A Year to Be Flexible

This is a piece meant to reflect on the hesitation so many of us are feeling right now. 

After years of collecting gear, and saving cash, I am finally ready for the long walk. I am ready to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, in 2021.

Or as ready as you can be. The gear closet is full. The budget is funded. The quads and glutes are… getting there. I’ve registered for my hike and we’re ready to launch. 

Yet going over routes and gear lists and meal plans with friends and family about my intent to hike from Georgia to Maine, I add the qualifier; a nod to the elephant in the room no one is really sure how to measure in their own projections and plans: Covid permitting. 

The Pandemic is Not Going Away

In many parts of the country, including Missouri where I’m writing, and several of the states through which the Appalachian Trail winds, the COVID 19 pandemic is as bad as it’s ever been. It’s far worse than when the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) recommended thru-hikers postpone their hikes last March. While we’ve learned plenty about the virus, for example, the low risk of outdoor transmission, the vulnerability of trail communities throughout Appalachia should be taken into consideration.  An open letter sent by the ATC in November to the 2021 thru-hiking class said this:

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) urges all hikers to stay local and exercise caution while so much uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic exists. However, we know that many are planning long-distance journeys on the A.T. in 2021. To ensure hiker safety and health while on the A.T., we ask hikers to plan, prepare, and stay informed.          

For those who are planning to follow through with their hikes, the ATC has a handy list of dos and don’ts for how to hike safely. With that said, the ATC will not be recognizing thru-hikes during the pandemic.

Stay Flexible 

Chief among the ‘Dos’, is to be flexible. In other words, be willing to rethink the conventional linear idea of what a thru-hike looks like.  For me, two years with AmeriCorps, a graduate degree, and years working for small nonprofits taught me that no plan is set in stone until it’s in the past. The Trek has several pieces on how to manage risk during a pandemic.

The thing about planning for a thru-hike is that many of the preparations are good practice for folks who orient their days around getting outside whether you anticipate a thru-hike this year or not. Physical training, getting finances in order, developing that gear list can help a life oriented around getting outside whether your trailhead is Amicalola Falls, or down the road.

This year includes a few extra hoops to jump through. Anyone who respects the trail, the outdoor community, and the communities who make long-distance hiking possible and enjoyable should be happy to oblige. I am here to shamelessly reiterate these suggestions taken directly from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s November letter:

  • Register your hike: If you are planning a backpacking trip of any length — from an overnight trip to a full thru-hike — please register your hike at ATCamp.org. Registration opens on December 1, 2020. Registering your hike enables us to provide essential updates by text and/or email while you are traversing the A.T. and gives you the means to choose a starting date and location to help reduce crowding.
  • Plan and prepare: The ATC’s new Hiker Resource Library provides gear lists, updated COVID-19 information, safety protocols, an incident reporting form, and other information to help keep you and other hikers safe and prepared for your A.T. hikes:
  • Spread out: Crowding harms the A.T. and is unsafe during the pandemic. To reduce crowding across the Trail in 2021, please spread out the dates and starting locations for thru-hikes. ATCamp.org includes up to the minute registration charts that allow you to pick an uncrowded start date — choose your start date carefully, or select an alternate starting spot.
  • Consider alternatives: Visitation on the A.T. is at an all-time high. You may not find it feasible to find the solitude — or even physical distance from other hikers — you seek. As such, we have also created a list of alternate long-distance trails for all types of hikers.
  • Anticipate crowds: If you are a day visitor on the A.T., please consider a weekday hike. This will help disperse crowds and reduce parking difficulties. Be aware of local parking regulations.
  • Stay informed: Registering on ATCamp.org is a good first step, but you can learn more about the A.T. and the ATC by subscribing to our email updates and following our social media channels.

The Pandemic Illustrates the Connection Between Backcountry and Frontcountry 

The Trail is an emblem of independence. Often it’s framed as a walk away from civilized things, people, and places. The pandemic is a perfect myth-buster in this regard. 

The pandemic shows that, rather than walking away from civilization, we are walking into different civilized things, people, and places. The motels, restaurants, and hitches that support hikers, our families at home who will receive us after six months, the trail crews and land managers and nonprofits that maintain public and private lands, to say nothing of the friends and family we meet along the way. Each of these reflects ways in which we remain firmly within a social network. That is by no means a bad thing and indeed it’s the only reason such adventures as thru-hiking exist. To that extent, however, the pandemic still matters.

Flexibility and adaptability have defined my adult life, and this new project is not an exception. On a good year, the decision to attempt the Appalachian Trail is necessarily a flexible one. Life happens. Start dates get moved, injuries occur, finances run dry, pandemics wrack the world. The plan can be flexible and yet still pieced together with a faith that it can and will be executed. All plans have hope at their base, and a flexible plan is still something to which to look forward.

While I have not postponed my hike as of yet, I recognize this year will be different and that if I choose to go I am willingly taking on the logistical challenges of a Covid-safe hike. 

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Comments 2

  • Frank : Feb 17th

    Glad to hear you are still hiking and writing. Keep us posted.

  • pearwood : Feb 17th

    Yeah. Flexibility is the name of the game. I decided to push off until next February or March. I want to be able to enjoy the community. But that’s my decision, others will decide differently for good reasons of their own.
    Go for it.
    Steve / pearwood


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