Hiking in the Age of Coronavirus: What to Consider
(Updated 2:41 p.m. ET, March 19) On March 11, Barney and Sandy Mann—aka Scout and Frodo—sent an email notifying hikers who had signed up for their hostel and shuttling service that they were postponing their season until at least April 1 due to the widening coronavirus epidemic.
With public-health officials warning that as many as half of all Americans could be infected before the pandemic subsides, the virus is all but certain to affect the 2020 class of thru-hikers, as well as hiking-related businesses.
“This is a very painful decision,” they wrote. “We know our closing from March 19 to March 31 will make it more difficult for many of you to get to the (Pacific Crest Trail) Southern Terminus and start your hike. … We will re-assess the COVID-19 (the illness caused by the virus) situation by March 24 and will make a decision about whether to open on April 1, to postpone for longer, or to cancel for this year.”
And in the fast-moving new reality of life in the time of the coronavirus, Scout and Frodo announced Monday, March 16, that they will not host thru-hikers this season.
Shortly after that announcement the Pacific Crest Trail Association asked PCT permit holders to seriously consider whether to go ahead with a thru-hike this year.
Who’s at Risk?
Fatalities from COVID-19 have disproportionately affected people over 60, with a death rate of nearly 15 percent among patients over 80 and 8 percent for those between 70 and 79, according to a study published Feb. 28 in the New England Journal of Medicine. For comparison, the death rate for those between 50 and 59 is 1.3 percent and 0.4 percent for people between 40 and 49.
In addition, those with cardiovascular disease account for 10.5 percent of deaths to date; people with diabetes, 7.3 percent; and those with chronic respiratory illness, 6.3 percent.
But that doesn’t mean the young and healthy are off the hook. According to a Centers for Disease Control survey of 508 patients known to have been hospitalized for COVID-19, released March 18, 9 percent were 85 or older, 26 percent were 65 to 84, 17 percent were 55 to 64 years, 18 percent were 45 to 54, and 20 percent were between 20 and 44. Less than 1% of hospitalizations were among people 19 or younger.
And while studies have undermined the persistent myth that strenuous exercise such as running a marathon temporarily depresses the immune system, that may not be the case for the kind of extended exertion regularly experienced by thru-hikers.
“One sign of (overtraining syndrome) is suppressed immune function, with an increased incidence of upper respiratory tract infection,” according to a study published in the journal Sports Medicine in 2012.
“Thru-hiking can affect your bodily functions, and not just your immune system,” says Lynne Savino, a Connecticut internal medicine specialist who has offered her expertise about hiker health on the podcast “Mighty Blue on the Appalachian Trail.” “As hikers we love to see how far we can push our body. Well, your body can push back.”
Many Appalachian Trail hikers have experienced contagion through norovirus, which is spread by poor hygiene, can be aerosolized by flushing toilets and can persist on hard surfaces for weeks, causing severe gastrointestinal illness.
Coronavirus is likewise highly contagious, with experts estimating that each infected person may be infecting two to five others. It is largely transmitted person-to-person, and, crucially, can be transmitted before symptoms are apparent.
“This virus really is serious,” says Heather “Brave” Sloan, a hiker and public-health educator who works voluntarily with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and is currently consulting with two AT hostels. “It’s possible that 50 percent of Americans, 150 million people, will get it, and 20 percent will need hospitalization.”
On the upside, unlike norovirus, coronavirus does not persist as long on hard surfaces — typically no more than three days — and can be reliably killed with hand sanitizer.
Hikers are notorious for the dirt beneath their fingernails—and just about everywhere else.
“We all get sloppy on trail,” Sloan says. “We revel in the dirt.”
Hikers should follow the advice of public-health officials to forestall coronavirus, washing hands thoroughly with soap as often as possible (and at least 200 yards from water sources) and using sanitizer when unable to wash. A bleach solution is effective against both noro- and coronavirus.
But in some ways, thru-hikers may be ahead of the public at large.
“We don’t shake hands. We’ve been doing the fist bump or elbow touch for years,” says physician Savino. “Even though we are dirty and grungy, the thought process on trail is that you’ve got to wash your hands before you eat, after you dig a cathole. We’re already doing what you’re supposed to do.”
In addition, being outside with plenty of room between you and the next person (six feet, per the Centers for Disease Control), isn’t the worst place you could be.
“Hiking is out in the open,” Savino says. “Honestly, it’s one of the safer things you can be doing right now.”
Protecting Trail Communities
Many trail towns are small and lack significant medical facilities, and hikers should be aware of their potential impact on the larger community.
“We’re not just thinking about folks hiking on the trail,” says Amanda Wheelock, policy and communications manager for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “We are also concerned about folks cleaning hotel rooms who probably don’t have health insurance, elderly people running businesses and places where the medical facilities may not be that great. If you get sick in South Fork (Colorado), not only are you going to have a harder time if you get sick, but you may affect others in the community.”
Here are a few ways in which 2020 hikers can expect to be impacted by the virus.
Access to Care
Once hikers have symptoms, they won’t be able to travel to self-quarantine in the comfort of their own homes, and few will want to suffer in a tent for two weeks.
The CDTC issued a notice Friday urging people to be fully prepared for self-quarantine:
“If you are planning to begin a long-distance hike or ride on the CDT in the next six weeks, you must be prepared—mentally and financially—to self-quarantine in a private hotel room for at least two weeks if you think you are exposed to the virus and/or begin to develop symptoms. … If you are unable to budget for the possibility of paying for a hotel room, food delivery, and medication for two weeks in the event that you are exposed to COVID-19, we urge you to consider postponing your CDT journey until the situation improves.”
If forced to self-quarantine in a motel, hikers should notify managers so cleaning staff don’t come in, and should have food delivered, rather than going to the store.
Hikers should always be mindful of having health insurance to cover potential illness or injury on the trail, but the situation is not always clear-cut. Many insurance plans offer less coverage or higher deductibles for medical services delivered in another state, for example, while most travel policies won’t cover you if you are fairly close to home, and the small print may contain other restrictions.
“One important thing to remember when choosing a health insurance plan: Make sure it covers the area where you’re hiking. Some hikers extend the geographic range of their coverage by piggybacking travel insurance on top of their regular insurance,” Hugh Owen wrote in a comprehensive 2019 Trek story about hiker insurance options.
Consider: Hiking another year if your budget can’t accommodate $800 to $1,000 for two weeks of self-quarantine in a motel.
The Trump administration on Wednesday, March 11, announced a 30-day travel ban from 26 European countries, throwing some hikers’ plans into turmoil. The ban was be extended to the United Kingdom and Ireland on Monday, March 16. And Canada announced that it would close its borders to all but Canadian and Americans residents starting Monday, March 16.
“It has been a pretty crappy and emotional day since I woke up to the news this morning,” says Sandra Visentin, who spent more than a year planning her AT thru-hike, quitting her job, and renting her apartment.
But 2020 hikers may be vexed by local transportation too, if shuttle services choose not to operate and members of the public are reluctant to pick up hitchhikers.
Consider: Preparing for more roadwalking than usual.
Shelters and Hostels
Shelters are a major part of the AT hiking experience, but with coronavirus lurking, they may be a no-go zone this year.
“Stay out of shelters,” Sloan says bluntly. Even asymptomatic people can breathe out thousands of virus particles with each breath and “people up to six feet away can pick it up. So, you really don’t want to be sleeping next to someone,” she says.
Hostels are another beloved feature of many thru-hikes. But given that they often put many hikers in close quarters such as bunk rooms, shared kitchens and bathrooms, and that COVID-19 can be transmitted by asymptomatic people, caution is warranted.
“I love hostels, and they are a safe place until someone is sick,” Sloan says. “This is the year hikers should probably have a backup plan and hostels should have some way to quarantine people.”
Hostels have begun to react to the outbreak. The Place, a church-based hostel in Damascus, Virginia, announced that it would close for two weeks, while Nature’s Inn Hostel in Tennessee has closed for the season. It’s likely that more will announce closures as the season continues.
Consider: Sleeping in a tent or tarp rather than shelters, and even on hostel property, if allowed. Staying at motels when in town, or taking neros to shop and do laundry, then hiking out.
Food and Resupply
Mountain House, manufacturer of freeze-dried meals often used by hikers, briefly shut down its website in late February after experiencing a thousandfold increase in orders from people stocking up on food. Other manufacturers have seen similar runs on their products.
“We’re not out of stock, but we have gone into a mode where we’re making sure that we prioritize our long-term customers,” Bruce Bechtel, director of marketing for Oregon Freeze Dry, told Outside magazine.
Many foods carried by thru-hikers because they are lightweight and easy to prepare—think instant mashed potatoes, ramen noodles, Knorr pasta sides—may be in high demand if the public becomes increasingly nervous.
“A lot of it is fear by consumers who feel like they need to prepare for coronavirus in their communities,” Josh Wark of Mountain House told KOIN news in Oregon.
It’s also conceivable that restaurants in areas of high infection could close.
Needless to say, hikers should not share or touch each other’s food.
Consider: Sending yourself boxes. Probably best to send to a U.S. post office rather than hostels and other businesses that may close temporarily.
The ATC has canceled its April 25-26 Flip Flop Festival and closed its headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to the public. The CDTC has canceled Trail Days, which had been scheduled for April 24-26 in Silver City, New Mexico, in response to the mayor’s shutting down large events in public spaces. The PCTA has canceled all in-person meetings and events until at least May 1.
Chances are, other scheduled events will be canceled this spring.
“I anticipate, sadly, that (AT) Trail Days will be canceled. I think the ATC made a great decision canceling the Flip Flop Festival,” Sloan says.
The social aspects of the trail simply may not be as salient as in a more typical year.
“That’s such a beautiful part of it,” Sloan says. “But if you are totally in it to be solo, get those miles in, commune with nature, this is your year!”
This year may be a good time to try an alternative itinerary to limit exposure to crowds.
“My advice to hikers is, start somewhere else, do a flip-flop, do an alternative hike. That will reduce their exposure to risk while still being able to hike,” Sloan says.
Consider: Becoming comfortable with a less-social thru-hiking experience.
Should You Hike?
Every hiker has to make that decision for him- or herself. The CDC has not recommended restrictions on domestic travel to date, and none of the major trail organizations has suggested hikers not hike this year.
“I don’t think the hiking community needs to curtail the vast majority of its activities,” Savino says. “Meeting in a restaurant, zero days, time in hostels, those might be some areas where you want to think twice. But putting one foot in front of the other, and keeping more than six feet away, that’s what we do anyway.”
The ATC posted statements and guidelines Friday evening, advising that hikers and volunteers follow CDC recommendations to avoid contracting COVID-19, including hand-washing, avoiding gathering in groups and keeping distance between hikers on trail.
“The health and wellbeing of the greater A.T. community is our top priority. As the situation continues, the ATC will provide frequent updates regarding events and guidelines for remaining safe and healthy on the A.T. and beyond,” said Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the ATC.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association announced Friday night that it was canceling “all in-person PCTA-related events” until May 1 and urging hikers and volunteers to follow CDC guidelines.
“We understand the pandemic is already causing significant impacts to the PCT — to hikers and equestrians, volunteers, partner organizations, towns along the trail, our members and donors and more,” Liz Bergeron, CEO and executive director of the PCTA, wrote in an email. “And we are confident that taking immediate action to help limit the spread of the virus is the right thing to do.”
If you do choose to go:
- Be flexible; consider an alternate itinerary to separate you from the bubble.
- Be prepared; have the resources and a plan to responsibly care for yourself if you become sick.
- Be cautious; don’t take a chance by sleeping in a crowded shelter or hostel.
- Be humble; don’t imagine you know more than public health experts.
- Be kind; don’t do anything that may endanger another hiker or person in the community.
- Be clean; wash your hands and keep your distance.
Lead image via Maggie Slepian
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