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.
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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