Here we are again, embarking on another season of absolute weirdness in the thru-hiking world. Questions about Covid safety and trail organization messaging remain somewhat vague and confusing.
We are almost a year into the pandemic. The vaccine is here, and numbers seem to be dropping. Despite this, the pandemic is still a reality of life in the US, and the hiking community is once again questioning whether or not to tackle a thru-hike.
For simplicity’s sake, we won’t get into the morality of whether or not people should be traveling or hiking, nor what constitutes a thru-hike. This is a basic overview of information from major trail organizations who have made statements, and trails that are likely to see a spring 2021 spike in traffic.
Additionally, this article is not here to tell you whether or not you should hike. We are aware that these trails traverse public lands, and no one can technically stop people from hiking. What you do with this information and the current state of the pandemic is up to you.
What are the trail organizations recommending?
Unlike last year, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) are not requesting people get off the trail or avoid starting a thru-hike. You might use the word “resigned” to describe their stance for 2021. They know people will hike anyway, so they’re trying to roll with it and provide as much guidance as possible.
The ATC is actively discouraging people from starting a thru-hike while acknowledging that people will do it anyway. In fact, their voluntary registration has more than double the northbound numbers of years past. The ATC has detailed information on precautions to take should you decide to hike, and they are not issuing the “thru-hiker tags” like they have in years past, as they don’t want to provide incentives for people hiking the trail this year. The ATC’s latest Covid messaging can be found here.
The PCTA is also discouraging people from thru-hiking, but they did issue permits for this year. They ask that hikers limit their PCT travel to local areas to avoid traveling to the trail. They’ve mentioned that there is no guarantee permits will remain valid throughout the season — it all depends on how the pandemic trajectory goes and whether certain areas implement a travel ban. More on the PCTA’s Covid guidance can be found here, including guidelines from the PCT states and land management agencies.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) has declined telling hikers to avoid the trail, but urge precautions and ask that everyone does their best to follow CDC guidelines. They have listed each state’s guidelines, as well as reiterated safety precautions for pandemic travel. The CDT is the least-trafficked of the three Triple Crown Trails, though some of the trail towns and communities are isolated, and may have reduced amenities and medical resources. More of the CDTC’s messaging can be found here.
The Arizona Trail looks like another popular trail for this year. The Arizona Trail Association (ATA) is anticipating a high number of northbound hikers. They encourage respectful and sustainable trail use, urge safety precautions, and reiterate preparation. “Unfortunately, Arizona remains a global hotspot for the spread of the virus and our hospitals are currently at capacity,” the ATA states on their website. “This is something to seriously evaluate before starting your long-distance adventure.” Their latest messaging can be found here.
What's happening in practice?
It seems like a lot of people are aiming for a Triple Crown Trail this year. For spring-starting hikes, the ATC has seen an incredible uptick in thru-hiker registrations at AT Camp, the voluntary registration site. The PCTA had thousands of applicants in the “waiting rooms” for permits, likely due to the 2020 “NOGO” hikers combined with 2021 hopefuls. The ATA is predicting record numbers of northbound hikers.
Are people postponing, or will the trails be extra crowded this year?
Be prepared for crowding on the trails. Anyone who has started a northbound AT hike in March or April in recent years knows how crowded it is. Take those numbers and multiply them, and you have an idea of how many people are aiming to start a thru-hike this spring.
The PCT starting numbers are limited based on permits, but people should expect around maximum “capacity” for each prime season northbound start date.
Anecdotally, throughout the community, it does seem like some people are putting off Triple Crown trail hikes or other “major” thru-hikes this year. There are conversations about shorter thru-hikes, choosing less popular trails, and sticking close to home.
Additional pandemic-induced challenges and precautions
The PCT had reduced levels of maintenance in 2020, which means some sections might present more of a challenge than in previous years. Some businesses in trail towns have shuttered, and hostels and other resources won’t be the same as they used to be. Some trail angels, notably Scout and Frodo, will not be hosting this year due to Covid transmission risk.
The ATC is asking hikers to stay out of shelters. Shelters are notorious for being norovirus hubs, and hikers should be prepared to stay in their tents or hammock systems. Hikers should also be prepared for more challenging hitches and fewer in-town resources, as well as need a rotation of masks handy at all times.
Additionally, if travel restrictions are imposed again, or stay-at-home orders are put in place, hikers need to be prepared to leave the trail or cancel their trips.