Uncertainty and Strife: Thru-Hiking Permits in the Time of COVID-19

As 2020 winds down, a third wave of COVID-19 infections is engulfing the United States, with the number of daily cases more than tripling over the previous August high and deaths spiking over 3,000 per day for the first time.

In March 2020, as the pandemic took off, the organizations managing the three Triple Crown trails took a unified cautious approach.

  • The Appalachian Trail Conservancy asked all hikers to stay off or leave the trail.
  • The U.S. Forest Service told 2020 Pacific Crest Trail Long-distance Permit holders that they could “no longer complete a planned long-distance trip” and the Pacific Crest Trail Association began advising against non-self-sustained hikes.
  • The Continental Divide Trail Coalition urged long-distance hikers to postpone CDT travel if they were “unable to budget for the possibility of paying for a hotel room, food delivery, and medication for two weeks in the event that you are exposed to COVID-19,” and canceled its southern-terminus shuttle service.

Southern terminus, Continental Divide Trail. Photo via Continental Divide Trail Coalition.

Outdoors: A Safe Place to Be

With thru-hiking season fast approaching — many northbound hikers begin the Appalachian Trail in February and the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in March — it remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect those who are planning 2021 hikes.

Nine months into the pandemic, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the chances of transmitting or contracting the virus in well-ventilated, non-crowded outdoor environments – such as a trail, park, or beach – is exceedingly low.

“Outside, things like sunlight, wind, rain, ambient temperature, and humidity can affect virus infectivity and transmissibility,” Angela Rasmussen, virologist at Columbia University, told Vox. “So while we can’t say there’s zero risk, it’s likely low unless you are engaging in activities as part of a large crowd — such as a protest.”

According to the largest study to date, of more than 7,300 COVID-19 cases examined in China, just a single one was attributed to outdoor transmission — and in that case, a man contracted the virus after speaking in close proximity for an extended period with a person who had recently returned from Wuhan, where the outbreak started.

In addition, early concerns about “fomite transmission” — picking up the virus from surfaces, as with norovirus — have receded as studies confirm the vast majority of cases are due to human-to-human and airborne contact.

“The chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small, and only in instances where an infected person coughs or sneezes on the surface, and someone else touches that surface soon after the cough or sneeze (within 1–2 hours),” a group of researchers wrote in the British medical journal The Lancet in August.

Still, the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus increases when hikers visit trail towns. Concerned equally about the well-being of hikers and the communities they visit, the PCTA continues to discourage long-distance travel unless it’s fully self-supported.

“You can help limit the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding communities other than your own,” the organization advises. “Being completely self-supported on PCT outings is key: if you bring everything you need, don’t stop anywhere traveling to and from the trail and avoid side trips from the trail to resupply, you limit transmission of the virus between you and others.”

clay bonnyman evans great plains trail toadstool

The latest research suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is not likely to be picked up from surfaces, particularly outdoors. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

PCT Long-distance Permit

One issue haunting prospective 2021 hikers is the availability of permits to hike through public lands, including national parks, wilderness areas, and state parks.

Permits are relatively straightforward and few for both the AT (three required) and CDT (seven required), most for national park access. As of mid-December, national parks were open and the ATC opened its voluntary hiker registration Dec. 1.

But the PCT is a different story, since the trail requires numerous permits to pass through public lands managed by numerous state and federal agencies. The long-distance permit, established in 2001, was created by the U.S. Forest Service, PCTA, and other management agencies to streamline the process. It covers all permit-required areas on the trail, eliminating the need to secure local permits, but is not required.

A portion of a 2015 PCT Long-distance Permit

Since 2015, PCT Long-distance Permits have been limited to 50 per day for hikers starting at the southern terminus in Campo, Calif. in March, April, and May. Intended to spread out the number of hikers to protect resources and improve the experience, the new system has drawn criticism, including:

  • Applicants must sometimes wait online as long as four or five hours online when applications open (typically on Oct. 15 and again on Jan. 15).
  • Each hiker can obtain just one permit, so those planning to hike together often cannot get permits to start the same day, week, or sometimes even month.
  • Some who don’t use their permits may fail to inform the PCTA, eliminating that spot for another hiker.
  • Hikers must “travel continuously” and complete the Sierra Nevada within a 35-day window or lose their permit, which some worry will encourage people to hike in dangerous conditions.

“If it’s a regular snow year, 30 days is plenty to get through the Sierra,” says Jackie “Yogi” McDonnell, author of Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook and owner of Triple Crown Outfitters in Kennedy Meadows, southern gateway to the Sierra. “But for people who get here at the end of April, it might take them almost two months.”

The PCTA advises hikers not to put themselves in a dangerous situation for any reason and urges flexibility.

“Stay within your skill set. If you’re hiking somewhere, and you hit something that is not in your skill set, find a way around,” Anitra Kass, Southern California Regional Representative for the PCTA, told The Trek’s Backpacker Radio. “If you need to flip-flop, you can work with our Sacramento office to figure out how to get that done. … They are going to work with you to figure out what is good for you to have a good PCT experience.”

Uncertainty for 2021

The PCTA signaled continuing uncertainty over the upcoming thru-hiking season in August, when it canceled the Oct. 15 application opening. The organization said it would “continue to monitor the situation closely and … update everyone about potential 2021 permits by January 15.”

If PCT Long-distance Permits are canceled entirely for 2021, anyone still intending to thru-hike will face the daunting task of obtaining multiple permits issued by a bewildering array of agencies.

A difficult task. But not impossible.

“Because the PCT Long-distance Permit covers you for your entire thru-hike, it is obviously the easiest option,” McDonnell says. “However, you can absolutely, positively, legally, hike the PCT using local permits.”

Hikers on the PCT in Southern California. Bureau of Land Management via goodfreephotos.com

But if anyone thinks they can get away with skipping permits, McDonnell warns that enforcement is real, and costly.

“Some people complain and say, ‘the permit doesn’t mean anything to me.’ That’s a mistake,” she says. “I’m not anti-permit. I’m pro-permit – it protects the wilderness, and nobody wants the trail to be overcrowded. The system is there, and we need to work within it.”

Editor’s note: Although it is possible to legally hike the PCT without a Long-distance Permit, we encourage prospective thru-hikers on ALL trails to carefully weigh the risks involved.

Triple Crown Permit List

With all that in mind, here is the most current information on permits needed to hike the Triple Crown trails, as of publication date. Particularly during the pandemic, conditions are subject to change, so hikers should double-check all information below.

Appalachian Trail

The AT crosses land managed by more than 60 separate local, state, and federal agencies, but permit requirements are minimal.

COVID-19 restrictions (as of Dec. 17): shelters and privies remain closed; specific quarantine restrictions apply in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

COVID-19 resources: ATC Hiker Resource Library; weekly Hiker Prep webinars through March 25, addressing everything from “Pandemic Pooping” to alternative itineraries.

Permits

ATCamp

  • Registration: Not required, but strongly requested by the ATC
  • Description: Designed to spread out spring “hiker bubble” and give hikers a chance to choose starting dates that will minimize the chance of crowds at shelters, help maintain social distancing and protect trail resources and surrounding environments. Hikers can opt-in to messages from the ATC for updates on conditions, closures, and safety information.
  • Fee: Free
  • How to get it: ATC website. Registration open as of Dec. 1.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy issues tags for hikers who register through its ATCamp system. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  • Permit: AT Thru-Hiker Backcountry Permit
  • Description: Allows thru-hikers to “tent in the immediate area around shelters only if the shelter is full.” They are required to stay in shelters when there is space available and must always give up bunk space in shelters to those with shelter reservations.
  • Fee: $20
  • How to get it: Park website. To qualify, hikers must begin and end their hike at least 50 miles outside the park. Available up to 30 days in advance and covers a maximum of 8 days in the park.
  • Notes: Anyone not starting and finishing 50 miles outside the park must buy a different permit and specify which days they will stay at specific shelters.

Shenandoah National Park

  • Permit: Backcountry camping permit
  • Description: For all overnight camping in park
  • Fee: Free
  • How to get it: Available at self-register stations at the north and south AT entry points 

The CDT near the Montana-Idaho border. Bureau of Land Management via goodfreephotos.com.

Baxter State Park, Maine

  • Permit: AT-Hiker Permit
  • Description: Required to summit Katahdin
  • Fee: Free
  • How to get it: Katahdin Stream Campground Ranger Station
  • Limit: 3,150 (2019, most recent year available)
  • Camping: Summer camping is allowed between May 15 and Oct. 15, except for Kidney, Daicey, and Katahdin Stream campgrounds, which are open until Oct. 22. A maximum of 12 thru-hikers per night may stay at The Birches shelter and campsite for a fee of $10.
  • Notes: While Katahdin does not “close” on Oct. 15, park managers may close trails at any time due to weather, environmental, or other concerns. The park “strongly recommends” that AT hikers finish by Oct. 15.

Continental Divide Trail

COVID-19 closures (as of Dec. 17): There are no known closures due to the pandemic. However, the CDTC has suspended shuttle and water cache services in the southern terminus area.

National Forest Wilderness Areas

  • Description: Required for entry
  • Fee: Free
  • How to get it: Self-service at trailheads

New Mexico State Lands

  • Permit: Required for recreational access to state lands
  • Fee: $35, valid for one year from date of issue
  • How to get it: CDTC website

Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

  • Permit: Required for camping
  • Fee: $5
  • How to get it: Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests, 970-887-4100 or 303-541-2500
  • Notes: Trail dips in and out of wilderness area. Hikers can avoid need for permit by camping between Lonesome Peak and Devil’s Thumb or after Rollins Pass.

Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Permit: Backcountry camping
  • Fee: $26 per person, per night
  • How to get it: National Park Service website
  • Notes: Many thru-hikers slackpack the 25-mile CDT loop through the park

The CDT in Rocky Mountain National Park via goodfreephotos.com.

Yellowstone National Park

  • Permit: Backcountry camping
  • Fee: $3 per person, per night
  • How to get it: 307-344-7311. Walk-up permits available, but not recommended.

Blackfeet Indian Reservation

  • Permit: Required for all recreation
  • How to get it: Reservation website
  • Notes: Trail passes through reservation for several miles south of Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

  • Permit: Backcountry camping
  • Fee: $7 per person, per night
  • Where to get it: 406-888-7857 or website
  • Notes: CDTC recommends preparing multiple itineraries in case desired campsites are full: “Be prepared to hike very short mileage days and/or very high mileage days.”

The CDT near the Montana-Idaho border. Bureau of Land Management via goodfreephotos.com.

Pacific Crest Trail

California 

COVID-19 closures (as of Dec. 17): The U.S. Forest Service ordered all developed campgrounds in the following California national forests closed on Dec. 3, in conjunction with the state’s stay-at-home order: Angeles, Cleveland, Inyo, Los Padres, San Bernardino, Sequoia, Sierra, and Stanislaus.

Note: PCT mileages are approximate and may not be exact in all cases.

California Campfire Permit

  • Permit: To use a stove, lantern, or campfire outside developed campgrounds or recreation areas
  • PCT miles: All of California
  • How to get it: www.preventwildfireca.org/permits
  • Notes: required even for those with PCT Long Distance Permit

Cleveland National Forest

  • Permit: Wilderness & Visitor Permit; required for dispersed camping (i.e. outside developed campgrounds).
  • PCT miles: 13.8-53.1
  • How to get it: www.fs.usda.gov/clevelandNotes: As of Oct. 9, 2020, all dispersed camping is prohibited in the CNF due to COVID-19.

 

  • Developed Camping Permit: Required for camping at Lake Morena (mile 20), Cibbets Flats (32.6), Boulder Oaks (26), and Burnt Rancheria
  • Fee: Free
  • Where to get it: CNF website
  • Notes: As of Dec. 3, campgrounds in CNF are closed.

Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness

  • Permit: Entry and camping
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 167.2-190.5; 193.5-205
  • How to get it: Available via self-service 24 hours a day at San Jacinto State Park headquarters in Idyllwild. Wilderness permit also available at San Bernardino National Forest website.
  • Notes: San Jacinto Wilderness (federal) and San Jacinto State Park (state) honor each other’s free day-use
    permit. Camping is free in San Jacinto Wilderness, $5 per night in San Jacinto State Park.

Camping near San Jacinto via Stef ‘Blaze’ Bolivar.

San Gorgonio Wilderness

  • Permit: Entry and camping
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 1.8 miles in National Forest areas from 234.8-236.6 (Not required for Bureau of Land Management areas)
  • How to get it: San Gorgonio Wilderness Area website

Sierra Nevada, Inyo National Forest

  • Permit: Entry and camping in John Muir Wilderness, South Sierra Wilderness, Golden Trout Wilderness, Sequoia National Park, King’s Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park
  • Fee: Must apply to determine
  • PCT miles: 703.4-1016.9
  • How to get it: recreation.gov website. Walk-up permits available at Eastern Sierra Visitor Center in Lone Pine (currently closed)
  • Notes: Issued no more than five days in advance of travel. Must specify dates and locations of projected daily campsites. Entry/exit points for permit are Kennedy Meadows (south) and Sonora Pass (north). Quotas on permits for each entry point from May 1-Nov. 1.
  • Yogi’s advice: At recreation.gov, choose “Permits,” then “Inyo National Forest,” then “Explore Available Permits.” Permit type is “overnight,” and hikers must choose the date they will leave Kennedy Meadows. Choose “Book Now,” then fill in personal information and choose “Sonora Pass” as exit. Hikers must then project daily campsites. If the date under Kennedy Meadows start date is “W” instead of a number, hiker must obtain “walk-up” permit in Lone Pine.

Hoover Wilderness

  • Permit: Camping; valid for a single continuous trip through the wilderness
  • PCT miles: 997.1-1010 (approximately; last
  • How to get it: through recreation.gov or at the Bridgeport USFS Ranger Station.

Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, Mokulumne Wilderness, Stanislaus National Forest

  • Permit: Camping, April 1 to November 30
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 1021-1041.7 (intermittent)
  • How to get it: Stanislaus National Forest website

Desolation Wilderness, Eldorado National Forest

  • Permit: Entry and camping
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 1095.5-1117.2 (intermittent)
  • How to get it: Reservations available at least one day in advance at www.recreation.gov. Self-issue permits available at major trailheads in summer.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • Permit: Camping
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 1346.3-1365.5
  • How to get it: Park website
  • Notes: Not needed if camping at Warner Valley Campground or hiking through park.

Peak and Volcano at Lassen Volcanic National Park, California. Photo by Steen Jepsen via goodfreephotos.com.

Trinity Alps Wilderness

  • Permit: Camping
  • PCT miles: 1562.9-1580
  • Fee: Free
  • How to get it: Kiosks at Weaverville and Shasta Lake ranger stations. Weaverville Ranger Station: 530-623-2121

Oregon

The PCT Oregon website offers a wealth of information about the trail in Oregon, including permit information and specific strategies for hiking without a PCT Long Distance Permit.

Crater Lake National Park

  • Registration: Backcountry camping
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 1814.7-1847.8
  • How to get it: Self-register upon entry. Thru-hikers do not need a permit.

Diamond Peak Wilderness

  • Permit: Hiking and camping from Memorial Day weekend until Oct. 31
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 1890.7-1906.2
  • How to get it: Deschutes National Forest website

Deschutes National Forest

  • Permit: Entry
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 1907.9-1930.7
  • How to get it: Self-issue upon entry

Carl Stanfield walks above Crater Lake, Oregon during his 2020 PCT thru-hike. Via Carl Stanfield.

Central Cascades

  • Permit: Camping in Three Sisters, Mount Washington, and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas, May 28-Sept. 24, 2021
  • Fee: TBA
  • PCT miles: 1930.7-1997.1
  • How to get it: recreation.gov or at area ranger stations during normal operating hours. Permit reservation fees still apply for in-person permit requests. Available date TBD (April 20 in 2019).

Mount Hood Wilderness

  • Permit: Entry between May 15-Oct. 15
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 2087-2114.7
  • How to get it: Self-issue at trailheads

Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness

  • Permit: Wilderness entry between May 15-Oct. 15
  • PCT miles: 2129.1-2141.8
  • How to get it: Mount Hood National Forest website

Washington

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

  • Permit: Entry and camping in Indian Heaven and Mount Adams wilderness areas
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 2201-2214 (Indian Heaven); 2231.4-2250.3 (Mount Adams)
  • How to get it: Self-issue upon entry

Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest Wilderness Areas

  • Permit: Entry and camping in Goat Rocks, William O. Douglas, Norse Peak, Henry M. Jackson, Glacier Peak, Alpine Lakes, and Pasayten wilderness areas
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 2257.8-2653.1 (does not include North Cascades National Park)
  • How to get it: Self-service upon entry to each wilderness area

Mount Rainier Wilderness Area

  • Permit: Camping, May-September
  • Fee: $20
  • PCT miles: 2313.3-2324.1
  • How to get it: Mount Rainier National Park website. Reservations open March 15 for 2021 summer season.

Stiletto Lake in the North Cascades. Via Jessica Morris.

North Cascades National Park

  • Permit: Entry and camping
  • Fee: Free
  • PCT miles: 2570.3-2588.2
  • How to get it: Park website. Reservations can be made for first 60 percent of backcountry camp capacity; remaining 40 percent by walk-up at Golden West Visitor Center, Stehekin, Wash.

Jackie “Yogi” McDonnell provided some of the research for this story.

Featured image: Graphic design by Sophie Gerry.

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Comments 4

  • Varun Sharma : Dec 28th

    Thru hiking permits in coronavirus is very risky.

    Reply
  • Darren : Jan 5th

    Keep hiking!

    Reply

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