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.

scout and frodo pct

Barney and Sandy Mann, aka Scout and Frodo. Courtesy Barney and Sandy Mann, sandiegopct.com.

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.

And in yet another blow to thru-hikers, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy said Tuesday, March 17, that it was advising hikers to consider postponing their hike. Read The Trek story here.

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.”

Contagiousness

appalachian trail long pond maine clay bonnyman evans

Sunset over Long Pond, Maine. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

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.

Personal Hygiene

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Don’t sweat washing your feet, but with coronavirus lurking, wash your hands as often as possible. Colorado Trail. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

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

pinhoti trail flagg mountain clay bonnyman evans

Long miles, poor nutrition and lack of sleep can impact a hiker’s immune system. But hopefully not to the level of these characters on Flagg Mountain, Alabama. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

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.

Transportation

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.

Trail Community

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?

Image via Maggie Slepian

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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Comments 16

  • Avatar
    Dudley : Mar 14th

    Thanks for the excellent story… I’m still on the fence what to do! It’s particularly tough for a “non” American! 🙁

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Toby : Mar 15th

      ‘Non’ American here, and yes, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Cancelled my trek for now, but may try again either later this year or next year. We’ll see what happens. Gives me another 12months of training! Yay.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Jerami : Mar 15th

      My partner and I are out here now, on the AT, between mile 500-600 and are certainly glad we chose to hike off-season, despite the colder weather. We have only had to share shelter or hostel a half dozen times (of the 60 nights) we’ve been out here. As of today, It’s difficult to hitch a ride into town, but have still been able to resupply as needed. We aren’t in the loop as much as we probably should be but feel safer on trail than when we’re in town. We can find plenty of packaged food in places that the peppers haven’t thought about yet but who knows what is to come. With spring on the way, there are still other salient risks such as ticks and bears to worry about. My thought is that it’s best to bring a tent and be a little more anti-social, in addition to taking usual hygiene precautions, and line up a plan B that revolves around self-reliance, determine your bail out points and routes home that do not rely on public transport or waiting in public facilities.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Chill Bill : Mar 21st

        Please get off trail. This is bigger than just your hike.

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Michelle : Mar 14th

    Great article. You addressed a lot of my concerns. I’m on the fence, too, about my AT thru hike, 3/23.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Colin Steele : Mar 14th

    Helpful information. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    MISS TURTLE : Mar 14th

    May I just make this comment…. I know a lot of thru hikers carry hand sanitizer, which is excellent, but plain soap and water is much more effective against viral transmission. I would suggest carrying a small bottle of Dr Bronners or some other soap. It doesn’t take much and we almost always have water with us when hiking. I’ve taken this approach for years. I’ll have a tiny bottle of sanitizer for those rare moments, but I wash with soap and water most times.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Ejohn : Mar 14th

    This is a great article!!. Numbers will be way down this year, and that is not a bad thing at all. Alternative hikes is a great option. My wife and I are starting the Hayduke trail on Monday, 3/16. I expect we will see almost no one. Hopefully, Mother Sky will provide us water. 🙂

    Keep up the great work informing our community.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sarah Mowery : Mar 14th

    YES. Yes yes yes. Thank you for covering this and addressing so many fears and concerns going through our community right now. The Trek on top of the game as usual.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Juliana Gasparich : Mar 15th

    Thank you for the great article! I start the AT NOBO March 20th and this information is very helpful in preparing myself for changes due to COVID-19. I still plan to start as scheduled and I’m looking forward to getting away from all of the craziness!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeremy : Mar 15th

    Just wanted to point out that your first paragraph for who’s at risk is completely wrong. The numbers you quoted are for fatality rates not the percentages of total deaths. Statistical accuracy is important and theres enough misinformation about this virus going around already.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Clay Bonnyman Evans : Mar 15th

      Thank you for your careful eye, Jeremy, and my apologies for the error.

      It has been corrected to:

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    MG : Mar 17th

    As a health professional, I’d like to push back on the stats Sloan presented (where did they come from?) and the comment that hikers “breathe out virus particles”. This isn’t an airborne disease. We need to stop making the public think it is. We also need to let people know several ways you can strengthen your body’s immune system. Tons of supplements with evidence-based anti-viral properties. Exercise can build your immune system and strengthen your respiratory system.
    And I’d like to push back on the statement of rural communities not having adequate resources. My training was near the Roan Mtn. section of the trail. I’d trust my life with almost any of the healthcare professionals I used to work with up there. Rural but top notch care.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Clay Bonnyman Evans : Mar 18th

      Hi, MG. Thank you for taking time to comment.

      You’ll note that neither Sloan nor anyone else in the story, including me, the author, uses the word “airborne.” Technically, the coronavirus is not capable of “airborne” transmission,” you are correct.

      However, that face may lead some people to misunderstand what “airborne” means. Here’s what World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter in early March:

      While coronavirus is “not airborne,” it “spreads from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with #COVID19 coughs or exhales.”

      In other words, while the coronavirus cannot sustainably float or be carried by the wind like some viruses — smallpox, for example — it most certainly *can* be transmitted by tiny droplets of saliva expelled during breathing or coughing before gravity tugs them downward; that’s the reason for the recommended distance of six feet for “social distancing.”

      Regarding Sloan’s comment, “It’s possible that 50 percent of Americans, 150 million people, will get it, and 20 percent will need hospitalization.”:

      Estimates continue to vary, but widely cited Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch’s models indicate that as many as 40 to 70 percent of the world’s adult’s population will be infected (see “Coronavirus may infect up to 70% of world’s population, expert warns” at CBSNews.com).

      The New York Times reported March 13 that experts from the Centers of Disease Control and universities convened and determined that as many as “160 million to 214 million” Americans could be infected, or about 49 to 64 percent of the population. The percentage of Americans that will require population may be as high as 6.3 percent, while as many as 200,000 to 1.7 million could die, or up to 0.5 percent of the population (search Worst-Case Estimates for U.S. Coronavirus Deaths” at nytimes.com).

      Sloan’s estimate for hospitalizations appears to be too high, but the figures she cites regarding total infection rates are in line with experts’ projections.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      IP : Mar 19th

      But you are taking away care from the people who live there!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Kerstin LaCross : Mar 18th

    Thanks for this. I’m still wondering if my Oregon PCT Thru in August will be canceled or not. Keeping an eye on places like Shelter Cove and BLYC to see if they open for the season. If they decide to stay closed my hike won’t happen. Might be easier if I had a friend who could do resupply drops directly to me at road crossings, but alas.

    Reply

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