ATC Will Not Recognize Thru-Hikes During Pandemic

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) indicated in a post on January 21st that they will not issue hangtags or recognize thru-hikes while the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging. “We do not feel it is appropriate to provide what could be perceived as a reward for long-distance hiking, which we are actively discouraging,” until the pandemic is under control or a vaccine has been widely distributed.

Traditionally, thru-hikers who register their hikes with ATC get hangtags, and “the primary purpose of the A.T. hangtag is to promote sustainable hiking practices aligned with Leave No Trace principles.”

The colorful plastic tags, often seen adorning thru-hikers’ backpacks, have become iconic in the trail community. The Conservancy hasn’t issued any since asking hikers to leave the Appalachian Trail due to the pandemic last March.

The Appalachian Trail hangtag adorning someone’s pack is a sure sign that they’re a thru-hiker (in non-pandemic years).

Limit non-essential travel.

The ATC’s decision to discourage thru-hiking in 2020 and 2021 sparked controversy in the hiking community. Many disagreed with the move because experts often consider hiking to be a safe activity during the pandemic.

However, the ATC pointed out that “the risk of hiking the A.T. during the COVID-19 pandemic comes not in the hiking itself, but in travel to the Trail from points all over the country, and travel in and out of Trailside communities.”

The organization also cites ongoing CDC guidance calling for limitations on non-essential travel.

Although people run errands such as grocery shopping in their hometowns, too, these activities are inherently riskier during a thru-hike. This is because hikers move from town to town and primarily enter isolated communities with limited healthcare resources.

Thru-hikers should still register with ATC.

Even though the Conservancy is not issuing hangtags or recognizing hikes at this time, they still strongly encourage 2021 thru-hikers who will be going ahead with their plans to register their trips on ATCamp.org.

This will provide the ATC and fellow trail users with valuable data about the number of hikers starting each day. Registering also lets hikers receive COVID-related notifications from the Conservancy.

Per the January 21st announcement, “we hope that hikers who choose to proceed with their plans to thru-hike before the pandemic is under control will still do all they can to help preserve the Trail for their fellow hikers and will participate in thru-hiker registration (to help reduce crowding) and will participate in our educational offerings.”

The organization announced its decision to discourage thru-hikes while providing risk-mitigating resources to 2021 hikers last November. It mirrors a decision by the PCTA and US Forest Service to issue PCT Long-distance Permits while heavily emphasizing the importance of risk management.

COVID-related closures will continue to impact the trail.

Hikers who choose to hit the trail this year will face closed shelters and camping restrictions in some areas. They will also be subject to local shelter in place orders, quarantine restrictions, and mask mandates.

For instance, many localities have closed shelters (and ATC is encouraging hikers to avoid them regardless). Meanwhile, the state of Massachusetts currently is not allowing overnight camping.

The pandemic may make it riskier and more difficult for hikers to get rides to and from town. Hikers may also face reduced emergency and healthcare services as the virus strains hospital and first responder resources.

Experts project that the crisis will worsen in the coming weeks as a third wave of cases batters healthcare systems.

appalachian trail pandemic

Hikers should avoid shelters, privies, and other areas that pose a higher risk of transmission on-trail.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy will recognize hikes again when the pandemic is under control.

We may finally bring the pandemic to heel as the year unfolds. If and when that happens, ATC will begin distributing hangtags and recognizing thru-hikes once more.

Anyone who registers their 2021 hike will be eligible to receive a hangtag at that time. ATC will allow people who stopped hiking by March 31st, 2020 to count those miles toward a future thru-hike.

It’s still unknown whether vaccination will prevent transmission of the virus. For that reason, the ATC is not currently planning to make exceptions for vaccinated individuals.

“We know that many 2020 thru-hikers made the sacrifice of ending their journeys,” the Conservancy said. “They have been waiting almost a year to resume their hikes. Others have waited many years for their chance to start their epic journey this year.”

“However, we ask hikers to continue to postpone their plans for the greater good to keep their fellow citizens safe… Although we don’t know when the pandemic will be declared ‘under control’ and we can resume distribution of A.T. hangtags and 2000 miler recognition, we hope for all concerned it will be soon.

Featured image by Jeffrey Stylos courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

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Comments 27

  • Avatar
    Shannon : Jan 27th

    I feel for thru-hikers this year and see both sides of things. It’s unfortunate folks won’t get recognized this year for a truly impressive achievement especially since I think the majority of folks out there will be responsible and considerate. However, I understand the ATC’s perspective and how doing this may discourage thru-hikers from pursuing it this year which I also understand since cases are surging and I imagine we won’t notice a substantial improvement until summer/fall once the vaccine has been widely distributed. I delayed my thru-hike not because it won’t be recognized but purely for safety concerns and because for me personally, I feel as though it’s the most responsible thing to do given my circumstances. However, I don’t look down or criticize those who are moving forward with their hikes, I wish you all success and hope eventually your thru-hikes will be recognized. I don’t think not getting your thru-hike recognized by the ATC diminishes it in any way because ultimately it is an incredible accomplishment and nobody can really take that away from you.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sage : Jan 27th

    ATC has done more damage to the hiking community then any virus ! 2020 thru hiker

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Jhon : Jan 29th

      Now PROVE IT. In what way ?

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Rattler86 : Jan 29th

        As a life time ATC member and AT thru-hiker twice, I have decline to donate anymore since the ATC stance. Why donate if the trail is shutdown and trail crews have been told to stop? Why line the pockets of the ATC?

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jan 27th

    Of course, having an ATC hangtag and “being recognized” ultimately have little to do with hiking the trail.

    While there is probably some additional risk with hikers going from town to town, it’s not likely to make much difference in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Frankly, there is no safer place to be than outside. This is true with or without a mask, according to *all* the science, provided one is careful about social distancing — which is a matter not just of distance, but also of *time* exposed. In other words, the closer you are to a person, the less time it would take for transmission to occur from an infected person, and vice versa: The farther away you are, the more time would be required (and frankly, at a certain distance, with natural ventilation, there simply isn’t much risk with proper distancing).

    Fomites, or surface transmission, is now known to be a minimal risk.

    So then, of course, it’s a matter of hikers going into town to shop at a grocery store. Are they more or less likely to have the virus than “town” people, particularly after having been on the trail for some time, and provided they are not doing stupid things like congregating inside and so on? At worst, I’d guess it’s a wash.

    Traveling to and from the trail via airplane, train or bus probably represents the most concern, though traveling by car (rented, owned or whatever) shouldn’t be a problem at all (I still feel bad for the well-intentioned people who wear masks while driving alone…).

    In sum, it’s extremely unlikely that traveling on a long trail, even with town stops, is going to prove a major (or even minor) vector of COVID-19. I understand why the ATC is being cautious (though it’s odd they are still encouraging people to sign up with ATCamp), but I think they are overreacting.

    To 2021 AT hikers, please take maximum care while in indoor spaces in town. Get yourself a handful of N95 or KN95 type masks for the trip and wear them at stores, laundromats and the like. Resist staying at hostels, even if they are open. Practice stringent distancing on trail. Do all that, and I’ll bet few, if any, hikers get COVID-19 or cause a problem in town.

    But again, a hangtag or a certificate do not a thru-hike (or section hike) make.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 29th

      Very balanced response. There are fatalistes, deniers, and over-reactors. Thé est of us who follow the rules and base our thinking *on science* fall in the middle of the three extremes I listed. I essentially agree on every point you’ve raised. I think that the demographics of thru hikers has to be examined. Skewing strongly toward young adults, it is likely those who don’t wear masks or social distance when necessary on the AT in trail towns likely have not been doing so for a year. My guess that a disproportionate number have already had asymptotic infections and many have some degree of natural immunological protection although the duration of that is not well understood. A study from the UK reports it lasts at least 5 months.

      Overreaction to COVID is dangerous. Périple get frustrated with unnecessary restrictions and just develop a f*ck it attitude. That reality needs to be considered.

      The PCTA took a much more responsible approach.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    John : Jan 28th

    Who really cares what ATC thinks? But to give them credit, they did actually make a decision this year. When this COVID first hit last season, they took a long time to come out with a position (that changed several times) before ultimately assembling a “panel of experts” to formulate yet another position (well into the season). Their COVID trail status page is not to be relied upon. Last year I was in touch with ATC to advise them of re-openings of sections in NJ, but they never updated their page. I was told that “the purpose was to list what was closed, not what was (re)opened.” My advice to 2021 thrus is to follow COVID protocols for distance, masking, and handwashing and check with the actual land managers as primary data sources for the status of the AT in the various states.

    Recognize ATC for what it is – a well-compensated lobbying organization with no power to open or close any portion of the AT. They excel at self-promotion and collecting membership “dues” (BTW – Do you think that they’d refuse a donation from a 2021 thuhiker?). I’ll take them a little more seriously when I see Sandra and Laurie, et al. on trail wielding a chainsaw or trash bag. A “secret” but well-known AT personality put it best in a conversation last year – “You don’t want to get to know the ATC, because then you know them.”

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    • Avatar
      James : Jan 28th

      Thank you!!!! Your last paragraph was a perfect definition of that group! Just look at their actions on that pipeline build. Once overruled, they immediately coward, tucked in their tails, and became totally promoted themselves as completely neutral on the subject.

      The ATC has done nothing except… if you have read their past 2020 emails… promote “Fear of participation in the Outdoors”, and stifle small business all along the AT. Their recognition of a person’s Thruhike really means nothing. A smartphone or GPS is all you truly need to prove that today. And what is even more ridiculous about their stance is that the outdoor community has expanded so greatly due of the pandemic. States have promoted being outdoors as a safe place to social distance. And I can tell you that when I hiked, I was seldom within a half-mile of any other hiker.

      I’ll no longer support or promote them as anything valid, or worth wild.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        James : Jan 28th

        worthwhile…. damn spell checker…

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Paul : Jan 28th

    The energy of differing opinions is refreshing…

    Reply
  • Avatar
    thetentman : Jan 28th

    Are you complainers putting in for a participation trophy? Stop being selfish. Stay home. Wear a mask. Get the shots. Grow up and stop complaining. No one cares what your opinion is of the ATC. Without them, the trail would not exist. The AT will be here when the virus goes away. It would be nice if we all were here too. Stay home.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sage : Jan 28th

      Actually trail would survive and because of all the volunteers who keep it alive by donating their time and hard work . I myself have volunteered and thru hiked 2020. First the trail towns , the people along the corridor and all the hikers be it thru or section are who keep the trail alive. We had wonderful, met awesome genuine people. With this being said we did get treated very poorly by some hostel owners in Maine. Who listened to FB , social media and judged by that then actually meeting us.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Woodstocker : Jan 28th

      Actually, staying home during the winter is almost a guarantee you will get sicker from COVID and other viruses. People staying indoors during the winter is why they become sicker. Being outdoors, especially in the wilderness has statistically zero risk of spreading a virus. Your type that shames people into compliance have no idea how many people you will encourage to get sick from COVID. Products of media.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        thetentman : Jan 28th

        Crawl back in your cave. Is it hard to be so ignorant?

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      • Avatar
        thetentman : Jan 28th

        I do know 4 people that got Covid. 3 of them say it was the worst thing they ever had. The fourth is not saying, because she is DEAD.

        Reply
        • Avatar
          brian : Jan 29th

          I know 5 people that got covid. One was 75 years or older and she barely had symptoms. The other three didn’t have very many symptoms to speak of other than losing their taste and smell and one had a bad headache for a few days. Having the flu would have been much worse. And I know of three or four instances where people were in line to get tested. They left that line without getting tested and got letters in the mail stating that they had covid-19. It’s time for you to wake up tent man

          Reply
  • Avatar
    Anne : Jan 28th

    Disclosure: I finished the AT last year after section hiking the trail over 4 years while working full-time. My last and only COVID-era section was 188.2 miles–less than 10% of the trail. I’ve communicated with the ATC, of which I was a member, and was informed that NO miles hiked between March 31, 2020 and whenever they resume their certification program will EVER be counted. I didn’t hike for the certificate but looked forward to having one. When I hiked in Maine, I abided by all COVID rules and precautions. I tested before arriving. I dug cat holes. I tented. I used mail drops. None of that mattered. Meanwhile the ATC is encouraging day hikers, many of whom unfortunately do not understand or care about leave no trace and are trashing the trail. The ATC’s approach since last year has discouraged hikers more likely to take care of the trail, and encouraged hikers less likely to do so. And by the way, most day hikers are using privies, not wearing masks, not social distancing, hiking in large groups, and getting hurt and rescued with alarming regularity. So who is the bigger COVID risk?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      John : Jan 29th

      There are different hiker types, but I think status as “day” vs. “thru” isn’t a reliable predictor of behavior. There are plenty of day hikers who know and abide by LNT while *none* of the thrus that I encountered on the AT last season followed COVID protocols by attempting to maintain distance and having a mask available for use when passing other hikers on narrow sections of the trail. This may be due to the seemingly common thruhiker superiority complex, not realizing how bad things were in last Spring and Summer in the NY-NJ area (well before the rest of the country peaked), or just not caring. So while you may have followed protocols, I assure you that many did not.

      In NJ where most of the AT passes through state parks and forests, the state closed these lands for a few weeks. Once they opened up again, the trail was full of people that had never hiked before. They were out hiking for the day, but I wouldn’t consider them day hikers. They were the ones with no knowledge of LNT or hiking etiquette who created problems. The good thing was that they rarely went more than about a mile from a trailhead or road crossing – and the novelty seemed to have worn off in a few weeks. While the AT was closed on NJ, sections were overrun with ATVs and the trail was torn up pretty badly.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Alice : Jan 29th

      You did the miles, you deserve the recognition! My support for the ATC is ending here because it’s just wrong to “punish” those who have successfully hiked in a truly safe and responsible manner. As a mom of a thru-hiker who has worked so hard toward his goal of a Triple Crown, I think the ATC has no place to deny miles that have been completed during these most challenging times.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    J.D./ La Loon : Jan 28th

    For the second year I cancelled my hike; I’ve got kidney issues, so I can wait. The trail will be there next year, and I’d like to be as well.
    I have already traveled to the trail via a self contained RV. (Ever hopeful) I’ll be headed back out west at some point to take on the CDT. Homebase is nearby so I can avoid people for the most part.

    I think the bigger reason the ATC asked people to cancel was the DA Element. Most hikers are intelligent and can take care of themselves, but there is always at least one Dumb Ass that goes and ruins it for others. It only takes one.

    Don’t get me started on the trash and poop I ran into on the Narrows hike a few months ago. (Zions Ntl’ Park). People who had no business going on a hike like that really made a mess of it. (I’m looking at you Insta addicts! Stepping in your poop is as obnoxious as your fishlips.)

    Nothing says social distancing like stepping in some morons unburied doo along the Virgin river. People who usually never spend more than a few minutes outside are flocking to the parks and trashing them, so I can understand just asking people to stay away in general…. they’d get in trouble for putting out a statement similar to, “If you’ve never done more outside than chase down the ice cream truck, please stay home, especially if you don’t know what a cat hole is, and you believe spray painting over pictographs is your god given right. It’s not. Thank you.”

    Reply
  • Avatar
    thetentman : Jan 28th

    Crawl back in your cave. Is it hard to be so ignorant?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Shannon : Jan 28th

      Geez man, relax, why the harsh comment? I completely understand your reasoning for not going out there but I don’t think you should be so judgemental and critical of those who do choose to thru-hike. I agree that people should take covid seriously and I personally don’t want to take the risk which is why I am postponing my thru-hike until 2022 but I won’t criticize and insult those who are going through with their plans. Yes, the AT will always be there, but everyone’s circumstances are different and for some, this may be their only opportunity to do it especially if they’ve already postponed their thru-hike from last year. The majority of thru-hikers are smart, considerate, responsible people who are capable of making the right decision for themselves. Of course, you’re going to have some entitled, reckless dillweeds that don’t wear a mask or socially distance, but those folks would likely do that in the “real world” too which is arguably worse. Overall, those people are not representative of the section/thru-hiking community and ultimately shouldn’t spoil the trail for everyone.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    David Smith : Jan 28th

    OK, I first joined the ATC in the 1980s and have been very supportive of their efforts. I no Johnny-come-lately in my support of the AT and the ATC. The literal millions of hours put into the AT have been coordinated by the ATC. They have been a strong advocate for the AT at the legislative level. I don’t want to bash then but will disagree with this stance and their drift into what I consider unreasonable views.

    1. The PCTA, in conjunction with the NFS and the NPS and multiple country and state and county parks and agencies, decided to issue the full number of permits for 2021 thru-hikers. I am the proud owner of one. In reality, the PTC requires more hitching and/or shuttles than the AT where a hikers can walk to many resupply places, cheap hotels, and hostels (the discussion of the safety of hostels is a different discussion but you do not need to sleep in a hostel to hike the AT) along the vast majority of the trail. I don’t see how the logic can be so polar opposite between the PTCA and the ATC. The Arizona Trail Association has issued guidelines much like those of the PCTA. In fact, the trail towns in Arizona begged the ATA to take a middle ground stance as their businesses depend on thru-hiker patronage. The folks who support hikers and earn a livelihood along the AT are no different. These people are not rolling in cash and cannot work from home like the paid ATC staff are currently doing for essentially a full year already.

    2. California just lifted its shelter at home order. New York announced that they will soon follow suit. Most states do not have shelter at home order currently and are not likely to have them if they do not have them now. People, lots people travel. It is perfectly possible to travel and follow the mask and social distancing guidelines.

    3. People currently go from town to town shopping. Is there existing research to support this idea that COVID is transported more easily, or whatever, when people move about OR is it masks and social distancing that make the difference? Face it, doctors and nurses work all day with COVID patients. Dentists and dental hygienists work all day literally in their patients faces. In all these cases, masks keep them safe with a lower COVID rate than the general population. It isn’t location, it is wearing masks and social distancing.

    4. My guess is that packing into shelters is unsafe, but I never did before COVID. Shelter are nasty – farting, snoring, and lots of mice. Hard pass.

    5. I did a 150 mile section hike on the AT from Standing Bear to Roan Mountain in October 2020. I can tell you this, in going to restaurants, Dollar Stores, and Walmart, I would guess that the compliance with wearing masks was less than 50% by the locals and many of those with masks had their nose out. In addition, in Tennessee there seemed to be no social distancing of tables in restaurants. I am not sure if that is the lack of legal requirement or ignoring them. If there is COVID there, the locals seem to be ignoring it by the majority of people.

    6. I actually feel sorry for anyone who would measure the quality of their thru-hike attempt by getting a certificate and hanger. They just started the hangers a few years ago. Grandma Gatewood didn’t need any hangers and neither do you.

    Finally, I want to make this observation about some of the folks at the ATC. In 2016, I attended the Flip Flop Festival in Harpers Ferry. One of the staff asked to walk a mile or two out of town with me at the send-off. As we were walking down the C&O canal, the ATC staff member pulled out a cell phone to take a picture and then, almost in a panic said, “I should not be using electronics on the AT.” I asked why. The staff member’s reply, “It violates Leave No Trace.” I am being 100% honest here. LNT as in leave onoy footprints and take only pictures, LNT? WTF is that all about? The ATC website is filled with pics of the AT. How were they taken? With pinhole cameras? I was blown away by this event which opened my eyes about the ATC paid leadership which was already getting a lot of criticism.

    I am about as politically liberal as a person can get. However, I think that there is a mindset currently at the ATC that crosses a line that I cannot support. I base my behavior for COVID on the recommendations of published science, not on the overreach of the ATC. Sorry.

    I love and support the ATC. I am a member and likely always will be. It is possible to disagree on this statement by the ATC and still like the organization. However, that loyalty is being lost by many current and former ATC members who feel that ATC has gone too far in some of their views of appropriate behavior.

    I will be doing a 5-week LASH on the AT prior to the PCT (not starting at Springer to reduce impact). I am fortunate in that have received both injections of the COVID vaccine (I work in health care) and will wear masks and social distance just like I do at home. If people do not do that on the trail, they will be in good company with many of the local folks in the trail towns.

    That is my personal experience with COVID precautions along the NC-TN border and with some pretty extreme views of at least one paid ATC employee.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Alice : Jan 29th

    You did the miles, you deserve the recognition! My support for the ATC is ending here because it’s just wrong to “punish” those who have successfully hiked in a truly safe and responsible manner. As a mom of a thru-hiker who has worked so hard toward his goal of a Triple Crown, I think the ATC has no place to deny miles that have been completed during these most challenging times.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Armani R : Jan 29th

    I think it’s a bit hypocritical of the ATC to refuse to recognize completed thru-hikes yet still ask people to register in order to gather data that will among other things be likely used to secure funding. I think it’s one thing to let people know of the risks of continuing their hikes and allow people to make their own decisions, but to hold back a recognition seems petty, and looks to be more of a “power play” to punish people who continue with their plans measuring the risk.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Ben : Jan 29th

    AT2020 NoGo. I got off trail when they asked us to. When the ATC sent out a survey to all registered 2020 hikers asking for feedback, I told them I supported their decision, but I also added that they must find some way to support thru hikers in 2021, or else risk becoming irrelevant to the community.

    Based on the responses here, I’m confident my warning was right.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    roger : Feb 2nd

    I agree with this decision , If your advised not to travel, to stay at home, wear a mask and help save lives then you should.
    Yes the trail is probably safe, but you could have contamination at shelters, or privies etc , plus possibility of transmitting the virus in towns
    I believe its just selfish to attempt any thru hike during this period, MY 20020 CDT hike was cancelled due to covid and 2021 also looks doubtful .
    The trails will still be there next year. and as soon as its safe or even allowed to trail i will be flying to the USA
    snailtrainer

    Reply

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