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.
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 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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