Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Appalachian Trail Completion Rates

I've seen a lot of numbers thrown around about the percentages of declared AT thru-hikers who complete the trail, and where the ones who don't drop out. But hadn't seen anything empirical.

I found recent data on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's "2000 Milers" page, massaged it a bit in a spreadsheet, and came up with both annual completion rates, and average drop-out rates by milestone for the period covering 2005-2011 ...

Miles Fm Completion Drop Out
Milestone Springer 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Rate Rate
Springer Mountain, GA 0 1392 1150 1125 1250 1425 1460 1700
Neels Gap, GA 30 1156 1076 1005 1150 1325 n/a n/a 90% 10%
Fontana Dam, NC 160 1124 n/a n/a 1050 911 n/a n/a 76% 24%
Harpers Ferry, WV 1000 682 659 613 667 709 747 849 52% 48%
Mt. Katahdin, ME 2100 367 354 318 361 393 426 414 28% 72%
Completion rate 26% 31% 28% 29% 28% 29% 24%

The spreadsheet I used to derive this data is [here]. Some of the totals for milestones were missing from the ATC data set. So the average completions are based upon the totals of those who reach any given milestone over the period, and the total starts for only those years for which there is data for the milestone.  Clear as mud?

I had read in multiple sources that the dropout rate at Neels Gap was closer to 15-20%, but that appears to have improved somewhat dramatically. The percentage of those who finish is also routinely stated as 20%, and the data shows it now to be significantly higher at 28%.

Still intimidating ...

Update (3/11/12) - In a post I started on this subject on WhiteBlaze, a representative of ATC provided background on how these estimates are derived:
For the record, here's some info from ATC:

Thru-hikers represent 80% of 2,000-milers. Section-hikers are the minority.

In recent years, we have arrived at our Springer northbound thru-hiker start numbers by analyzing the Amicalola Falls State Park thru-hiker register (which usually represents about 50-55% of starters--keep in mind some sign in there but go on the Springer to start) and the data collected by the Springer caretaker/ridgerunner. We know the Springer ridgerunner captures only a percentage, and he's only there 10 days out of 14 for part of the season. Since we've had both these sources available to us, we do not rely much on numbers from Neels Gap. But, Neels Gap was, for many years, the best source of info for us, and may again be someday if the situations change again on Springer or AFSP.

In 2011, we estimated that 1700 northbound thru-hikers started at Springer. Of those, 54% signed in at Amicalola Falls. 910 prospective thru-hikers signed in at Amicalola Falls. If the 54/46% Amicalola/Springer split is also representative of those who did not report completions, that would tell us that 1685 northbounders started. Seems to me the 1700 count is pretty darn close.

In addition to the Springer caretaker (Jonathan Lemberg), the following entities and individuals make our thru-hiker stats possible: the Georgia A.T. Club, the U.S.F.S., Amicalola Falls State Park (Ron Brown in particular), ATC HQ volunteer Greg Stover, and ATC staff and volunteers here at HQ and in our Asheville, NC office (Andrew Downs). ATC currently funds the Springer caretaker/ridgerunner position.

A final note: we base our northbound completion numbers on the 2,000-miler reports we receive, not the numbers from Baxter. Baxter northbound thru-hiker numbers are typically almost 50% higher than ours.

Laurie P.

If I understand that last para correctly, it implies that thru-hikers reporting completion at Baxter could have been as high as 616 for a 37% completion rate in 2011 - And that's with a hurricane that tore up the northeast!


  1. Thanks for the info on completion rates, I wonder how much the weather skewed the 2011 data for people that dropped out because of the spring tornadoes in the south and then hurricane Irene hitting the northeast last year? - DamnYankee

    1. I know a few people who dropped out in 2011 because of the hurricane. It was a rough year, some really bad weather made for a challenging journey!

    2. I noticed the overall completion rate for 2011 was down from previous years. But I added 2011 after I had pretty much built the spreadsheet, and it did not change the overall percentages significantly.

  2. I'd love to know about earlier completion rates. I was an alumni of 1980 and the word was that just over 400 completed that year, though data is no where near as complete as it is these days.

    Warren (Wu Li)

    1. ATC's 2000-Miler page doesn't provide earlier data, tho I suspect one could ask for it. It does show the exponential growth in thru-hiking completions. In the five decades leading up to your hike, there were only 760 total thru-hikers. There are now almost that many per year when you add up the nobos, sobos, flip-floppers and finished section-hikers... I've heard folks suggest that Ed Garvey's book fueled a surge in the 70s and 80s. And many people credit/blame Bill Bryson's book for the surge in the 2000s.

  3. These are interesting numbers. I'm a bit skeptical about the ending numbers for Katahdin because I was #399 on 24 September and I know there were more than 15 people after me. I know people are not registering - on both ends - so the numbers are what they are knowing what we know.

    I think it's as good as we're going to get and your work putting this together is appreciated.

    Hike on!

  4. I think the numbers of completed hikers, as well as the number of attempts, are higher in recent years also because the trail has become easier to do in a sense... there are more stores along the way, more angels assisting hikers, huge advancements in gear, online resources, more books, and so on then there was in the earlier years. I think that may also contribute.

  5. I think the trail gets a lot more publicity."A Walk in the Woods" was read by a lot of people who would not normally be looking for boks on the AT. PBS and Nat Geo specials are all over cable. Social media allows folks, who in past days would have been long forgotten, to know that an old friend is hiking the trail. All these plant seeds that, more and more often, take root.


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