The ATC, which is based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., teamed up with trail management partners and experts in the outdoor recreation and medical fields to assemble tips for day and overnight hikers. The group is still urging thru-hikers — adventurers who complete the months-long 14-state trek in one go —to hold off on plans for now.
“Day hikers can mitigate exposure,” said Sandra Marra, the ATC’s president and chief executive, “but thru-hikers have greater challenges because they are coming into contact with people from all over and then going in and out of trailside communities.”
In anticipation of the Memorial Day holiday and the unofficial start of summer, the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service opened areas that the trail runs through, such as Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, and Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in North Carolina. The Triple Crown, a 27-mile stretch in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, was one of the last holdouts and will reopen June 13. About five miles of the Appalachian Trail remain off-limits, according to the ATC.
Although the majority of the trail is back, many of the facilities and services overnight and long-distance hikers use are still shuttered. As of early June, the majority of overnight shelters and privies remain closed, with the number exceeding 200. In addition, New Jersey and Massachusetts are prohibiting overnight stays on their land, as is Shenandoah. In New Hampshire, the Appalachian Mountain Club has pulled the welcome mat from its mountain huts and parked its White Mountain hiker shuttle for the remainder of the year. Maine closed all lean-to shelters and campsites on state land, including Baxter State Park, which also forbids hiking above the tree line and on the trail’s first — or final — 5.2 miles. The park plans to readmit overnight hikers on July 1, a turn of events that could delay thru-hikers: Katahdin, the park’s legendary mountain, is the official start or finish line of the trail, depending on the hiker’s point of departure.
“Southbounders can’t start until Baxter opens,” Marra said, referring to hikers who travel from Maine to Georgia.
Day and overnight hikers have more flexibility to work around the limited facilities and patchwork of restrictions, including states requiring visitors to quarantine for two weeks. Hikers of this ilk can also be more self-sufficient: They can carry their own water and food supplies and avoid the enclosed spaces with high-touch surfaces where the risk of exposure to the coronavirus is greatest.
“When you go into those facilities, all bets are off,” Marra said. “The picnic tables and privies are teeming with bacteria on the best day. We can’t station enough people to sanitize them.”
The ATC maintains a frequently updated list of closed areas and services on its website. For businesses in communities near the trail, such as hostels, laundromats and grocery stores, hikers should contact the retailer directly, because hours of operation may vary.
Before setting out, the ATC recommends that hikers ask themselves questions about their state of health and preparedness, such as: Have you experienced coronavirus-like symptoms? Does your route include any closed portions of the trail? And do you have protection against the coronavirus, such as a mask and hand sanitizer? Depending on the answers, you should stay home or proceed to the trailhead.
The tips combine guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with outdoor best practices. For example, hike with your shelter-in-place crew or a group of no more than six people. Maintain a safe distance from other hikers; if you can’t, slip on a mask. Wash or sanitize your hands after touching a hard surface. Carry a trowel for digging a cat hole or makeshift latrine. Hike locally to avoid pit stops for gas and food. If you plan to stay overnight on the trail, set up a tent or personal shelter that no one else has inhabited. And bring your own bearproof food storage unit, so you can skip the communal bear boxes, poles or cables.
“Treat your hike like a true backcountry experience that is not reliant on A.T. facilities you would otherwise use,” the ATC states in its guidelines.
Even outside, under the open sky, hikers need to take precautions. To minimize contact with other trail users, seek out access points and trailheads with less foot traffic. Be aware of narrow paths not conducive to social distancing. “You can’t walk five abreast and stay on the trail,” Marra said. If the trail is crowded, wait until it is safe to proceed or choose an alternative route. One clear indicator of a location to avoid: a packed parking lot. Marra recommends driving on. “You don’t want to add to that mess,” she said. Also, don’t park illegally on the side of the road. Marra said police have been ticketing cars in such high-volume spots as the stretch of Route 4o near Annapolis Rock in Maryland. For your planning purposes, plumb the resources provided by local and regional hiking groups, such as the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
The ATC does not know when it will change its position on thru-hiking, but several factors could influence its decision: the reopening of all trail sections, a flattening or decrease of the coronavirus infection curve in all 14 states for two weeks, or a vaccine. As a consolation, the group is granting folks who had to abandon their quest additional time to complete their journey. Thru-hikers “have 12 months from the date they choose to resume their hikes to complete the remainder of their journeys and still be recognized by the ATC as a thru-hiker and 2,000-miler,” the group stated.
The ATC will not acknowledge the accomplishments of hikers who ignored its advice and continued their journey during the pandemic. Marra said that about 100 hikers, including a collective called the Resistors, refused to leave. She said a group passed through West Virginia last month, and one rogue hiker was spotted in New Hampshire.
Marra hopes to open the ATC’s visitors center in Harpers Ferry in mid-July. The staff is creating signs to ensure social distancing inside the compact facility, which is a combination museum, information desk and rest stop for trail-weary trekkers. The opening could overlap with the return of another important site in the hiking community: the Goodloe E. Byron Memorial Pedestrian Walkway. In December, a train derailment damaged the Harpers Ferry footbridge. When the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park fully reopens, the park service is planning to transport visitors by shuttle. However, by the end of July, Appalachian Trail hikers may be able to cross the Potomac on their own two feet.