What Does an Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner Do?

The question of the day for the past 15 weeks has been, “Oh, you’re a ridgerunner? What does a ridgerunner do?”  Well, besides running (usually not literally) across ridges of the Appalachian mountains, we willingly eat Knorr Pasta sides and Poptarts every single day. We live outdoors, rain or shine, snow or sizzle, all the while being eaten alive by no-seeums and mosquitoes, hauling our belongings on our back and sleeping in our tents or A.T. shelters.  Why would anyone do it? Well, there are a few notable perks that come with this seasonal position. One example is our nightly live music performed by the most beautifully haunting harmony ever heard, the Owls and Coyotes.  We breathe only the freshest mountain air, awaken to the early birds’ songs at sunrise, and we walk through forests day after day.  Sunrises and sunsets add remarkable color to our sky on a regular basis. The pace of life in the backcountry is slow and enjoyably different than a standard 9 to 5 position. Our office is sometimes this:

 

and other times this:

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Through floods
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Through snow and sleet

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Employed by either the Appalachian Trail Conservancy or the Appalachian Mountain Club, (both nonprofit organizations whose mission is to maintain and protect the Appalachian Trail), ridgerunners work to educate, protect the experience of trail users, and attempt to keep trail conditions pleasant for all those out there who enjoy it. Primarily a ridgerunner’s job is to interact with and ensure a positive trail experience for hikers. We educate on anything and everything to do with backpacking the Appalachian Trail, most lessons of which fit neatly under the Leave No Trace umbrella of principles. We may be asked for a tutorial on gear setup, bear bag hanging techniques, map orientation, water and food inquiries, campsite impact, campfire safety, proper poop disposal, trail sanitation, or we may be asked if a hiker needs facial mask and deodorant while thru-hiking the trail? (No,by the way, you don’t.) Our job is to be a walking resource and an advocate for the trail and its users. Sometimes at the end of a busy day where a ridgerunner may chat with over 120 different people, the vocal cords need a “zero day”. Too bad. Tomorrow’s Saturday.

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Using Guthooks for trail info
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Registering thru-hikers
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Successful backpack shakedown
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How should I pack it so that the weight is distributed on my hips as it should be?
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Overloaded bear cables
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No to facial mask on the AT!
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Use water to put her out!
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No, you don’t need two tents, but yes, in March you need more than 55 degree protection from your sleeping bag.

A ridgerunner’s job, though primarily education, certainly doesn’t stop there. Part of our responsibility is to gather data for those “fun facts” we all know and love about the trail. For instance, without ridgerunners there would be no idea how many varied people use the trail each year, the number who attempt and actually finish a thru-hike, or on-site details about notable trail events such as bear encounters or search and rescue missions. A ridgerunner completes a daily, overnight, weekly, and end-of-season report, each of which details hiker numbers and differentiates between thru-hikers, section hikers, and day hikers.  We log pounds and gallons of trash and gear collected, bear incidents, trees across the trail that need clearing, and shelters or privies that need maintenance. We associate and build positive relationships with those who are part of the trail communities and volunteer groups.

chatting at ATKO
Education
Mr. Espy
Mr. Gene Espy, a legend who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1951. What an honor that he listened to my presentation!
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Women’s only seminar at ATKO.

In emergencies on trail, ridgerunners utilize our Wilderness First Aid training provided by the ATC. We work to keep the situation calm and controlled and ensure the safety of injured or ill hikers. Equipped with radios and GPS units, we have the technology needed to summon help for urgent situations.

As an extra, we fulfill our duties as lovers of the trail.  We help pick up after those who are less considerate.  A garbage collector is not the job of a ridgerunner, but more accurately, it is the responsibility of all trail users. If we all held to the motto, “leave the world better than it was when you got there,” how much more beautiful would our world be? Do your part. Pack out all of your own trash and pick up that left by others.

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Packing out 25 lbs of gear someone left on trail. They should have accepted my offer for a backpack shakedown 😉
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In just a few miles of trail…
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A ridgerunner’s hands after cleaning out a fire pit. Fire rings are not trash cans.
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Fire rings are not trash cans.
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Dasani is not yellow….
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Hiding your tent and cookware behind a log at a campsite is lame.

In conclusion, there are infinitely more duties of an employee who wears a patch and carries a radio in the wilderness. Our job, really, is to be there for all trail users to protect your experience and ensure everyone understands how to take care of our beloved trail. We’re educators, advisers, first-aid administrators, encouragers, conversationalists, backpackers, data gatherers, lovers of the trail, walking information booths, Leave No Trace advocates, and we put out fires both literally and figuratively. In a nutshell, ridgerunning is a dream job!


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