Is It Right to Start Your Thru-Hike During the Coronavirus Outbreak?

In the grand scheme of people, events, and industries impacted by the coronavirus, a thru-hike falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a huge commitment and has a major impact on your life, but no matter which way you spin it, you can’t say it’s necessary.

Forgetting logistics like a potential domestic travel ban, and the reality of more on-trail amenities closing every day, is sticking with your 2020 thru-hiking plans the morally correct thing to do?

In the abstract, thru-hiking seems like a low-impact action. You’re walking through the woods, not standing elbow-to-elbow at a bar or jumping on an international flight. But if you break it down, the travel involved to reach the trailhead, and that clusters of hikers from across the country will be migrating between trail towns makes the impact seem a lot higher.

As both the Managing Editor for this site and someone who is supposed to start a thru-hike in six weeks, I don’t know if we should be encouraging people to start their hikes right now.

Young, healthy people make up the vast majority of the thru-hiking population. An unknown number of us might have been exposed to the virus and could be asymptomatic carriers. Small towns along the AT, CDT, and PCT can effectively self-quarantine if they have to, but hikers from around the country who have passed through locations with higher instances of COVID-19 will be heightening the spread.

The CDC is currently recommending the cancellation of gatherings of 50 or more people, and to avoid all nonessential travel. Hostels and restaurants along the AT and PCT have shuttered. REI has closed stores, making the hub of shipments and replacement gear defunct. As more trail-related businesses shut down, it’ll get more difficult to resupply. If you do decide to start your hike, the logistics are going to be much more challenging. We’ve only begun to see the impact and volume of closures—once it starts, it moves in a wave. The PCTA sent a notice to permit holders asking them to consider the impact of their hikes.

I’m well aware of how much time and effort goes into planning a thru-hike—my PCT hike is supposed to start on April 29. I’ve been thinking about the PCT for three years, actively planning for a year, and have all of my logistics in place. My flights are booked, my Montana health insurance is terminating at the end of April, and I have all house / pet care arranged from May through September. But I don’t know what circumstances will look like in six days, forget six weeks. Things have been changing rapidly, and everything from terminus travel to resupply availability is impossible to predict.

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I feel you, 2020 thru-hikers. For a lot of you, this has been a lifelong dream. Deciding to cancel or postpone your hike isn’t like changing a vacation—getting everything in order for a six-month thru-hike is a huge deal, and it’s not a guarantee that you’ll get to reschedule for next year. I was trying to make myself feel better by thinking I’ll just do it next year, but it’s not that simple. I own a house, I have a pet. I’m in a financially good spot to hike this year, but the impact of this global pandemic will be felt for years to come, and my field is not recession proof. I don’t know what my finances will look like next year, or if a thru-hike will be logistically or financially possible.

It looks less likely each day that I’ll be starting the PCT on April 29. I’m leaving options open, including a SOBO hike, or a shorter hike later in the season after everything calms down and the potential for me to spread the virus has ceased. (Update: canned it.)

Yes, the thought of postponing or canceling this year’s thru-hike is soul-crushing. But while a thru-hike is a life-changing experience, it’s not necessary. If potential travel, quarantine, and amenity closures don’t make the choice for you, you’ll have to decide if it’s the morally sound thing to do.

It’s true that no one can force you to change your hike, which I’m sure the comments section will be quick to highlight. At the very least, hikers should avoid towns and hostels as much as possible.

We will be continuing to update on trail closures and recommendations from the ATC, PCTA, and CDTC as they become available. Below are the trail closures and updates that I and the editorial team have been working to stay caught up with.

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Comments 22

  • Sarah Mowery : Mar 16th

    Thank you for writing this, Maggie. We are all in such a tough spot with this, but that’s the key thing to remember. We are ALL – every single friggin one of us – in this dilemma, not all the exact same personal dilemma, but a massive collective one that will continue to get worse for all of us to a degree that can only be lessened by the sacrifices we can all make right now to protect each other.

    Can’t believe we’re in this mess, but here we are. I really applaud y’all for your continued, responsive coverage of this pandemic and its impact on our community. Thank you thank you thank you.

    • Janelle : Mar 16th

      Thank you for writing this!

  • Julie : Mar 16th

    Thank you so much for this post! I feel like this is a must read for all thru hikers

  • Shannon Ramsey : Mar 16th

    Thank you so much for posting this, this is very thoughtful and well written. I too am struggling with whether to carry out my thru-hike this year. I was hoping to thru-hike the AT in early April but am questioning this decision and its impact every day. It’s a difficult situation to be in because as you mentioned this is a commitment and unlike a one or two week vacation, logistically it’s not easy to just reschedule or postpone. Moral of the story is that life is unpredictable and all we can do is embrace it and as hard as it is, try to make the best of it and realize that even if it’s not this year, we will all find a way to carry out our dreams of completing a thru-hike. I wish everyone thru-hiking now safe travels and best of luck to those who are debating whether to follow through with theirs this year. I think a good alternative to those not carrying out their thru-hikes is, if feasible, try to take advantage of exploring state and national parks. This time of year they are usually packed but with everything that’s going on, I imagine they will be much less crowded especially with the halt of international travel. This may be my alternative so long as they remain open. Stay healthy and happy hiking and adventuring everyone!

  • Brando : Mar 16th

    Thank you so much for writing this! It should be a must read for people that are about to start a thruhike or even a long trail. My hike this year isn’t supposed to happen until June and I am even figuring out 7 day backpacking trips as a backup if it is still bad at that time. Stay healthy and safe!

  • Amiththan Swami bittergoat : Mar 16th

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Chris Burke : Mar 16th

    As of today, 3/16, I don’t see any way a person can seriously think they are going to begin a thru-hike of a long trail in April. It’s more likely we’ll all spend April sitting on our couches. There is a slight chance a SOBO beginning in July could happen, but I wouldn’t count on it. I think by July we will be grateful to have simply survived this outbreak, which clearly is a black swan event that has ruined the plans of every individual and institution on the planet.

  • John : Mar 16th

    I think this article and the comments are well intentioned but a bit dramatic.
    The elderly are the ones at the greatest risk and they are NOT the ones we’re likely to encounter and place in any genuine grave danger.
    Thru hikers are generally pretty considerate and thoughtful people. Are we implying that thru hikers cant be trusted or that the hostels aren’t responsible enough to take appropriate measures to protect themselves and their clients?
    This article, as I said is well intentioned but its borderline trying to shame someone who decides to continue or start their thru hike.
    Yes, embrace it and make the most of your thru hike or section hike.
    We are all in this together and with that attitude and with a healthy respect for each other, we’ll perservere.

    • Shepard : Mar 16th

      The elderly and other immunocompromised people depend on us younger and more healthy people to take pandemic precautions seriously. We may not get seriously ill from COVID-19, but we can absolutely spread it to places it wouldn’t necessarily have reached if we’d taken the precautions the WHO and the CDC have told us to take.

      I’m not a virologist, nor an epidemiologist, but I’ll absolutely take their advice if it helps keep my father (who lives in a veteran’s home and suffers from diabetes and COPD) from contracting this virus.

    • Gage Akhurst : Mar 22nd

      Couldn’t have said it better myself

  • Bill Jensen : Mar 16th

    Well stated. I have a 4/15 start and am mailing everything, but as every day goes by, it becomes more and more evident that my trip will either be SoBo or 2021. For now, I am considering the Colorado Trail this fall, but even that seems optimistic.

  • Rebecca- Snow on the Trail : Mar 16th

    I will be starting Friday and am making no plans to cancel.

    -Snow on the Trail

  • northof61pct : Mar 16th

    Thanks for a good article. If anyone is still hiking the trails this year, well you get what you ask for, which is more than pain. The people who continue with the hike are not only fools, but also selfish people. It sucks to not get what you want it? Grow a pair, suck it up buttercup, and stay home. This pandemic is going to be far worst then in china. Why? Guns and staving people. Some American’s are like the fools continuing their hike, their want freedom to do want they want. They do not care for you, only your supplies. You will not find food at your resupply stops. The trucking will stop due to illness. The medical system will be overwhelmed. A hiker with a snake bite or broken leg will not be helped ,so don’t be dumb.

    • SA : Mar 17th

      N61pct – You must have quite the crystal ball….fear-mongering is not really a good thing….ever….Uninformed, extremist rhetoric, even worse… Maggie, thanks for the thoughtful article. It is a true shame you can’t have an adult discourse about much of anything these days w/out some extremist feeling it necessary to condemn anyone whose opinion happens to differ from their own… Happy Trails

  • Twerk : Mar 16th

    Maggie – this was so thoughtful and informative. I can’t imagine the dilemma for all the hikers planning a thru this year. I agree that it’s time to put others first and really think about how walking town to town can be dangerous for those who reside there. These people live in very low populated areas and are probably not leaving their small radius to avoid spreading the virus. Traveling to these places creates a lot of risk for them and it’s not really fair.

    If you’ve been on a long distance hike, you know how fast shit like Norovirus spreads between us hikers on trail and even more so in towns! Please consider the risk you are taking and know the trail will always be there for you to experience.

    Wishing everyone health and safety!

    ❤️ Twerk

  • John : Mar 17th

    Good for you. One silver lining for you is that apparently there will be fewer hikers out there.

  • Eric : Mar 24th

    An important aspect of this situation that is continually overlooked is what the real goal of social/physical distancing is. This pandemic is about numbers and time, not so much avoiding as much as slowing down. Estimates are that 80% of the population will get this virus. The issue is when, not if.
    Practicing social distancing and other cleanliness strategies are our best bet to mitigate the impact. Going to the grocery is more risky than thru hiking and we are still going to have to do that so if people believe they shouldn’t hike because it increases the level of risk in this scenario they are wrong. You’re going to get it, let’s just make sure that we spread it out and flatten the curve so our resources can effectively deal with those that are sick. Not hiking won’t help to achieve that goal I don’t believe.

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