Hiking Within the Guidelines: Reflections on an Appalachian Trail Weekend Hike in North Carolina/Tennessee

A love for the Appalachian Trail comes with a great respect for the trail. For me, this means not only respecting the physical trail, but also the guidelines from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that always have the best interests of the trail and the people who love it in mind. This meant postponing my LASH of half the trail, as most long-distance hikers did when COVID-19 became more rampant.

By now, most of us are well aware that the guidelines are still asking us to postpone any long-distance hikes. I do admit though, I’ve been very confused lately, and not just about trail guidelines but with what is “OK” vs. “not OK” to do in the midst of the pandemic in general. I just want to do the right thing for the greater good, yet sometimes I feel like guidelines contradict each other depending where I am and what I’m doing from a federal, state, and local level. One thing is OK here, but not OK there, etc. Can anyone else relate?

With that said, this is a reflection on my most recent thought process when it comes to hiking. I want to be transparent about some of the confusion I’m feeling while I’m still trying to do my best to make sure my actions are ethical and within guidelines. My boyfriend and I went for a Friday-Monday hike on the Appalachian Trail this past weekend. This was our first time on the AT in 2020, as we realized we could probably hike some short segments within the current guidelines from the ATC. Even with that, my post-hike reflection has me questioning whether we did it right. Much like Leave No Trace, we can have the best of intentions, but slipups happen and we must continue making an effort to acknowledge them for ourselves and correct them in the future.

Following the ATC’s Current Guidelines

When visiting the ATC’s website, the first topic seen is a link to click on the “Responding to COVID-19” page. Here, the most recent link at the top is titled “The AT on Katahdin Reopens.” In this update, they still advise hikers to postpone thru-hikes and long-distance section hikes, and also recommend that hikers still follow the guidance issued in May for other types of hikes. This is a clickable link, which includes the following guidelines:

Stay Local

I understand that this immediately removes the option of keeping an AT hike within the guidelines for many of us. Being from Chicago, it would normally not be an option for me to access the AT locally. However, since March, I’ve been living in Northern Alabama where my boyfriend lives and my home is split between two places right now. We were having a casual conversation last week about missing the trail when he pointed out that we are as little as a 3.5-hour drive from some of the southern portions of the trail. It dawned on us that we could reach the AT without having to do any extensive travel to get there.

How we did: I still feel confusion over what the extent of staying local means right now, especially as states have reopened, yet these guidelines are from May. I see my friends taking trips again all over Instagram, including to hike in other places. I’ve had to travel back to Chicago for a few separate commitments, including some small gatherings that are now considered safe within COVID guidelines there. I’ve had to drive farther, make more stops, and interact with more people to bounce between the two places I live right now than it takes me to drive to portions of the AT. However, the ATC clearly states that the guideline of hiking local means ensuring that you don’t have to stop for gas or meals along the way.

In the southern portion of the trail, my boyfriend and I have an incomplete 230-mile section from Standing Bear Farm at the end of the Smokies to Damascus, Virginia. We determined that we could reach Standing Bear in roughly a four-hour drive. I’d normally consider this a short local drive because it can be done in one morning without stopping, but we did have to get gas and we made a few bathroom stops. Even if this is “local” in my mind, we did not technically wind up staying within this guideline as soon as we realized we had to stop for gas or a bathroom break. Even though this short drive to and from the trail felt far less extensive than to some of the other places I’ve had to travel between during the pandemic, we might not have been as “local” as we thought. This might mean that we think about postponing even short future hikes until the guidelines are relaxed.

Be Respectful

This guideline entails minimizing the time spent in trail towns if you do head into town on your trip, as well as following local guidelines, wearing a mask and washing your hands.

How we did: The first step we took to limit our interaction with the local communities was deciding to take two cars. We were planning to hike a 33-mile section from Standing Bear to Hot Springs, North Carolina, so we parked each of our cars at each end of the trailhead. This eliminated the need for us to arrange a shuttle at the end of our hike to take us back to our car.

We also made sure that our hike was short enough so that we could pack all of our food at home and didn’t have to resupply anywhere along our hike, so we wouldn’t add another interaction in a community other than our own. We left some snacks and water in the car for the end of our hike as well so that we wouldn’t have to seek out food in town.

Even with our diligence, I admit we slipped up. When we finished our hike at the Hot Springs trailhead, the hostel right next to the trailhead parking lot was open for business. Neither of us was strong enough to resist knowing we could walk in and pay $5 to take a shower. The caretaker at the hostel was extremely kind and welcoming, subsequently recommended a local restaurant and, well, you know where this is going. Our post-33-mile hunger was far stronger than any rationale that we had snacks in the car and should just go straight home. We took the same precautions we do at home, i.e., putting on masks, sanitizing our hands, and only sending one of us into the restaurant to order the food to go. Yet the point was to not interact in any trail towns, and while this very love we feel for the kindness of these communities was the reason we wanted to stay out to be sure we posed no risk of transmitting the virus there, that same friendly attitude in the moment was hard to resist as we were drawn in to at least checking out one spot in town.

Stay Small

This refers to hiking in small groups and avoiding high-traffic locations or time periods on the trail.

How we did: It was just my boyfriend and me, so no issues there. When it comes to avoiding high-traffic locations, we did well overall, but I do offer a word of caution here. We’ve spent time on the trail before, so even though we headed out on a weekend, which would generally be a higher traffic time period and a new section for us, we were fairly familiar in knowing what the stealth camp spots are like in North Carolina and had the confidence to know we’d be able to hike until we found one vacant. This might not be the same scenario for every area of the trail, so I think it’s important to use a resource like Guthook or a guide to determine what the camping situation might be like before heading out to any particular section.

That first night on Friday we passed very few other hikers and had no problems finding a stealth spot to camp where we were completely alone. In fact, it was one of the quietest nights I’ve ever spent on the trail, fairly close to the top of the mountain and pure silence to the point that it was almost eerie.

Our camp spot the first night near Snowbird Peak, although it was too wet for a fire.

The second night we camped at Max Patch. This is a big grassy bald with a 360 view of the mountains (seen in the picture at the top of this post), and although we knew it was a popular place, we had no idea what we were in for. Although we were alone in the woods for most of the hike up to Max Patch that day along the AT, we hadn’t realized that there is also a parking lot right at the base of the bald. We figured we’d encounter a few other hikers up there, but what we found resembled something more like college spring break week on a Florida beach. (Maybe I’m over-exaggerating. But really, it felt like that when we were still wide-eyed at 2 a.m. from all the chatter).

The top of the bald was too crowded already for us to have any desire to camp there when we arrived, but we snagged one of the stealth spots lower on the clearing. These spots are still exposed and close to the top, but provide a little bit of distance. We were there a few hours before sunset, and continued to watch a steady stream of people come up from the parking lot to camp or just watch the sunset, coolers in tow and their evenings just beginning. It was Saturday night and all, and this was the most crowded place we have ever camped on the AT. Depending on what the desire is, some hikers might really enjoy a night like this as a chance to be around more people, but the noise all night plus lack of anywhere to use the bathroom was a little much for us and we got out of there as fast as we could when the sun came up. When it comes to trying to stay within the guidelines of social distancing, Max Patch on a Saturday night in July was the last place to be.

The third night we camped around a shelter, and it was just us until one other hiker rolled in at 2 a.m. after a night hike. While we were once again away from the crowd and relatively isolated in the woods, this brings up some important points about the next guideline.

Be Self-Sufficient

The ATC advises not using trail resources like shelters, privies, picnic tables, or food storage options like bear cables or poles that might be near these facilities. All of the shelters in the area of our hike remained closed with signs posted stating this, as are most on the trail. A list of closures can also be found on the ATC’s website. It is OK to still camp at the tent spots around the shelters, as this doesn’t involve using shared surfaces with other hikers.

The sign posted at Deer Park Mountain Shelter in North Carolina.

How we did: I’d say that not sleeping in the shelter and not using the privy were pretty simple tasks to uphold. Even normally on the AT we’ll opt to pitch a tent over sleeping in a shelter. When it comes to the privies, I know part of the reason hikers are being asked to not use them is because the volunteers who maintain them haven’t been able to do so like normal. Enough said, as I wouldn’t want to contribute to making their job harder than it needs to be when they are able to get back to trail maintenance.

I think there’s also a catch here. Privies at shelter sites concentrate the waste. The impact of the privies being off limits was reflected by the amount of improper burying of human waste I sadly noticed in a relatively concentrated area near the shelter. Although I’m sure most hikers are responsible when it comes to this, it only takes one sighting of unburied poop and toilet paper to have unfortunate consequences to the surrounding area. After seeing this with my own two eyes in multiples at one shelter, I can only speculate that the impact of this wouldn’t be very positive had the normal amount of hikers remained on the trail this year, camping at shelters but having no privy access with limited options of reasonable areas to use the restroom at some of these sites. It could be said that the shelters in the Smokies don’t have privies and fare just fine, but they have designated areas for everyone to do their business.

So avoiding privies and shelters was easy, but what about the picnic tables and bear cables? I admit that as we were the only ones there, the presence, ease, and reliability of using the bear cables seemed to far outweigh any other food storage option, and when it came to finishing our 17-mile day on Sunday, having done that on a relatively out-of-hiking-shape body that was practically crawling down the last mile, I didn’t think twice before slumping down onto that picnic table bench and getting dinner started.

I had to wrap my knees up just to get through the last three miles of our hike the next morning! Priorities shift in moments like this as I sat at the picnic table—something to mentally plan ahead for and avoid next time.

This brings up the same thoughts that I mentioned earlier about not having the willpower to not shower at the hostel when we reached town. The intentions might be good, but if we’re truly going to commit to a hike that falls within every guideline, we need to think deep into how we’ll deal with some of these concepts once we’re on the trail. Unfortunately, I learned that can be hard to do until you’re in that moment, completely fatigued from the day’s hike, alone in the woods, and the idea of COVID-19 seems to melt away into a far-off reality as that picnic table beckons, or whatever tiny trail convenience is right there taunting us that can’t be used. I can’t even say with certainty that had it started storming that night, we would have rode it out in the tent rather than keeping things dry under the roof of the nearby empty shelter. I suppose this could be solved by committing to only camp at stealth sites, but sometimes there are stretches of trail without a lot of camping options. Sitting at my computer, I’d like to fully think I’d stay committed to the guidelines, but actually being out there drove home an important lesson for me that the mindset in the moment can really shift and it takes true commitment and planning to not do certain things, especially when you see others doing them around you that might not be aware.

I Think I Can Say: I Get It.

I somewhat firsthand understand why all of these guidelines were put in place now. There are still others I didn’t touch on specifically that we did our best to respect, which can be found on the ATC website. So many people are off the trail compared to a usual thru-hiking season, so it might not seem like that big of a deal to have our hands on the bear cables when no one else is there, sleep in an empty shelter, be just one person going into a trail town, or whatever the case may be. Even when I thought I could easily adhere to some of the smaller guidelines, I learned that it wasn’t so simple in the moment.

There is a great irony in this that I’m still trying to wrap my head around after being out there now. It didn’t seem so bad because the trail (other than Max Patch) was relatively empty. I felt that I was more socially distanced from others for those few days than I normally am when I go about a week at home. But the thing is, that experience largely exists because most of us got off the trail. We had to create that as a collective effort. If we were all still out there on our long distance hikes, how would it go when not just one or two of us, but five, ten, 15 of us on certain nights couldn’t resist that beckoning call to a dry shelter floor or the support of a picnic table bench after a hard day? Next thing you know, we’d all be in close quarters with each other, and then one after another walking into the next trail town in numbers that would eventually add up to the thousands in the southern parts of the trail.

What About the Thru-Hikers Still on Trail?

Well, this is largely my opinion, and as all opinions go, it has the potential to be unpopular. In my personal life, I strive to follow the guidelines. However, I noticed earlier in the season that when the ATC came out with their guidelines that thru-hikers postpone, there quickly became a few instances in the online world where people were really putting down those people that were still out there. I’m sure I’m largely preaching to the choir, but I believe that we can be advocates of following the guidelines for the greater good, while also remaining kind to those who decided to continue their hikes.

If anyone reading this has taken a psychology course at some point, you might remember a concept called the fundamental attribution error. This is a term that describes our tendency to attribute a person’s actions to their character rather than situational factors. In other words, sometimes we don’t give people the benefit of the doubt. Keeping this concept in mind, after being back on the trail, I realized the importance of not immediately assuming that anyone still thru-hiking is out there just defying the guidelines because this is a reflection of bad character, or that they just don’t care about the greater good, or whatever the narrative may be. I can completely see how if you were on the trail as I experienced it this past weekend, the perspective is so much different than those of us sitting behind our computers or in cities right in the heat of things. If you were still on trail after most people got off, you would be experiencing relative isolation and probably question why it would make more sense to go home rather than stay. There are even some people out there with life circumstances in such a place that staying on trail truly made sense as the most ethical choice compared to the other options they had.

While I advocate for following the guidelines, I also think it’s so important to approach others with kindness and try to put ourselves in their mindset per the surroundings and circumstances they are in. I would never want to talk down on someone for staying on trail before knowing their entire story, and even if I still didn’t agree with their reasoning, I don’t think there could ever be an excuse to become condescending if I were to share that disagreement. We met three thru-hikers this past weekend, and by now, I believe that if they’re still out there, they’re aware of what’s been asked. I never felt that it was my place to bring up the guidelines because they’ve made their decision. My boyfriend and I were happy to meet them and we enjoyed briefly hearing about their hikes, offered up some snacks, extra fuel, and we offered a ride when we got to town.

The Bottom Line

During this crazy time, but really, always, it’s so important that we all keep the greater good at the forefront of our minds and in the decisions we make. Hikers already strive to do this by adhering to Leave No Trace principles, and being conscious of CIVID guidelines is just one more step. I hope that my experiences and some admitted failures and confusion of trying to decipher and stay within the ATC’s guidelines can help spark some important thoughts for anyone else planning a hike. My boyfriend and I had the best of intentions, but hopefully as you can see, there are so many factors to think about when it comes to the AT right now that maybe the best decision really is to wait all of this out, rather than take twists and turns to make short hikes work. The decision is largely individual when examining if a hike will truly be able to fit the guidelines, beginning with where you’re located in relation to the AT. As hikers with those personalities that just need to get out and have big trail goals, we’re all a hard bunch to tame, but we just need to keep doing our best to take a true look before we get out there at making sure we can either hike responsibly within the guidelines or not at all.



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Comments 2

  • John Folsom : Aug 4th

    My brother and I postponed our five day four night southbound section hike in PA that was originally scheduled for late April. We ended up doing it in the middle of July. While we had the best intentions, there were lapses. We intended to camp in the area of the shelters because of water access. One night T storms were predicted and the wind was howling as we arrived. We broke down and opted to risk the virus rather than risk falling branches. We met several north bound through hikers. One had gotten off the trail for two months due to virus concerns and was now trying to complete the hike. While I do admire those that called off their hikes and applaud their unselfish sacrifice, I couldn’t help but root on those that were either still on the trail or had gotten back on the trail and wish them well.


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