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Uncertain season: ATC issues 2021 thru-hiking guidance as pandemic continues

Joe ‘Triton’ Schmidt, founder of the Facebook group Still on the A.T, crosses the James River during an 800-mile section hike last year. Donated photo Joe ‘Triton’ Schmidt, founder of the Facebook group Still on the A.T, crosses the James River during an 800-mile section hike last year. Donated photo

Appalachian Trail thru-hiker season was already in full swing when coronavirus fears prompted widespread lockdowns in March, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was swift to react. 

On March 17, the ATC — the nonprofit organization tasked with protecting and managing the trail — asked long-distance hikers to postpone their adventures, and in the following days it suspended all new thru-hike registrations and asked day hikers and weekend warriors to stay off the trail as well. As of March 16, 1,229 people had started the trail in Georgia. 

 

Long-distance hiking discouraged

Now 2021 has arrived, thru-hiking season is just around the corner, and though vaccine distribution is in progress, the pandemic is raging stronger than ever before. In recently published guidance looking toward the upcoming trail season, the ATC asked thru-hikers to defer their departure yet again but also announced resources to help those who choose to hike do so more safely. 

“The rising number of COVID-19 cases continues to make long-distance hiking a potential contributor to the spread of coronavirus along the trail and in trailside communities,” reads the document, published Nov. 30, 2020. “The best way to ensure you and others remain safe is to postpone your hikes. However, if you are planning a hike of any length in 2021, please reduce the spread of COVID-19 by preparing appropriately for your hikes.”

The ATC is encouraging anyone planning a hike of any length to register their start date on its website www.ATCamp.org so that hikers can spread out and reduce crowding on the trail. 

The suggested limit on hike starts per day has been reduced from 50 to 38 in order to reflect guidance that hikers avoid sleeping in shelters. Many of these shelters are officially closed, and because there is no way to ensure a shelter that’s empty when you fall asleep won’t be full by the time you wake up, individual tents and hammocks are the safest bet.

“Basically, everyone needs to be careful,” said ATC Regional Director Morgan Sommerville. “They need to practice physical distancing. They need to use face masks when they’re around other people, and things like tents and hammocks and tarps and so on have become not just shelter but personal protective equipment.”

The ATC is also asking hikers to avoid sharing food or congregating at picnic tables and to dig catholes or carry bags for their waste rather than using privies — the questionable availability of volunteers to maintain these privies is a large part of the reason for this — and is providing online prep classes covering various aspects hiking readiness, including COVID-19 protocols. Hikers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms on the trail are asked to submit a form detailing their situation to the ATC. 

“We just keep emphasizing to people that you may be out on the A.T. You may be in the middle of nowhere. But you’re going to be meeting strangers, you don’t know what their situation is and you need to be careful,” Sommerville said.

 

Thru-hiker recognition suspended

Perhaps most controversially, the ATC will continue suspending its recognition program for hikers completing at least 2,000 miles of the trail until the Centers for Disease Control “has deemed the pandemic ‘under control’ and/or a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment is widely available and distributed.’” It first instituted that suspension in March. 

Sommerville admits that there is some ambiguity imbedded within the criteria for reinstituting the program but said that’s largely due to the overall uncertainty of the pandemic itself. After the crisis emerged, the ATC formed an Adaptive Recovery Task Force composed of representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service units the A.T. passes through, A.T. clubs and ATC staff. The group initially met every two weeks and then revised its schedule to convene monthly. Everything ultimately published to the website has been “thoroughly hashed through” in an attempt to “come up with a balance between being too strict and not strict enough,” Sommerville said. 

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re not being encouraging to do thru hikes in particular, but certainly long hikes that require resupply because of the potential interaction with A.T. communities and lots of other hikers,” he said. 

Among past and prospective A.T. hikers, the withholding of 2,000-mile recognition has been a source of controversy. Over the course of the last year, members of the 2,300-member Facebook group Still on the AT — founded last year to help hikers navigate the logistical challenges caused by COVID-19 — have often expressed their displeasure over what they see as ATC attempts to control their hike. Some have sought alternative recognition through the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association instead. 

Group founder Joe “Triton” Schmidt said he’s worked hard to keep anti-ATC chatter to a minimum so the group can remain focused on its actual purpose — serving as a community of long-distance hikers helping each other navigate the intricacies of the hike. 

“There’s a lot of people who don’t like the ATC, who don’t like authority, and the trail ends up getting sucked into our national debate,” he said. “I try to stay clear of that.”

Schmidt, 46, hiked the trail northbound in 2011 and did 500 miles of its southern portion in 2014. He wasn’t planning a 2020 excursion but ended up walking from the northern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, about 800 miles, after his job fell victim to the pandemic, forcing him to live on unemployment for a while. He opted to live on the trail for a few months rather than spending his check on rent. 

COVID-wise, Schmidt said, he felt quite safe — much safer than when he returned home to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and volunteered to help with door-to-door political campaigning. However, he said, he understands why the ATC is trying to discourage thru-hiking during the pandemic and views the suspension of 2,000-miler certifications as “a very minor thing.” The ATC does not have the power to actually close the trail, he noted — that power lies with the U.S. Department of Interior. 

“A lot of hikers don’t appreciate how necessary the ATC is to protect our trail,” he said. “Ultimately what I’m concerned with is after COVID-19 is over, that the ATC and the hiker community can coexist functionally, because we need each other.”

 

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As the pandemic emerges in mid-March, thru-hikers Greg Boului and Cricket Cote wait for a shuttle at Winding Stair Gap with their dog Roux. Holly Kays photo

 

A season of unknowns

The big question mark, though, is just how many thru-hikers will set out for Katahdin this year. 

Last summer, the ATC sent out a survey to hikers who registered for a 2020 thru-hike to gauge the pandemic’s impact on their plans. The survey had a 46 percent response rate, with 59 percent of respondents — 461 people — saying that the virus interrupted their hike but that they planned to resume their quest “once conditions allow” — ostensibly, 2021. 

Of course, a lot has happened since September, when the survey was conducted. With virus numbers taking off exponentially this winter, some of the people who reported planning a 2021 hike may reversed that position in the intervening months. However, the trail has proven a perennially popular challenge, with hiker use increasing by about 10 percent each year during the 2010s. While Sommerville said that curve flattened a bit in 2018 and 2019, the last several years have seen roughly 4,000 people start a thru-hike from Springer Mountain each year. 

As of Jan. 11, 1,873 people had registered to start a hike in Georgia between Feb. 1 and April 30. Additionally, 80 had registered for a southbound hike from Mount Katahdin between June 1 and July 31 and 87 had planned a flip-flop hike originating at Harpers Ferry between March 1 and May 31.

“We think there are more people that will be out this year than last year,” Sommerville said. 

According to the September survey, only 8 percent of respondents — 74 people — continued hiking the A.T. after the virus hit last year, and 81 percent of those finished the trail. However, there’s no way to know the total number of people who completed a thru-hike last year. 

It appears that people are taking COVID-19 into account when planning their hikes this spring, Sommerville said. For instance, some people planning a 2021 thru-hike seem to be picking later start dates than usual.

“Unless the agency partners actually close the trail again, each individual hiker has to make their decision about what they want to do,” said Sommerville. 

Hikers aren’t the only ones having to make decisions. Trailside communities such as Franklin, located near the trail’s 110-mile marker, often plan robust event calendars to coincide with the thru-hiker season. During March and April, Franklin typically offers multiple festivals, an Olympics-esque competition for hikers, Easter weekend trail magic, the Thru-Hiker Chow Down and the much-loved pancake breakfast at the First Baptist Church in Franklin — not to mention a month-long series of outdoor-themed library programs.

As the official A.T. Club for that section of trail, the Nantahala Hiking Club hosts several of these events and helps support many others. This year’s schedule is up in the air and will likely remain so for some time, said NHC President Katharine Brown. 

“We’re hoping to be able to find a way to offer the things that we’ve done in the past and find a way to do them that is COVID-safe,” said Brown. “Because it’s just January we haven’t sat down with our committees to make any final plans yet.”

NHC’s volunteers are committed and experienced at throwing these A.T. events year after year, so Brown has no doubt that things could come together fairly quickly should the club decide whether to pull the trigger. But for now, there’s no telling whether that will happen. 

“Certainly by early March decisions are going to have to start being made,” she said.

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