A thru-hike starts to feel like a reality the moment you tell people about your plan. It is the commitment to a goal, as well as the alteration of your future. It is like a verbal contract and statement of expectations. The goal and reluctance to let others down makes it more difficult to alter plans or quit the hike. These people and this commitment are the fuel you need to keep going during the tough days, and they are the people you share joy with on the good days.
This year, hikers across the world were faced with difficult decisions about their thru-hikes. Many had planned for years to hike a long-distance trail. 2020 was their year, but then everything changed. Coronavirus swept across the country and presented an unforeseen and uncontrollable variable. Covid-19 entered the equation and plans had to be altered. In the last week, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and the Arizona Trail Association have all recommended that hikers postpone or cancel their immediate thru-hiking plans due to the virus. I was one of those hikers.
I had three big goals for 2020. I planned to attempt a prestigious ultramarathon (Barkley Marathons), the Pacific Crest Trail speed record, and the Appalachian Trail speed record. Months of planning, training, and gear preparations had gone into setting me up for the year. Last week, I postponed all of those plans. Like many hikers changing their own timelines, the chance to chase all these goals simultaneously is unlikely to be possible again.
A thru-hike is a unique and difficult adventure to pull off. The logistics involved in taking a months-long break from traditional life are complicated. The commitment to a long-distance hike is not taken lightly, and the sacrifices to make it all work are immense. Hikers often quit their job, leave their housing, and rely on years of savings. I had done all these things and thought I had just enough to make an epic 2020 possible.
The thru-hiking season begins in March and many aspiring long-distance hikers started their adventures even earlier. They were already on the trail as Covid-19 and related preventative measures swept across the country. Many hikers were far removed from the epicenter of the pandemic and unaware of how fast things were progressing in the larger cities. I spoke with two hikers who said they didn’t learn about the severity of the virus until they connected with family or received messages on social media. They had no idea what was happening in the outside world.
Things move slower on the trail. For days at a time, a hiker only worries about finding water and a spot to camp. Thru-hikers carry a few days of food at a time and only travel into town and communities a couple of times per week. This virus and the measures taken across the country progressed so quickly that many hikers felt overwhelmed, confused, and lost. They did not get to see the hour-by-hour growth and overwhelming amount of news covering Covid-19. Then the trail organizations released statements telling people not to hike. The governor of California issued a “Stay At Home" warning. Hikers scrambled to find ways to get off a trail they thought they were safe on only days prior.
I spoke with multiple hikers whose employment was terminating at the end of March in preparation for their hikes. They were planning to give up their lease and live on the trail for the next six months. They now no longer had that choice, and are scrambling to find employment and a place to live. Canceling a thru-hike isn’t a simple pivot back into the life people were planning to leave. Their employers had planned to fill their jobs and their landlords had planned to have other renters.
Isn’t thru-hiking the safest thing to do right now?
This has been a common question over the past few weeks. Hiking and backpacking are good forms of social distancing, but thru-hiking is not. Thru-hiking is a lot more than hiking in the woods. Every few days a hiker will be resupplying in a small town. They will often have to hitchhike to that town, shop at the grocery store, and use the post office. Thru-hikers will interact with the community before hiking on to the next community to resupply again. Hikers will effectively be the link between many communities that would otherwise be isolated, and could largely self-quarantine to reduce their risk of Covid-19.
The majority of the towns along America’s long-distance trails are small. Most do not have large hospitals or easy access to healthcare professionals. They are tight-knit and often comprised of an older demographic. If one community on the trail became impacted by the virus, hikers would almost certainly be the reason the virus spread to every other community along the trail. The elevated risk of impacting these communities has made thru-hiking a discouraged activity.
Those that are still out there thru-hiking are seeing a different trail than they were expecting. Resupplying has become extremely difficult and every option other than grocery stores and pharmacies are closed in most communities. There is a slim chance these amenities will stay open for the duration of the season, and thru-hiking may actually be nearly impossible this year.
What should you do?
Not every hiker who has given up their thru-hike can simply postpone it until 2021. Most hikers had planned for 2020 to be the year they attempted a longtime dream, without a contingency plan if their attempt were to end before it started. Once a new job, lease, and life is started, it won’t be possible to try it again next year. The act of telling the same people that you are not taking your hike has an awful sense of finality. It is a terrible way for a thru-hike to end, before it starts.
But these vulnerable communities have taken care of thru-hikers over the years. They have selflessly given us rides, trail magic, and provided us help when we have been in tough spots. It is our turn to selflessly give back to them. We can do our part by reducing the risk to these trail communities. We can give up our thru-hikes for their health.