As Trail Days Moves Forward, Hikers Wonder About Safety

The town of Damascus, Virginia is tentatively moving forward with plans to host its annual Trail Days festival this summer, despite the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) calls for thru-hikers to postpone their hikes because of COVID-19. According to Susan Coleman, Trail Days Chairwoman, the final decision on whether or not to hold the festival will be made by the end of March. “I think hikers are still going to continue to hike,” Coleman told the Bristol Herald Courier. “I just don’t think the amount of hikers will be as much as it has been in the past.” While it’s unclear how many hikers will attend the festival this year, the number of thru-hikers registered with the ATC is on par with any other year. 

Far From Normal

In the past, Trail Days has seen 20,000 people descend on Damascus, Virginia, a town of roughly 1,000 people. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers cram into hostels, camp in Tent City, and walk in the annual hiker parade. Last year, the festival was canceled amid COVID-19 safety concerns, so 2021 might be a glimpse into how a socially distanced outdoor event like this could be organized. 

Hikers traditionally walk in the annual Hiker Parade as part of Trail Days festivities. Photo via Bristol Herald Courier.

According to Tuesday Pope, Damascus Town Clerk, organizers are expecting less attendance this year, but they’re not sure by how much. “There will be no way for us to limit the number of hikers and festival goers who come thru the park,” she said, “but we are currently limiting the number of vendors and sponsors we will accommodate so they can be spaced further apart.” Pope also said that they are considering not hosting the annual hiker parade, “which is unfortunate because that is always a highlight of the festival.” Additionally, lectures and film screenings that are usually held indoors will be hosted outdoors, under tents.

Pope was clear that organizers are being flexible with plans in order to adhere to state Health Department guidelines as the festival dates draw closer, but uncertainty around safety precautions are leaving some hikers wondering if it’s a good idea to attend.

“I think that Trail Days is an iconic event for thru-hikers and therefore want to get to experience it too! But I would want to know about safety precautions ahead of time (everyone is required to wear a mask, no area is super crowded, etc.),” said 2021 Trek blogger Hannah Goodman.

Fellow Class of 2021 blogger Jocelyn Smith framed the issue in terms of Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics. “My biggest concern is that going to Trail Days would be a potential violation of LNT. If I go to Trail Days and expose a bunch of people to Covid and then hop back on trail I have now NOT left no trace on the town of Damascus,” she said. “The same for the opposite if I go to Trail Days and contract COVID-19 and then hop back on the trail and expose fellow hikers. Then I have not followed LNT. Though LNT was not originally meant to be found around COVID I am choosing to look at it that way.”

Responses edited for length and clarity.

“Town of Many Trails” Relies on Trail Days

With several iconic Virginia trails—including the Appalachian Trail—running through Damascus, the town’s economy relies on both AT thru-hikers and weekend adventurers. Every year, visitors flock to this tiny town to rent a bike for a ride on the Virginia Creeper trail, spend a night off-trail in a hotel or hostel, replace or repair gear, or just have a bite to eat. Trail Days is a huge driver of visitors, and their money, coming to town. In 2018, the town brought in about $37,000 in revenue from Trail Days alone and Damascus mayor Katie Lamb is hopeful that the festival can move forward this year. “I have been told by several different businesses that it would be devastating to not have Trail Days again,” she said.

No one wants to see trail towns suffer economically, but the health and safety of hikers and trail communities need to be prioritized. If you’re looking for a way to support small businesses without visiting in person this year, purchasing gift cards for a later trip or buying gear online from your favorite trail-side outfitter are great ways to help. Of course, smaller businesses are not always able to offer e-commerce options, so responsible in-person visits can be a huge help. If you’re planning on thru-hiking this year, check out our advice for staying safe.

Featured image courtesy of Bristol Herald Courier. 

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Comments 9

  • Joe : Feb 19th

    I can appreciate the article highlighting that Trail Days is happening in 2021. The towns need it for their survival, and quite frankly, the people need something uplifting. But this reminds me of an article with a purpose of just turning a positive into a negative. It also fits well with the ATC’s message of “The trail is dangerous in 2021”. It would seem that Fellow Class of 2021 blogger Jocelyn Smith has a case of “Selective Leave No Trace (LNT) policy application”. She’s worried about violating LNT at Trail Days, but not worried about bring COVID from some outside location to the AT, all while being asked not to hike by the ATC. Maybe she should stay home.

    The article should have been more about how a small town on the AT took a devastating punch in 2020, but has not given up… or something… anything… more positive that what this was.

    • A Wild Jocelot : Feb 19th

      Hi Joe!

      I just wanted to clarify a few things for you in regards to my opinion on Trail Days!

      My whole explanation was not conveyed. There are more pieces to my opinion than just the words printed here.

      I have the “luxury” of time to my disposal. So I will have quarantined & been tested before I step foot on the trail. So I will not be “bringing” covid from an outside location. I plan on tenting & sending my own resupply to minimize exposure along the trail.

      As we all know the ATC asked hikers not to hike last year and they did, and the same is for this year. If my whole opinion had been conveyed rather than some select pieces you would know that I am in support of Trail Days and think it’s VITAL to the towns survival. And they can’t afford another year without thru hikers. Without a way to manage large crowds I don’t see how it’s a safe option though. MANY hikers will chose to go and do as they please, as they should! HYOH right? But for me, I’ll choose to keep hiking.

      Unfortunately it seems like while you’re showing support for Trail Days you’re also saying people shouldn’t be hiking because the ATC says so. Kind of contradictory! Without people on the AT then who will go to Trail Days?

      Anywho, not trying to start a war on here. Just wanted to explain myself in better context.

      Cheers & Happy Trails.

  • Lyla Harrod : Feb 19th

    Hey Tina,

    Thanks for sharing your take on Trail Days! If the local Damascus businesses offered up their venmos or a place where we could donate to support them, I would be interested in donating whether or not Trail Days happens. That being said, I’d love to participate in the festivities if I can find ways to do so responsibly.



  • Robert M Steen : Feb 22nd

    As a soon-to-be thru-hiker (April 12), I am particularly excited about Trail Days. In fact, the date of the event has no small part in my departure date from Springer. I absolutely love the southwestern part of my state and am really hoping for a dose of bluegrass music. I’m glad to give back to Damascus in the many ways that thru-hikers do and certainly intend to comply with all requirements regarding safety. I sincerely hope things go as planned for the benefit of Damascus and it’s business owners and for hikers like me. Hike on! Robbie Steen

  • Melvin Villali : Feb 23rd

    A lot of businesses have closed down or are barely making it because of covid since it came about in 2020. While the big box stores are open and have the money to push through this epidemic. The little mom and pop shops or small guys are struggling with this epidemic every day just to keep a flot.
    Some Positive works in place like trail days in a small community makes the world of difference to the people who live or work in that town. Businesses rely on trail days and thru hikers and it brings joy to the whole community. As a new thru hiker starting in april 8th i would love to attend trail days as long as everyone plays there part in being safe with mask. For my self i have to get tested for covid two or three days before boarding a plane to make sure im covid free and not infect anybody.

  • Jeff : Feb 25th

    Please stop peddling fear and propaganda. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that healthy people do NOT make other people sick. 0.7% asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission. Vitamin D deficiency is one of the biggest correlations to any illness. Hikers are out in the sun all day. This article is a good summary and contains links to the CDC page and other studies. Go hike, hang out, hug, high five, and enjoy people like a normal human with a functioning immune system.

    • EB : Mar 12th

      I hear you man. I will never understand why all of a sudden we treat healthy people as a threat to another persons health. There are so many ways one can make sure they don’t get sick. A balanced diet, exercise, stress reduction, supplements, etc. Let these small businesses do what they need to survive.

  • Jim Clements : Mar 2nd

    The trek kissing ATC ass again! Hikers hike!


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