Complications in Planning a 2021 Thru-Hike – COVID and Now the AT or the PCT Question

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had dropped plans for 2020 thru-hikes of the AT and AZT due to COVID and then extensive fire damage to the AZT that closed about 150 miles of the almost 800-mile trail in the summer that greatly impacted fall 2020 SOBO thru-hikes.  In both cases, the AT and the AZT, I was respecting the requests of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Arizona Trail Association.  Nether trail, to me, seemed like a viable and responsible decision for 2020 but for different reasons.

My 2020 Section  Hike – A Few Weeks On the Trail During a Pandemic

In October, I did a section hike of the AT from Standing Bear to Roan Mountain, TN.  I felt I was able to comply with social distancing and wearing a face mask to meet the CDC recommendations.  In any case, a friend and I flew from Phoenix to Knoxville and home and hiked 152 miles without getting COVID.  It is possible to backpack and avoid close contact.  We did not sleep in shelters which, officially, were closed on all federal land on the AT.  We got private rooms in hostels or zeroed in a motel in Hot Springs.  We wore masks in shuttles.

I realize that not all backpackers have the budget to stay in hotels or in private hostel rooms.  As Jen Datka pointed out in her recent blog post in The Trek, older hikers often have more financial resources than younger hikes (that and time are two of the few advantages in my opinion as a 61-year-old hiker).  In reality, you can hike the AT without hostels, motels, and shuttles on the vast majority of the trail, just as you can camp at shelters without sleeping in shelters. A pandemic requires some compromise by all to stay safe, keep others safe, and still have a life. I’ve managed to do a lot during COVID without being infected by wearing masks, social distancing, not eating in restaurants, and a few other simple rules   As an RN, I’ve worked around patients with infectious diseases since the 1980s and avoided them by following basic personal protection rules.

2021 Flip Flop Thru-Hike Plans

So, I decided after that section hike that I could do a pandemic-safe thru-hike.  I also knew that I would have long received both COVID immunizations since I am a frontline health care worker (dose #2 in me about 6 hours ago – no side effects from first shot and, so far, none today with the second).  That played a part in my thinking although I feel I still need to follow all social distancing as there is no proof yet that the vaccine will prevent those vaccinated from spreading COVID. That is totally TBD by research.  Again, I do think that, with some flexibility, anyone can hike the AT and follow social distancing and wearing a face covering.  It just is not difficult.

OK, I was all ready for the AT.  I had considered COVID and personal responsibility carefully.  I felt I could be a good citizen and social distance on the AT just like I am at home.  I planned my flip-flop itinerary (start at Roan Mountain, TN and head north).  I reserved a flight and hotel near Tri-Cities.  I reserved a car and made plans to visit my cousin who lives near Mt. Rogers (and is an avid AT hiker). I am ready to go.  My gear list perfected. Come on March 4th.

The PCT Announces 2021 Permit Lottery Last Week

Then, to kick all my plans in the butt just a bit, the Pacific Crest Trail Association announced that they would be issuing the normal number of thru-hiking permits for this year after not issuing any permits in 2020.  The AT is my dream trail, but the PCT comes in a close second.  I have entered the PCT lottery multiple years and never got a permit or only permits that would ensure frying in the desert were available.  I live in Phoenix and fully understand the discomfort and risks of hiking in the desert when the temperature gets high.  The desert heat can be deadly.

Eight Days to the PCT Permit Lottery

Here I sit, 8 days before the PCT lottery, wondering if I would cancel the AT and do the PCT if I can get a decent start date for 2021.  It is a big question.  To be honest, I am much more confident that I can hike the AT and social distance.  It is easy to resupply on the AT, typically within a few miles of the AT at most.  Hitching is convenient but it is possible to hike almost all the AT by walking to stores and using mail drops.  That is far more complicated on the PCT.  That is just the nature of the two trails. I think I am superstitious about shuttles and admittedly illogical,  Hiking the AT will require shuttles from the airport and, realistically at other times.  On my section hike, I had a dental emergency and used a shuttle.  I used shuttles to and from the airport.   Still shuttles feel unsafe although that might be my paranoia.   There are windows in cars and vans.

Two Questions

  • Stick with the AT that is a decades-old dream and likely much easier to do in the age of COVID-19 in a safe manner?
  • Go with the PCT which has been a dream that I have not been able to get permits for over the past several years?

The lottery will answer if the PCT is even an option.  My hope is that I am left with this Sophie’s choice of a decision.  Part of me almost hopes I do not get a decent number in the PCT lottery.  It would make this much easier, huh?

What would you do?



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Comments 4

  • Avatar
    Ann Strauss : Jan 12th

    My advice? Do the AT.

  • Avatar
    Shannon : Jan 12th

    I really enjoyed your post, David! I almost enjoyed it as much as your bio where you say you have a pet snail named Junior Ranger, that’s awesome haha! I admire and respect the planning and caution you are putting into your thru-hike. I hope (and genuinely believe) other hikers are taking it as seriously and being as responsible as yourself. Seriously, kudos to you for being so considerate and thoughtful. Also, thank you to you for serving on the front lines and for putting yourself and your loved ones at risk. I’m sure this was a heck of a year for you and I’m immensely grateful to people like yourself. You’ve certainly earned your thru-hike! And congrats on getting the vaccine, there finally seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. I think you know in your gut and in your heart what you want to do. It’s not for anyone else to decide but yourself and from what it sounds like, it seems like the AT is where your heart is at given the circumstances. However, I understand your predicament since you also wish to do the PCT and obtaining permits can be difficult. Honestly, I think you should do what you said in your post and leave it up to fate. If you do happen to get PCT permits and don’t think you’ll likely be able to obtain them easily in the future, I would go with that since the AT will always be there and is more accessible without all the permits. While logistically getting into and out of towns is easier on the AT and may make life easier in the age of covid, since you’re already being super cautious and smart and have gotten vaccinated, I think you would be perfectly fine on the PCT and would be safe and successful out there. Ultimately, as cheesy and cliche and not helpful as it is, my advice is to just follow your heart and gut and know that whatever trail you do thru-hike this year, you will still have the opportunity to thru-hike the other in the future, I’m sure of it. Best of luck on your adventure, as someone who postponed their thru-hike to 2022, I really look forward to following your journey and I’m sure you’ll be successful wherever you end up!

    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 12th

      Thanks for your response. I have to say that the difference between how the PCTA (and all the associated federal, state, and local permit granting agencies along the PCT) are handling COVID and thru-hiking is in pretty stark contrast to the ATC. I have been a member of the ATC for decades, literally. I wonder if they will reconsider their stance in light of the PCTA decision and all the government organizations decision.

      I have such an active life and travel so much, a land snail is about as about all the responsibility I want for now. It, maybe they is most appropriate as all snails have male and female reproductive organs and actually self-fertilize at times (still no eggs from Jr. Ranger – too young). Since I love nature and find peace of mind there, I actually find that with my little snail. Jr. is a very picky eater and will only eat lettuce despite the long list of what people claim they like.

      Thanks for you message. I am really loving this opportunity to connect with other backpackers that The Trek has provided me.


  • Avatar
    Matt B : Jan 17th

    Delightful read! I’ve been torn about keeping my plans to thru-hike the AT (NOBO) in April due to the pandemic. Really appreciated hearing your section-hike experience w/ the pandemic. Bummed that trail-magic and town excursions may be a bit more limited in 2021; but this is the only time I have, so feel like i should take it.
    Anyways, thanks for sharing. Great article!


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