Update March 19, 2020: The Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy have all officially requested hikers to postpone or cancel their thru-hikes.
A month ago, it may have been difficult to imagine that what you may have thought of as “some new disease running rampant on cruise ships in Asia” would be stirring conversation in the world of thru-hiking. A month ago we were all, quite literally, living in a very different world.
Yet in the last week, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy have all issued statements on the impacts of COVID-19 on 2020 thru-hikes. In addition, all trail-related events have been either canceled or postponed indefinitely (including the PCTA Annual Membership Meeting, Continental Divide Trail Days, and the AT 2020 Flip Flop Festival).
I know – some of you have been planning your thru-hikes for years, some of you have purchased international airfare, some of you have quit your jobs, and some of you were cautiously optimistic about the effects a low snow year would have on your PCT thru-hikes. As bars, restaurants, schools, retail stores, sports leagues, and entire countries begin to shut down, we've entered truly unprecedented times.
But listen, friends, it's only March. Optimistically, things may have calmed down enough by May – a perfectly fine month to begin a northbound thru-hike. That said, this is an (unlikely) best-case scenario. Things aren't going to magically have returned to normal if we all quarantine ourselves for the next two weeks (or months). Things will (should?) get better, but they are likely to recover more slowly than they escalated.
And since the vast majority of people who actually care about thru-hiking are people who are planning on setting off on a thru-hike, there will likely be some resistance to the idea that thru-hikes should be canceled. However, that is the reality that many are facing right now, and here are some reasons why:
- Despite the idea that you're practicing social distancing whilst out on the trail, hikers congregate in far greater numbers than you may expect – at water sources, campsites, shelters (if you're hiking the Appalachian Trail for some reason), motel rooms, and “the one restaurant in town”.
- You're young, healthy, in the best shape of your life and can basically tell COVID-19 to fuck right off should it find its way into your body – and that's great! However, the incubation period (the amount of time you may be infected before showing symptoms) is apparently as long as 14 days which means you may unwittingly pass the virus on without even realizing it (and you may never show symptoms yet still be contagious).
- Long-distance hiking trails primarily pass through small towns. Excellent! Not a lot of people! Social distancing! Except not really. These sleepy mountain towns generally have older, more susceptible populations and a more limited capacity for medical treatment. That kind, elderly couple that runs the general store may not end up thanking you for your patronage.
- Every year there's some story about norovirus wreaking havoc up and down the trail somewhere. Why are we to think that the spread of COVID-19 will be any different?
- If you do become infected, best-case scenario, you end up spending a hefty percentage of your trail budget held up in a motel room for two weeks while you recover on a diet of instant mashed potatoes and funky-tasting motel sink water. Worst-case scenario, you die.
I feel you, friends. I too have had my plans interrupted by COVID-19; I've canceled three months of climbing, trekking, and exploring in South America that I've spent the better part of a year looking forward to.
I know it's not what you want to hear, but the chance your thru-hike doesn't happen this year is real. The odds probably aren't great, but they aren't terrible either. Maybe the kind of odds that you would take for not getting the pizza toppings you want, but not the odds you would want to stake your life on. It might not even end up being your choice – it may reach a point where there will be nowhere for you to resupply, nowhere for you to stay, or no one to give you a ride into town.
If you don't call off your hike and something were to happen to you as far as getting sick, getting stranded, or getting yourself into an otherwise less-than-ideal situation, you will be hard-pressed to find any sympathy. As orders close, cities go into lockdown, and people buying all the toilet paper for some reason (just to be clear, coronavirus does not make you shit your pants – that's giardia), we've reached the point the decision to hike will surprise people – not the decision to stay home.
Honestly, you should be operating under the assumption that your 2020 thru-hike is canceled. Then, hopefully, you will find yourself pleasantly surprised and relieved should things prove differently (but I wouldn't count on it). If you've hiked a long-distance trail before you know that community is a large part of the trail; right now that community needs you to think about something bigger than yourself.
If you do venture outside of isolation (where most of us should be), don't forget to wash your hands, to stop touching your face when your hands are compromised (unwashed), and to not be a huge bag (like this guy).
Press releases from trail maintenance agencies
- The Pacific Crest Trail Association
- A message to PCT Permit Holders
- The Continental Divide Trail Coalition
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy