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.
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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