Appalachian Trail Murders

Murders on the Appalachian Trail are rare on a year-to-year basis but they are not unheard of. The first recorded murder on the trail occurred in 1974, and about a dozen people have been killed since that time. The facts surrounding these incidents raise larger questions about safety which extend beyond the Appalachian Trail.

Appalachian trail sign
A sign for the Appalachian Trail.

The debate about self-defense in the outdoors is quickly becoming a mainstream issue and we at the Wild West Trail want to help our readers make the most informed decision possible. The ultimate question that all hikers must ask themselves is: “do I need to carry a gun while hiking?” 

Before you answer, and before we give our opinion on that question, let’s look at some of the details of these fatal tragedies which occurred on one of our nation’s most premier National Scenic Trails.

Appalachian Trail Deaths

  • The most recent, as of this writing, occurred in May 2019 when a crazy person – 30-year-old James L. Jordan of Massachusetts – stabbed two people, killing one and injuring the other. The culprit had been seen on-and-off the trail for a couple of weeks and was reportedly causing problems and creeping people out in the weeks leading up to the attack.
  • In 2011 an Indiana man who was hiking the trail was found strangled to death. The killer is still at large and there are no leads.
  • In 2008, Randall Lee Smith shot two fishermen on the trail with intent to kill them. The two fishermen were in their camp when an unexpected visitor showed up. They fed the man a dinner of fresh trout and beans, and after he ate, he said it was time to “get out of here” – then opened fire on the two fishermen.
    • Luckily they both survived, but one can’t help but think this tragedy could have been avoided since the gunman had been released from prison after 15 years for – get this – a double homicide on the Appalachian Trail!
    • 1981 he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing two people on the trail. An involuntarily celibate pervert, or incel for short, he killed a female hiker and her partner after he made a pass at her in a convenience store and was rebuffed. Because of an apparent “lack of evidence” combined with “good behavior”, he was released in 1996 after serving only half of his sentence. 12 years later he struck again, in 2008, attempting to kill the two fishermen who fed him dinner.
  •  In 2001 a female Canadian Psychologist, Louise Chaput, was found stabbed to death near a section of the trail in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. She was apparently an avid outdoors person and often hiked alone.
  • In 1996 two hikers, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were found bound and gagged with their throats slit near a section of trail in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The case remains unsolved.
  • Another tragedy occurred in 1988 when Claudia Brenner and Rebecca Wight were fired upon, by a man named Stephen Roy Carr, while in the act of lovemaking. While being sentenced to life in prison, Carr mentioned that he had become enraged at the sight of two women having sex; the shooting resulted in 1 death (Rebecca Wight died from her injuries).

Hiking The Appalachian Trail

While violence and murder are extremely rare occurrences on the Appalachian Trail, it does happen. Looking at the aforementioned murders, it’s apparent that the majority of victims were female. It’s no secret that the outdoor community is dominated by men and if you are a woman, you are already forced to deal with the often masculine culture of the community.

Appalachian trail
A map of the Appalachian Trail

When talking about self-defense in the outdoors, and the Appalachian Trail specifically, we are mostly talking to our fellow sisters in the woods. Let’s face it, women are smaller on average and receive more unwanted sexual attention than men. This can make them a target for some miscreant who crosses their path.

While bears are scary, and in some parts of America are a real threat to solo-hikers, people are the threat on the Appalachian Trail. Also, after looking at the statistics, it’s clear that the majority of the culprits are incels.

Everyone is welcome to their opinion but we can all agree that protecting yourself is a top priority,  and being away from society and emergency services makes that even more important. In our opinion, a woman who is comfortable and proficient with a firearm, and who chooses to be armed in the backcountry especially while hiking solo – is at a huge safety advantage over not being armed.

As far as we can tell there has never been an attack, let alone a fatal one, on an armed hiker.

8 Hiking Safety Tips

  1. Hike with a partner.
  2. Carry a phone or a GPS locator.
  3. Carry plenty of water, with the ability to filter more, and enough food for your planned hike + 1 day.
  4. Carry a paper map and compass, and know how to use them, in case your phone or GPS runs out of battery.
  5. Have a headlamp or light in case you are separated from the trail or campsite at night.
  6. Carry bear spray as a deterrent for both bears and people.
  7. Carry a rain jacket, extra layers, or an emergency blanket to stay warm and dry in case of unexpected weather.
  8. Carry fire starting supplies.

Hiking With A Gun

A perpetrator spending life in prison doesn’t make up for the victims’ lives that were lost. If these hikers were able to better defend themselves, perhaps some of them would be here today. That is a hard thing to speculate about, but sometimes having a big stick can act as a deterrent (though admittedly sometimes it doesn’t). 

Of course, a semi-automatic weapon is a much better big stick than an actual big stick. Although the odds of nothing happening are vastly in your favor, you never know when an armed crazy person is going to come out of the woods into your camp. In that (exceptionally rare) scenario, it’s certainly preferable to have a weapon in your possession. Wouldn’t you agree?

Most importantly, if you do choose to carry a firearm make sure that you are comfortable and proficient with using such a weapon. Without that knowledge and proficiency, we’d recommend sticking with bear spray; it’s arguably more effective when used on humans than bears, and you’ll mitigate the risk of self-inflicted injury. 

If you decide to carry a firearm, make sure you are in compliance with all of the laws in your location and planned locations. In this respect, it would be easier to hike a trail such as the WWT over the AT, since the states in the middle and western parts of the country tend to have less restrictive gun laws.

Hiking Self Defense

We know that this is a tough topic to talk about and that there is no clear answer on whether or not carrying a gun while hiking is ideal. Like any debate, it is for everyone to decide for themselves. Sometimes being armed with the facts about the true dangers of your environment is the first step towards better protecting yourself. 

We take our stand in the belief that every individual has the right to make that decision for themselves, and not delegate such a personal and (potentially) life-changing choice to a bureaucracy. Regardless of where you come out on the issue, the ability to think for yourself may be one of the only hills actually worth dying on.

Be safe out there.


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