Project management lessons from the Appalachian Trail

Abstract

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a fascinating 2180-mile trail, extending from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, USA. Hiking the AT, in addition to being an exciting and challenging outdoor adventure provides many practical lessons for a project manager. Object lessons from the author hiking the AT are shown, which directly relate to the nine A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Knowledge Areas. An overview is provided of the initial project of the creation of the AT; next, the actual hiking of the AT is examined as a project. Beyond the nine PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Areas and the PMI Code of Ethics, current trends such as agile project management are also examined in the context of hiking the AT.

What is the Appalachian Trail (AT)?

Vision

The AT is a 2180-mile hiking trail that starts in Springer Mountain, Georgia and goes north to Mount Katahdin, Maine, USA. Benton MacKaye presented the concept of the AT in 1921 in his essay An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning. MacKaye who was from New England and had a master's degree in Forestry from Harvard University had become very concerned about the rapid mechanization and urbanization of early 20th-century America hurting mankind (Walker, 2008). Although MacKaye admired the national parks in the West (Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon), they were a long way from the population of America, primarily based in the East at that time. Thus, MacKaye proposed a 1700-mile trail connecting mountain ranges from Georgia to New Hampshire. MacKaye's vision actually consisted of four parts: the trail, shelter camps, community groups, and food/farm camps. Of these, only the trail was fully implemented, with the shelter camps being implemented somewhat in the White and Green mountains in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Project Manager

Where Benton MacKaye was the visionary and could be considered the project sponsor of creating the AT, the project manager was Myron Avery. After completing Harvard Law School, Avery began working full time on the AT. Consistent with the attributes of a good project manager, Avery has been described as determined, a born leader, and a man of action (Walker, 2008). He rallied volunteers to form trail clubs to develop the southern part of the AT, and oversaw the cutting of 265 miles of the trail with hand tools between northern Virginia to central Pennsylvania. Avery was the president of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) from 1931 until his death in 1953.

Scope

On 14 August 1937, the AT was completed in Maine at 2025 miles, going through 14 states. MacKaye had proposed a terminal point of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, but being true to his Maine roots, Avery had successfully lobbied to have the AT extended to Mount Katahdin, Maine It had taken 16 years to complete the AT, since MacKaye's original vision and paper written in 1921 (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2011). Please note that the actual distance of the AT changes yearly, based on rerouting by the local volunteer hiking clubs that maintain it and it is currently 2180 miles (Miller, 2011). The entire trail is marked by 2 by 6 inch strips of white paint called blazes. The total elevation gain of hiking the entire AT is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC)

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) was originally founded in 1925 as the Appalachian Trail Conference. The name was changed from Conference to Conservancy in 2005 to “better reflect its mission of preserving the trail experience for generation to come” (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2011). While not as large and powerful as Project Management Institute (PMI), the ATC does provide some similar services to the AT hiking community as PMI does to the project management community. The ATC helps coordinate all of the volunteer groups, promotes education, set standards, has an online store for books and other merchandise, and publishes the Thru-Hikers’ Companion and A.T. Journey's magazine, in addition to preserving the trail. Thousands of volunteers contribute roughly 200,000 hours to the AT every year.

One other service ATC provides is the 2000 miler patch for those who complete the entire AT. This includes both thru-hikers who do it in one trip and section hikers who do it in multiple segments over multiple years. Similar to the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification being a common goal for project managers, being a 2000 miler is a common goal and honor for those who hike the AT.

An AT Thru-Hike as a Project

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result (PMBOK® Guide, 2008, p. 442). Based upon this definition, hiking 2180 miles from Georgia to Maine through the mountains definitely qualifies as a project. It is temporary because there is a definite beginning start date and an end stop date. It also qualifies as a unique result because this is not something a person just goes off and does every day.

The triple constraints of project scope, time, and cost are definitely applicable to an AT thru-hike (Schwalbe, 2006). While the scope may be set in covering the entire 2180 miles, there are definite trade-offs in time and cost. The time will be impacted by factors such as how fast you hike, how many days you take off, and hours of daylight based on the time of the year. The cost will be impacted by factors such as type of gear you buy, type of meals on the trail, and meals and lodging off the trail. Sometimes increasing costs can save you time such as with ultra-light gear, whereas on the other hand, trips into town can increase both cost and time. Another constraint in relation to time is the weather

About 2 to 3 million visitors walk a portion of the AT each year (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2011). There are three types of hikers on the AT. Thru-hikers hike the entire trail. Those going from Georgia to Maine are called North Bounders (NoBos), whereas those doing the opposite are South Bounders (SoBos). Section hikers are those who hike a section of the trail at a time. Some sections hikers hike the entire AT, but over multiple years. The last type is a day-hiker, who hikes a part of the trail and then goes back home and does not have to worry about sleeping arrangements and preparing meals. The AT has hundreds of access points and is within a few hours’ drive of millions of Americans, making it a popular destination for day-hikers.

Thru-Hikers

The first person to walk the entire AT was Myron Avery, who did it in sections as the project manager of creating the AT (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2011). In 1948, World War II veteran Earl V. Shaffer became the first thru-hiker to complete the AT. Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, at the age of 67 was the first female solo thru-hiker. She repeated this again at age 69. Other notable thru-hikers include ages ranging from a six-year-old boy to an 81-year-old man. Exhibit 1 (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2011) shows how the number of 2000 milers has grown significantly every decade over the past 60 years. The increase over the past decade can be attributed to multiple factors. First is the awareness and availability of information about the AT over the Internet. A second factor is the popularity of Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail originally published in 1998. Even though his thru-hike was unsuccessful in the end, it piqued a lot of people's interest in the AT. A final factor is the downturn of the economy over the past decade. Two of the most common types of thru-hikers are recent college graduates and middle-aged men who are recently retired or laid off (Walker, 2008). Many of the college graduates have chosen hiking the AT over the limited positions available in the current job market, and many middle-aged men have been either encouraged or forced to retire due to the economy, or been laid off.

2000 Milers by Decade

Exhibit 1 - 2000 Milers by Decade

Exhibits 2 and 3 (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2011) show the completion rates of thru-hikers from 2004 to 2009. On average, only approximately one fourth of the people who attempt a thru-hike on the AT actually complete it. This is not a very high project success rate and is even less than that of the well documented CHAOS studies by the Standish Group (2008) on IT project success, which is shown in Exhibit 4. Usually less than 50% of would be thru-hikers even make it to the halfway point of Harpers Valley, West Virginia.

2000 Milers in Recent Years (Northbounders)

Exhibit 2 - 2000 Milers in Recent Years (Northbounders).

2000 Milers in Recent Years (Southbounders)

Exhibit 3 - 2000 Milers in Recent Years (Southbounders).

Lessons Learned from the AT

Risk

There are several risk management lessons that can be learned from hiking the AT. Risk management is based upon being prepared to handle the situations you may run into, whether on a project or hiking the AT. There two key parts to risk management: determining the risk factor and justifying the risk management effort. A risk factor is calculated by multiplying the probability of a risk occurring times the impact if it does occur. This provides you with a quantitative way of determining which risk factors are the important ones for you to address. The second thing to keep mind is to make sure the time and cost you spend in trying to manage a risk are not greater than if the risk actually occurred.

One area of risk management on the AT is how much and what types of clothing a hiker should take. While you need to be ready to deal with rain and cold, you also need to consider how much weight you are adding to you backpack, along with additional cost. Another example of risk management is having a first-aid kit. One personal example of successful risk management is having mole skin in my first-aid kit. My very first day on the AT, I developed a blister on my foot, so that night I put moleskin on it and was able to complete my section of the trail. Without the moleskin I would have had to leave the trail early.

Another example of risk management on the AT is bears and other animals. Every night you need to bear bag your food bag. Many shelters provide bear cables, which allow you to easily store your food out of the reach of animals. When these are not available a hiker needs to hang his or her own bear bag over a tree.

Human Resources

Although it is possible to hike the trail alone, there are lots of benefits of having one or more hiking partners. Sometimes hiking groups may be as large as ten people (Walker, 2008). You want to be careful in choosing a hiking partner who is compatible and best fits your needs. Just like on a normal project you do not just look for the most talented individuals, but you also want to make sure that the partners complement each other. In addition to choosing partners you get along with, you want someone who can positively motivate you to get the most out of yourself, but would not want to frustrate yourself (or them) with a partner you could not keep up with. The same is true with other projects in which you may not always just take the most talented resources in a particular area, but instead the ones you feel can help you create the strongest team.

Time

Hiking the AT is heavily constrained by time. Most thru-hikes take five to seven months. Most north-bound (NoBo) hikers start in March to mid-April, with the goal of finishing before Mount Katahdin closes in October. During the spring and fall there are less daylight hours, while in the summer there is much more day light for hiking. While entering each of the 14 states can be considered a major milestone, there are daily challenges to getting to your destination each night before dark, to avoid night hiking. A thru-hike can be considered a race against time, just like any other project with a hard stop date.

A guide book such as the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Companion or the The A.T. Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail provides a great basis for developing a project schedule for your hike. They provide mileage distances between shelters and other points such as road crossings and towns. In addition to distances they also provide elevations and information about where water sources are.

Scope

While the scope of hiking 2180 miles is a given, there is a lot of variation on the type of equipment you can use to do it. There are a lot of conveniences you can provide for yourself, but they usually come with the trade-off of additional cost and weight. Additional weight in your backpack on the AT leads to slowing you down and taking more time.

Cost

The average thru-hiker spends US$3,000 to US$5,000 or more during the hike itself, and US$1,000 to US$2,000 or more for gear (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2011). There is an abundance of nice equipment available for hikers. This equipment can help you. The biggest impact on cost is how must time you spend in town, sleeping in hotels or hostels (your tent is free), and eating in restaurants (cheaper to cook your own food). Trips to town also take time away from making progress on the AT, and thus extend the time and costs of the project. Most towns are usually several miles away and down from the AT making the additional time and effort lost even greater.

Procurement

Obtaining the right equipment and materials for a hike is similar to any other type of project. Between my first and second sections of the AT, I made significant reductions in my weight by purchasing a new ultra-light weight tent, tarp, and sleeping bag. I also purchased a larger backpack for my hiking partner (my son) so I could redistribute more weight to him. Because my son was the faster hiker, moving more weight to him, would allow me to go faster, and he would spend less time waiting for me.

As with purchases for materials and equipment for other types of projects, the Internet has significantly changed the procurement process. After researching products online and physically viewing what was available in stores, I saved significant amounts of money by buying equipment online from various online stores.

Communication

Just like for other project team members, communication between hiking partners is important. There is a significant amount that can be learned from other hikers on the trail. Some methods of communication are the trail journals found at each shelter. Hikers usually sign the trail journals with pseudonym trail names. Another key form of communication is at the shelters during breakfast, supper, or just sitting around the campfire at the end of the day. Information shared includes hiking tips, recommendations on equipment, and advice about the trail ahead from those who are coming from the opposite direction or who have hiked it before.

Quality

The PMBOK® Guide defines quality as “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills requirements” (PMBOK® Guide, 2008, p. 445). So, although the scope is hiking 2180 miles on the AT, quality can relate to some of the conveniences afforded the hiker. For example, a 0-degree sleeping bag is a much better choice than a 40-degree one when camping in the snow. Another piece of equipment that can improve quality and give you a better night's rest is a Thermarest self-inflating sleeping pad. Zero-degree days are those days when a hiker takes a day off to recharge him or herself and let injuries heal. While doing this too often will negatively impact the schedule, planning for a few zero days may actually improve the quality of a thru-hike. This is similar to the concept of undertime, in which you work people too much overtime on a project they will start taking time off to compensate for it (DeMarco & Lister, 1987).

Integration

As described under the time section, the hiker's guide book can provide the basis for the project schedule. Then in the process of executing the project of hiking the AT, the hiker can update how he or she is performing against the proposed schedule. Another valuable tool is maps of the AT. Just as in any other project, by tracking how you are performing against the original plan, you can determine what if any corrective actions need to be taken..

Biggest Lesson Learned from Hiking the AT

George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Boehm, 2006, p. 12). The biggest lesson I learned from hiking the AT was the value of learning from the lessons others had learned. If experience is learning from your mistakes, then wisdom can be considered learning from someone else's mistakes. Experience is good, but wisdom is much better. An example of this is when we missed a blaze on Blood Mountain and went straight down steep rocks while it was raining. After slipping several times, it eventually became obvious that we were off the trail. After nearly an hour of struggling back up the slippery rocks in the rain, we were back on the trail. As I was catching my breath before starting out again, I stopped a pair of hikers from taking the same wrong path we had. I had gained experience in this situation, but was able to share wisdom with them. As much as possible, I tried to have things the other way, in which I gained wisdom from other's experiences.

I read over a dozen trail journals (books) by individuals who had thru-hiked the AT. I also read several books about hiking, backpacking, and ultra-light backpacking. I watched a documentary video about people hiking the AT. I went online to review the wealth of information available on whiteblaze.net, the online community for A.T. enthusiast. I met in person and interviewed people who had hiked the AT. I asked key questions, such as: What was the most important thing you learned? What recommendations do you have? And, what would you do differently based upon what you know now? Once on the trail I asked the same types of questions when the opportunity arose to learn as much as possible from others. When section hiking you also have the opportunity to easily make adjustments from what you learned from the previous section.

Dr. Warren Doyle, who has completed 16 AT thru-hikes (34,000 miler), provides the following lessons learned from hiking the AT (Walker, 2008, Warren Doyle).

  • Walking the entire AT is not recreation. It is an education and a job.
  • The trail is inherently difficult.
  • After six days of rain, look on the bright side in that springs will not be dry.
  • After three weeks of mosquitoes and black flies, look on the bright side in that they are not wasps.
  • Time, distance, terrain, weather, and the trail itself cannot be changed. You have to change.
  • Expect the worse. If after one week on the the trail you can say that it easer that it is easier than you expected.
  • It is far better, and less painful, to learn to be a smart hiker rather than a strong hiker.

PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

PMI has a code of ethics and professional conduct that describes the expectations for project management practitioners to do what is right and honorable. The PMI code of ethics and professional conduct is broken down into the four areas of responsibility, respect, fairness, and honesty. For each of these areas there are standards that are broken out between those that are mandatory and those that are aspirational.

Similar to the PMI's code of ethics and professional conduct the ATC has leave no trace practices, which are broken down into seven principles. The seven principles include: plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors. Similar to how the code of ethics and professional conduct improves the environment for project management, leave no trace helps preserve the AT.

Agile and Ultra-light Hiking

The hottest recent trend in project management is agile. Augstine (2005) defines the agile project methodology as a “barely sufficient or lean approach to avoid waste and increase responsiveness to change” (p. 21). He goes on to list some of the basics of agile as small releases, iterative and incremental development, collocation, self-organizing teams, tracking, and finally simple, lean, and adaptable.

Similar to agile in project management, the hottest recent trend in hiking is lightweight and ultra-light backpacking (Ray, 2009). Here, the goal is to minimize your pack weight. This be can done by simplifying, focusing on just needs and eliminating wants, and using the same resource for multiple things. Clelland (2011) provides more ultra-light tips such as scrutinize everything, simply take less stuff, cut stuff off your gear, never say it is only a couple of ounces, wear lightweight hiking shoes, and pack up with a buddy.

Daily discussions with other hikers on the AT at the end of the day is similar to the daily scrum meetings in agile. This is an opportunity to share information and tips with other hikers, along with providing motivation for the next day. Another parallel with agile and hiking the AT is section hiking. While a traditional thru-hike can be similar to the traditional waterfall approach where you are committed to the equipment you start with for the next six months, section hiking in one- to two-week increments is much more like the iterations of agile. At the end of each of these sections, you can adjust your equipment and even types of food based upon what you learned from the previous section. After my first section of the AT, I invested in a lightweight tent and sleeping bag going from twelve pounds down to five, and taking up much less space in my backpack, leaving room for a stove, which enabled us to have hot meals; Therefore, I was able to reduce weight, which enabled us to travel faster and have higher quality meals.

Conclusion

Hiking the AT is wonderful example of a project — whether it is as a thru-hike or section hiking similar to the iterations of an agile project. There are many similarities to the ATC and PMI in the roles they play in their respective communities. A 2000 miler is a significant achievement and similar to the PMP certification. An AT thru-hike is a challenging endevor, with success rates even lower than those of IT projects as captured by the CHAOS studies by the Standish Group. Lessons can be learned from hiking the AT in all of the nine PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Areas, but the greatest lesson I learned was learning as many lessons as possible from those who had already done projects, both successful and unsuccessful, to one you are now starting or already managing. Agile is the hottest recent trend in project management, similar to the ultra-light movement in backpacking, with the key concepts being simplify and adapt.

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Ray, M. (2009). How to hike the A.T. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

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Walker, B. (2008). Skywalker: Close encounters on the Appalachian Trail. Lexington, KY: Indigo Publishing Group.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2011 Dr. Jake Stewart
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2011 – Dallas, TX

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