Should I Stay or Should I Go? Thru-Hiking During a Pandemic

Disclaimer: I am not a health care professional. All opinions expressed in this post are my own. I highly encourage readers to do their own research on the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world has entered into an unprecedented global crisis. As a result, it is my opinion that this pandemic calls for all of us to consider unprecedented sacrifices for the safety of the world at large.

Over the past few days, I have been obsessively contemplating postponing my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many of you may believe that to consider such a drastic measure is an overreaction. In fact, many of the people on the various thru-hiking forums and Facebook groups I’m a part of would agree with you.

I understand and anticipate the backlash this post might get, but just like when I made the choice to commit to this thru-hike, I have to follow my instincts. I cannot for the life of me quell the gut feeling that I have a moral responsibility to weigh every possible impact my decision to embark on this journey might have on myself and those around me.

The Facts

As I mentioned in the disclaimer, I am not an expert. You should not take anything written in this post as professional advice. Rather than reiterating the facts and figures myself, here are some helpful and informative resources that I’ve used to get educated these past few days:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, Coronavirus Guidelines for America (via White House), CNN’s Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction podcast, CNN Live Coronavirus Updates, Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s COVID-19 Plan.

A Moral Duty

I believe we all have a moral duty to look after each other through this global crisis. If I were to continue my pursuit of this thru-hike, it would be for selfish reasons. In my head, I keep telling myself that I’ve spent too much time, energy, and money preparing for this journey to abandon it. For over a year, I planned my life around the idea that I would be spending half of 2020 out in the woods. I changed my school schedule because of it, I got a second job because of it, and I overcame countless anxiety attacks because of it. How can I throw all of that away?

The simple answer is this: for me, there is no other responsible option.

Risk Vs. Reward

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas.

Not many would deny that the middle of the woods might be a relatively safe place to be during this pandemic. I don’t dispute that. Hiking in the great outdoors, away from big groups of people, sounds like a really good idea. But the logistics of a long-distance, cross-country trek are what have me worried.

I am scheduled to fly into Atlanta later this week. I will be coming into contact with hundreds if not thousands of people in the airports, on the plane, and on the public transport and shuttle I plan on taking to get me to Amicalola Falls. The chances of my contracting the virus amid those throngs of people are impossible for me to deny.

Now, I’m a relatively healthy 21-year-old guy. I don’t anticipate exhibiting any life-threatening symptoms as a result of this possible contraction. It is extremely likely I could contract the virus and not even realize it. But others aren’t so lucky. Although my life might not be at risk if I catch this disease, I could pass it along to those who are more vulnerable.

This puts my fellow hikers at risk. It also puts every person I come into contact with during my resupplies in town at risk. The potential of spreading this virus to these small communities, and the possibility of exhausting their resources should I be forced to self-quarantine in one of them, is not a risk I’m willing to take.

My Verdict

The time has come to put the needs and safety of others above my personal dreams and desires. As difficult as it is, I am postponing my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail until further notice. There is still a possibility I will head out to the trail in a few weeks, but I’d rather act with extreme caution than with unnecessary risk.

Let me end this by imploring any of you who don’t understand my concerns to take some time to contemplate my perspective. I am not making this decision out of fear, panic, or as the result of misinformation.

I am making this decision due to a genuine, necessary concern for the health and safety of other hikers, trail angels, and citizens of the various towns along the trail. It would never sit right with me if I prioritized my personal goals over the well-being of others in a time of crisis. The Appalachian Trail will still be there in the years to come. And I will be more than ready to meet it when the time is right.

Lake Champlain, Vermont.

From My Ears to Yours

I know this is an overwhelming time for all of us. We will get through this together. That is the only way forward.

If you only listen to one song today, let it be this classic.

 

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Comments 13

  • Gardner : Mar 17th

    I think your logic is correct. I think the risk of contracting the virus traveling in crowded airports and planes is real as is the risk of transmitting it to fellow hikers, trail angels and townspeople. At 21 you will get over an infection but older hikers may not be so resilient and will be far from help. A tough decision and I look forward to hearing from you later when you hit the trail

    Reply
    • OutHiking : Mar 18th

      Other than being safe out in the woods, the economic impact to the communities that might otherwise benefit from thru hikers is justifying those going.

      Safety should be prioritized. Not to mention a big part of any they hiking journey is about being with the community and having fun on and off trail.

      It ruins the fun of the hike, knowing other thru hikers have made the gut wrenching decision of not going in order to prioritize safety for everyone else. It’s like coughing in there face.

      I wouldn’t want to be that person, or ever risk the consequences of being someone who transmitted it unknowingly because I was too arrogant.

      Reply
      • TJ : Mar 20th

        The economic consequences of a thru-hike right now can’t be overstated, I completely agree. You also make an interesting point about the people who are still out there; I wonder how it changes the dynamic of the trail for them knowing how many people have canceled because of the virus. Thanks for the comment!

        Reply
    • TJ : Mar 20th

      Exactly my reasoning. It’s a tough but necessary decision. Risking the health of older and more vulnerable hikers feels counterintuitive to the nature of the thru-hiking community.

      Reply
  • Bill Markunas : Mar 18th

    You are the most nature muthrdckin 21yr old I’ve met. Godspeed & I will b trailangel/but & trail maintainer whatever year u come thru. Godspeed. mm905 Rana

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 20th

      That’s an honor, I do the best that I can! Looking forward to seeing you out on the trail in better times. Peace.

      Reply
  • Jacqueline : Mar 18th

    We are in the same predicament except we were planning to drive from Houston to Amicalola on the first week on April. It’s been weighing heavily on our minds on whether we should postpone especially since we have been preparing and looking forward to hiking the AT for so long. I feel your pain, my friend.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 20th

      We’ll get through this together. Before I committed to canceling my trek, I contemplated driving to the trail instead of flying in order to mitigate the risk of me catching the virus. It’s a tough call to pull the plug, especially if you’ve been dreaming/planning for so long. I, for one, will be glad when this is all in the past.

      Reply
  • Jill : Mar 19th

    I think you are doing the right thing. Sorry to hear you are getting such backlash for being a considerate and empathetic person. Hope more people realize how serious this is. Hope you are able to go on your thru hike in the future and a real shame with timing of it all. Can’t imagine what you are going through after changing your life for this.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 20th

      Thank you for the support. I think the reason a lot of people are still hesitant to postpone their hikes is precisely because of how much you have to change your life in order to make a trip like this possible. It’s pretty heartbreaking to make all those sacrifices for it not to pay off. But the way I see it, that’s life. The trail still calls, and I’ll get out there when the time is right.

      Reply
  • David : Mar 19th

    If you’re not safe on the trail from the virus, you’re not safe anywhere. If you’ve made a decision because you feel like it’s correct for you, so be it. Don’t give in to pressure from others.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 20th

      Yeah, that’s the thing, wherever there’s people, there’s a risk. I know I’ve made the right decision, and for now I’m content with that. Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  • Ed : Apr 3rd

    If everyone worldwide was as considerate and responsible as you, thousands of lives could be spared. So just go to bed every night knowing you may have saved lives, and you are a hero.

    Reply

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