In a normal year, Green Mountain Club staff and volunteers would be preparing trails for the upcoming hiking season right now and hikers would be getting ready to start their thru-hikes after mud season. But we all know that this is not a normal year. The COVID-19 global pandemic that has impacted all of us has impacted the Long Trail System too.
How has COVID-19 impacted the Long Trail System?
Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, the difficulty of maintaining adequate social distancing on many sections of the trail, and the possibility of the virus staying on frequently used surfaces like shelters, privies, and picnic tables, the Green Mountain Club is asking hikers to consider postponing their planned thru-hikes.
Is the trail open or closed? Until when?
To protect public health, shelters and privies on the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail in Vermont are closed. Trail managers are developing guidelines for the use of backcountry facilities and hope to open some facilities in a reduced capacity by June 15. GMC is encouraging day hikes only for now, but dispersed and primitive camping is allowed at some locations on the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail in Vermont.
What trail conditions can I expect this year?
As a result of the Governor’s Stay Home Stay Safe order, GMC staff and volunteers have had very limited capacity to conduct trail maintenance and most trails, shelters, and privies have not been prepared for hiker use. Overnight sites and summits may not be staffed or maintained this season. Hikers on the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail should expect unmaintained trails and trail-related facilities for the foreseeable future.
There are still winter conditions on very high trails, despite the spring-like feel of the trailheads, and in between, where the snow is melting, is a muddy, fragile mess. Trails that are oversaturated are vulnerable to damage from soil compaction and erosion with every footstep. Soil compaction degrades the quality of the trail by reducing its ability to absorb water, causing increased flooding later and making it harder for vegetation to grow. Erosion then carries the soil away, leaving rocks and roots exposed. This is why trails are closed during mud season, although the mud doesn’t stop once hiking season begins. See our hiking season blog for recent photos of ice and mud.
What are some things I should consider before planning my thru-hike this year?
Shelters, privies, and other backcountry facilities, even if/when opened (because they are currently closed), are not able to be sanitized and may provide a surface for virus transmission. Avoiding these facilities and primitive camping instead comes with its own set of concerns. Finding a level, clear spot to set up a tent can be difficult due to the rugged terrain of the Green Mountains, and greater numbers of hikers primitive camping will likely have an adverse impact on the natural resources of the Long Trail in the few places where resource-friendly primitive camping is possible. Primitive camping along the trail can also be complicated because the rules vary depending on who the land manager is. Find out more information about primitive camping rules here.
Due to the Governor’s Stay Home Stay Safe order, hiker services in Vermont may not be available. Shuttles, hostels/hotels, gear shops, restaurants, medical facilities, libraries, and grocery stores normally available to hikers may be closed or operating at limited capacity for the foreseeable future. (For example, lodging is currently not able to be booked before June 15.) Available services in small towns may not have the capacity to support thru-hikers in addition to their own residents. Drivers may be unlikely to pick up hitchhikers due to social distancing concerns so getting to town could necessitate walking there. We are not providing a shuttle driver list to hikers at this time in order to protect our shuttle drivers. This list may be available later in the season.
When will I be able to start my thru-hike?
Right now, “residents and non-residents coming to Vermont – for anything other than an essential purpose” – are required to quarantine for 14 days. Do you have an extra two weeks of time to do this before your thru-hike, plus somewhere to quarantine where you will not come into contact with others for that time period? As of 5/15/2020, this restriction will be in place until at least June 15th, with the possibility for an extension.
Some trails and trail-related structures and services will open this summer. But others may not open fully or may operate in a different way for the foreseeable future.
As the risk from the COVID-19 global pandemic decreases, trails and trail-related services will resume based on guidance from state health officials. This guidance is being developed now and we will share this with the hiking public as soon as we are able.
Hikers should expect public health and social distancing precautions to remain throughout the hiking season. New guidance for protecting public health at parking areas, shelters and overnight sites, and privies may be implemented and impact the use and availability of these services and facilities.
The 2020 hiking season is going to be different than past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hikers should expect some level of trail and trail-related facilities to be available this summer and fall, but availability may be limited to protect public health and trail resources. Thru-hikers should approach trip planning with an open mind and flexibility.
Should I postpone my planned thru-hike?
Thru-hikers should consider postponing their plans until Fall 2020 or the 2021 hiking season.
In addition to all the concerns listed above, hikers who are asymptomatic could act as vectors spreading the novel coronavirus to communities along the trail. Many of these communities lack the healthcare infrastructure to support their own residents, let alone extra travelers. If you do get sick, what is your plan for getting off trail? Where will you self-isolate for two weeks? If you get injured on trail, search and rescue workers will be put at risk and will need to take extra precautions to retrieve you and then take any used equipment out of rotation until it can be decontaminated.
Thru-hiking is a privilege, not a necessity. Please reconsider whether you have to hike this year and at the very least, adopt a flexible “wait and see” mentality. Because a Long Trail thru-hike doesn’t take the whole hiking season, there is plenty of time to monitor if the COVID-19 curve is being flattened, if volunteer and staff trail maintenance efforts have resumed, and what guidelines are being put out by health officials.
The Green Mountain Club is in the business of promoting hiking in Vermont and we have been doing so for 110 years. Nobody wants to see people out enjoying the hiking trails more than we do. But we have to protect you, the trail users, our staff and volunteers who maintain the trail and facilities, and the trail resource itself. Please stay tuned for further guidelines as we navigate these unprecedented times.
For more information:
The Green Mountain Club Gameroff Hiker Center in Waterbury Center is closed due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. However, Hiker Center staff are available to answer questions and provide information through phone (802-244-7037) and email ([email protected]). Please visit GMC’s COVID-19 Response page for the latest information on trail conditions and closures.