International Thru-Hikers Scrambling to Keep Their Dreams Alive Amid COVID-19 Travel Bans

(Updated 7 a.m. MT, April 11) Sandra Visentin spent more than a year planning her Appalachian Trail thru-hike. She quit her job as corporate communications coordinator at Disneyland Paris in December, rented out her apartment, and moved in with her parents.

On Thursday, March 12, she woke up to learn that all flights from France to the United States were banned for 30 days because of the spreading COVID-19.

“It has been a pretty crappy and emotional day since I woke up to the news this morning,” Sandra said.

After President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel to the US from 26 European countries hikers began scrambling to make their long-distance hikes in the US still work. The ban has been extended to other countries since then.


Disruption on Trail

Fallout from COVID-19 is rippling across the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails.

But perhaps the biggest blows were messages the week of March 15 from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition asking thru-hikers to either get off trail or not start their hikes.

Nonessential travel in much of the US has been banned, and the annual Trail Days festival in Damascus, Virginia, has been canceled.

The  annual Flip Flop Festival also has been canceled. The sixth annual festival was to be April 25-26 in Harpers Ferry this year.

National parks, state parks, and shelters have been closed on the PCT and AT.

Trying to Make Their Hikes Work

International hikers affected by the travel ban face an additional challenge because of the Pacific Crest Trail’s permit system. Permits are issued for certain dates, and hikers are encouraged to start on that date.

Marijn Keuken of the Netherlands was left wondering how she will do her PCT thru-hike after travel from Europe to the US was banned for 30 days.

Marijn Keuken of the Netherlands has a PCT permit that falls inside the ban.

She has been dreaming about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for six years, and has been actively planning for a year and a half. She turned down opportunities to advance in her career so she could hike. And now she’s scrambling to make her PCT trek happen.

Her permit is for April 10, within the 30-day flight ban. She was scheduled to fly to Portland, Oregon, on April 2 to prepare some resupply boxes. Both those dates are off the table unless the travel ban is altered.

“If the ban ends after 30 days I would still be able to do a NOBO thru, just start a little later,” she says. “I am sure I can work something out with other hikers with the permit date. If the ban gets extended (that’s what I expect to happen), then it would be more difficult to still go NOBO. If that’s the case, I will definitely consider hiking SOBO this year.”

Sandra also considered how to hike within the confines of the travel ban.

“My flight was scheduled next Friday, March 20, but I’m not giving up just yet,” she says. “I am still debating between either leaving Paris next Friday as initially planned and spend two weeks in Canada or South America and then fly from there to the US after being cleared (need to be out of Europe for 14 days) or wait until the end of the ban and fly straight from France to the US.”

“In both cases I have to delay my departure and hope I can make it to Katahdin before it closes mid-October, or do a flip-flop.”

Sandra’s preparations for her trip haven’t been easy.

She quit her volleyball team and club, packed her belonging in boxes, and rented out her apartment in January.

“Since then I have been living at my parents’ place across town to save a few months of mortgage and be financially free of charges when I’ll be on the AT,” she says.

“I tried twice to get the B2 Visa after being rejected the first time, spent so much money getting all the ultralight gear, bought my nonrefundable plane ticket to Charlotte, NC. And found awesome friends to take care of my dog for six months.”

Like Marijn, she isn’t certain the ban will last only 30 days.

“The US could either extend the ban for Europe or to other countries so I’m not sure what’s my best move just yet,” Sandra says.

But she isn’t giving up on her hike.

“I’ll come and hike the AT; there’s no walking back. Looking on the bright side, I don’t have a job waiting for me so I can extend my travel.”

In the end, Marijn decided it was not possible to do a thru-hike this year.

“I won’t be thru-hiking this year,” she wrote on her Trek blog. “However, I am definitely attempting again in 2021. The trail will always be there and so is my dream. I’m not giving up on my desire to hike the PCT. I will take this year to grow as a nurse and mentally prepare for next year.”

“I feel sad, but also more determined than ever,” she says. “Right now I might be storing away my gear, but I know that I will bring it out again. I am already looking forward to the day I will be using my gear on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Feature image courtesy Sandra Visentin.

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Comments 11

  • Rocket : Mar 13th

    The PCTA will simply not switch your permit because of the travel ban. They still have a delicate trail to tend to. Unfortunately they cannot be standing at the terminus checking permits but if you are not where you’re supposed to be they can revoke your permit making you have to obtain all secondary permits yourself making it harder to do. I hope you’re able to travel before your start date and not jeopardize everyone else that has and will be using their permits appropriately. Remember that we cannot be selfish in times of despair. Remember that the trail is going no where and we must do what is right even if it isn’t fair. The PCT is why we are out there. If plans cannot be changed remember to respect the system that is in place to protect the very thing we are there for. Rocket.

    • northof61pct : Mar 15th

      One of the first time someone else pointed out a PCT permit is NOT required to hike on the trail.
      ” making you have to obtain all secondary permits yourself ”
      Thank you for helping let people know the is lying to hikers telling them they MUST have a permit.

  • Cait : Mar 14th

    I feel you – my partner and I are due to start our NOBO hike on the AT on April 13. Flying from the UK but via Iceland – the ban has impacted us and it looks like the UK may even be added to the flight list. Flighr costs have skyrocketed. We quit our jobs, have only a few weeks left in our house until we need to move and have been training – absolutely gutted. I’m a masters student in infectious diseases so understand the need for containment and bans on travel but we are just so bummed. Havent cancelled yet but we’re thinking to come out and section hike a month or so in June and maybe save the full thing for another year. Stay safe everyone! Much love from Liverpool.

    • northof61pct : Mar 15th

      I get it is a hardship for you both, but you guys planned a 6 month journey. You both quit your jobs and moved. Now you are crying about an event out of your control, boo hoo. You could have broke your leg on the trail. Would still cry about no job or place to live? Give me a break with your tears.

      • Cait : Mar 16th

        Lovely attitude mate!

  • Toby : Mar 14th

    I’m another Brit in the same boat. Was booked to fly to USA from London on 26th March, but the flight ban came in this afternoon and scuppered that plan. Don’t think I’ll get the money back either. Just like Cait above, I’m absolutely gutted. I might be able to book another flight to leave in the next 36hrs, but I don’t really don’t want to pay $1000 for a ticket. I really don’t know what to do. Gutted gutted gutted.

    • northof61pct : Mar 15th

      Gutted gutted gutted…say what? A thousand dollars gutted you? Dude you need to build an emergency fund or get back out on the street and fix up your tent. I call BS on you story.

      • Toby : Mar 15th

        Thank you for your compassion and understanding.

        • Cait : Mar 16th

          I don’t think they know what ‘gutted’ means! Toby we are going to start a few weeks later and just section hike a part this year. Hope to catch you on the trail and be safe x

          • Toby : Mar 16th

            Hey Cait, Good luck as and when you finally get out there. With all the closures and disruptions mentioned so far along the AT (and PCT) – what will happen to Trail Days? – I think I’d prefer to wait until next year and take in the whole AT experience in one go. That was the plan for this year, so now it’s the plan for next year. Happy hiking.

      • Bekindorstfu : Mar 15th

        Nasty little troll


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