HARRIMAN STATE PARK, N.Y — Maybe it was guilt over alarming her parents when she inadvertently dialed 911 from the Appalachian Trail, but Caitlin Belcher wishes she could ditch her cellphone for the rest of the 2,180-mile hike.
"It would really be cool to not have it. I just want to be out in the woods, isolated," said Belcher, 23, who has called home to Fredericksburg, Va., twice weekly since her journey began in April and gets constant texts from her parents, who even call her hiking partner's phone as well.
Hiking the AT, the famous path from Maine to Georgia, once meant cutting off communication with civilization for much of the six months it typically takes to complete the route. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina used "hiking the AT" as an excuse for disappearing for six days in 2009, while in fact he was on a rendezvous in Argentina with his mistress.
Today, camping gadgets such as a twig-fueled stove that can charge a smartphone while it heats baked beans, and online tips such as using an empty foil-lined potato chip can to boost Wi-Fi signals, mean there is no need to go off the grid while on the trail.
With Twitter, Instagram and blogs, hikers may be safer but lose the solitude and silence once found in the woods.
Lucy Cantwell, president of the Allentown Hiking Club, said she brings her cellphone along on hikes but keeps it in her pack while on the trail, a portion of which cuts through the Poconos and Lehigh Valley, meandering to Delaware Water Gap.
A cellphone can come in handy if you hurt yourself on the trail, she said. But as for the gadgets, she'd leave them at home.
"The whole idea of the Appalachian Trail is to get away from it all," said Bill Bryson, whose best-selling 1998 book "A Walk in the Woods" about the trail is being made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
"I am all in favor of gadgets, but my fear is that most people spend all their rest time texting and staring at little screens and miss out on all the glorious solitude around them," Bryson said.
Summer is high season on the trail that draws up to 3 million visitors a year, including 1,100 "thru hikers" like Belcher who hope to conquer the entire 14-state route. Typically only one in four succeed.
Among the hikers are dedicated bloggers who post every blister to trailjournals.com, squandering precious time that could be spent watching fireflies and shooting stars, said Laurie Potteiger, spokeswoman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
"Smartphones can steal your eyes away from the beauty around you," she said.
Potteiger, who hiked the trail in 1987 and was unable to contact her family for weeks at a stretch, said that today panicked families call the conservancy if they don't hear from a hiker for a day or two. Those frenzied calls are on the rise, she said.
Over-reliance on wireless devices has led to a dangerous lack of preparedness by hikers, who fail to pack maps and compasses, expecting cellphone apps to do it all, she said.
Edna Himmler, the Allentown Hiking Club's schedule coordinator, has been hiking for 30 years. She takes a cellphone but keeps it turned off.
During the advent of mobile devices, things were a little noisier, she said. These days, she said, most people follow her example.
"Most people are rather considerate," she said.
In fact, she said, the electronic rings of a cellphone are often the bird call of the newbie, someone uninitiated to hiking. Himmler says that during group hikes, club members pull aside hikers with noisy cellphones and ask them to shut them off.
"It's not what they want on the trail," she said.
But the Internet can enhance the experience with apps that identify bird calls, constellations, wildlife tracks and even scat. And up-to-the-minute warnings about problems on the trail such as shutdowns are posted to appalachiantrail.org.
Even mishaps like a bear shredding a backpack or hiking boots falling apart can be remedied by shopping at online sites such Campmor.com, which can ship goods to a grocery near the next trailhead.
And there is camaraderie, said Navy veteran Matthew Donnelly, 30, of Milford, Pike County, a thru hiker climbing New York's Bear Mountain. He swaps tips with fellow "Warrior Hike" vets, a program inspired by the first thru hiker, Earl Shaffer, who in 1948 declared he was going to "walk off the war."
For now, Belcher is keeping her phone to calm her parents but detaching a bit from the online world.
"I deleted my Facebook on the trail. I was getting a little overwhelmed," Belcher said. "What if I fail?"
Morning Call reporter Bill Landauer contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun