If you love being on trail (and if you’re here, we bet you do), chances are that at one time or another you’ve fantasized about full-time life in the backcountry. Waking up with the sun, bedding down with the moon, and spending your days exploring (gush!). Trust us, you’re not alone.
As it turns out, that’s a thing. Our friends at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) employ a handful of positions, called Ridgerunners, that do exactly that. Or do they?? What is it that these seemingly unbelievably fortunate souls do, exactly?
The ATC defines Ridgerunners as those who provide information about the trail and its intended primitive experience, location, regulations, and traditions. The Ridgerunner works to encourage the best behavior on the part of hikers to facilitate a positive trail experience (particularly for those who are poorly prepared), and to elicit the support of those who live nearby. They discourage and mitigate misuse of the trail and its environments by performing educational and public-relations functions.
As much as we enjoy official statements, we wanted to hear from the guys and gals in the field. The ones living the dream we all fantasize about. We were lucky enough to interview a handful of ATC Ridgerunners and pick their brain about their day-to-day lives, advice to our fellow outdoorsmen and women, and completely hypothetical hand-to-hand combat.
First up is our friend Koty Lewis, trail name “Sleepy Pete”. Koty is a current Ridgerunner in Maine. His vast trail experience include AT LASH (Long Ass Section Hiker) in 2018, and various section hikes totaling 1400+ miles. Additionally, he developed his chops through years of hiking around the Catskills and Adirondacks.
Public Lands Coffee: Surprise! This interview begins with a challenge. In 5 words or less, define a Ridgerunner.
Sleepy Pete: “A trail steward and example.”
PLC: What section of trail are you responsible for? Is there a portion that’s your favorite? Why?
Sleepy Pete: I cover the 33-ish miles of trail between Rangeley, ME and Stratton, ME. It's hard to pick a favorite, my section has a lot of variety. The obvious choice would be the 3 mile ridge of Saddleback and the horn, but there's also really dense, lush, green, mossy forests I really enjoy walking through. It’s hard to pick one over the other.
PLC: Describe an average day for you on the job.
Sleepy Pete: I’m normally up by 7ish, make some coffee and breakfast and decide where I want to go that day. Most weekends I spend my time on the Saddleback Ridge talking to people about the alpine zone, LNT (Leave No Trace), building scree wall, etc. On week days I’ll go through the rest of the section dismantling illegal fire rings, checking on shelters or areas of trail that might need maintenance, and of course packing out any trash I see.
PLC: What is the biggest misconception about your role/life on the trail?
Sleepy Pete: Hmm, probably that we're some kind of ranger or enforcement role. Some hikers are weary to talk to me because they think I have some kind of authority. We’re really out here to demonstrate good backcountry ethics and hopefully lead by example to keep the trails nicer than we found it.
PLC: A lot of hikers think you have their dream job. What would you say to them?
Sleepy Pete: I got paid to live in the high peaks of Maine for 5 months. If that's not a dream job, I don't know what is. That not to say it doesn't come with its own frustrations, but most of those come from caring a lot about your sections and preservation in general. Even my worst days (non stop rain, packing out dirty diapers, packing out 20 pounds of gear left at a shelter) were miles better than working a mindless job I didn't care about.
PLC: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to become a Ridgerunner? Any important skills or training they should develop/acquire?
Sleepy Pete: Become comfortable being alone. In the beginning and end of the season it slows down quite a bit and it can be lonely. You’ll meet a lot of people but most of them you won't see more than once or twice. Practice LNT things like hanging a bear bag really well, digging a cathole, and learning how to use a compass and map instead of a Guthook wouldn't hurt.
PLC: Are there any mistakes that you see hikers make regularly, that make you just shake your head?
Sleepy Pete: I see a lot of hikers that come up the Saddleback ski slope very unprepared. It's a short hike up but, you gain over 2000 feet of elevation. Most people don't bring water, extra layers, or a leash for their dog.
PLC: How about a POSITIVE experience that totally redeemed your faith in our species?
Sleepy Pete: I’ve seen thru hikers talking to people about alpine zones when they were walking on it, it was pretty nice to see other people caring for that environment.
PLC: Your love of the hiking must have led you to become a Ridgerunner, so what do you do now with your leisure time? More hiking??
Sleepy Pete: Haha, actually yeah, sometimes. I've gone down to the Whites a few times, up to Baxter, and done some local hikes around Maine and stuff. Normally with the other Ridgerunners, we go on weekend trips together a lot. But there's plenty of time to veg out this winter.
PLC: I want to be like you when I grow up. Where can I find additional information and Ridgerunner job postings?
Sleepy Pete: The ATC posts stuff on facebook and their website for the Ridgerunner seasons.
PLC: A trail angel and a trail volunteer get in a fight. Who wins and why?
Sleepy Pete: The volunteer because they’re strong from volunteering and helping out the MATC! (Maine Appalachian Trail Club)