© Tony Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0)
PLEASE READ: Safety and, in particular, murders have remained among the most common questions related to the Appalachian Trail. This article is only intended to present the facts. If you comment, please be respectful and consider the victim's families.
How safe is the Appalachian Trail? Really?
A day spent in nature can be an invigorating one, but it’s no secret that the wild comes with its fair share of dangers.
From unpredictable weather to animal encounters, to dehydration to infections, there’s a slew of threats hikers should always keep at least one eye out for.
But what about the dangers that stretch beyond mother nature… what about human nature? In this post, we’re taking a deeper look into such dark encounters, along with sharing tips on how to stay safe while out on the trail.Janice Balza Sun, Apr 27, 1975 – Page 1 · Kingsport Times (Kingsport, Tennessee) · Newspapers.com
List of Murders on the AT
The first known murder on the Appalachian Trail took place in 1974. To date, there have been 13 total murders recorded. The victims and their stories are in order as follows.
2019: Ronald Sanchez Jr
- Murderer: James Louis Jordan
- Location: Wythe County, VA
- Motive: Ongoing investigation
43-year-old Ronald Sanchez spent 16 years in the Army and served three tours in Iraq. After returning to the States, he embraced his love for nature and took on the Appalachian Trail.
He began his trek early in the season, figuring he’d average a slower pace than most due to knee and shoulder injuries. By May 10th, he’d made it to southern VA, where he camped alongside three other hikers in Wythe county.
On the morning of May 11th, the group encountered 30-year-old James Louis Jordan, nicknamed “Sovereign”, from Yarmouth Mass.
Jordan was later reported to have been acting unstable, alarming fellow hikers on the trail. Jordan threatened to burn Sanchez’s and the others' tents. When they tried to leave, he attacked them, killing Sanchez and wounding another.
Jordan is currently undergoing a psych evaluation and awaiting trial.
2011: Scott Lilly
- Murderer: Unsolved
- Where: Cow Camp Gap Shelter, VA
- Motive: Unsolved
On August 12th, 2011, a group of weekend hikers came across the body of Scott Lilly near the Cow Camp Gap Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. Lilly was a 30-year-old SOBO hiker who began his journey in Maryland and was planning to end at Springer Mountain.
He was last seen and heard from on July 31st after climbing The Priest in Nelson County.
Lilly’s cause of death was labeled a homicide caused by “asphyxia by suffocation”. His belongings were missing, although the FBI did not say they believed robbery was the motive.
Lilly’s death remains a mystery today.
The Cow Camp Shelter on the AT
2008: Meredith Emerson
- Murderer: Gary Michael Hilton
- Where: Blood Mountain, GA
- Motive: Mentally unstable, Sociopath
Gary Michael Hilton, a 61-year-old drifter, befriended and hiked for some time with 24-year-old Meredith Emerson and her dog. Emerson was a fast hiker, so Hilton soon fell behind and she continued her ascent alone.
On her way back down the mountain, she crossed paths with Hilton again who, this time, attacked her. Armed with a knife and baton, he threatened her and tried to take her money.
Emerson, who trained in two different martial arts, fought back. "She wouldn't stop fighting.", Hilton told the investigators after the facts.
Hilton eventually kidnapped Emerson and held her captive for three days before killing her with a handle from a car jack.
Hilton, a believed sociopath, said he targeted Emerson because she was a woman. He was sentenced to life in prison, later being charged with three additional murders.
2001: Louise Chaput
- Murderer: Unsolved
- Where: Lost Pond Trail, NH
- Motive: Unsolved
At 52, Louise Chaput drove from Quebec to Pinkham’s Grant where she stayed at a lodge at the Appalachian Mountain Club visitor’s center for the weekend. In search of a short-day hike, Chaput set out to hike the Lost Pond Trail, which trailhead was just across the street.
Chaput was never heard from again, and on the following Monday, her family and friends filed a missing person’s report with local police.
Her body was found on Thanksgiving Day with multiple stab wounds. The motive for her murder is unknown, and her killer is still at large.
White Mountain National Forest, home to the Lost Pond Trail in New Hampshire.
1996: Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans
- Murderer: Unsolved
- Where: Shenandoah National Park, VA
- Motive: Unsolved
Though not technically on the AT, this double-murder occurred just off of it in the Shenandoah National Park.
Williams, 24, and Winans, 26, were found dead on June 1, 1996 at a campsite on Bridle Trail, just ¼ mile away from a popular spot with bars, restaurants, and cabins. Thomas Williams, Julie’s father, was the one to report the girl’s missing when his daughter didn’t return the day she said she would.
Their murderer has never been found, and the FBI is still investigating the case.
1990: Geoffrey Hood and Molly LaRue
- Murderer: Paul David Crews
- Where: Thelma Marks Shelter, Duncannon, PA
- Motive: Mentally unstable
Geoffrey Hood, 26, and Molly LaRue, 25, were a young thru-hiking couple who spent their last night staying at a shelter near Cove Mountain.
They were shot and stabbed by Paul David Crews, a wanted killer on the run from Florida police.
Eight days following the murder, West Virginia police arrested Crews after hikers noticed him acting strange and awkwardly carrying an ill-fitting, overstuffed backpack (Hood’s) which included both murder weapons and the young couple's belongings.
Crews, a manic-depressive and frequent drug user, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and is currently serving two life sentences without the chance of parole.
The Cove Mountain Shelter replaced the Thelma Marks Shelter in 2000.
1988: Rebecca Wight
- Murderer: Stephen Roy Carr
- Where: Michaux State Forest, PA
- Motive: Hate Crime
Stephen Roy Carr shot Rebecca Wight and her partner Claudia Brenner in May 1988.
Wight first ran into Carr at a public restroom near their camp, where he asked her for a cigarette. The two women encountered Carr again later that day while they stopped to look at their map.
That night, after they set up camp, Carr spied on the couple for some time before firing eight rounds at the women, killing Wight and wounding Brenner.
10 days following the attack, Carr was arrested and sentenced to life without parole. Brenner went on to become a leading advocate for Anti-Gay violence.
1981: Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay
- Murderer: Randall Lee Smith
- Where: Wapiti Shelter, VA
- Motive: Unsolved
The book Murder on the Appalachian Trail, written in 1984 by Jess Carr, is based on the true events of the deaths of Robert Mountford and Laura Ramsay.
The two were 27-year-old social workers hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise money for troubled adolescents in Maine.
They were murdered by Randall Lee Smith while staying at the Wapiti Shelter. Their bodies were found days later with knife and gunshot wounds, buried under dirt and brush in their sleeping bags.
Smith was charged with two counts of second-degree murder and served 15 years of a 30-year sentence before being released for good behavior on mandatory parole. Later, he attempted murder again in the same location.
Franconia Ridge on the Appalachian Trail
1975: Janice Balza
- Murderer: Paul Bigley
- Where: Vandeventer Shelter, TN
- Motive: Mentally unstable
Janice Balza was sitting at a campfire at the Vandeventer shelter when she was murdered with a hatchet by a former mental patient named Paul Bigley, who supposedly “coveted her backpack.”
Bigley was tried and convicted of murder and spent the rest of his life in prison.
The Vandeventer shelter is sometimes believed to be haunted by Balza’s ghost.
1974: Joel Polson
- Murderer: Ralph Howard Fox
- Where: Low Gap Shelter, GA
- Motive: Theft
This is the first recorded murder on the AT.
Joel Polson was hiking with a woman named Margaret McFaddin when they stopped to spend the night at Low Gap Shelter. Here, they ran into Fox, a young man who was also spending the night.
The following morning, Fox shot Polson, stole his gear, and kidnapped McFaddin who was 18 years old at the time. After a few days, Fox released McFaddin, who reported the incident to the police.
Fox plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
The Low Gap Shelter on the AT
Famous Missing Person Cases on the AT
2013 Geraldine Largay
- Cause of death: Lost
- Location: 100-mile Wilderness
Geraldine, also known as “Gerry” or “Inchworm” on the trail was a 66-year-old retired air force nurse from Tennessee who set out one summer to thru-hike the AT by herself. She kept constant communication with her husband, meeting him at various points along the trail for resupply.
One morning she ventured off the trail in the 100-mile wilderness area for a pit stop and lost her way back. She tried to text her husband many times, but the text wouldn’t send because of no cell service. After her husband didn't hear from her, he called the police who began a search.
Largay survived for 23 days on her own before she passed of exposure and starvation. Her body was found three miles from where she was last seen.
2008 Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer
- Assailant: Randall Smith
- Location: Wapiti Shelter
- Motive: Unsolved
While camping near the Wapiti shelter, fishermen Scott Johnson and Sean Farmer met Randall Smith (who said his name was Ricky Williams) and invited him to join them for dinner. Little did they know they were dining with the man who had killed Robert Mountford Jr and Susan Ramsay in the same area in 1981 (mentioned above).
The three shared dinner and conversed for hours. As the night stretched on, Smith hung around, even though he’d mentioned his camp was over an hour away.
At 8:30 pm Smith finally said he was leaving. A moment later, he began firing shots at the two men. Miraculously, both men were injured but escaped together and survived. Smith has since died in prison.
Bottom Line: Is the AT Safe to Hike?
We asked the Appalachian Trail Conservancy:
“The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is a relatively safe place, but it is not immune from crime or insulated against the problems of larger society. It is estimated that more than three million hikers visit the Trail annually; in the Trail’s history, 11 hikers have been murder victims. Hikers are advised to plan ahead and prepare for their journeys, be self-reliant, and use situational awareness with a back-up plan in case they encounter the unexpected. In an emergency, or when encountering threatening behavior, hikers are advised to call 9-1-1 immediately. Hikers can report suspicious behavior and criminal activity through a National Park Service dispatch number 1.866.677.6677 or an online incident report form at www.appalachiantrail.org/
incidents— if you see something, say something. More tips on crime prevention can be found at www.appalachiantrail.org/ crime-prevention.” - Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Murder Statistics on the AT
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that around 3 million people hike a portion of the trail every year. On average, there has been one murder every four years since 1974. This means there is currently less than a .00003% chance of being murdered on the AT.
To put this number into more perspective, let’s look at a comparably sized city. Chicago has close to 2.6 million people, and there have been over 900 homicides in 2020 alone. In theory, this means you are 10X more likely to be murdered in Chicago than the Appalachian Trail.
Compared to CDT, PCT?
To date, there have been no reported homicides on either the CDT or PCT.
Most common way people die on the AT?
So, what dangers do pose the biggest threats?
The ATC (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) and NPS (U.S. National Park Service) say heart attacks or other health-related issues are the leading cause of death while hiking. Drowning and falling also rank high, and these numbers have increased in recent years because of people taking unnecessary risks to get that perfect social media shot. Other threats that make the list include untreated tick-borne illnesses, dehydration, lightning strikes, and falling trees.
Mount Rogers on the Appalachian Trail (Virginia)
Hiking Safety Tips
1. HIKE IN GROUPS
Twisted ankles, getting turned around on the trail, run-ins with dangerous people or animals—it doesn’t take much to turn these minor mishaps into life-threatening events. Hiking in a group makes you less vulnerable to attacks (both by animals and other people), and it reassures there’s always a helping hand nearby in case things turn south.
2. LOG YOURSELF AT EVERY SHELTER
Recording your name at each shelter is the best way to locate you in case you go missing, and to notify you in case you need to be contacted quickly for a family emergency. That being said, some hikers choose to log their “trail names” rather than real names, as the NPS has warned against providing too much personal information like gender-specific names, itinerary plans, etc., as these details make hikers more vulnerable. If you adopt a trail name and use it in logs, be sure to share it with your family/friends.
3. USE COMMUNICATION
Keep your loved one’s minds at ease by checking in and communicating regularly. If you’re not one for phone calls or texting, the Cairn app can easily do this for you. It’s a great app built for hikers that automatically alerts a hand-selected group of people called a “safety circle.” The app allows real-life location tracking, and it can send auto-alerts to your safety circle in case you miss a pre-scheduled check-in time.
If you plan on being in an area with low cell coverage, consider opting for a satellite messenger like the Garmin InReach, which allows you to send out message to cell phones and other InReach devices no matter where you are.
4. REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY OR INDIVIDUALS
If you come into contact with someone who feels “off” or just straight up gives you the creeps, do your best to not threaten or engage the individual.
Never share personal details or any of your itinerary plans. If you can, mentally note any memorable features or characteristics about the person, then do your best to get away from them as quickly as possible to a safe, populated place where you can report the person’s suspicious activity to the police or the ATC’s 24-hour communication center at 1-866-677-6677.
5. CARRYING A GUN ON THE AT?
Although the law allows registered users to carry firearms on the trail in compliance with federal, state, and local laws, the ATC discourages hikers from doing so. If you choose to carry a gun, be sure to check out the concealed carry laws for each state you’ll be passing through and have any essential permits.
6. ADDITIONAL HIKING SAFETY TIPS
Always carry a map. This shows you the lay of the land, and in case you get lost, you can use it as an aide to describe your current location.
Conserve your phone battery when you’re in areas without cell service.
- When you have cell service, read up on forums/blogs to see what hikers are saying about the trail ahead. Also, take a moment to check out the upcoming weather predictions.