In an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus along the Appalachian Trail, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has released new guidelines for people visiting the famous trail this year. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

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If you’re thinking of hitting the Appalachian Trail anytime soon, there are a few things you should consider first. As the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, the trail has potential to be a place where the coronavirus is spread to different communities and across state lines. To address this problem, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recently released updated guidance for visitors.

The new guidelines ask visitors to keep hike locations local, minimize time spent in towns and carry a face covering and hand sanitizer in addition to standard hiking gear. In addition, the conservancy asks that visitors refrain from using shared trail resources such as shelters, privies and picnic tables. And thru-hikers (people attempting to hike the entire trail within 12 months) are asked to postpone their journeys for the time being.

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“As warmer weather takes hold and some states’ stay-at-home orders are rolled back or expire, we understand that many people are anxious to return to public lands like the Appalachian Trail,” said Sandra Marra, the conservancy’s president and CEO. “We believe the scientific information has become clearer on how to keep yourself and those around you safe from COVID-19, though we still encourage everyone to use an abundance of caution and practice social distancing wherever possible.”

A unit of the National Park System, the 2,193-mile-long trail ranges from Maine to Georgia. Since it was built in the 1920s, it has grown in popularity, attracting people from all over the world.

In March, the conservancy advised all hikers to stay off the trail due to the pandemic, and the organization is continuing with that initial recommendation. However, the organization does not have the authority to close the trail, and despite that recommendation, many people have continued to visit it. In fact, sections of the trail are seeing more visitors than normal.

“We’re having significant issues at the popular trailheads,” Marra said. “I live in Harpers Ferry [in West Virginia] and we went out Sunday, just doing a driveby in our area to the different parking lots, and at one lot alone we counted over 130 cars. They filled a large commuter lot and people were parking along the highway.”

Marra is concerned about this increased use of sections of the trail. She’s worried that people aren’t practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings in crowded parking lots. And she’s concerned about how this increased foot traffic may impact the trail and the natural resources it passes.

When asked why she thinks so many people are visiting the AT during the pandemic, Marra said: “The AT is just the iconic trail. It’s almost like it’s the grandmother of them all. And I think that there’s a certain romance in the idea of a singular path going from Georgia to Maine.”

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For people planning to visit the trail this year, whether to hike or camp, the conservancy has a few recommendations to increase visitor safety. As an alternative to using outhouses, the conservancy suggests hikers pack a trowel for digging catholes (70 steps from the trail, campsites and water sources) to bury human waste — and carry out used toilet paper (a common method is sealing it in a plastic bag). If planning to spend the night on the trail, camp in a tent or other personal shelter, where permitted, rather than use a public shelter, most of which are closed. Also, carry a bear-resistant food storage device to avoid using a bear box, cables or pole.

Keep in mind that you can’t simply tent wherever you want along the trail, Marra said. Tenting rules vary depending on the property through which the trail passes. Some places are lenient, allowing campers to pitch tents wherever there is solid, flat ground. Other lands require that campers stick to designated tent sites, which can often be found near trail shelters.

The conservancy is continuing to recommend that thru-hikers postpone their journeys. This recommendation is based on the reality that thru-hikers must travel through 14 states, visiting dozens of towns along the way, which presents multiple opportunities for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, to be spread to trailside communities. It’s also taking into account the social nature of the thru-hiking community.

“There’s an idea that thru-hikers are lone hikers out by themselves, but the trail hasn’t been like that for decades,” Marra said. “Thru-hikers — more than day hikers — will tend to congregate into groups and travel as a pod. And then to get into towns, they crowd into vehicles.”

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This guidance was developed by a task force convened by the conservancy to find the safest ways for trail users, volunteers and staff to re-engage with the famous trail during the pandemic. The task force is comprised of representatives from the conservancy, federal and state agency partners, trail maintaining clubs, A.T. Communities (a designation given to certain towns located along the trail), local leaders and medical experts.

“We still continue to not see any way that long distance and thru-hikers can maneuver safely through the trail,” Marra said. “We still have some closures up and down the trail. The shelters and privies remain closed pretty much on all the different lands.”

The Appalachian Trail is a national scenic trail that crosses a multitude of conserved lands that are under different jurisdiction, including national parks and forests and state parks. A number of these properties have closed roads and facilities, such as campsites and restrooms, during the pandemic due to overcrowding. This effectively closes chunks of the trail to hikers and campers. For example, the north end of the trail travels through Maine’s Baxter State Park, which has postponed opening its roads to vehicle traffic and its campgrounds until at least July 1, and is asking all hikers entering the park on foot to remain below the treeline.

“I know we’ve upset a lot of people,” Marra said. “But we continue with that guidance. We just feel right now isn’t the time to be a thru-hiker.”

Looking forward, the conservancy has identified three scenarios that could lead to a review of the recommendation that thru-hikers postpone their long distance hikes: the removal of all closures in place due to the pandemic, a flattening or reduction of the COVID-19 infection rate in all states through which the trail passes for a period of two weeks and the availability of an effective vaccine.

For now, the conservancy is asking that people hike local and avoid crowded trailheads.

“I’m really happy so many new people are coming to the outdoors [during the pandemic],” Marra said. “In the long run, I hope this bodes really well for our parks and natural resources as folks recognize and remember how much they valued them during this time.”

To view this guidance and learn more about the conservancy’s efforts to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on the Appalachian Trail, visit appalachiantrail.org/covid-19.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.