There's good news for those hoping to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, as recommendations against embarking on long-distance hikes on the trail have now been removed.
In March 2020, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) advised long-distance hikers to postpone their treks due to the multiple risks this style of hiking posed for the spread of COVID-19. It is now removing this recommendation for two reasons, the first of which is the widespread availability of effective COVID-19 vaccines. The second centers around the recent announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifying outdoor activities like hiking as posing significantly lower risks for spreading the virus, even among small groups of both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Completed in 1937, the Appalachian Trail is the country's longest footpath, spanning more than 2100 miles, crossing two national parks, traversing eight national forests and hitting 14 states from Georgia to Maine. Each year, approximately 3500 people attempt to hike the entire trail, although only one in four makes it all the way through. It's estimated that two to three million people trek a portion of the Appalachian Trail annually, and are attracted by its misty mountains, deep woods, flowery pastures and bear sightings.
Part of the reason the ATC issued recommendations against embarking on long-distance hikes last year is that hikers stay at shelters, campsites, lean-tos and huts along the trail—and not all of them are set up for social distancing. There are also the risks posed by hikers stopping in towns to resupply. In order to get to these towns, they must either arrange for shuttles or hitchhike, which increases the risk of the virus spreading.
In addition to receiving a vaccine, the ATC is now encouraging hikers to carry a mask for when social distancing can not be maintained; to pack a tent or other personal shelter system instead of using the often-crowded three-sided shelters at various points on the trail; and to follow CDC recommendations for protecting themselves and others, including when to avoid travel.
The ATC has also listed changes to its guidance, including classifying a "thru-hike" of the trail—where a hiker attempts to travel the full trail within a twelve-month period—as a safer activity, particularly for those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It will also restart its recognition program for hikers who have completed a full thru-hike of the trail, which was paused during the pandemic. It has announced reopening dates for two of its visitor centers. The ATC Headquarters and Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, will reopen with modified operations on May 27, and A.T. Visitor Center in Monson, Maine, will open on June 2.
Up-to-date information and updated guidance can be found on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's website here.
This article was originally published on January 26, 2021 and update on May 12, 2021.