ATC Urges 2021 Hikers to Take Precautions, Consider Alternatives

In an open letter to 2021 trail users, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on Thursday urged long-distance hikers to take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during their hikes. As it becomes increasingly clear that the pandemic will continue to disrupt normal life well into 2021, the long trail organization has released guidance for next year’s prospective hikers.

“Hiking the A.T. in 2021 will likely remain a logistical challenge underscored by health and safety risks,” the letter says. This is particularly true because of ongoing state, local, and federal restrictions and the fact that some trailside businesses may not be open for business.

“The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) urges all hikers to stay local and exercise caution while so much uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic exists. However, we know that many are planning long-distance journeys on the A.T. in 2021. To ensure hiker safety and health while on the A.T., we ask hikers to plan, prepare, and stay informed.”

Prospective hikers should take the following steps.

  • Register your hike with ATC starting on December 1 so you can plan ahead and avoid overcrowded start dates. This also enables ATC to send you important trail updates via email or text so you can stay up-to-date.
  • Plan and prepare. Make sure you have adequate equipment and skills for the hike you are planning to undertake. (This is always true, but even more so during a pandemic when emergency responder resources are already stretched thin). Planning an AT hike during the pandemic also includes staying up-to-date with COVID information and implementing pandemic safety best practices.
  • Consider alternative hikes. Thru-hiking will still pose a significant logistical challenge in 2021 due to the pandemic. Overcrowding on the AT will likely make social distancing difficult. ATC compiled a list of 24 alternative long-distance hikes near the Appalachian Trail, ranging from New York’s 37-mile Taconic Crest Trail to the 1,175-mile Mountains to the Sea Trail in North Carolina.
  • Anticipate crowds. Day and section hikers should consider visiting at non-peak times, ie during the week, to mitigate overcrowding.
  • Stay informed. Subscribe to the ATC’s email list and social media channels to stay up to date. Knowledge is power.

COVID Best Practices for Hikers

Beyond basic COVID best practices such as mask-wearing, frequent handwashing, and social distancing, hikers can take additional precautions to help slow the spread of the virus. For instance, ATC currently recommends avoiding privvies where possible and instead opting for a cathole following Leave No Trace principles.

Many shelters remain closed (even where signage isn’t posted) and shelters in general should be avoided. Hikers should also avoid high-touch areas like picnic tables, bear poles, and bear lockers. They should come prepared with their own means of secure food storage.

Also, the AT passes through 14 states and numerous localities. All of them may have their own specific guidance and regulations surrounding the pandemic. It’s important for hikers to respect local restrictions and guidelines as they traverse the AT in 2021.

States and localities may have specific regulations surrounding the pandemic.

“Planning for the future is near impossible.”

The ATC formally requested an unprecedented temporary closure of the Appalachian Trail on April 2 due to the pandemic and asked all hikers to stay off the trail for the time being. The organization convened a task force and released updated guidance for hiker safety on May 21, including a renewed request for thru-hikers to call off their hikes.

At that time they identified three scenarios which might cause the organization to review that recommendation: “the removal of all A.T. closures in place due to the pandemic, a flattening or reduction of the COVID-19 infection rate in all A.T. states for a period of two weeks, and the availability of an effective COVID-19 vaccine.”

ATC acknowledges the frustration and turmoil wrought by the pandemic. As the virus continues to spread, “we also find ourselves adapting to a constantly shifting political, social, and economic landscape. The world, in short, is characterized by uncertainty, and planning for the future is near impossible.”

However, as much as possible, any plans you do make should include special considerations surrounding the pandemic. “We thank you for taking these crucial extra steps to keep yourself, other hikers, and Trailside communities safe – today and into 2021. Please support and protect the A.T. and the greater Trail community by educating and preparing yourself before your A.T. journey.”

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