Four hundred seventy miles into a northbound trek on the Appalachian Trail, a hiker hits the town of Damascus, Virginia. Tired, thirsty, with battered poles and worn-down trail shoes, that hiker might stumble into a tan brick building sporting a sign that reads, in simple block letters, “Mt. Rodgers Outfitters.” Inside, walls of food, packs, clothes, and gear would greet them, as would the store’s owner, “Lumpy” Price.
“A good majority of my business does come through hikers, because I’m geared toward suiting their needs, for why they’re out there,” Price said.
All along the trail, retailers tell a similar story. From Blairsville, Georgia, to Kingfield, Maine, local outdoor outfitters depend on A.T. hikers as a crucial part of their customer base. The pandemic caused a major dip in traffic along the trail last year, leading to decreased sales for these shops, and if the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has anything to say about it, this year will be the same.
The ATC is asking thru-hikers to stay home this season, posting notices across its website and announcing that, as in 2020, the group won’t officially recognize hikers who complete the 2,190-mile journey until the CDC has “deemed the pandemic under control.” Fifty-six of the 260 trailside shelters, along with almost 80 privies, remain closed due to Covid-19 restrictions on National Park Service land.
“I understand where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is coming from,” said Jennifer Pharr Davis, a renowned thru-hiker and founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville, North Carolina. “Part of the trail is the towns and communities that are near it, and I feel like their intent is to keep people safe.”
Despite these discouragements, hikers are making it clear that they want to get out on the trail, and the ATC isn’t officially barring anyone from doing so. Though the group is urging people to stay home, registration is open for thru-hiking start dates; the ATC is justifying the move by claiming the registration tool helps avoid overcrowding on the trail. Hikers are snatching up spots—nearly 2,000 people have already set a departure date this spring.
If enough hikers are deterred from making the journey this year, retailers along the trail could lose a major customer base, but based on registration numbers so far, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. Of course, as multiple retailers pointed out to me, the fate of the season could change like a shift in the wind, depending on safety regulations and hikers’ actions.
So how are outfitters preparing for whatever comes their way? For most stores, it’ll be business as usual, until proven otherwise.
Preparing for the rush
In 2019, Mountain Trails in Front Royal, Virginia, served more than 750 thru-hikers, according to owner Garry Green. All of those hikers needed food and isobutane fuel, and most needed gear too—socks, shoes, and even replacement packs. AT hikers are a strong cohort of customers specialty retailers, and shops along the trail are eager for their business this year, as usual.
“We’re excited for [thru-hikers] to come, and we feel that they are going to come,” said Georgeanna Seamon, co-owner of Mountain Crossings, a retailer that sits on mile 31 of the trail—literally. The trail bisects the store, making it the first destination for hikers looking to change up their gear or fix their packing mistakes.
“We’re the first stop, so we see everybody,” Seamon said. During a pre-Covid year, the shop would see as many as 50 thru-hikers a day in the March-April ‘busy season,’ according to Seamon. It’s still too early for those numbers this year, even if the upcoming season hits pre-Covid counts, but the Seamons are preparing as if the boom is right around the corner.
“We went ahead and placed our orders like we were going to have a normal year,” Seamon said.
At the Nantahala Outdoor Center campus in Wesser, North Carolina, Tim Black shares Seamon’s optimism. Black, director of retail for both of NOC’s two locations, is planning for a strong showing of thru-hikers.
“We’re bringing in [gear] shipments as normal,” Black said. “As far as we know, we’re expecting a very similar traffic pattern to 2019 or 2018.”
Historically, thru-hiker traffic has resulted in strong sales for NOC’s outfitter in Wesser, which sits about forty feet off of the trail. In 2019, between March 15 and April 15, the retailer saw over $100,000 in sales between its camping, footwear, and apparel categories. While it’s tough to determine exactly how much of those sales come from thru-hikers, Black notes that because of the cooler temperatures and lack of watersports customers, thru-hiker service usually dominates the Wesser outfitter’s operations in that monthlong window.
Waiting to see what happens
It’s a long way—almost 900 miles—from the start of the trail on Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Waynesboro, Virginia, so the town’s best-known outdoor retailer, Rockfish Gap Outfitters, won’t see many thru-hikers for a while. Manager Rich Gibson is more apprehensive about the hiking season than others, though he still expects some business from long-distance hikers.
“We pre-seasoned orders as if they were going to be coming through, but I did cut back on the numbers,” Gibson said. “I think numbers are going to be down again this year…but I think we’re going to see more hikers than we saw last year.”
Specifically, Gibson anticipates footwear and fuel sales will be down, though he’ll continue to monitor sales and adjust ordering as necessary. Sleeping bag sales could also be an issue—the store still has bags left over from last year’s hiking season, and Gibson lightened this year’s order with that in mind.
Fortunately for Gibson, Rockfish Gap’s position on the trail allows him to monitor the thru-hiking numbers weeks—even months—before people start arriving at his store. He’s in contact with stores like Mountain Crossings and others at the early stages of the A.T., navigating trends in advance.
“It’s great because we’re not competition, we’re so far away,” Gibson said. “It’s a good network of people along the Appalachian Trail.”
And like other retailers along the trail, Gibson does expect to hear about thru-hikers coming through those earlier stores—certainly more than last year.
“A lot of people got off the trail or postponed their hikes last year,” Gibson said. “I think people will be more comfortable [this year], knowing the risk factors.”