The answer you’ve all been waiting for: Yes, the Long Trail System’s trails will open tomorrow, May 22. However, it’s not as simple as that statement. With both a late snowpack and COVID-19 as dominant concerns this hiking season, we are asking hikers to take a few extra precautions to both protect public health and protect the public resource of our beautiful trails.
Hiking is the ideal outdoor recreational activity for these times since you can get outside for exercise and fresh air while still adhering to social distancing and hygiene guidelines, but let’s be smart about it, and above all, let’s be sensitive to trail conditions and courteous to other hikers itching to get out just as much as we are.
Trail Conditions and Backcountry Facility Closures
Does this mean winter conditions are gone? Nope. If you are hiking at higher elevations, there is definitely still snow and ice, with the snow line at anywhere from 2750′ to 3000′ depending on your location. The Mount Mansfield snow stake is showing 41″ of snow still present (versus 15″ for this date in an average year). The snowy treadway is undermined in many places where drainages and streams are running, creating the potential for bad post-holing and the risk of ankle injuries. All of the alpine zones are exposed at this point, but you definitely need microspikes to get there. If you are hiking to these areas, please be prepared for winter conditions (with traction, layers, and experience) or consider staying below the snow line for another couple of weeks.
Does this mean muddy conditions are gone? Also nope. According to GMC field staff, the mud is still pretty significant in a lot of places since the snow line is so low. It depends on the location, but people will see mud at every elevation on the Long Trail System this weekend. If you encounter muddy conditions, please either turn back or be prepared to walk straight through puddles and mud to avoid damaging the surrounding vegetation.
Trails on state and federal lands are open, but caution is still needed: staff and volunteers have not been able to perform the normal levels of spring trail maintenance or assessments. GMC volunteers were delayed in starting their spring trail maintenance due to COVID-19 restrictions and late-season snowpack. They are still working on clearing trails and hikers should expect to encounter areas of blowdowns from the winter. We will also be operating with very limited field staff this season and will need your help in stewarding the trails.
Here are a few tips for early season hikers:
- Plan ahead and prepare. Now is the time to practice extra caution and know the risks of any activity.
- Always let someone know where you will be hiking and when you expect to return.
- Carry a map and know which trailhead you need to return to.
- Bring a warm extra layer as mountaintops are chilly year-round and Vermont’s weather can quickly change. Be prepared for winter conditions if you are hiking above 2500’ in the near future.
- Bring rain gear; even an emergency poncho or garbage bag will help in a pinch.
- Water levels in streams and rivers may be higher than normal this time of year so use caution when crossing.
- Stay hydrated and bring food for long hikes.
- Report blowdowns or other issues on the trail to GMC or the appropriate land manager.
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.
Primitive camping along the trail can be difficult. Not only can it be hard to find a flat, clear spot for a tent in the rugged terrain of the Green Mountains, but it’s complicated because the rules vary depending on who the land manager is:
- Private Land: Camping is limited to designated areas only on private land. Use of this land is permitted through the generosity of the landowners, so please do not abuse the privilege.
- State Forests: In certain state forests, primitive camping is allowed but your campsite must be 100’ from any water source, 200’ from any trail or property line, 1000’ from any traveled road, and below 2500’ in elevation. See FPR’s website for more information and locations.
- Federal Land: Camping between shelters is permitted along much of the Long Trail in the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF). GMNF recommends campsites be at least 200’ from any water source or trail, and not to camp in the alpine zones.
While privies are closed, make sure you know how to go to the bathroom outdoors before heading out. Learn how far to step off the trail and how to dig a cathole, along with other ways to Leave No Trace, with this handy flier.
Planning a thru-hike or overnight hike? Check out our thru-hiker FAQ.
New COVID-19 Trail Etiquette
Out-of-state visitors are still being asked to self-quarantine for at least 14 days after arriving in Vermont and before engaging in any activities. For more information about health and safety precautions, please visit the Vermont Department of Health.
As with all outdoor recreation activities, hikers should go out only if you’re healthy, have not been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and/or have not recently traveled from a location with a CDC-issued travel advisory. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently, don’t touch your face, and embrace a “Park, Play and Move On” mentality.
If you are heading out on the trail, please follow the updated COVID-19 trail etiquette below:
- Know where and when to go: It’s best if we don’t all go to the most popular trailheads at the most popular times of day. Early morning or evening tends to be less crowded. Dispersal is key! You can plan your trip on www.trailfinder.info. If you arrive at a parking lot and it is full, find another trail.
- Maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from others: This includes dogs: please leash your dog. They are members of your household and need to keep their social distance as well (most standard leashes are six feet in length).
- Wear a cloth mask or face covering: Any time you know others may be present, you should have your mask on, even while hiking. Keeping it at the ready is okay if you can quickly and safely pull it up over your nose and mouth, doing this well before you come within six feet of others.
- Slow down, step back, and let people know when you’re approaching: Awareness and consideration are key. Everyone should yield to everyone right now and making some noise as you approach is recommended. A friendly “Hello!” followed by a pause to figure out your next move is the best tactic. If you find yourself coming up behind a slower walker and there’s not six feet to pass safely, slow down instead. If somebody is getting too close to you, step back to allow enough space.
- Step off the trail when needed: If the trail isn’t wide enough to allow for six feet in passing, step off the trail at a 90-degree angle, being careful not to tread on plants if at all possible. Once you’re six feet off, wait for the approaching group to clear the area before retracing your footsteps. Please do not cut a new trail parallel to the existing track.
- Keep single file (even on wide trails): Keep your group single file (this may mean you have to hike more slowly than you want to): do not spread out all over the trail. When you let someone pass, step off to the side and stay put — don’t walk alongside the path. The same goes for when you encounter ice or mud in the trail — stay on the trail and go right through it!
- Don’t stand across the trail to chat: It is great to see friends and acquaintances (who’s that behind the awesome plaid cloth mask?) but stopping on either side of the trail to chat just creates a breath “gauntlet” that others must either pass through or go off-trail to avoid.
- Embrace an arrive, play, and leave mentality: Do not gather in groups before or after activities.
- Hiking with children: If you are hiking with children, set expectations before getting out of the car. Remind them not to run up to people or dogs, and to cough and sneeze into their elbows while turned away from people. Children older than 2 years in age can and should be encouraged to use cloth masks or face coverings. Remind your kids often of the new rules; they will need lots of kind and consistent reminders of what this new behavior needs to look like — be sure that you are modeling it.
For more hiking information and recommendations you can talk to GMC’s visitor center staff by calling 802-244-7037 or emailing [email protected]. GMC offers waterproof paper maps and guidebooks for sale on the GMC online store, and digital maps of popular trails in Vermont through the Avenza Maps app, available in the App Store and Google Play. You can also chat with other hikers and see others’ trip reports in GMC’s Facebook Group.
We wish you a happy and safe hiking season!