Murders involving the Appalachian Trail (AT) are super rare. In fact, the handful of murders on the Appalachian Trail is extremely low relative to the number of millions of people that hike the trail each year. When I thru-hiked, murder and violence were not something I really worried about when planning the trip. I worried even less about them once I started my hike and realized the wonderful nature of the people within the AT ecosystem. If you’re planning a hike on the Appalachian Trail, thoughts and preparations for violent acts should probably be pretty low on your prioritized checklist.
If you’re super concerned, you can always check out the discussion about whether or not you should carry a gun on the Appalachian Trail.
Trial violence is infrequent. However, from time to time, murders have occurred on the trail, and here are some of the instances of murder on the AT that I could find.
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2015 – Federal authorities captured fugitive James Hammes, who had been hiding on the Appalachian Trail. He had been on the run for six years. Hammes is alleged to have embezzled millions from his employer, Pepsi. Though not investigated for murdering someone on the trail, authorities are investigating Hammes for the murder of his wife, who was killed in a house fire when the Hammes’s home burned in 2003.
2011 – A male hiker from Indiana died on the Appalachian Trail. The Roanoke Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said the man died of “asphyxia by suffocation,” and as of today the murder appears to be unsolved. Here is an article on the incident.
2008 – Randall Lee Smith shot two fishermen on the Appalachian Trail. Both survived, but Randall Lee Smith was charged with two counts of attempted murder. Randall Lee Smith was convicted of the death of two hikers in 1981, crimes for which he served 15 years in prison from 1981 to 1996.
2001 – A Canadian woman was murdered in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The woman was stabbed to death near the Glen Boulder Trailhead just south of Pinkham Notch.
1996 – Two women were found slain in the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia from incisions to the neck. A collection of articles and various updates can be found here.
1990 – Two thru-hikers were murdered at a Cove Shelter outside Duncannon, PA. The male hiker had been shot and killed, and the female hiker had been raped, tortured, and killed, according this article. The murderer was then 38 year old drifter Paul David Crews.
1988 – A young man, Stephen Roy Carr, fired his rifle eight times at two women, Rebecca Wright and Claudia Brenner, having sex in the woods in a Pennsylvania State Park. He struck both women with several shots, and Wright died as a result of those shots.
1981 – Randall Lee Smith killed two thru-hikers, Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay, while they were hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
1975 – Paul Bigley murdered Janice Balza of Wisconsin, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. Bigley killed her with a hatchet, reportedly for her backpack that he coveted.
1974 – Ralph Fox murdered Joel Polsom of Hartsville, South Carolina. Polsom was murdered at the Low Gap Trail Shelter along the Appalachian Trail in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Violence is extremely rare on the Appalachian Trail, and our hearts are broken for the souls lost over the years and the families that live without these loved ones.
You should adopt general best practices for being aware of your surroundings and strangers, but fear of violence should not keep you from the trail. The incidences of murder can be counted on two hands, and over a 40 years period that number of crimes is sparse relative to the frequency of murders and murder rate per capita in US metropolitans.
Of course, the people who typically talk about the violence on the trail are not the hikers, but the friends and relatives of hikers. Before I left on my thru-hike, my mother and sisters pressed upon me the dangers and the potential for violence to deter me from backpacking the trail, but in reality the likelihood of violence is quite low, likely lower than living in a city.
Also, keep in mind that most violence comes from people crossing paths with the Appalachian Trail, not from other hikers, so take care when you do find a person in the woods that seems completely out of place. I met several people on the trail who clearly were not hikers, and each one of them was quite strange. One man I met was alike a grown baby lost in the woods, carrying dozens of grocery bags full of gear. Several people that I met were most certainly homeless, taking advantage of the shelters and generosity of hikers. When you encounter folks like this, your guard should be on higher alert.
Now, if you are truly concerned about violence, you may also want to read my post titled: “Should I take a gun on the Appalachian Trail?”