CDT hikers in the Trail Town of Pie Town, NM. Photo by John Carr.
When we thru-hikers are out in the backcountry, we develop our own culture and social cues. But we also inevitably end up in town to grab a meal or take a shower, and that’s when hiker weirdness starts to shine.
Being informed and intentional about how we interact with locals in trail towns is important. Gateway communities have sway on decisions that impact the trail including roadwalks, re-routes, and development near the trail.
So while it may seem like trail and town are worlds apart, we as hikers can be a force for good, sustainable economic growth in towns — helping protect the trail and its town resources in the long-term for future hikers.
Here’s a few tips for how to be mindful hikers when in civilization …
Trail towns shouldn't have to post that their bathrooms aren't for sponge baths...
1. Remember that we stink
Hiker odor is infamous. If you’re eating in a restaurant before you shower, ask to be seated outside or away from other guests.
Liz Thomas in front of a post office on the Great Divide Trail. Ask post office employees ... Where is a respectful place to sort resupply boxes that is out of the way of other customers?
2. Tip well
Nothing says “hikers are awesome” than every hiker coming through town leaving a great tip. In the grand scheme of things, the difference between a great tip and a good tip is a couple bucks. But it’s the kind of couple bucks that really leaves an impression and makes us hikers look good. 20% minimum is a good rule of thumb.
3. Ask before you charge devices
In many small towns, things like electricity cost more money than in the city. When hundreds or thousands of hikers come through a business, that can add up. Charging phones and power banks is essential to hikers. Asking (maybe with a good ol’ fashioned ‘please and thank you’) shows town folk that we aren’t entitled thru-hikers. And hey, if they want a buck or two to charge, that’s a service worth paying for.
San Diego Trans County thru-hikers charging their phone in a public park. Photo by Liz Thomas.
4. Be mindful of where you dump
Kudos on packin’ it in, packin’ it out. Now, you’ve got to find a place in town to responsibly get rid of that trash. Garbage service costs money in many rural towns, where the closest landfill may be an hour away, and the dumper has to drive it there themselves. You can imagine how that trash can add up when dozens of hikers a day dump a week’s worth of trash. If you’re in anything but a pretty major town, ask before you dump.
5. Be cool with shuttle driver schedules
Yeah, you’ve got miles to make. But town folk see us hikers as having all day–after all, in their minds, we’re just on a long vacation. Town folk have got stuff to do, too. Be patient and if you really need to get back to the trail, find a bus or use the ol’ thumb.
6. Watch your dog
If you’re on trail with your dog, they feel like part of your tramily. Unfortunately, when you’re back in town, most folks see your dog as, well, an animal. Some trail angel houses or church hostels don’t allow dogs. Keep these services open for other hikers by bringing your best friend to only places that are as welcoming to your dog as you are.
Responsible dog owning hikers keep pets on leash in town and wait for their friends outside of businesses that don't allow dogs inside. Here, Whitney Allgood LaRuffa waits for his hiking buddies outside a grocery store.
7. Don’t steal $*%#
Sneaking an extra hiker into a hotel room? Letting a buddy take a shower? It may seem like you’re doing a friend a solid, but to the owner of the hotel, you’re stealing. Most hiker hotels are ok charging you a couple extra bucks for another person to cover the hot water. Ask before you stack.
8. 'Yard sale' and dry gear out of view
Ask any of my hiker friends and they’ll tell you I love a good “yard sale” — sprawling out the entire contents of my pack and letting stuff dry. I love opening a resupply box and dumping everything into view. People who live in gateway communities aren’t so into seeing all my stuff taking up space–especially if it’s in front of a post office or some other place where they were trying to walk. Do your sprawling at trailheads or in hotel rooms. If you don’t have the luxury of those spaces, a good ol’ ask of “where can I do this so it isn’t obnoxious?” goes a long way to building goodwill. Ask the post office employee, restaurant staff, or gear store rep if they’ve got a place out back for you.
A hiker yard sale is appropriate in the backcountry but can been seen as obnoxious by locals in trail towns.
9. Wear clothes in public
I can’t believe I have to say this, but every year, it seems like a laundromat on a trail bans hikers due to somebody’s nakedness. Folks: when you’re washing your trail clothes, wear your rain gear or puffy. You can’t put that stuff in a normal washer/ dryer with normal soap without ruining it anyway, so you may as well wear it. Too hot? Go to a thrift store or raid a hiker box and throw some cotton over yourself.
10. Always donate to trail angelsTrail angels can boost our morale on a tough day and make the logistics of a hike that much easier. They can also be great advocates for the trail in their community, speaking against development that could impact the trail. But trail angeling ain’t cheap, with angels that open their doors to hundreds of hikers spending thousands of dollars out of pocket. I always leave $20 minimum to stay with a trail angel, and am sure to always carry cash when hiking for that reason. If you don’t have cash, ask if you can Venmo them. Regardless of whether you donated, it’s a good practice to also ask if you can help with chores, too.
Liz “Snorkel” Thomas is a thru-hiker with 20+ long trails on her feet, including the PCT, CDT, and AT, for which she held an FKT. Her trail experiences led her to co-found Treeline Review, an outdoor gear review space dedicated to buying right the first time to reduce waste on the planet.