By Barbara Goldberg
HARRIMAN STATE PARK N.Y. (Reuters) - 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 cell phone for the rest of the 2,180-mile (3,508-km) 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, Virginia, 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 Governor 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.
"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.
FIREFLIES AND BLOGGERS
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 cell phone apps to do it all, 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, Pennsylvania, 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?"
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech)