Coronavirus complicates plans, raises questions for hikers starting their trip on the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, passes through Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.


By ANTONIA NOORI FARZAN | The Washington Post | Published: March 16, 2020

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In some respects, people starting the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail this month couldn't have better timing. While the novel coronavirus was spreading across the globe with alarming speed, they were leaving civilization behind and heading to the woods of northern Georgia, with the ultimate goal of walking all the way to Maine.

But covid-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of regular life, and even long-distance backpackers aren't exempt. To keep their packs relatively light, "thru-hikers" count on being able to periodically leave the trail to stock up on supplies, shower and sleep in a real bed for a change. Those setting off for months-long journeys on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail now have to consider whether they risk introducing the virus to otherwise isolated rural communities, and whether the freeze-dried food and survival supplies they rely on will be available at a time of widespread panic-buying.

On Friday, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a warning to hikers, encouraging them to avoid congregating in groups, sharing water bottles and utensils, and eating out of communal food bags. That same day, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, which helps maintain 3,100 miles of trails from Mexico to Canada, went even further by suggesting that hikers should stay home unless they were prepared to spend two weeks self-quarantined in a private hotel room.

"We are thinking of the elderly man working part-time at the checkout counter of the grocery store where you will resupply, and the woman without health insurance who cleans your hostel or hotel room," the organization's website states. "We are thinking of the fact that many trailside communities along the CDT are small and isolated, and may be hours away from the closest covid-19 testing center or, more importantly, the closest hospital equipped to treat patients in severe respiratory distress."

For many people who choose to walk the length of the country, the trip represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Thru-hikers often spend years saving up money, carefully planning the logistics and training for a grueling feat of endurance, then leave their jobs and give up their apartments to spend anywhere from four to seven months on the trail.

Given the intense commitment, it's perhaps unsurprising that coronavirus has become a controversial topic in online backpacking forums. Some thru-hikers argue that while on the trail, they're less likely to contract the virus and spread it to others. Plus, too many people deciding to stay home could deal a devastating blow to small towns whose economies rely on a regular influx of backpackers.

But others worry that hikers could unknowingly bring the virus with them, or pick it up in the process of traveling to the trail.

Theoretically, spending long stretches of time alone in the woods is a great way to practice social distancing. But many thru-hikers consider forging friendships on the trail to be part of the experience, and it's common for backpackers to hike, cook and camp alongside each other, without the benefit of indoor plumbing. Under the best of circumstances, outbreaks of norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, are not exactly uncommon.

In addition, stocking up on crucial supplies usually means hitchhiking or catching a shuttle into a town with a grocery store or a post office. Thru-hikers often rely on the generosity of "trail angels" who offer rides, food, water or a place to stay. Last week, one couple known for hosting Pacific Crest Trail hikers in their San Diego home announced that given the potential risks, they had made the "gut-wrenching" decision not to do so this year.

"We know you have been planning your PCT hike for months or years and have spent hundreds of hours planning for it," Barney and Sandy Mann, who are known in the hiking community as "Scout and Frodo," wrote on their website. "Many of you have been thrown into utter turmoil by the U.S. travel ban. We understand your confusion, pain, disappointment, and anger."

The PCT passes through California and Washington, two of the states hardest hit by the virus, which makes the stakes even higher. While hikers are used to confronting that they could get sick or injured in the wilderness, many now worry that a bad fall might mean diverting crucial emergency resources, or that there could be a shortage of hospital beds.

Though the Pacific Crest Trail Association has canceled volunteer trail work and special events until May 1, some hikers have expressed frustration over the lack of guidance about whether thru-hikers should still embark on the 2,653-mile trek, which was famously popularized in Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir "Wild" and inspired the movie of the same name.

The virus also threatens to complicate the logistics of a long-distance trek. A number of hostels catering to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maine and New Hampshire have already closed, citing sanitary concerns about shared bunkhouses and bathrooms. Meanwhile, some backpackers fear that there will be a general reluctance to pick up hitchhikers who haven't bathed in a while, and that backcountry cooking staples like powdered milk, instant mashed potatoes and ramen noodles could be in short supply.

Late last month, Mountain House, an Oregon company whose freeze-dried meals are popular with hikers and doomsday preppers alike, temporarily shut down its website after seeing a 1,093 percent increase in sales compared to February 2019. While the company says that it's prepared to handle the demand, thru-hikers emerging from the woods in search of hand sanitizer, biodegradable soap and toilet paper may be out of luck.

The White House's decision to restrict travel from most European countries has also thrown some hikers' plans into chaos. One French woman spent a year planning her Appalachian Trail hike, quit her job and sublet her apartment, only to find out that her nonrefundable flight from Paris to Charlotte had been canceled, according to the The Trek, an online news outlet covering long-distance hiking.

While the woman could try to wait out the ban, or fly to another country and self-quarantine for two weeks, either option increased the likelihood that she wouldn't make it to the trail's northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine before it closes in mid-October.

Meanwhile, for backpackers who have already started on long treks, or those who plan to begin their hikes in the coming weeks, there's one major lingering question: What will the world look like when they get out?

"Ignoring all other considerations, as a PCT hiker you rely on society to a high degree," one hiker wrote. "But soon U.S. society is going to be broken."

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