How the American Hiking Society Works

By: Meredith Bower
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The American Hiking Society aims to protect and promote U.S. foot trails, like the A-T. If the group had its way, you’d be out hiking right now instead of reading about it.

Winding its way over more than 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail is one of the nation's best-known footpaths. Protecting that long, gorgeous walk in the woods united the three men who ultimately founded the American Hiking Society in the mid-1970s.

The early 1970s saw its share of cultural change. In addition to the women's and the antiwar movements, the United States saw its first environmental movement [source: Kemsley, 2006]. Interest in backpacking took off, as did the popularity of snowmobiles, dirt bikes and off-road vehicles. Hikers found themselves jockeying for space with the riders of motorized sport vehicles on foot trails in national, state and local parks.


Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate was considering the Appalachian Trail Oversight Bill, legislation that would protect the future of the famous trail. Despite the interest in the environment at the time, it was difficult to rally support for hiking, as groups such as the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation were involved with bigger projects [source: Kemsley, 2006].

However, three men -- William Kemsley Jr., founder of Backpacker magazine, Jim Kern, founder of the Florida Trail, and Paul Pritchard, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conference (now known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) -- did go to Washington, D.C., to testify on behalf of the trail. Here, it became clear to the trio that there was a need for a national trails organization. Within months, they formed the American Hiking Society.

In October 1976, with a board of directors in place and certified designation as a nonprofit organization, the American Hiking Society became an official entity. Since its founding more than 30 years ago, the group has pursued three distinct paths, each of which ultimately helps to promote and protect U.S. foot trails. They are:

  • Volunteerism and stewardship
  • Policy and advocacy
  • Outreach and education

Keep reading to find out how to join the only conservation-based, recreation organization in the United States.


Joining the American Hiking Society

Hiker in Arches National Park
A hiker stands in Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. Heck, a view that breathtaking could inspire anyone to join a hiking society.

The United States boasts more than 200,000 miles (321,869 kilometers) of trails crisscrossing its interior and coasts [source: Adventure Crossing]. That's good because 165 million people say they walk for recreation [source: Kemsley, 2008]. The American Hiking Society has been instrumental in increasing the popularity of hiking by protecting, promoting and improving trails across the nation. Better trails mean more hikers, and if the group has its way, more hikers mean better trails.

The American Hiking Society comprises thousands of individual members, as well as more than 275 organizations who believe in promoting and protecting U.S. foot trails. As a nonprofit organization, the society counts on donations from individuals, organizations and membership dues, as well as corporate sponsorship, government agreements and foundation grants.


Membership in the society is less about what it can do for you and more about your support of the organization. As an advocacy organization, it doesn't offer activities such as group hikes, although many of its member organizations do. The American Hiking Society's network of local groups, found in every state, includes hiking clubs, trail conferences, land trusts, conservation groups and other organizations with an interest in hiking trails.

About $30 per year will gain you membership, as well as subscriptions to American Hiker magazine and Backpacker magazine, but most members are likely motivated by the knowledge that their contribution helps to establish and maintain hiking trails throughout the United States.

Dedicated (and altruistic) hikers may want to go beyond mere membership. These nature lovers may be interested in the American Hiking Society's Volunteer Vacations offered in more than 30 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Volunteers from ages 18-80 spend a week building and maintaining trails and shelters, and re-establishing native species. They work in national and state parks, wildlife refuges, nature preserves and other public lands across the country. The only requirements are camping gear and a willingness to get dirty.

Working in groups of six to 15 people, volunteers contribute time, energy and enthusiasm (as well as a small registration fee). According to the American Hiking Society, the vacations provide critical sweat equity and resources to meet underfunded trail program needs and help keep trails open, safe and enjoyable for generations.


Benefits of the American Hiking Society

The American Hiking Society gears its activities toward increasing participation and enjoyment in hiking. Sometimes those activities revolve around getting people to walk in the woods or even on Capitol Hill.

One of the society's biggest events is National Trails Day, a trail awareness program established in 1993. The day centers on promoting hiking, as well as thanking volunteers, land agencies and businesses for their support. The inaugural National Trails Day attracted more than 1 million participants. Held annually, on the first Saturday in June, the society uses the occasion to inspire the public and trail enthusiasts to seek out their favorite trails and to participate in one of the more than 1,100 educational exhibits, workshops and trail work projects nationwide.


A National Trails Fund, established by American Hiking Society, awards grant money to organizations dedicated to building and improving hiking trails and inspiring volunteers to work for the long-term good of trails.

The American Hiking Society also hasn't been afraid to lobby lawmakers for its cause. One of the society's first steps in advocating for hikers was to defeat legislation calling for an excise tax on hiking equipment in 1976. Although the bill intended to collect funds for conservation, the American Hiking Society said that the tax was an unfair burden on hikers, since everyone who enjoyed the outdoors would benefit.

Since that 1976 victory, the group has lobbied for amendments to the National Trails System Act, which authorized a countrywide system of trails. The American Hiking Society also has pressed the government to designate new scenic trails, encourage volunteers and hiking clubs to build and maintain trails, and to establish what is now known as the rails-to-trails movement [source: Montorfano].

The society has also drummed up publicity and support by doing what it does best -- hiking. In 1978, founding members of the organization began to plan the 13-month HikeaNation, a coast-to-coast walk. Two years later, 36 people set out on the 4,500-mile (7,242-kilometer) journey. In spring 1981, a congressional delegation greeted the hikers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol [source: Kemsley, 2006].

HikeaNation was the inspiration for the creation of the American Discovery Trail, a coast-to-coast recreational trail for hiking, biking or riding horses. Along with Backpacker magazine, the American Hiking Society worked to obtain congressional designation as a national trail, before turning the effort over to the American Discovery Trail Society in 1996.

Other policy-setting efforts implemented by the American Hiking Society include an annual advocacy week called Hike-the-Hill, which brings trail leaders and volunteers to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding and protection. Since 1996, thanks to the efforts of Hike-the Hill: Trails Advocacy Week, funding for the National Trails System has steadily increased [source: Montorfano].

The efforts of American Hiking Society have followed a long and winding footpath. Hike over to the next page for more links to outdoor adventures.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Adventure Crossing, "American Hiking Society History Video."
  • American Hiking Society. (October 26, 2009)
  • Gluck, Pam. "The National Trails System: a grand experiment." American Trails Magazine. Vol. 37, no. 3. Page 6. Fall 2008.
  • Harnik, Peter. "History of the Rail-Trail Movement." Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 2007. (October 28, 2009)
  • Kemsley, Jr., William. "The Backpacker and Hikers Handbook." Stackpole Books. 2008.
  • Kemsley, Jr., William. "Three Decades of Protecting Our Nation's Trails." American Hiker. Page 4. Fall 2006.
  • King, Brian B. "Trail Years: A History of the Appalachian Trail Conference." Appalachian Trailway News, Special 75th Anniversary Issue. Special Commemorative Issue, July 2000.
  • Miller, Gregory A. "The Trail Ahead." American Hiker. Page 13. 2006.
  • Montorfano, Celina. "A History of Hiker Advocacy." American Hiker. Page 9. Fall 2006.