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Appalachian Trail Conservancy asks hikers to avoid the AT due to COVID19

Last updated on January 28, 2021

Hikers have already started hitting the trail this year — many looking for a break from COVID19 stresses, but for many who hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) on their bucket list for the year, Covid-19 may prove to be an unexpected complication.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the organization responsible for managing and protecting the famous trail, announced earlier this week that they are advising all long-distance hikers wanting to try their hand at completing the full trail or multi-day hikes to wait until 2022. Not only are they recommending thru-hikers avoid the trail, but they also will not be providing hangtag in 2021, something they stopped in March 2020. 

By not providing the hangtags, long-distance thru-hikes this year will not be recognized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy until the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘declared under control.

“Due to the pandemic… (including the emerging variants that could be even more contagious), the ATC has been advising hikers to postpone their hikes until the CDC has deemed the pandemic “under control” or a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment is widely available and distributed,” the ATC wrote in a post last week, adding, “Although we don’t know when the pandemic will be declared ‘under control’ and we can resume distribution of A.T. hangtags and 2,000 miler recognition, we hope for all concerned it will be soon.”

In addition to not recognizing thru-hikers, the ATC will not hand out A.T. hangtags — plastic tags hikers can hang on their backpacks to mark the year of their attempted thru-hike — and promote sustainable hiking practices.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy made the same request last March, asking that all registered thru-hikers postpone their plans in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. No recognitions were awarded last year and the same will be the case in 2021. 

Why is recognition by the ATC important? Completing a thru-hike of the trail is something reserved for elite hikers — and those who attempt it, do everything they can to keep the adventure pure. Thru-hikers don’t take shortcuts, don’t skip portions of the trial, always starting back where they left off. It isn’t an accomplishment to simply hike the trial — but thru-hikers are dedicated to hiking every inch of the trail — and being recognized by the ATC as an official thru-hiker brings validity and recognition. 

The conservancy’s 2,000-miler recognition program will not be reinstated until the CDC deems the pandemic “under control” or a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available.

“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,” a letter on the organization’s website says. “The best way to ensure you and others remain safe is to postpone your hikes.”

Typically, hiking the entire 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, known as a thru-hike, takes about five to seven months and must be completed within 12 months, according to the group. Thousands of hikers attempt to traverse the entire trail each year, while the conservancy estimates about 3 million people hike at least a portion of the trail.

While the ATC is not currently recognizing thru-hikers, the Great Smokies have continued to issue Appalachian Trail thru-hiker permits, and while the ATC recommends not hiking the trail, it is permissible to do so. 

Though outdoor activities have generally been considered safe during the pandemic, the large volume of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail and their passage through local communities presents different challenges. Caution also stems from the more highly contagious U.K. variant of COVID-19 now spreading in the U.S., including several states covered by the Appalachian Trail.

President and CEO Sandra Marra said that the ATC is looking at guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and a pandemic task force that they have been working with for over a year.

Since the Appalachian Trail is internationally known, Marra said, one of the main issues is that it’s virtually impossible, if you don’t live in the area, to keep from contributing to the spread of Covid-19.

Most of the overnight shelters on the 2,200-mile trail remain closed and hikers may have to carry extra equipment to accommodate any overnight stays on the trail, which some may not realize can add extra difficulty. If the difficulty turns into an injury or distress, local first responders can be put at risk.

Economic Impact 

The Appalachian Trail means big bucks for the trail towns it meanders through. A 2016 survey conducted by Franklin’s Appalachian Trail Community Council (FATCC) showed that hikers surveyed who stopped in Franklin spent more than $70,477 on lodging, laundry, outfitters, resupply, and restaurants while hiking the trail each year. 

Franklin is designated as an Appalachian Trail Community, meaning that it puts its best foot forward for those who prefer to experience the mountains on foot. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that between 2 million and 3 million people hike a portion of the trail every year, with 3,735 attempting a northbound thru-hike in 2017, up from 1,460 in 2010.Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of the Western North Carolina outdoor supply shop Outdoor76, said that as a business owner he is thankful it is a recommendation and not a forced closure.

“Fortunately, it’s just a recommendation,” said Gasbarro. “I understand why the ATC is making it – If there were an outbreak, it’s harder to hold someone liable who said, “told you so”. And then their hands are tied in many ways when it comes to actual restrictions, so really they can’t do more than make a recommendation. Many aspiring hikers and those of us who depend on AT revenue are grateful that there is some contrast to their 2020 position.”

Outdoor 76 opened its doors in the Fall of 2010 in the beautiful mountains of Franklin, NC. The brand features a diverse selection of men’s and women’s clothing and shoes, tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, cookware, stoves, and everything else you’d expect from a full-service outfitter. Outdoor76 is a fan favorite among hikers — who schedule stops into the store just for a shoe fitting to help make the 2,000 trek. If it isn’t for shoes or needed gear, hikers stroll into O76 to drop their packs, play some darts and meet other members of that year’s hiking class. The Rock House Lodge is nestled in the back of the store and is the perfect place for hikers to get a taste of the region through 18 craft beers on tap. The spot has been so popular with hikers an outdoor enthusiasts that Outdoor76 just expanded into a Clayton, Ga location — and then the pandemic hit.

Last year’s notice to hikers had some heavier language for sure. Rather than recommending hikers avoid the AT — the ATC nearly forbid it, with some sections closing altogether. However, now there is more data and understanding around the virus and measures people should take to protect themselves.

“This year doesn’t seem to be much more than a webpage header advising people to please consider postponing until 2022, otherwise all the ATC resources to thru-hikers are in place (registration, suggestions, do’s, and don’ts, etc),” said Gasbarro.

With hopes for 2021 to be a safer, busier hiking season than 2020, Gasbarro said O76, like so many other businesses, are still recovering from the ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic.

“The pandemic impacted us in very different ways,” he said. “At first, it shut us down in arguably the busiest season of our year. But then people all over the country discovered that WNC was open for business and it was a desirable place to be.”

Gasbarro said that it wasn’t long that tourists that might not have normally planned to visit Western North Carolina headed to the mountains seeking refuge from the pandemic.

“What would have been a week at Disney for many families, turned into a week in the mountains,” he said. “To say there was a tourism explosion was an understatement. It was hard to make up for the lost AT season in 2020 but the last two quarters of the year left us in a very grateful state of mind considering what it could have been. The pandemic changed the way we do business in many ways, but all have been adaptable. We certainly don’t ever want to have to go through that again, but if the net economic impact is more positive than negative, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit.”

North Carolina businesses as a whole reported significant losses in the first two months of the pandemic in 2020 — but then as tourists from large cities flocked to the state seeking social distancing activities and solace from the crowds, NC businesses reported record economic growth in 2020 when looking at total sales taxes and tourism tax collections.

While gearing up for what they hope to be a busy season, the staff at O76 have been watching 2021 registrations and even though the ATC are not doing them, registrations are extremely high.

“I think two factors may have influenced the more relaxed position this year,” said Gasbarro. “First, they lost a lot of popularity in the thru-hiking community due to how aggressive they were with their approach last year. They infuriated a lot of hikers that believed the trail was the safest place to be, then being told to go home via plane, bus, public transportation.

Many who started hiking in 2020 were already on the trail as news about the pandemic spread. As it moved through the community, fewer and fewer hikers continued their journey — some of whom made the decision because of recommendations by groups such as the ATC others because it just was no longer feasible.

“Certainly, some came off because of the ATC’s request, but more hikers ultimately came off the trail due to the growing awareness/acceptance that it was going to be logistically very difficult to continue,” said Gasbarro. “Resupply, lodging, and shuttles were severely impacted by orders within supporting communities – but no real actual restrictions were in place on the trail itself. Then when the Smokies closed, that was the nail in the coffin for many in this southern section. Secondly, I don’t think many people know that the ATC is just a non-profit that stewards the trail. They are partnered with the federal government… but they are not law enforcement. Their hands are tied in many ways because most of the AT is on public lands (not National or State Parks).”

Gasbarro is correct, which is why a complete trail closure can’t be done. Restrictions can be made on portions of the trail that entire federal or state parks — such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and shelters or lodging can be closed due to restrictions, but the portions of the trail that falls on public lands remain open with protections and laws that were enacted to regulate the freedoms for public land use.

Safety Precautions for those planning to hike the trail

There are measures for those who want to continue and the ATC has issued safety recommendations for hikers wanting to hit the trail in 2021, which currently includes more than 2,600 registered guests.

— The ATC encourages everyone to register so that if health changes occur, such as another shutdown in a particular state or section, they know who to contact;

— Hikers need to carry a mask and hand sanitizer so that they can keep themselves and others safe;

— Since most shelters are closed, hikers need to plan to tent alone or bring a hammock for overnight stays;

— Hikers need to be experienced and know how to handle themselves on the trail

But, again, the ATC strongly recommends against it.

The AT passes through 14 states, some of which have their own travel restrictions that AT hikers would be expected to adhere to. 

For northbound thru-hikers beginning in Georgia and hiking to Maine, they start in Georgia which has had a total of 731,826 confirmed cases and 12,135 deaths — 4,128 of which were new cases, 139 new deaths, and 332 new hospitalizations reported on 27th. Georgia doesn’t have any specific or extra travel recommendations aside from recommending wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. 

COVID19 requirements and restrictions vary from state to state on the trail, which ends in Maine. As of Thursday, Maine reported a total of 38,454 cases and 567 deaths across the state. Maine also has significant travel restrictions for visitors to the state. 

From December 19 to January 19 when Main extended the State of Civil Emergency in Maine through Feb. 17, Maine recorded 15,523 new cases of COVID-19, which represented 45 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the state since the beginning of the pandemic. Since that date, 298 Maine people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and 227 lost their lives to COVID-19, representing 23 percent of all COVID-related hospitalizations and 44 percent of all COVID-related deaths in Maine since the beginning of the pandemic.

Maine has three options for visitors to or from other states: 1) getting a recent negative COVID-19 test (further defined below);  2) maintaining compliance with a 10-day quarantine (PDF) upon arrival in Maine;

People who are not residents of Maine or states exempt from quarantine requirements  will be asked if they seek lodging (described below) to sign a Certificate of Compliance PDF) indicating either that they have received a recent negative COVID-19 test result, that they will quarantine in Maine for 10 days (or the full duration of their stay if fewer than 10 days), or that they have already completed their quarantine in Maine. This compliance form must be provided to check-in at all Maine lodging, including but not limited to campgrounds, seasonal rentals, overnight camps, and other commercial lodging, such as Airbnb. Visitors may be asked to furnish proof of the negative test result upon request.

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