This week the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), along with the Pacific Crest Trail Association and Continental Divide Trail Coalition, requested that all 2020 thru-hikers and section hikes postpone their hikes due to the impact of COVID-19 on our world.
I got a lot of positive feedback after posting on Instagram that I am taking 2-3 weeks off my 2020 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. But also, a little resistance. I get it. I don’t want to be at home either.
I have seen many posts online to “Hike your own hike” amid the virus, “Don’t be a sheep, keep hiking” and “The trail is the safest place to be”. While there is some truth to each of these statements there is a dark side and potential negative impacts to others because of this.
I have also witnessed people bashing those staying on the trail. Getting off trail isn’t always logistically feasible at the drop of a hat. And many hikers piling into a hostel while they figure out where they are going to live or how to get home isn’t any better.
Because of this, I wanted to share my story for why I chose to take a hiatus from thru-hike during the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, we can all have a more productive conversation. And more importantly, help those who are staying on the trail and those who are trying to get off trail in a responsible manner.
After completing 120 hiking miles in 11 days I was feeling like a badass. I was picking up new skills. I hung my bear bag line on the first try TWO DAYS IN A ROW!!! I was meeting new people. It rained for 7 days straight and I didn’t cry once. Then the sun came out again and it felt like the greatest gift. I wanted to stay on the trail so badly it hurt. Or maybe my legs were just sore because I hadn’t taken a zero yet?
I planned resupply boxes so after my first zero in Franklin, NC I could hike straight thru to Hot Springs, NC without having to go into town. I was going to reassess the situation in Hot Springs.
But after getting into the town of Franklin, NC and getting caught up on the facts, from the Center of Disease Control, the World Health Organization and Leave No Trace, I decided to suspend my thru-hike for a minimum of two weeks and reassess at that time.
Rules Exist for a Reason
I am a rule follower. And when I don’t like the rules, I try to change them rather than break them. It is just who I am. The ATC didn’t ask the trail community to suspend or postpone thru or section hikes for no reason. Therefore I heavily weighed their request when making my decision.
They are trying to protect the future of the trail, all hikers who visit the trail each year, the employees from the many groups who maintain/ support the trail, and finally, the towns the trail passes through or near. These communities are small and rural, and like many towns that fit the description in the US, most lack basic healthcare infrastructure necessary for a potential pandemic outbreak in their local area.
The ATC isn’t out to ruin your good time. And they are smart enough to know some thru-hikers will carry on. Don’t confuse their providing guidance on how to minimize your impact on the spread of COVID-19 with validation that it is okay to continue your thru-hike. These are different things.
But ultimately only you can decide what to do with your own hike. Hey HYOH, it applies here! And getting off trail is easier for some than others. After agonizing over the decision all night I broke down in tears and decided to come home, for now. I had to ask myself some really tough questions.
Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Continuing Your Hike
- Am I already suffering from an injury? What are the chances that this injury will force me off trail either temporarily or for the remainder of the season?
- I was feeling great. But I, if I was injured and trying to push through, coming home would be a no brainer. It would still be just a hiatus. This is a win/ win. Time to rest and doing your part to reduce the spread of the virus. Reducing the total number of people staying on the trail will greatly help those who might not have another option right now.
- Do I have a place to live if I get off trail? If staying with someone else temporarily is the only option, how long can I reasonably live there? If you do finish the trail, what is your living situation post-trail?
- If you get off the trail you have to have somewhere to go. Many hikers give up their apartments for the duration of the hike. Not everyone has a support system that will ensure they have a place to live. To get an apartment you typically have to show proof of income. Very few places are hiring and unemployment is skyrocketing. Wow, this is heavy. I was lucky in this sense- my husband let me move back in 😊. From those that I know who are staying on the trail, this is the most common reason. They haven’t figured out where they can live long term and they live cheaper on the trail than off. A $600 Zpacks tent is cheaper than rent.
- I do want to share a story I read online. A post by a hiker whose first option for a place to stay was with her elderly parents who have preexisting conditions. Obviously, she was concerned that traveling home would put them at risk. She was desperately trying to find another long-term housing option but was staying on the trail while she worked out the details. Before we judge, ask how we can help.
- Logistically, do I have a way home now? How much harder might it be in the future?
- Can you even get home is a huge question, it will likely get harder before it gets easier. I drove a rental car home, an 8-hour drive. It only cost me $43 plus gas. I had an easy opportunity to get home now so it made sense to jump on it while I still could. Many hikers live outside the US and getting home may not be an immediate option. While they figure out what their options are, following the ATC’s guidance and staying out of crowded hostels might be the best plan. This means staying on the trail, at least for now.
- How will my hike be impacted by closings, limited services and fewer hikers on the trail?
- One of the big factors in postponing my hike was that the trail culture was going to be very different his year, and not necessarily in a good or even equal, but different, way. For some, it is a race to Katahdin, but for most, it is about the experience. And so far, I was having a great experience. But when I got to Franklin and I couldn’t experience the town, go out for a bite to eat or hang out at the local watering hole. I was seriously bummed out. This wasn’t the hike I wanted. But things like hitches, supplies, and hotels could become more limited and you need to weigh the risks.
- Supplies are currently available in the South, as of March 19th. Consider sending yourself resupply boxes for the next couple of towns to hiker hostels or outfitters to limit your exposure to those outside the hiking community.
- Am I willing to risk someone else’s life for my hike?
- Simple answer- hell no. No one I met on the trail is trying to be malicious by staying on the trail. But getting off the trail is the most responsible thing you can do. I was happy to see that many leaders in the thru-hiking community, like Darwin and thetrek.co’s Backpacker Radio were taking a stand that postponing your long term hike is the most responsible thing you can do. However, each person has to come to this conclusion on their own. But if we can’t stop the yearly norovirus update, can we stop this?
It may rain a lot on the AT but it doesn’t rain forever. And these changes to our world won’t be forever either. In order to keep my disappointment and self-pity in check I have started thinking about options for my hike. I am nothing, if not a Type A planner.
Potential Thru- Hike Options for Later This Year
Before my final decision was made to delay my hike, I was already thinking about different options that would allow me to get back on the trail. Hope is an amazing thing. The hope of sunshine is what gets us all through those rainy AT days.
- Delay and Continue Where I Left Off
- I am a slow hiker. I have about a 3 to 4 week window to continue my Northbound hike. Pretty simple. I have to get to Katahdin by a certain time and I am not setting any land speed records. I do plan on walking with a pack daily to keep working on those trail legs.
- Flip Flop
- Starting in Harpers Ferry, this option is good from mid-April to late May. I am not super excited about this because I worry about the lack of on-trail experience and finding an awesome tramily to get me through tough days. But I think if things improve this might be on the best year ever to flip flop.
- Go SOBO
- This option from June 1 to early July. Holy crap this is a scary option. Southern Maine, the Whites… yikes. But I can work my tush off to prepare for the next two months. And I am feeling more confident in my skills after the first 100+ miles. Not expert level, but it is amazing what I learned in the first 11 days.
- Pick a Different Long Trail in the Fall
- If COVID-19 is draggggggging on. We had originally planned to do the Tahoe Rim Trail in August before I decided to do an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I am open to reconsidering this trail or another longer trail that can be hiked late summer or fall.
- Hike Local
- No end in sight option. Ohio is home to the 1444 mile Buckeye Trail. Never heard of it? Staying local and making your home state’s thru-hiking trail famous might be an alternative to consider. I could probably do the whole trail without going into town, as we live in the dead center of the loop and my husband loves to bring me resupply boxes (not really). And then the Buckeye Trail would be famous, even if only amongst my 500 Instagram followers– love you guys!
But This is My Only Chance to do the AT/ PCT/ CDT
No it isn’t. It might seem that way, trust me I know. If I don’t do it this year it will be at least 5 years before I can do it again.
The reality is life gives us obstacles and it can be hard. But you made it happen once, you can do it again. It might not be right away but if you want- you will make it happen. Please give yourself more credit. Starting is the hardest part, and you made that happen.
And also recognize you might not choose to make it happen again. A new passion, hobby or adventure might fall into your lap. And yes, you missed out. It sucked. But you will fill that void with other experiences- and maybe another thru-hike.
Whatever your choice is, to suspend you hike, postpone starting or even stay on trail, please be thoughtful and intentional with your choices. It isn’t an easy decision and there is no one right answer.