Our brand is built on the idea of better gear for the outdoors, so it’s only natural to do our part to give back to the inspirational places we all care so deeply for. That’s why we accepted the challenge from our friends at The Outdoor Evolution to go beyond lip service and show how much we #GiveAShit about public lands through action. We are thrilled to partner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to sponsor a ridgerunner in 2021. The Appalachian Trail is part of our backyard and gives us inspiration daily (just look at our name), so the opportunity to directly support efforts to maintain the Trail and inspire responsible recreation there was a no-brainer.
To help explain the role and importance of a ridgerunner, we reached out to David Schafer, who was hired by the ATC to be a ridgerunner in the Smokies in 2020. Obviously, his year on the Trail didn’t turn out as expected due to COVID-19, but he was able to adapt and find creative new ways to educate people about protecting the places we love.
AppGear: Tell us a little about the process of applying to become a ridgerunner and what drew you to the position.
David: I grew up in Western North Carolina, so the AT was easily accessible for me. I thru-hiked the Trail in 2012 and have had the fortune to hike multiple long-distance trails since then. However, growing up in this region always made the AT special to me. I applied to be a ridgerunner so I could give back to the Trail that had given so much to me. I wanted to spend my time outside maintaining the Trail and educating hikers. The ridgerunner position was the perfect fit with that desire in mind.
AGC: What kind of training did you receive?
DS: I received training in Leave No Trace principles, visitor contact techniques, trail maintenance, and site management, including shelter and privy maintenance. Ridgerunners serve as the liaison between hikers and the AT. With that in mind, our training prepared us to be educators and advocates for the health of the Trail and its surrounding ecosystem.
AGC: What were you most excited about once you accepted the position?
DS: I was most excited about being able to give back to a Trail and community that provided a really formative experience in my life. Additionally, I was excited to be working in the Smoky Mountains. The Smokies are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the country, so I was keen to immerse myself in that environment so I could learn more about it.
AGC: Can you share a glimpse of a day-in-the-life of an AT ridgerunner?
DS: A day in the life includes waking up in the shelter as thru-hikers bustle to pack up and hike to their intended destination. I would typically wait for hikers to clear out, then do a sweep of the shelter. Gear, dirt, grime, and trash are inevitably left behind, so a clean each morning is usually necessary. Then I pack up and hike to my next destination, where I talk to every hiker I meet. I usually pass on the weather forecast, any closures due to bear activity, and other information I think is pertinent to them. I make sure thru-hikers and overnight backpackers have permits as well, but I always enjoy talking to hikers before getting straight to the business of checking permits. When I make it to the next shelter, I do a sweep similar to what I did in the morning and make sure the shelter and its surrounding area are in good shape. Then I spend the rest of my day performing necessary duties around the shelter while staying available for hikers so I can strike up a conversation about Leave No Trace.
AGC: How did most people react to you on trail?
DS: Most people were excited to meet a ridgerunner, especially since it gave them an excuse to show their permit to someone. I very rarely met folks who didn't care for my presence. I think it's important for ridgerunners to show that they are on the Trail to serve as educators, not authority figures. Most folks appreciate what we do for the AT and would show that appreciation whenever I met them. That definitely made the job more rewarding.
AGC: What is the craziest/funniest/most interesting thing you saw in your time as a ridgerunner?
DS: I think one of the craziest experiences I had on the Trail was when I ran into two hikers hiking with homemade spears that they used like walking sticks. They were the nicest folks you'd ever meet but seeing them coming up the mountain with 7-foot spears was definitely an intimidating sight. They had spears because they wanted to spark conversation about self-sufficiency and living off the land. There is a sizable population of boars in the Smokies and they asked me if they could hunt them. I politely told them no.
AGC: I know COVID cut your time on the trail short—how did you adapt to the role once the ATC asked everyone to stay home?
DS: Adapting to at-home work during the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging. I did a lot of things from home, but for a few of my duties I wrote educational articles, kept the ATC website updated on COVID-19 news and closures, filmed educational videos on topics like how to reduce your pack weight, and managed a spreadsheet that tracks the number of COVID-19 cases in AT counties. It was obviously tough to transition from overnight field work to working from home. It’s not the job I signed up for, but it’s what was needed. I missed the AT of course, but leaving the field was the responsible thing to do.
AGC: What do you feel is the most important duty of a ridgerunner?
DS: I believe that education is the most important duty of a ridgerunner. We're out there to help hikers reduce their impact on the AT and keep the environment pristine for future generations. If we do our jobs well, I believe we can have a noticeable and positive impact on the Trail.
AGC: What’s one thing you wish hikers knew before heading out on the trail—whether it’s for a day hike, section hike, or thru-hike?
DS: I suppose something I wish hikers would do is familiarize themselves with the seven Leave No Trace principles before they hike on the Trail. I feel like I've talked about Leave No Trace a lot, but it is important to remember that a good understanding of Leave No Trace can really help keep the Trail in good shape. Obviously, greater issues such as climate change have a much larger effect on the environment than a stray wrapper or some poorly buried poop. However, I firmly believe that small actions taken on the Trail can manifest into an overall healthier ecosystem. All of our actions, big or small, have an impact even if we don't consider them.
AGC: We all know people love gear. What were your daily essentials for the job?
DS: I'd say my favorite pieces of gear were my saw for cutting down fallen trees and my ultralight umbrella for keeping the heavy rain off my head. Every hiker I talked to loved to make fun of umbrellas until they saw me stay happy and dry in the pouring rain. Their jealous looks were worth it.
AGC: What are your plans for 2021?
DS: I am in the middle of grad school for Experiential and Outdoor Education, so my plan for 2021 is to make it through that! I'm planning a hike of the Cohos Trail with my best friend in the summer as long as COVID-19 is no longer an issue, but besides that I don't have any grand adventures planned. Maybe I'll reward myself with a big adventure after I finish school. Stay tuned on that one!
If you’d like to learn more about the role ridgerunners play along the AT, click here.