the route of the Underground Railroad in a 49-day, 2,000-mile bike ride from Mobile, Ala. to Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Through his videos and in-person talks, White wants people of color to realize that they too, “come from greatness.”
“It’s about stepping out of the norm, the cool zone,” he says. “Hopefully, I can make this outdoor thing look cool to people like me.”
For Steven Williams, 30, a picture is worth a long walk—the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, at that.
After living in Australia and traveling around Southeast Asia for three years, the photographer and self-described nomad decided the best way to “fall back in love with America” after being away for so long was to hike across the country.
When his friend suggested the idea to create a photobook, something that Williams says is every “photographer’s dream,” the idea of not hiking was out of the question.
In January 2018, Williams posted a photo of himself on a bridge wearing a backpack, surrounded by swirling white images of a moose, mountain, and phrases like, “Elevation Change = Hiking Everest Sixteen Times.”
The Insta-announcement included info about a Kickstarter campaign, through which Williams raised $9,505 to assist with publishing costs, all before even setting foot on the trail.
DSLR camera in hand, which many people thought he was “nuts for having because it’s really heavy,” Williams completed the AT in exactly six months. The photographer’s ability to nab sneaky shots of fellow hikers and the inherent ups and downs of thru-hiking earned him the trail name “Candid.”
Around the halfway point, Williams began to nail down his social media routine. “It really was a balance of sharing as much as I wanted to, but also enjoying the hike for myself…and not being on my phone too much,” he says.
Before bed, in his tent and away from other hikers, Williams would jot down stories, import any photos he had taken from the day onto his phone, and edit them using the Adobe Lightroom app. On zero days, or rest days in town, backlogging two or three posts saved him precious hiking time.
Now off the trail and living in Golden, Colo., Williams is finishing his photobook. What started off as an idea to publish a collection of his best photos from the trail has turned into an anthology of images and words from both Williams and fellow hikers.
“You don’t have to have the high-quality, beautiful photos or a poetic story,” Williams says. “I think people just want to hear your story and your journey. I didn’t know anyone that had ever done [the AT]. Now, my friends and family know someone who has done it. It feels doable. It’s a possibility that they could do it someday.”
On zero days, Grizel—a proud, Latinx backpacker hailing from Nashville, Tenn.—would sometimes wake up at 4 a.m., edit for 7 hours, then proceed to hike 20 miles.
“Dude! It’s so hard.” Grizel, 28, says, laughing. “I laugh because I’m always behind.”
Two weeks into thru-hiking the Pacific Coast Trail in 2018, Grizel stumbled upon another hiker and “basically word vomited, [not knowing] they were a writer” for REI.
When the two diverged, the writer followed Grizel on Instagram, and led her 2019 AT thru-hiking venture to a partnership with the outdoor retail company, through which she posted weekly videos on their YouTube channel.
On the PCT, Grizel applied for a sponsorship through the Thru-Hike Syndicate, a brand-driven ambassador program that supplies gear to a diverse group of 10 thru-hikers each year.
“[It’s] one of the most privileged sports you can do,” Grizel says. “It takes a lot of different sacrifices. Especially financially. So, I am beyond grateful for that sponsorship.”
With REI, Grizel had creative freedom with her posts. “One of the things I love about this whole thing is that the credentials were: ‘We just want someone who is real,’ she says. “I make every single thing on there, REI doesn’t edit any of it.”
In March 2019, Grizel set out to tackle the Appalachian Trail. Once again, she posted vlogs from the trail on REI’s YouTube page. She hiked the first half of the AT with her furry sidekick, a 4-year old, Rhodesian Ridgeback named Rue. Grizel faced some backlash from Internet commenters who objected to her taking a dog on such an arduous journey.
“It’s mostly positive, but I also can’t help but see the negative,” she says. “People have lots of opinions about taking a dog on trail. I’m really trying to not let it get to me, but she’s like my kid now.”
In May 2019, Grizel announced that Rue would not continue on to finish the thru-hike. “Rue is tired, and I promised myself I would stay honest throughout this process, simply because I love her too much,” she writes in an Instagram post.
Despite some negative comments, Grizel, who summited Mount Katahdin July 1, 2019, says posting about her thru-hikes on social media isn’t about upholding an image. Instead, it’s about encouraging people to embrace their fears, practice self-love, and live out their wildest dreams. Yet, in a world where everyone seems to be glued to their devices, the struggle to balance inspiration with screen-infatuation can be hard.
“My journey with it all right now is, if I die tomorrow, what is the most important thing to me?” Grizel asks. “I would not regret being on my phone and using social media. I think I would regret more not empowering people to be fully themselves and who they want to be.”
When you publicize your thru-hike, you also open yourself up for criticism, as the Crawfords discovered soon after their first video posted. In comments on YouTube and online forums, the social media-savvy family was called “one of the few unbearable parts of hiking culture” and “publicity-seeking,” and even compared to reality star family, the Kardashians. Someone even posted on Facebook, falsely, that son Rainier (then two years old) had been airlifted to the hospital in critical condition, prompting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy and two social workers from Tennessee’s Child Protective Services.
“There were a few days where we thought we could handle the hate comments and it just became so overwhelming that it actually made us want to quit the trail,” Ben Crawford says.
The family pushed through, despite the trolls, reaching Katahdin’s summit at 10 a.m. on August 9, 2018. And despite the digital bumps in the trail, Ben says he would do it again.
“It added a level of depth to our thru-hiking experience that was worth it for us,” Crawford says. “We invested in telling a story and the story is still being told. I think it’s a great story. Not just us hiking the trail, but of anyone hiking the trail. It can live on after your hike.”