Ask a Thru-Hiker: What Should I Do When the Trail Is Closed?

More and more long-distance hikers are having to get creative when fires, floods, or heavy snowpack shuts down their trail. What should you do when you can’t keep going?

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Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it.

Dear Snorkel,

I’m partway through my thru-hike, but I’ve found myself stuck in a difficult situation. Wildfires, bridges being washed out, and record-breaking snow are all making it so different parts of the trail are impassable. How can I keep going, keep morale up, and still have a fun hike?

Stopped in my Tracks

Dear Stopped,

I’m sorry to hear that trail closures are getting in the way of you having the thru-hike that you expected when you set off. With wildfire seasons growing and weather getting more extreme, each year it seems harder to walk a long trail continuously. You only have to look at the news to find examples: Heavy snowpack and washed-out bridges are delaying Pacific Crest Trail hikers in the Sierra, while floods have forced Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to detour. But just because your hike isn’t what you originally planned doesn’t mean you can’t have an amazing time on trail exploring, challenging yourself, and making great friends.

First off, get yourself to someplace safe so you can calmly make a decision about how best to continue your hike. Most thru-hikers will go to a trail town, spend a day looking at maps, and find an alternate route to hook back up with the main trail. For major trails like the AT, PCT, and Continental Divide Trail, the non-profit trail organization partner will often list alternate walking routes on their website. Sometimes, but not always, land management agencies may put up detour signs. Trust that there are a lot of people who have your back and want to do what they can so you can spend as much time on trail as possible.

If it doesn’t look like there is a safe way to hike your way back to the main trail, you have a few options to make your way around the closure and back to the path. First, look into local buses . You may also be able to find trail angels who can take you back to where the trail is open or safe again. Public transit may not get you exactly to the trailhead you need, so be flexible if you have to skip more miles than you want.

Remember to take care of your physical needs like eating often and staying hydrated, just like you would on trail. The process of jumping ahead on trail can be disappointing and the logistics can be nerve-wracking. You may find yourself as exhausted as if you had been hiking all day.

Finally, remember that just because the trail is closed this week or this month or this year doesn’t mean it will always be closed. When this happened to me, I’ve gone back the following year and re-hiked sections of my thru-hike that were closed due to wildfire. Since closures tend to be small, it’s quite possible to go back during your PTO without interrupting any job you may pick up after your thru-hike. It’s fun to relive being a thru-hiker and to tackle the section while your legs and mind are still fresh. It’s even more fun if you can convince some of your tramily to join along for a reunion.

Trail closures can be disappointing, but they are a reality for any trail that is hundreds or thousands of miles long. Enjoy the journey, stay flexible, and remember that you’re on an adventure. Sometimes, the out-of-the-ordinary stories can be just as wild as the ones that happen when you’re putting foot in front of foot each day.


From 2023

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