Ask a Thru-Hiker: Should I Thru-Hike This Year?
Nearly a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are ready to say goodbye to stay-at-home orders, shoulder our packs, and head out on a multi-month hiking adventure. But with transmission rates still high and vaccination efforts stretching into late summer, should we hold off?
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This is Ask a Thru-Hiker, where record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your questions about life on the trail.
Covid-19 caused many thru-hikers to quit or postpone long trail trips they’d spent years planning. What does 2021 look like for thru-hiking?
Dear Thru Waiting,
Travel of all sorts has become more difficult over the past year. Because thru-hiking involves people traveling hundreds of miles away from their homes and interacting with many different individuals along the way over weeks or months, it’s arguably even more hazardous than conventional travel.
Interacting with others is one of the things that makes travel—especially thru-hiking—so special. But during the pandemic, that same interaction can add to your risk and those of the wider trail community.
For most backpacking trips, it’s possible to keep your distance and avoid interacting with others. You drive to a trailhead, hike, and walk back to your car. The main Covid-19 related risk on these kinds of trips is coming down with symptoms while in the backcountry, far from medical help.
But thru-hiking is more social, and town interactions for resupply or rest are built in, enjoyable, and largely unavoidable.To thru-hike a trail safely during a pandemic requires extra funds, extra self-sufficiency, and a lot more planning than usual. Even then, it’s not foolproof. That’s why long distance trail organizations—the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Paciic Crest Trail Association, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West—all recommend not thru-hiking in 2021.
One major obstacle to thru-hiking in 2021 is that hikers pass through many states, counties, and parks, and each jurisdiction has its own rules and regulations surrounding masks, testing, and quarantine. As a traveler, it’s up to you to know the changing rules of the different places you go. To give you an idea of how complicated this can get, remember that the Appalachian Trail goes through 14 states.
Just starting a long trail comes with its own Covid-related challenges. California, for example, has required out-of-state and sometimes even Californians traveling to a different county to quarantine in one spot for two weeks prior to interacting with others. This means thru-hikers attempting the PCT must have 2 weeks’ worth of funds to stay at a hotel and quarantine near the Mexican border before even starting their hike.
Trail organizations recommend thru-hikers have enough cash for at least 2 weeks’ worth of hotel stays in case they get sick and have to quarantine—plus funds in case they need to go home on a last-minute flight or have Covid-19 related medical bills.
Then there’s resupplying. Because thru-hikers are on trail for so long, they must get food, gear, and perhaps bathe or recuperate in towns along the route. The myth of the independent thru-hiker is just that: a myth. In truth, we rely on so many others to make our dreams a reality. For example, we implicitly expect search and rescue to help if we injure ourselves or get caught in bad weather. During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, SAR teams are stretched thin, thanks to increased trail traffic and older volunteers choosing to stay home to avoid getting sick.
During Covid-19, shelters, shuttles, trailheads, hostels, campgrounds, water sources, grocery stores that thru-hikers relied on in past years may be closed. Even entire sections of trail may be closed, as happened in Yosemite and other national parks in 2020.
It’s hard to overemphasize how running out of food and water can torpedo a thru-hike. Thru-hikers often resupply by hitchhiking from trailheads into the closest town. In a time of coronavirus, being in a car with others not knowing if they are infected can be risky. Trail organizations recommend hikers opt to walk via side trails into town, which adds extra miles. A less risky option would be to have a pod-mate with an RV or van meet you at road crossings with food and water, but that’s quite a commitment.
As much as townspeople may appreciate the economic benefits of thru-hiking tourists, infected thru-hikers moving from town-to-town means there’s a risk of spreading the virus among hikers and locals. In January, a PCT trail angel who had been helping thru-hikers for more than a decade died of Covid. Few trail towns are big enough for their own medical facilities. If they have them, they rarely have the extra room for sick hikers.
There is precedent for viruses spreading among hikers on long trails. On the Appalachian Trail, norovirus outbreaks have happened multiple years, spreading from hiker-to-hiker in hostels and shelters. Thru-hikers’ poor hygiene and tendency to mingle exacerbated the spread.
Long trails are often designed to encourage campers to stay in higher-impact areas to keep other parts of the trail more pristine. Despite hikers’ best intentions, trails are routed and built purposely so that they often have little choice but to congregate in the few spots flat enough for a tent. The social life of gathering on trail is arguably one of the most fun parts of thru-hiking. This year, that gathering is a poor idea and hikers must stay 6 feet away from others.
Whether you’re out for a dayhike or longer, Recreate Responsibly guidelines are the COVID-19 era ethics of the outdoors. Like Leave No Trace, Recreate Responsibly is intended to minimize harm to yourself, nature, and others while in the backcountry. Carrying masks, hand sanitizer, and washing hands often are givens. But opting to stay local and be prepared—especially by researching back-up routes and resupply in case of closures—is essential.
Originally, I had planned to hike the Arizona Trail in 2020. Instead, I opted to stay local, hiking a series of interconnected backpacking loops around the Sierra. The loop hikes proved to be more rewarding that I expected. One of the downsides of thru-hiking is that you never feel like you get to fully explore any region that the trail intersects. The loop hikes gave me time to explore the kinds of hidden valleys and obscured peaks that I wouldn’t have seen on most long paths.
Even though I’m healthy, I’m personally choosing to not thru-hike in 2020. Some scientific evidence shows even among the asymptomatic, Covid-19 can cause severe lung damage. My passion is the outdoors and I need my lungs to continue a lifetime of climbing mountains. I’m not interested in gambling away the thing I love the most. As the Continental Divide Trail Coalition says, “no vacation is worth compromising the safety of others…the trail is not going anywhere.”