Our Toxic Conversations, Not Coronavirus, Will Destroy the Hiking Community

My husband isn’t a hiker, so I am always telling him about the hiking community. I share with him how friendly hikers are and how much they care for other people on the trail. After the coronavirus epidemic hit, I watched in shock as this beautiful community imploded. Instead of  helping and supporting each other when we needed it the most, the community tore itself apart.

When the coronavirus first hit the United States, the thru-hiking community was concerned. People, myself included, were wondering how this virus would affect their hike and questioning whether they should still go. The conversation was civil and supportive. Everything was so uncertain, but we were all in it together.

As the virus epidemic escalated in mid-March, the PCTA, CDTC, and ATC asked people to postpone their hikes. That’s when the community fractured. The vast majority of thru-hikers announced they were canceling their trek, but some vowed to continue no matter what. Things on Facebook, YouTube, and in the forums got ugly fast.

Those who postponed their hike shared their decisions publicly, citing concerns about spreading the virus, and obeying the requests of the associations that oversee the trails. Instead of support, those hikers doing the right thing were vilified by the “I’m hiking no matter what” group.

Those who still wanted to hike responded with a cavalier “I don’t care, I’m going to hike anyway” attitude. They were brazen about their intent to hike and boldly defended their reasons to hike even in the face of opposing statements from the Park Service, the ATC, and others.

Eventually, both the “staying at home” camp and the “I’m hiking” group got vicious with each other. Some of the “staying at home” camp resorted to finger-wagging, scorn, and name-calling when the “I’m hiking” group refused to give up their hiking ambitions. Conversations got heated. It wasn’t pretty.

Admins Respond by Closing Down Groups

Facebook group admins also were caught up in this discussion, and it was terrible for them. They tried to keep their groups civil, but it was impossible. Group moderators were overwhelmed with post removal requests, complaints, and even threats, especially from those who still wanted to hike. They were treated like traitors for siding with the “stay home” group.


Their only recourse was to close the group and send the message to everyone that they need to get off the trail and go home.  And this experience isn’t limited to thru-hiking forums, even my smaller, local hiking groups are removing all COVID-19 conversations and threatening to limit posts by allowing only approved posts to be published.

How to Repair This Brokenness

Hikers need to come together during this time and support each other. Those who chose to postpone their hike or leave the trail in mid-hike should share their stories. Be an example for others to follow. When on-trail hikers see high-profile people like Darwin cut his hike short or members of their tramily decide to leave, it will make it easier for them to make the same decision.

We need to help people get off the trail and support them when they do. I love what the ATC’s Sandra Marra said to The Trek in a recent interview.

We need to “really start celebrating those folks that have, in fact, made those sacrifices to get on the trail and then have made the further sacrifice to come back home. I think that’s a really important message. I feel like right now, a lot of people are just kind of focused on what people are doing wrong, and I think we really need to start celebrating that so many people are doing the right thing.”

Many trail angels and hostels, some of whom have shut down regular service, are offering rides and camping space so people can get off the trail and travel home. Recognize these folks and remember their names so you can thank them personally when we do get to thru-hike again. When the last remaining hikers finally realize the severity of the situation and come off the trail, put aside your previous differences and offer them thanks instead of “I told you so.”

Moving On

Lastly, we need to move on and put this toxicity behind us. Yes, some of the Class of 2020 groups have been shuttered, but the 2021 and 2022 groups are going strong. Join these groups, get back into the conversation, and be kind to one another.  We’re all in this together.

Those who are on the fence about thru-hiking right now, please postpone your hike. Not only are you going against the recommendations of the significant hiking associations, but in some places, you will be violating local orders to shelter in place. It will be next to impossible to complete a thru-hike under the current circumstances and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

If you refuse to stop thru-hiking, please don’t share your hike on Facebook groups and forum posts. You know it will cause a backlash and further split the hiking community. Just don’t do it.

Feature image via Maggie Slepian

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Comments 17

  • Bob Boberton : Mar 31st

    I think PCTA, CDTC and ATC should simply not list who completed a thruhike this year and share information between them on who tries to register a completion. For instance, if someone on the AT claims to have finished a thruhike this year then the PCT can deny them a permit in the future, because obviously you don’t want someone who doesn’t follow the rules to be on a the trail.

    Reply
  • Russ1663 : Mar 31st

    It is really sad to see the divide, it was not to be unexpected that some would rebel against the authority(s). It is in our nature to fight back. Lots of time and money are expended as you can attest. I stopped serious planning when the pestilence hit the west coast. It was coming and quickly. Currently going to local parks that are open and country roads. I hope it is settled down by fall, time will tell. It would appear the person’s age makes no difference. Good luck, paths may cross some day.

    Reply
  • John : Mar 31st

    I think you’re giving far too much import to the idea of a “community”. The thru-hiker community is nothing more than a group of diverse individuals that are, at the moment, involved in doing the same thing with a similar goal. A thru-hike is neither a team sport nor is it restricted to those of high moral character. All one needs is the time, resources, and inclination. Why would you expect to see anything other than the normal range of societal personality types among hikers? What you’re seeing is not a surprise.

    I think this situation was exacerbated by the indecisiveness and lack of leadership on the part of the trail administrators regarding recommendations. This was especially true of the ATC who waited, then said “well maybe consider postponing”, and then “don’t do it!”. As a group, they sat around watching to see what their counterparts would do instead of acting quickly and decisively. A part of this may have been due to the head-in-the-sand approach on a national level, but plenty of states were sounding the alarm and the data was out there. Personally, I’ll be doing no trail-angeling this season and will think again before renewing my ATC membership.

    Reply
  • Tammi aka Cray : Mar 31st

    Thank you for this.

    Reply
  • Vince : Mar 31st

    Good message but even you, yourself are taking a stand on what side you are supporting. I believe everyone is capable of making their own decisions and I completely understand both sides and don’t believe either is right or wrong. There are simply better and worse decisions based on each individual’s circumstance.

    Reply
    • JOHN : Apr 3rd

      Excellent answer Vince

      Reply
  • Jim : Apr 2nd

    I doubt very much that there is any real danger of “toxic conversations” destroying the hiking community. It might however, destroy the myth that the hiking community is all rainbows and unicorns, that there are never any real serious disagreements between hikers, and that somehow people in the hiking community don’t share the same human characteristics that other groups of people share. A lot of the disagreements that are voiced in the community are about purely personal issues and choices, such as what brand of pack you prefer, which water filter you use, which sleeping bag or quilt you use, etc. When there are disagreements over these types of issues, people can easily agree to disagree, even support and affirm someone else’s choice. On those kinds of issues, HYOH is appropriate. However, when dealing with an issue like responding to COVID-19 pandemic, we’re dealing with an entirely different type of issue, one that most people see as having important ethical and moral implications. It’s ridiculous to expect that people who strongly disagree with hikers choosing to ignore the calls of trail associations to get off, etc. are going to be able to be “affirmative” and “supportive” of those who choose to continue hiking, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean people have to get nasty about it, but these are serious ethical disagreements that can’t end with the expected “rainbows and unicorns” handling that we give to gear disagreements. If people having to deal with real ethical issues “destroys the hiking community” then there, wasn’t much holding it together except an unrealistic and idealistic group of myths. I have no doubt that the hiking community will weather this storm, and hopefully come out stronger and more realistic at the back end.

    Reply
    • Dane Ward (Tagless 2009) : Apr 4th

      Well said Jim. I totally agree!

      Reply
  • Mike : Apr 2nd

    If your goal is to unify a community I don’t see how you do that by lecturing dissenters about doing “the right thing”. I don’t frequent the forums but from your excerpts it looks like some condescending, and holier-than-thou attitudes got the predictable backlash from a very independent-minded community. Understanding, empathy, and commiseration would get them further.

    Reply
  • Paul Schulke : Apr 3rd

    I, for one, have no problem with “toxic conversation”. The community is already “thinking toxically” so why not share those thoughts? (too many snowflakes?) A thru-hiker can meet the physical challenges but shrinks at “hurt feelings”?

    Reply
  • Robert Duddy : Apr 3rd

    I agree with you entirely in regards to the toxicity being a problem. Unfortunately your article seems to point blame at one side “the Im still going to hike crowd” first and to a larger extent before conceding it was reciprocated eventually by the “stay at home crowd” in response. A clear bias that perpetuates the problem you identify.

    Reply
    • Robert Duddy : Apr 3rd

      To be clear, I do not mean your article perpetuates the toxicity but the above stated bias in regards to who got toxic first perpetuates a sense of division.

      Reply
  • Paul Bartholomew : Apr 4th

    I forget who said it (Winston Churchill?) That Americans are at their strongest when their backs are against the wall. Our backs are certainly up against the wall with our divided society dealing with a pandemic and a crashing economy. Divided we are weak. I love our diversity even with the problems it can inevitably bring. I don’t know the answer, but we are much more informed about each other’s context if we take a breath and listen to each other, and try to empathize. I pray everyone stays healthy and continues to enjoy.

    Reply
  • FM : Apr 4th

    Southbound hikes aren’t off the table yet. Keep you chin up.

    Maybe sheltering at home for the moment really is the best idea for right now, at least according to the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, our friend and US ally: https://twitter.com/nayibbukele/status/1241945995400949762

    fist bump! ; )

    Reply
  • Warner Springs Monty : Apr 5th

    I AM WAITING TO HIKE…WAITING…WAITING
    BUT… The HIKING Family is divided and the hiker groups have been crippled.They have become non functional. useless! A few have hurt the many!
    The hiker family needs reassurance we are still part of a greater purpose and a greater focus.
    What appears on Facebook for the little we see being they are voluntary input Facebook Hiker Pages are actually a minute sample of lesser functional Hatfield’s vs McCoys fueds in a bigger community where most know little about their personal angry only-two-sides controversy. THERE ARE MORE NEEDS THAN THEIR TINY SCOPE!. The Hatfield McCoy logical fallacy is brought to life by those few. It divides us. Very sad how the human mind is so dichotomous and not multi dymentional and multi functional. Please seek broader minds.
    Because of these few, I find the situation HEART WRENCHING as so many others are affected and buying into their division. The division has evil result.. This hurts me as it hurts the loving bonds of the hiker community. THIS IS MY FAVORITE COMMUNITY I have ever experienced with more love, giving, paying forward, and giving back than any of many other communities I have been part of including some incredible open minded real practicing values churches, unbelievable non profits helping homeless, alcohol and other drug addicts, our local food for needy programs, but maybe with the exception of the Volunteer Musicians League, as small local group that did free music and sing alongside for developmentally disabled communities and functions. That was small compared to the international hiking community. We were only 20 of us at most. Many of us still in contact 30 years later, like hikers.
    In the National Geographic’s PCT documentary on the Pacific Crest Trail I said, “Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is not so much about the hike, but about People, and People Helping People. You know the way you wish the world was? That’s the way it is on the Pacific Crest Trail. People helping people.” That is my passion. This Trail is my passion.
    I live beside the Pacific Crest Trail very near what I described as “The Busiest Little Hiker Town” on the Pacific Crest Trail, Warner Springs, in a PCT Communicator article of 2005. Many years I have lived ON the trail half the year because of exact same hiker community. I love anything where people are helping people. I believe THAT is the purpose of life. People helping people or, as Einstein said “to serve my fellow man”. It hurts me to my core to see this division that actually brings lack of purpose and lack of functionality to that primary purpose for my family, hikers, trail angels, supporting businesses and townspeople, and the many others who also supported our life changing thru and section hiking events.
    When the PCTA’s mentor program was altered to a Class of Facebook page I was elated when they notified me it was over and they put me on that class page. We can help more hikers! As the number of hiker increased by 50% each year, every year steadily we were still able to tell them them importance of the right shoe, which pre 2000 had knocked 50% of hikers off the trail by extreme blister and other foot problems according to our local Post Master who has now served hikers for almost 40 years. She handles every single resupply box and talks to more PCT hikers leaving the trail than anyone at this point. We have a good thing…. No we have a great purpose in the Class Pages here. That 50% leaving became 10%. A lot of life changing events were saved by, not the previous 3 mentors, but THE HIKING COMMUNITY as a whole. One question from the least experienced hiker could help 100 to rethink strategies.
    I must give credit to others who, pre Facebook, brought about these loving changes of People Helping People, The PCT-L email group, Bear and Ziggy who had long been trail angels in Anza, where the 4.6 or 4.9 Earthquake just happened, and Donna and Jeff Saufley and their Hiker Heaven, where I had to recover from injury for many days. Their surprising selfless dedication to helping hiker made a huge impression on me. I wanted to be like them. Few people ever attain that level of selflessness and humility. There are many reasons we are a unique loving family.
    Few ever attain that Spiritual Height by example they taught us. Hiking the trail IS a life changing event. Hiking the PCT will mess you up for life…. in a very good way.
    Another group that brought us all together at mile 20 with People Helping People were a group of trail angels including a unique Yosemite water quality biologist who provide the greatest trail action I still have not seen anywhere. 30 hikers including a few from the PCT Class off 1977, the PCT Kickoff, that had grew from a campfire offering support to hikers that made it that first 20 miles, into information, seminars, cottage industry of lightweight thru hiker gear not yet available of gear made by past thru hikers, and a full belly of food thru hikers were NOT allowed to pay for ANYTHING. The PCT Kick Off.
    My mentor, through the PCTA, Strider (Sadly RIP) and a past hiker couple who lightened me up highly suggested I be there,at the Kick Off. They centered in 2004 with ASABAT’s (he died on the PCT doing what he loved most) Water Talk to safely get us through the first often waterless 700 miles. That event grew to when we had hikers as the volunteers preparing 3200+ meals together, bonding into the hiker family and the idea of people helping people at the first 20 miles into People Helping People and some becoming life long friends.
    I am not a tolerant person by nature, I often need time outs to rediscover spiritual principles, but learned lessons in tolerance as we had a common focus, a common cause and actually a mission statement for what became a 50C3 non profit organization with a mission statement putting helping hikers as our goal. To help the hiker. People Helping People. Although there are no longer scheduled KickOffs they are still a tight group of people and sometime anonymously help hikers. This year, to blow their anonymity, gave individually and as a group over $1300 to keep the PCT Bandanas Yogi arranges free to every 2020 thru hiker. Dammit, I want one!

    Talk about hiker love bigger than I expected, I was asked to go to the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association to help with a lightweight seminar by Carl Rush in that he used my gear list the previous year. I said I would feel out of place. I was not an AT hiker. I went and was welcomed with the warmest hospitality AND at least 50 PCT hiker friends were there. I fell in love the people, their organization’s way of helping hiker and everyone I met. I have attended a few times since. Also to give hiking the PCT knowledge.WE Are a loving Community! WE ARE HIKERS!
    I loved the hikers and all the hiker love they actively bring about there. They taught me WE ARE A FAMILY simply for being hikers. I highly suggest hikers dreaming about an AT thru hike attend for not just How to Hike the AT seminars, previously given by the legendary Baltimore Jack (RIP), but also for the extreme loving support.

    We are a family bigger than the division we see on Facebook groups. There are divisions, not among us, but among a few people. Two people who fight on Facebook groups. Two people in controversy who make the rest of us think we are divided. We are not divided. Only the two people who bring their opinions to the Facebook groups we all depend on for a flow of information. The Facebook groups we have always depended on for HELPING HIKERS. Those people get loud, disruptive, angry, and have OPINIONS. Those few people have cluttered with hate, anger, and persistence shut down the functionality of almost all the hiker groups where we communicate to Help the Hiker of Today, Tomorrow, and Next year.

    They are obvious for their angry or persistent posts and remarks. They are obvious for NOT HIKING THEIR OWN HIKE of which many are not even thinking about hiking any year. They are obvious for over imposing their values on others. Spiritual trespassers.

    Sadly they have crippled Facebook hiking groups for functionality, and for the love of People Helping People, Hikers Helping Hikers. I left Three so far sponsored by the PCTA for which organization I am a lifetime appreciative member. They are my personal heroes for many reasons.

    While these few fight and make the groups entirely non functional for the rest of us with this common purpose, they have shut our purpose down. That purpose is to help the future hiker.

    By future I mean a year or more down the line, and very much also, selfishly for me and those of us NEEDING information on WHEN it is safe to hike again! We are hoping, we are dreaming, WE ARE WAITING! Waiting, watching and waiting. We are the biggest group of hikers DEPENDING on these pages.Possibly a couple thousand.
    In 16,000+ miles on the PCT I still cannot tell you how to plan without these groups to my best ability, let alone plan my own hike without a flow of information. Planning is still a multi month process for me. We need free lines of communication. The covid yes and covid no angry and especially persistent have made our communications NO FUN to impossible, and our questions and responses to questions are held back in FEAR.

    Personally, which is the lightest truth of selfish, but still selfish, I have just turned 65. I have planned a 65 do-the-PCT again hike for years. I also have lots of darkness in my life I know a thru hike will bring me back to having FAITH in my fellow man, especially those of integrity and well wishes for their fellow man. I am WAITING TO HIKE for a needed life change.
    They are PUSHING US OUT, coercing us to leave groups, and some hiker groups where we bond, shutting us down. Most of us are NOT HIKING TODAY! But want to hike when it is safe.
    We re a family.Bigger than the division we see on Facebook groups. There are divisions, not among us, but by a few people. Two people who fight on Facebook groups. Two people in controversy who make the rest of us thing we are divided. One person persistent pushing a view. We are not divided. Only the person who brings an agenda to Facebook groups we all depend on for a flow of information. The groups we have always depended on for HELPING HIKERS. Those people get loud, disruptive, angry, and have OPINIONS. Those few people have shut down the functionality of almost all the hiker groups where we communicate to Help the Hiker of Today, Tomorrow, and Next year and following years.

    Those who simply post facts like printed Forest Service Policy, printed agency information, are helpful, as long as they don’t skew it to screw us with a one sided personal agenda bringing the controversy that makes groups non functional…. too late.

    Sadly the persistent have crippled Facebook hiking groups for functionality, and for the love of People Helping People, Hikers Helping Hikers. They have crippled and shut down groups helping future Hikers.

    By future I mean a year or more down the line, and very much also, selfishly for me and those of us NEEDING information on WHEN it is safe to hike. We are hoping, we are dreaming, WE ARE WAITING! We are the biggest group of hikers DEPENDING on these pages. In 16,000+ miles on the PCT I cannot tell you how to plan. Planning is still an multi month process for me. We need free lines of communication. The covid yes and covid no angry and especially persistent have made our communications NO FUN to impossible, and our responses to questions hold back in FEAR.

    Personally, which the lightest truth of selfish, I have just turned 65. I have planned a 65 do it again hike for years. I also have lots of darkness in my life I know a thru hike and my maker will bring me back to having FAITH in my fellow man especially those of integrity and well wishes for their fellow man benefits of those Facebook Pages.
    I sit, over three weeks quarantined with 500 meals, 750 snacks, and the rest of the couple thousand dollar investment WAITING, WAITING, seeking info and waiting. Also hurting, I passed on my position that helped musical aspiring artists with stage fright helping them to perform to an audience.
    Us WAITING TO HIKE ARE THE BIGGEST GROUP AND THE MOST AFFECTED BY THE OPINIONS, SIDE TAKERS, ANGRY, AND ANGRY BACK BECAUSE THEY ARE ATTACKED FOR HIKING.
    We are the WAITING HIKERS, the biggest group.
    The controversy divides have made our hiking pages NON FUNCTIONAL. They are few, but loud. They hurt us all in that they divide the greatest, most loving, helpful community I have ever known.
    Concluding, a dear friend of many years, famous for his hiking has many times said to new hikers to bring them as equals into our hiking family when try to place him on a pedestal, “I am a hiker. We are all the same.”- Billy Goat

    We are a family.Bigger than the division we see on Facebook groups and the recent lack of them. There are divisions, not among us, but by a few people. Two people who fight on Facebook groups. Two people in controversy who make the rest of us think we are divided. We are not divided. Only the two people who bring their opinions to the Facebook groups we all depend on for a flow of information. The groups we have always depended on for HELPING HIKERS. Those people get loud, disruptive, angry, and have OPINIONS. Those few people have shut down the functionality of almost all the hiker groups where we communicate to Help th Hiker of Today, Tomorrow, and Next year.

    They are obvious for their angry remarks. They are obvious for NOT HIKING THEIR OWN HIKE of which many are not even thinking about hiking any year, they are obvious for imposing their values on others.

    Sadly they have crippled Facebook hiking groups for functionality, and for the love of People Helping People, Hikers Helping Hikers. I left 3 so far sponsored by the PCTA for which I am a lifetime appreciative member.

    While these few fight and make the groups entirely non functional for the rest of us with this common purpose, they have shut our purpose down, to help the future hiker.

    By future I mean a year or more down the line, and very much also, selfishly for me and those of us NEEDING information on WHEN it is safe to hike. We are hoping, we are dreaming,
    So if we are divided, who divides us? If we are united, what keeps us united?
    Where can we be united where other’s fear divide us? They divide us and know not what they do.
    On Facebook concerning PCT hikes the few have shut our purpose down no matter when we want to hike. The few have divided us.

    Reply
    • Melinda Gagnon : Apr 6th

      Hi. Thank you for writing this. All year long , I wait to do a section hike. Trying to finish pieces. I have left 2 Facebook groups because of the vitriolic discussions.

      Reply
  • Chopstix : Apr 5th

    I left Erwin and the world was fine (hadn’t seen the news in nearly a week at that point about March 8th.)

    Went to gcf at miles 368 and still everything was normal. Caught a few minutes of news and it raised no alarm bells. Left there actually with one of the hostel opperaters (Gadget), everything was still normal for that slackpack.
    After crossing 19E we (me and another hiker) didn’t have signal. We hiked slow, took a zero and 2 neros in the woods. First sign that something wasn’t right was when we arrived at Bob people’s place witch was empty and partially locked up. We ended that day at boots off and oh wow the amount of hate we got for still being on trail was insane. The guy that joined us for the slackpack was publicly flaming us online. Photos I posted in the 2020 group were removed and I had to start blocking people.

    This was before we had a chance to look at the data. The stay at home side was as toxic as anything I’ve seen online or off to those on the trail at that point March 18thish

    We stayed at boots off (great place mile 428) for a few days gathering information and eventually did decide not to continue but in the few days this took we were attacked by the entire stay at home camp.

    I personally didn’t have a good option. I rent my home out each year so I can come out and hike. Was I supposed to go kick them out of their home? Go stay with aging family members after 2 days on flights and busses to get there? These were not are still are not good options. The guy hiking with me at this point had just moved back to the States after living abroad for 12 years, he had no home. His family was high risk like mine.

    Eventually we loaned a car and got to a place where we could hold up in an apartment for 2 weeks while we each made our plans.

    I probably blocked 300 members of “our hiking community” in a 5 day timespan. I had to contact gutthooks to have Gadgets comments removed.

    I’ll always come back to the trail but the trail community (mostly talking about the 2020 fb group and some of its nastier members will never be my community.

    Thanks to those hostels that stayed atleast partially open for us and to the trail angels that were helping folks get off trail.

    Cheers, here’s to lost friends abandoned plans.

    Also I still know of 2 folks on trail with literally no where in the world to go. They quit using FB when the 2020 group turned toxic. Now to avoid the hate they go without up to date info or the support of the trail community. They may go to a post office once a week to get food but they see less people sense the start of this then I seen in a 20 minute trip across the airport or grocery shopping.

    Reply

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