Thru-Hiking in 2021, COVID-19, and The Trek’s Platform
It was roughly this time last year when it felt as if hell was rising to the earth’s surface. A virus we knew little about, aside from its ability to overwhelm hospitals and take lives in devastating numbers, was on an inevitable crash course for the US.
Life seemingly stopped in its tracks. Professional sports shut down. Businesses were forced to close. Toilet paper became worth its weight in gold. Guns were purchased in record-breaking numbers. All the while we sheltered in place, nervously watching the news and panic-scrolling Twitter.
It came as absolutely no surprise that the non-profits which oversee many of our beloved National Scenic Trails, namely the ATC and PCTA, asked people to postpone their long-distance backpacking plans in light of this emerging pandemic.
Fast forward one year. Not much has changed.
Professional sports are back and the nation’s TP supply has stabilized so that we can all wipe with confidence. But the pandemic still rages on as we chart toward a half-million lives lost as a result. Despite this depressing reality, there does finally appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of effective vaccines and ever-improving therapeutics.
You’re already living through this nightmare, you don’t need me to describe what’s happening. But, it’s worth dissecting the current state of the pandemic and how it relates to backpacking in 2021.
What the Trail Organizations Are Saying
To say that the trail organizations are giving hikers mixed messages would be a charitable take. Although the PCTA “(recommends) postponing long-distance travel on the PCT until 2022,” to the surprise of many, they—on behalf of the US Forest Service—are issuing long-distance permits for this year. Similarly, the ATC is advising people to postpone their hikes until next year, and recently announced that they will not be recognizing thru-hikes in 2021, but are still allowing people to register their thru-hikes and offering a page dedicated to hiking safely during COVID. The CDTC hasn’t issued a statement advising people to forego their thru-hikes, but will not be operating their southern terminus shuttle until further notice (which is smart).
That brings us to the million-dollar question…
Should you postpone your thru-hike this year?
I have no idea. I’m in no position to tell you what to do with your life, nor do I believe that “because Zach said so” will be a reason many people decide one way or another.
That said, assuming I were planning a 2021 thru-hike and had the flexibility to push it back to next year or to start SOBO in the summer, I likely would.
But one of the best things about you is that you’re not me. You have your own circumstances and considerations.
What I can control, as the top in command here at The Trek, is whether we allow thru-hikers to share their journeys through our channels in 2021. Last year, we followed the lead of the trail organizations and asked 2020 AT and PCT hikers not to post to The Trek’s platform.
After a good deal of consideration, I will not be making that ask this year.
1) Risk of Outdoor Transmission
Outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is significantly less common relative to transmission indoors. The science on this is clear. One study examining 7,324 Chinese COVID case reports found that only two could be linked to outdoor settings. A database examining 20,000 COVID cases found that just 461, roughly 2%, of these were tied to completely outdoor environments, and most of those were from events with crowds, like markets and rallies (source). I think this is widely understood, and thus not worth belaboring.
For this reason, day hikes and short backpacking trips that don’t rely on outside transportation are seemingly universally accepted as safe activities.
Things get murkier when a hiker heads to town, which is an inevitable byproduct of a long-distance trek (barring a full support system).
A traditional style thru-hike involves hitching from trail to town and back again, shopping at grocery stores, gorging at restaurants, and/or stacking bodies in hostels or motels. Additionally, during the height of the northbound season, crowding on trail can become an issue, especially at shelters. Bodies pile into picnic tables for dinner, around the campfire at dusk, and sardine into shelters for slumber.
These typical behaviors would present an unnecessarily high risk of transmission amongst hikers and consequently, to our trail communities. It’s imperative to recognize this if you plan to take on a long-distance backpacking trip in the coming weeks or months. I’m assuming this is the precise reason why the ATC and PCTA are asking people to postpone their hikes. Presumably, in their eyes, giving their blessing would be an endorsement for this type of adventure.
Let me be very clear: I do believe backpacking can be a safe activity if and only if the proper precautions are taken.
If a traditional style thru-hike, as described above, is what you’re after, you should absolutely postpone your hike. You won’t be getting that experience right now—and for those who do engage in these behaviors, you’re endangering our trail communities. No two ways about it.
However, there are sacrifices that can be made which would mitigate much of this risk. Walking to town (vs. hitchhiking), maintaining a six-foot distance from those outside your bubble, avoiding shelters (very important!!), wearing a quality mask (N95 or KN95) around others, avoiding indoor dining, and only lodging with others in your bubble, are just a few. More on this later.
If you’re resolute about backpacking this season, sacrifices will be necessary. Please take this to heart.
However, some adamantly believe that long-distance backpacking in any capacity presents too high a risk. Acquiring food, whether in the form of picking up a mail drop from a post office or resupplying at a grocery store, is an unavoidable part of backpacking. Consequently, the activity is unsafe in their eyes.
This is a tough pill to swallow.
If everyone were locking down, never leaving their homes, or at worst, hometowns, then there’s a good argument to be made for shunning long distance backpacking. However, that’s not what’s happening. The Colorado slopes are as busy as ever, I know plenty of people who’ve migrated south for various warm weather activities, even my own ~70 year old parents treat their 20-minute drive to Costco as their last remaining “adventure”. In theory, it’s easy to tell aspiring thru-hikers to sit on the sidelines this year. In reality, this would require asking them to abide by a standard that has virtually no compliance. To cast someone who’s grocery shopping in the context of a thru-hike as an evil virus vector while we turn a blind eye to people who are going about some variation of their normal lives while engaging in the same behaviors is simply unfair.
If a hiker walks from trail to town (and vice versa), wears a quality mask around others- especially indoor settings- lodges only with those from their bubble, and is financially and emotionally prepared to quarantine for two weeks if exposed to COVID and/or exhibiting symptoms, it seems implausible to argue that they’re posing an increased risk to others relative to how the average person is going about their life right now.
This is to make no mention of the increased risk of depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse from prolonged isolation, which absolutely deserves to be factored into this conversation. Some seem to imply that sheltering in place is a simple sacrifice- but this ignores the mental health impact related to isolation, severe financial stress, and confinement. For many (myself included), being outdoors has been the lone lifeline to preserving some sanity during an otherwise punishing last twelve months.
It’s not hard to understand why our trail organizations advocate for people to forego their plans- they fear the behavior of the lowest common denominator. In their shoes, I’m guessing many would arrive at the same conclusion.
However, like most things in life, this isn’t black or white. Thru-hiking isn’t good or bad. There are nuances that make the decision much more challenging than do or don’t. It’s my hope that highlighting some of these subtleties helps to strip away the stigma attached to what could be one of the few safe and fulfilling outlets available to us right now.
2) Endorsing Bullying
Last year, when the ATC, PCTA, and CDTC issued their requests for people to postpone their hikes and for those currently on trail to get off, most followed suit.
But, some did not.
As a result, those who continued on were the target of extreme anger, hostility, resentment, and even threats from the various online hiking communities. Admittedly, I was less than charitable in my feelings toward these individuals, especially in the beginning, when it was less clear about how the virus was transmitted. Their unwillingness to heed the trail organizations’ calls felt selfish and reckless, both in my eyes and what seemed to be the opinion of the community at large.
However, the level of vitriol directed at these hikers was unconscionable. Although the frustration was understandable, in my opinion, the pile-on was only partially explained by the risk these hikers posed. Some of this anger was due to their dismissal of the trail organizations’ requests (which can be independent of actual risks posed). Some of this was resentment from those who did get off trail and felt that others were selfish for not making the same sacrifice. Some of this was the typical cocktail of Internet conflict—groupthink, mob mentality, and rage that rarely exists during in-person interactions. And, a portion of this warfare was undeniably a result of the anger, frustration, and stress everyone is enduring as a result of this pandemic. Of-fucking-course people are angry. We are all too ready to snap at someone- especially behind a keyboard- given even the mildest of opportunities.
I hope this goes without saying, but this was not a healthy reaction. It’s one thing to disagree, but to harass someone to the point where they withdraw from their community, or even fear for their own safety, is indefensible.
I don’t want that history to repeat itself in 2021, and I fear that closing the platform to thru-hikers endorses the message that they are terrible people recklessly endangering other people’s lives, when I don’t believe that to be true.
Furthermore, simply shutting out those who are hiking doesn’t actually remove someone from the trail. Having an open line of communication to the community will help us monitor their impact and potentially relay important information should the state of the pandemic take a turn for the worse.
3) The Hypocrisy
Lastly, I think it’s worth addressing the hypocrisy of opening the platform to one trail and not another for reasons other than legality or safety.
Although the ATC and PCTA asked people to forego their hikes last year, many other trail organizations did not- or at best- sent very mixed messages. As a result, people flocked to other popular long trails around the country. Last year was the busiest season on record for the Colorado Trail. I personally know of at least a dozen people who hiked the CT, John Muir Trail, Long Trail, or Tahoe Rim Trail last year. Ironically, all of these trails overlap the same triple crown trails that were considered taboo to hike. How it’s okay to hike the western half of the Tahoe Rim Trail, but someone’s a monstrous piece of shit if they’re section hiking the PCT when it’s the same exact tread is perplexing.
The point is not that these individuals who took to other trails were deserving of more public criticism, but instead to acknowledge that perhaps the vitriol directed at those doing the same thing, oftentimes in the same place, was a tad too extreme.
This post isn’t meant to be an endorsement of long-distance backpacking. As previously stated, if I were planning to embark on a thru-hike in the coming weeks and had the flexibility to simply put it off a couple months or a year, I likely would. I enjoy the social element of thru-hiking too much, would miss iconic experiences like staying at Scout and Frodo’s, and couldn’t imagine hiking through Catawba without pummeling my innards full of comfort food at The Homeplace.
But again, that’s just me. If you need this adventure right now and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to best ensure a safe journey, I’m not going to hold it against you, and it’s my hope that others in the community take a similar sentiment.
We, the backpacking community, are historically a tight knit group. Last year, was an exception, and I’m hoping that we can resume the rule this year.
If you are going to take on a long distance backpacking trip this year, it’s my very sincere hope that members of The Trek’s team (and everyone who’s taking on a long distance trek in 2021) will take every step necessary to ensure a safe journey for themselves, their fellow hikers, and the trail communities.
Some suggestions include:
- Get a quality mask (N95 or KN95) and wear it anytime you’re indoors or near someone outside.
- Avoid hitchhiking. Plan your resupplies so that you can access town on foot.
- Limit indoor time in town to only the essentials- resupplies and/or mail drops. If you’re going to stay in town, get a room to yourself, with your partner, or those in your bubble.
- Avoid grouping with anyone outside your bubble on trail. Avoid crowded campsites, shelters (very important!!), and popular break areas. Maintain a six foot distance from others.
- Be prepared- financially and emotionally- to quarantine for two weeks should you develop COVID symptoms or have a known exposure.
- Avoid public transportation in getting to a trail’s terminus as much as possible.
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