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January 26, 2021

Hikers told to avoid Appalachian Trail in 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns

Conservancy cites questions about safety of long-distance hiking

Recreation COVID-19
Appalachian Trail COVID-19 C. G. P. Grey/Creative Commons

The Appalachian Trail, pictured above at the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania, covers nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the conservancy that oversees the trail is urging hikers to postpone their plans for 2021.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is advising hikers to forgo plans to attempt the long-distance trek in 2021 over ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

The nearly 2,200-mile trail, which includes about 230 miles through central and eastern Pennsylvania, attracts an estimated three million visitors each year, though many of them only hike segments. It runs through 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

Morgan Sommerville, regional director for the North Carolina-based Appalachian Trail Conservancy, told the Asheville Citizen-Times that COVID-19 risks remain too high to recommend long-distance hiking.

"Our advice, as long as the pandemic is raging and vaccines aren't widely available, and the CDC hasn't given us the all-clear signal, we're recommending that long distance hikes not be taken on the A.T.," Sommerville said. "We're concerned about the safety of A.T. volunteers, A.T. hikers, of the members of A.T. communities and of course ATC staff and staff of our federal partners."

Thru-hikers who register to take the trek pass through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and typically gather in North Carolina towns to rest and resupply. The shelters in these towns are not properly equipped to adhere to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's social distancing guidelines. Shelters on national forest lands remain closed.

Pennsylvania is among several states that require a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entering. Travelers must otherwise quarantine for 10 days or until they have obtained a negative test result.

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.

Last year, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy similarly requested 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. 

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."

The trail in Pennsylvania is known for its rocky stretches north of the Susquehanna River and its smooth passages in the Cumberland Valley. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy's mid-Atlantic office is located in Boiling Springs.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy's website includes COVID-19 safety guidelines for those who opt to make the trek despite the group's urging.

"In a year that has been marked by uncertainty, we are grateful to everyone who has taken extra steps to help ensure they are keeping themselves and others safe during the COVID-19 pandemic," the conservancy said. "If you hike on the A.T. in 2021, your decision to plan and prepare appropriately will help ensure everyone’s A.T. experiences are safe, healthy, responsible and successful."