I tried to break the news gently, but now time for willful ignorance has come to an end. 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 (in related news, the Arizona Trail Association and the Great Divide Trail Association have done the same).
I hate to say it, but the 2020 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiking season is canceled. But I know some of you are saying, “No, Mac, you're wrong. You're wrong, the PCTA is wrong, the governor of California is wrong, everyone is wrong. This is all a big overreaction and everything's going to work out fine.”
It's okay, friend; take a breath. Let's go over some things and then you can let me know if you still think a thru-hike this year is wise. This post is a little dense (and filled with sources), but I hope it does a good idea of communicating the current situation on the trail.
Here are some of what's happened in the past couple of weeks. Things have only been escalating and there's no reason to believe we've reached the height of this pandemic (i.e. the worst is yet to come).
The most at-risk population for COVID-19 are those with preexisting health conditions and those over the age of 60.
In California, the percentage of people over 60 years old is 20.1%. This number is 24.2% in Oregon, and 21.7% in Washington. The vast majority of major resupply towns Pacific Crest Trail hikers pass through (as reported by the PCT Resupply Survey) have a population percentage over 60 above the state average (note: this only includes towns, cities, and census-designated places – there's an additional section addressing other resupply locations, such as lakeside resorts, below).
Below is the population percentage over 60 in each of the major resupply stops along the PCT. And remember, this is only the percentage of the population at risk because of their age and doesn't include those with underlying conditions. For example, asthma, which may be put people at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, affects approximately 7.9% of the population overall.
The percentages here used (for the most part) data from the United States Census Bureau. You can find out more here.
I've seen a lot of people coping with decisions to thru-hike by telling themselves (and others) they will “not spend any time around other people” on the trail. However, this rationale fails to acknowledge is that there are a large number of bottlenecks on the Pacific Crest Trail.
These are places hikers go to (at the very least) resupply where there is only one store, one lodge, one restaurant, or sometimes even one building to facilitate all that needs to be done “in town”. These places on the PCT are (in geographic order from south to north):
In addition to these places, hikers often tend to congregate at campsites and water sources (particularly in the desert when stretches between sources are longer). The idea that you're somehow going to live in isolation for five months out on the trail is absurd (to put it lightly).
The problem with this argument is fairly straightforward – COVID-19 is not the flu. The flu kills, on average, 0.1% of infected persons. Early estimates of COVID-19's fatality rate put it around 1%, but this could end up being lower (or higher) depending on how things play out. As far as spreading the coronavirus, it appears each person infected infects 2.2 others – this number for the flu is 1.3. Another key difference? We have a flu vaccine; this reduces the flu's risk to susceptible populations. What's more? There are four approved antiviral drugs for the flu; there are none for the coronavirus. COVID-19 is not the flu (it's worse).
It's true, the flu kills thousands of people every year in the United States. This year, the CDC estimates 36 million flu illnesses, 370,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths (preliminary estimates from October 1, 2019, through March 7, 2020). Current COVID-19 counts? 14,250 confirmed cases and 205 deaths (in the US). Let's keep in mind that the first reported case of the coronavirus in the US was on March 5 (less than three weeks ago at the time of publication). Remember, there are no treatments or vaccines for the coronavirus (the flu has a vaccine and four different antivirals approved for treatment). Infected people can only receive supportive care which is why the number of available hospital beds and ventilators has been sure a big issue.
Sure, and that's perfectly valid. People don't say, “I can't wait to hike the PCT and hang out with a bunch of people in town.”
The problem with this is, as mentioned above, that you cannot thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail and eliminate interactions with others along the way. Short of being fully supported for the entirety of your thru-hike (that is, having someone meet you with a vehicle to resupply you at every opportunity thus eliminating the need to go into town), human-to-human interaction in trailside communities is inevitable.
You can't predict what's going to happen on the trail – a late-season snowstorm, fires, flooding, landslides – your hike can be interrupted at any moment, forcing you to shelter in town while things recover. To operate under the delusion that you're somehow immune to the uncertainty inherent to a thru-hike is completely unjustifiable.
No. No, you will not figure out a way to prevent spreading the virus. Do you know why? Because we already know how to prevent spreading the virus and it's called “staying the fuck home“. Not passing along a virus isn't as simple as not shaking hands and not sneezing on people.
First, let's be clear, you're much less at risk of spreading the virus if you stay home.
So what makes shopping at a grocery store in a small town any different than shopping at one in a big city? Proportionately, the number of people to stores isn't going to vary drastically. You can likely expect to find the same number of people in the supermarket in Wrightwood (on the PCT) as you would find at a Whole Foods in Los Angeles.
Seemingly every year on one of the three long-distance hiking trails in the US (the AT, CDT, and PCT) there is an outbreak of norovirus that wreaks havoc up and down the trail. We are now in a situation where we have a known and contagious pathogen quickly spreading across the globe. There's no basis for thinking that being on the trail will somehow exempt you from contagion or contraction.
I hate to say it, but you're not in a bad place compared to a lot of people. At least if you're ready for a thru-hike it means that you have some savings. The world hasn't experienced anything like this in recent memory and everyone, not just thru-hikers, are struggling.
At least you quit your job willingly.
Thousands of businesses have been closed across the country and thousands more are losing income as a result. We've reached the point where the expectation is that you cancel your thru-hike – not that you go through with it in some misguided attempt to follow your dreams. Your dreams and the trail will be there next year; stay home and hopefully, COVID-19 won't be.
COVID-19 will not simply disappear if we all cooperate and self-isolate for a couple of weeks. This is not a storm that's going to hit us and then disappear into the atmosphere; we can expect the recovery to a pre-COVID-19 world will be as long (but probably longer) as the descent into the madness we find ourselves in now.
To recap – the upside of going through with your hike is “I get to go on my hike.” The potential consequences are “I am responsible for propagating the spread of COVID-19 to rural and vulnerable communities and have literally put lives at risk.” If you've heard the word “selfish” used to describe people “going through with their thru-hikes”, now you should have a better understanding as to why.
In one future, we can look back on 2020 as “the year COVID-19 devastated the United States because we were slow to act” or “the year we all overreacted to COVID-19 and bought all the toilet paper”.
In retrospect, it won't be possible to know if we overreacted or appropriately reacted; better safe than sorry, friends.
Stick with the toilet paper (but actually, stop hoarding toilet paper).