Thru Hiking in the Era of Covid-19; Now’s the Time to Show We Care
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
These are strange times that we’re living in. I really don’t know how to say it any more simply than that. After 34 years of living a life of relative ease and lack of concern, only now am I able to see how good we’ve all had it over the last several generations. Today however, it’s impossible not to look back and realize that the way things were before the introduction of Coronavirus was a life of relative simplicity and ease. Those times however, at least for the time being, are over. We are all now collectively waking up to a global event from which the world may never be the same. This event certainly will not last forever, but once it’s done, whether that be a month from now or a year from now, our world will be forever changed.
The thru hiking community in particular is a special group. It’s made up of the hardy—in body, spirit, and mind—and of anyone who knows how to be prepared for the unexpected, it’s us. We are the ones who have shown our willingness to give up on the comforts of contemporary living in exchange for life in the unknown wilderness where weather, wildlife, mountains, and deserts will almost certainly stand in our way while we battle for months on end in order to show ourselves and to show the world what is possible when we put our minds to it. It’s that, and so many other things that first drew me into thru hiking when I set out on my first long trail nearly ten years ago. And since that time, I have become stronger as a result of my willingness to continue to brave the elements and walk inconceivably long distances for the sake of some ethereal goal that I still struggle to put into words.
Of all the things that thru hikers are able to prepare themselves for however, the global crisis that is now underway is one of the things that none of us could ever have been prepared for. And today that’s showing, as hikers and members of the communities that support thru hikers are being torn apart by wanton willingness of hikers to continue on in spite of unfathomable hardship and those who believe that it’s time to go home so that we can hike again another year. This however is not the time for strife amongst us. This is a time for us to band together, not for my sake, not for your sake, and not for any individual’s benefit; this is the time to show that we care enough about thru hiking to see past our own subjective points of view to ensure that once this pandemic is over, there are still trails to hike and trail towns who welcome us in with open arms, as they have done for so many years.
When I first heard the news of the Coronavirus several weeks ago, it was fairly easy for me to shrug it off. Firstly, I didn’t think that the numbers were all that concerning when cases first started popping up in the United States, and furthermore, I knew that my own health is good enough to not have to worry about succumbing to the illness if I ever did become infected. Data that is being sent out from the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control indicated then, and still shows today, that people in my age demographic (25-35 years of age) show extremely low rates of mortality at around .2%. When faced with a survival rate of 99.8%, it’s hard to be too concerned.
The moment when I started to become uneasy about the virus was when I stated to see the impacts that it was having on world economies. That was my first wakeup call. As stock markets began to plummet, the job that I have used to support my own thru hiking endeavors over the last several years suddenly became threatened.
My initial reaction to this was to think that maybe I missed my chance for an ideal year to thru hike. Last year, in the spring of 2019, I temporarily resigned from my place of employment to thru hike the Continental Divide Trail, a hike that ended up taking the better part of six months to complete. Although the hike itself was life changing in so many ways, there was no denying the financial costs of taking so long away from work to go out onto the trail. I reasoned however that it was okay, because that same job was still there for me when I returned to my home in Arizona and picked up where I left off—saving up again for another thru hike that I hoped to depart for in the fall of 2020. With the tanking of the US economy however, my employment fell under threat and it became clear very quickly that the income that I had banked on being there for me was not going to be what I had hoped it might be. It left me thinking that maybe I’d missed the target unknowingly. I thought, if only I could have put off the CDT for another year, then I could have worked all of last year, built up my savings, and then used this year to be out on the trail so that I wasn’t missing out on wages when my work shut down due to Coronavirus.
That’s what I thought at first.
That’s what I thought when it was only beginning.
That’s what I thought when I was thinking of myself.
Then things developed to where they are now…
As I, and so many other people around the world, began following the rapidly developing news about Coronavirus, it became clear to me that this wasn’t just about my own ability to make it through this crisis though. It became progressively clearer with time that we are facing a pandemic that could potentially lead to millions (or even tens of millions) of fatalities as more and more individuals with underlying medical conditions are becoming exposed, hospitals are being overrun, and much-needed medical care is being so inundated with the infected that in many places around the world, doctors are having to watch as countless individuals are being denied the life-saving medical treatment that could otherwise keep them alive. Simply put, we just don’t have the medical availability in this world to care for so many sick people all at once.
Two weeks ago, I was sneering at the idea that this pandemic was a big deal. Today I feel very, very different, and it’s a humbling feeling to realize that I was initially so wrong. The fact is that the rapid and exponential growth of the infection are a very real danger to individuals and to economies around the globe. I can say now however that it’s no longer just about me. This is about something so much bigger than me that it’s hard to even put into words. This is about my doing my part, and everyone else doing their part to ensure that my grandparents and your grandparents, and the vulnerable members of communities around the world are able to access the resources that they need in order to stay alive if (or according to some medical experts, when) they become infected with this virus.
It was for this reason that several days ago I made the conscious choice to alter my own lifestyle activities, to socially distance myself from the community in which I live, and batten down the hatches for what could very well be a long storm ahead. I stopped going to the gym. I told my employer (who has since closed the business until conditions dramatically improve) that I no longer felt comfortable coming into work and potentially becoming an agent of viral spread, and I began preparing for what may be a long time without income or social contact outside of the people with whom I live (who have also taken measures to socially distance into the upcoming future). In short, although I know that I will most certainly be able to get through this considering the good condition of my own health, I do not want to be responsible for contracting the virus and spreading it to others, both those who are vulnerable and those who are healthy but could then go on to spread the virus to others in their lives who may not be so resilient to attacks on their health.
In the event that you have not been poring through the ever-developing worldwide news in the way that I have over the last week, here are the facts that you should know (the facts that make me feel so passionate that it’s time for thru hikers to postpone their hikes this year and end their hikes if they’re already on trail). In Italy we are seeing infection rates and mortality rates skyrocket as the virus continues to spread, in spite of mandated quarantines. The country of Iran is reporting death rates of 1 person every 10 minutes. Italy has many more hospital beds per capita than the United States (the US has 2.77 hospital beds available for immediate use per 1,000 people vs. Italy which has 3.18 per 1,000; the difference may seem minor, but when we’re talking about potentially hundreds of millions of infections, the difference matters greatly!). The rate of infection, which is growing at an exponential rate almost all over the globe, is actually higher (growing at a faster rate) in the United States than it has been in Italy or Spain. Current mortality rates are above 11% (90,622 have recovered and been discharged as of the writing of this article and 11,354 have died). Current projections are anticipating 1-10 million fatalities worldwide, and although the majority of those will be from the elderly (those over 70 years of age which have a mortality rate of around 14.8%), there are people in their 40s and 30s who have also passed away from coronavirus. (Note; if I was doing my due diligence here, I’d be citing my sources, but I’m trying to get this out to the public as quickly as I can manage. I’ll provide links to this information at the end of this article.).
There are a lot more frightening statistics that I could share with you at this time, but that should be enough to at least start to open up your eyes, in the same way that mine have been opened over the last week, to just how big of a deal this is. This is not just the seasonal flu. This is literally a global pandemic that is going to change the world for the rest of our lives. And I for one, would like to have my parents and grandparents around once this finally settles. I hope you feel the same about the people in your own lives.
Now, back to thru hiking. I hope you’ll forgive my temporary divergence, but some of that information was necessary to understanding just how important the arguments that I’m about to make really are, because the fact is that if you’re not taking this pandemic seriously (as I was not at first), then you’re never going to get behind the ideas that I’m trying to push here.
Thru hikers, by and large, are amongst the most physically tough and healthy people in the world. We are the ones who have knowingly and intentionally put our bodies through hardships that most people would never even dream of wanting to endure. We climb mountains, we cross glacial streams, we tolerate scorching desert temperatures, we hike on through hunger, thirst, hypothermia, and states of discomfort that most people can only imagine. We, for the most part, have nothing to worry about when it comes to contracting the Coronavirus. What’s concerning however, and the reason that I’ve set out to write this piece, is that symptoms from Coronavirus do not appear until 2-14 days after an individual has been exposed, but during that time, her/she is still able to spread the virus to others. That means that although you may make it through just fine, and even though you may not feel any symptoms whatsoever, you may still be unknowingly spreading the virus to other people with whom you come in contact—those that are also healthy themselves, and those who will not have the ability to fight through the virus like you can. In other words, the concern is not that you, the strong thru hiker, will get sick; the concern is that you may unknowingly spread the virus to uncountable numbers of other people before you even realize that you’re infected. Those people will go on to infect other people. Then those people will go on to infect others still… the cycle goes on, and on, and on. And that is where our hospitals become overwhelmed, leading medical professionals to be incapable of providing care to your grandmother, your friend who is a smoker, your cousin who is obese, or anyone else for that matter who might not have the same ability to fight off Coronavirus like a young, healthy thru hiker can.
Are you starting to see why this is such a big deal?
Of all the things that surprised me when I first became involved in thru hiking, the one thing that stands out most in this time of crisis is just how much support we receive from trail town communities and individuals who we call “trail angels.” Anyone who has hiked a long trail will tell you that it’s far from just being an individual effort. It’s not just me putting one foot in front of the next for thousands of miles on end. It’s people selflessly giving me rides into town once I reach a road crossing so that I can resupply or pick up a food box that I’ve sent to myself before the hike began. It’s about people literally opening their homes to provide showers and shelter to thru hikers who are in need of rest. It’s about people selflessly providing food, water, beer, and companionship during their time in town. Thru hiking is about walking for maybe a week on end by ourselves, and then seeking support from trail town communities, and normally receiving that in such an abundance that it leaves us speechless at the selfless displays of kindness that we receive in towns through which the trail passes.
And now, more than ever, is our chance to pay back the kindness that has been shown to us, so that hopefully we can have that support in the future as we have seen it in the past.
Although it might seem like being out in the wilderness, as we are on a thru hike, would be the ideal model of practicing “social distancing,” as I first thought when I saw that the Coronavirus was in the process of spreading across the country and the world, thru hiking is in fact one of the worst things that we could be doing to stop the spread of this pandemic. Imagine this very realistic scenario:
A thru hiker who is not infected starts out from the Mexican border on his/her northbound hike of the Pacific Crest Trail that he/she has been planning for the last eight months. He/she makes it 250 miles north of the Mexican border and then stops into Big Bear, California to resupply. In order to get to Big Bear, our hiker has to hitch a ride from a kind stranger, who also does not show any symptoms whatsoever, but who is actually infected with Coronavirus (remember, symptoms do not appear for 2-14 days after a person becomes infected and able to spread the virus to others). During the ride to town, our hypothetical thru hiker becomes infected themselves, without ever knowing it.
After being dropped off in Big Bear, the hiker goes to the local grocery story, and due to close contact with two other shoppers, infects them and the cashier unknowingly. Let’s forget the fact that those three people will then go on to live their lives as if they are not infected, and in the process infect maybe a half dozen other people in their own lives before they even start showing symptoms. Now, the thru hiker checks into a hotel, infects the receptionist at the hotel and one other thru hiker with whom he/she is sharing a room. The thru hiker also unknowingly infects the cleaning lady who fails to realize that she’s cleaning a room that still has living Coronavirus bodies after the hiker has checked out. The thru hiker also orders a pizza to be delivered to his/her room during the stay and potentially infects the friendly pizza delivery driver who also fails to acknowledge that this Corona thing is such a big deal and feels like it’s all being blown way out of proportion. The thru hiker then hitches a ride back to trail, potentially infecting the kind stranger who is nice enough to donate their gas and time to them, and the hiker continues on with their northbound journey.
For another 5 days, our hypothetical hiker shows zero symptoms, and reaches their next resupply town of Wrightwood and keeps the infection spreading, repeating all the steps listed above. In short, they spread the virus from one person, into a trail town, and then into the next trail town before they ever even feel symptoms of Covid-19. In that process, who knows how many other thru hikers they infect, who themselves will also keep this vicious cycle going. Now, all those kind folks, who were supporting our hypothetical thru hiker through all of this are themselves infected, spreading the infection to others, and in 5-14 days once symptoms start appearing, the hospitals in and around the towns of Big Bear and Wrightwood are so overwhelmed with sick patients that they’re no longer able to meet the demand for service, and as a result, people literally lose their lives—potentially the exact same people who were so kind as to help our thru hiker out along his/her way in the first place.
I acknowledge openly that the image that I’ve described above might sound dramatic, but I paint it as a worst-case scenario so as to illustrate just how big of a deal this could be. Let’s say that I’m describing a much worse situation than reality (which I’m not convinced is the case), even if 1/2 the infection rate described above was the case, it still leads to a violent spike in hospital admittance and an overwhelmement of hospital systems and loss of life.
Those exact same people who have supported thru hikers for the last several years, and who hoped to do so for decades to come, are now the ones who are going to realize just how terrible a situation thru hiking has caused for them personally and for their communities. What happens when this is all said and done and we realize that, in spite of the fact that the PCTA, the CDTA, and the ATC have all asked for thru hikers to postpone or abandon their thru hike this year, many people ignored them and keep on hiking their trail because they believed that this is all being blown way out of proportion? The potential consequences are beyond severe. These are consequences that will affect thru hiking for literally decades to come if they come to fruition.
Put simply, by continuing on with a thru hike this year, people are literally jeopardizing the safety of the exact same people and the exact same communities that have supported us for years. It’s now our responsibility to support them in return and get off the trail. It’s time to go home. This isn’t about my hike anymore (yes, I had a thru hike planned for the coming months that I’ve since canceled).
I acknowledge how hard this is going to be for some of us (some of whom are already on trail) to accept. I know firsthand just how important thru hiking is to some people. Before I began thru hiking, I was plagued by severe depression and was literally on the brink of taking my own life. In fact, it was realizing that I was close to the brink of suicide in 2014 that led me to decide that if I was headed down that path already, then I had nothing to lose, and the least I could do before pulling the trigger was go out into the woods and try to find some meaning or clarity in life. That is ultimately what led me to my own thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015, and that experience quite literally saved my life. It’s what really got me to fall in love with thru hiking, and it’s what renewed my passion for living. Since then, I’ve hiked several other long trails, and to this day, the one thing that gets me through the hard parts of life is remembering how good it has felt and will feel again to be out there on trail, to be free, and to be in the place where I feel most whole. Trust me—I know how important thru hiking is, and I know what it will mean to some people this year to give up on their dreams to walk the trail that they’ve potentially been planning for months or even years.
But I’ve had to give up on any hope of being out there again any time soon because, even if I don’t need to worry about Covid-19 leading to my own death, I need to think about more than just myself right now. I need to be thinking about the vulnerable community members of trail towns and their families and friends. I need to do my part to flatten the curve and make a difference in saving some lives this year. It’s likely, based on what we know right now about Covid-19, that a lot, if not most, or even all of us will become infected by the Coronavirus before this is all over and done. So it’s not about ensuring that some people don’t get sick necessarily; it’s about ensuring that we reduce the rate of infection and ensuring that when people do get sick that they have access to the medical care and attention that they need and that our hospitals are not all overwhelmed as we are already seeing in other parts of the world.
I know that I do not personally have a big following online, but I do have a few people out there who follow me. My writing this is doing my part to commentate to thru hikers who are already on the trail or who are getting ready to go out to the trail that this is not the time to be long-distance hiking. This is not the time to be thinking just of ourselves. This is the time to show the world that we care more about the future of thru hiking and the world at large than we care about ourselves.
We don’t know how long this virus is going to last. I’d love to see it come to an end in the coming months, but for all we know, it could be with us for over a year. Regardless, the trail has been there before this year, and it will still be there once this is all over and done. The question now is whether or not the communities that have supported us for so many years will also be there when the time comes for us to step back on trail.
I am doing my part to try and spread the message that it’s time to get off the trail, band together, and all do our part to stop the rapid spread of Covid-19 to literally save the lives of vulnerable members of trail town communities who have supported us over the years. If we do, then they’ll be there to support us once this is all said and done. If we do not however, then history will look back on our actions with a great deal of judgement, and it will be a lot less likely that the people in trail towns who welcomed us into their communities and homes with open arms are going to be there for us and for future generations of thru hikers once this is done.
We all have a different reach. I have a few people who I can reach out to with this message, and you have a few as well. We all need to band together here and do what we can to support this cause.
If you are on the trail already, it’s time to get off trail and state publicly that you are doing so for the safety, the protection, and the betterment of trail town communities and other hikers whom you could come in contact with. Anymore, it’s not enough to just step off trail with our heads down. It’s time to put your hand up and speak up. There are still people out there right now who are walking up the trail with their middle fingers held high, telling the world that they don’t care if they catch Coronavirus, because they’re healthy and they don’t have anything to worry about. It’s time for us to join the PCTA, the CDTA, and the ATC in asking that thru hikers who are already on trail to get off and those who are planning a thru hike to postpone their plans until things change.
This isn’t going to be something that’s easy for any of us. No doubt, it’ll be more difficult for some than for others. But now is our chance to show that we care more about thru hiking as a whole than we care about our individual hikes and plans. This is bigger than me. This is bigger than you. This is about saving something that literally has saved my life and will hopefully be there for myself and others for generations to come.
I encourage you to share this message (either this literal posting, or say it in your own words) to the people in your reach so that once this storm is done, the opportunity to thru hike is still there. --------------------------- Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_hospital_beds (Forgive my use of Wikipedia here; I've found it elsewhere, but this article lists it most simply).
Video worth the watch if you haven't watched it yet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtN-goy9VOY