Coronavirus on the AT: Crowded Shelters and Precautions; ATC Says Stay Home

(Updated 9 a.m. MT, March 22) The thru-hiking season is in full bloom on the Appalachian Trail, and as hikers trek north from Georgia to Katahdin the world around them changes hour to hour, day to day in an effort to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

And the Appalachian Trail Conservancy shook thru-hikers’ world on Tuesday, March 17, when it advised hikers to postpone starting their thru-hike or section hike, and asked those on trail to leave.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association and Continental Divide Trail Coalition have also asked hikers to abandon their long-distance treks.

But what about hikers on trail? How do they view what’s happening off—and now on—trail?

“Honestly, I don’t think coronavirus is a concern,” thru-hiker and Trek blogger James Aguilar says. “No one is talking about it and social hour appears to be social hour.”

(The Trek is no longer posting blogs from hikers still on trail.)

“It was recommended at Amicalola that you fist bump, or more likely wave, to avoid transferring anything, but I would say that people are equally concerned about norovirus as they are about coronavirus.”

Shelters and hostels are packed, James says, and resupply, shuttles, hitchhiking, and trail magic do not seem to be affected.

Image via James Aguilar

Contrast that with the view from Trek blogger Zach Terpstra, a hiker who is ahead of the bubble and moving fast along the trail north in an effort to complete a Calendar Year Triple Crown. He has seen few hikers at shelters, one or two hikers on trail during the day, and day hikers on weekend.

“There is an absurd amount of talk on trail about the virus,” Zach says. “A main concern is what our role in this is. Technically, we are in a very safe area in the backcountry. But as we cover distances each day we risk bringing the virus from town to town and hikers are wondering what to do about that.”

And with that in mind, Zach says he will abandon his dream of completing the AT, the PCT, and the CDT in a calendar year.

That seems to be the issue that hikers face: the chance that one of them will unknowingly become infected with COVID-19 and spread it among other hikers or in a small town with limited medical resources.

Trek blogger Hayden Cox says “coronavirus is the talk of the trail, and rumors, emergency plans, and otherwise have run rampant. It has certainly added to the stress of my hike.”

A hiker in his group, Tosser (a woman in her late 20s from Virginia), takes extra precautions, says Hayden, trail name LLC, a 24-year-old hiker from Georgia.

“She has avoided all trail magic, refused all shared food, and will not touch any other hiker’s belongings. She has continued to camp with us every night, and has not changed the amount of the day she hikes with others, but she does camp in her own tent every night and has made sure to stock up on hand sanitizer and to otherwise avoid any close contact with others.”

“On the flip side,” says Hayden, “Honey Bear (a man in his mid-20s from outside Paris, France) has made no adjustments at all. He has significant trail experience and figures that we will all get coronavirus eventually. However, he also says that, since we are all young and fit, we’ll barely notice. Despite not being allowed to travel back to France at the moment due to the virus, he has been in excellent spirits and continues to sleep in the shelters regularly.

“I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle,” Hayden says. “I’ve stopped sleeping in the shelters, but admittedly, I started doing that prior to COVID-19 because I found I slept better in my tent. I have not changed my interactions with my group, nor the thru-hikers I’ve seen regularly on trail, but I have tried to keep a little distance from section/day hikers. That being said, I’m currently typing this on a shared computer at the lodge and, while I used hand sanitizer before (and will after), I’m not particularly concerned about contracting coronavirus or passing it along as I am following all recommendations from the CDC, ATC, and any other alphabet soup with authority.”

The concern about community spread of the virus prompted Trek blogger Kelly Hodgins to cancel her thru-hike, scheduled to begin in early April.

“I have to consider my family, other people on the trail, and the community where I will be hiking,” she says. “Walking with six or seven kids, I certainly will look like a traveling tribe of infectivity. Communities that are trying to limit their exposure to the virus may not appreciate a large group visiting their town. This also assumes we are able to hike. What if one of us can’t walk out because we got sick, what then? Before coronavirus, there would be a large community to help us. Now that assistance likely won’t be available, and I don’t want to strain the resources of a community already under duress.”

Image Via Kelly Hodgkins

She acknowledges some hikers’ belief that getting outdoors, away from people, may be a way to avoid the virus. Still, that comes with caveats, she says.

“I won’t be relying on shuttles, nor staying in hostels,” she says. “I also plan to avoid shelters, so our risk will be lowered. Still, we may not be able to avoid getting sick. A family member will be following us so I have a safety net, but that only helps so much. Do I want to be so far away from home if one (or all of us) gets sick?”

And what about resupply? Though shortages are not being reported in small trail towns, that could change.

“I am super concerned with future resupply and transportation,” says Trek blogger John Mecklin. “The NOC closed the day after I rolled through and we are having to pull some strings to get a resupply in Gatlinburg.”

John, who started Feb. 29, says hiker numbers are tapering off.

“I’m honestly more concerned by groups of day hikers that are coming out to the shelters in an attempt to hide from the virus,” he says. “I have seen a few so far and I think it will impact the trail.”

Hayden says that the largest concern among his group is that a town will be closed when they plan to resupply.

“All six of us except Honey Bear are carrying at least an extra day of food and we have all checked in with family/friends for emergency plans should we have to abandon the trail without notice,” he says. “This includes keeping money aside for a 14-day quarantine should that become necessary and all other recommendations from the ATC. Luckily, all of us except Honey Bear have contacts within three hours that could pick us up if necessary/prudent, and all of us have offered to host Honey Bear should the need arise. It seems though, that we all plan to continue our hike unless either a) resupply becomes impossible or b) the ATC closes the trail. ”

“We are all, however, concerned about the closure of shuttles and hostels along the trail. Luckily, most of that seems to be further north for the moment and none of us planned on spending a lot of time in towns/hostels anyway. After all, we all went into this planning on living in the woods for five to seven months anyway. So long as we can get food, I don’t believe closed hostels will not have a tremendous impact on us.”

As hikers consider how coronavirus might affect them, the ATC has issued the following guidelines. They’re similar to what hikers would do to avoid norovirus, which frequently spreads on trail.

Wash your hands frequently with biodegradable soap at least 200 feet from water sources. When soap is not available, use hand sanitizer that contains 60-95% alcohol.

Avoid sharing food. Do not eat out of the same food bag, share utensils, or drink from other hikers’ water bottles.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. Use the crook of your arm (inner elbow) or use a tissue and dispose of it using Leave No Trace principles.

Keep some distance between you and other hikers whenever possible, especially if anyone shows signs of being sick. Avoid shaking hands or other close contact—instead, elbow bumps or waving are safer ways to greet others.

Avoid congregating in groups along the trail.

In the end, it comes down to individual hikers and how they choose to balance their hike with potential virus spread.

For Kelly, deciding not to hike was a tough decision, but one she believes is the right thing to do.

“The bottom line is that I don’t want to bring a possible infection to those who live near and support those on the AT. I would feel terrible if someone became sick, or possibly even died, just because I decided to hike the AT. Yes, it’s a lifelong dream, but nobody else shouldn’t have to risk getting sick because of it. In the end, I decided that we should stay home and let this virus epidemic run its course.”

Feature photo courtesy of Stacia Bennett.

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