As much as we call a thru-hike a walk in the wilderness, that wilderness requires a surprising amount of civilization to properly function.
And of all the things that I thought might significantly affect a thru-hike, it never occurred to me that I would be impacted by a plague.
Planning the Continental Divide Trail
At first glance, hiking doesn’t require much in the way of support: you just go out and walk in the wilderness. But thru-hikes are different. It’s not just that you’re hiking through the wilderness. It’s that you’re hiking through the wilderness for months on end. As a result, thru-hikers are surprisingly dependent on civilization, and the resources it provides.
The current coronavirus (“COVID-19”) outbreak has disrupted just about every support mechanism a thru-hiker will use on the trail, as states and local jurisdictions go on lockdown and enforce measures meant to slow the spread of the virus.
Food is the primary reason hikers go into town. It is bulky and heavy, and after a certain point (7 - 10 days), it becomes almost impossible to keep carrying more. So hikers carry only as much as necessary to make it to the next town to resupply.
In town, this takes the form of three primary sources: food stores, post offices, and restaurants.
Food stores are open, but (at the moment anyway) selections are limited, which makes reliably getting food at a food store much more difficult. At home, I can just go back the next day to try and get something I need, but on the trail, spending multiple days in town to get food just doesn’t work.
As an alternative, one could instead resort to maildrops. The Continental Divide Trail goes directly through many trail towns in New Mexico. Between the post offices in town, and a few locations on alternate routes where packages can be shipped, one could conceivably hike all of New Mexico just on maildrops. But this would require pre-purchasing, packing, and shipping roughly 45 days worth of food. And if one hasn’t done so already, the chances of getting that much food from a food store is not good at the moment.
This presumes, of course, that post offices will be open their normal hours, and on-trail resupply points still accept packages, neither of which is guaranteed.
Restaurants provide easy access to tasty extra calories, but currently in New Mexico, restaurants are closed to dine-in customers.
Water caches in New Mexico are an essential lifeline for hikers, since the desert has very little in the way of water. The CDTC, as part of its terminus shuttle service, maintains five water caches between the terminus and Lordsburg. With the terminus shuttle currently not running (the CDTC has suspended shuttle service until April 17th), hikers who manage to start before then will have much curtailed access to water.
Additionally, on the CDT facebook group, I’ve seen at least two trail angels who normally maintain water caches announce that they will not be able to do that this year because of the coronavirus.
Hotels & Hostels
You can’t hike forever. Eventually you have to stop and take a break. It’s certainly possible (and cheaper) to do that on-trail, but many hikers (myself included) take full advantage of hotels and hostels in town for a shower and soft bed.
Currently, places of lodging in New Mexico are ordered to operate at no more than 50% capacity. This means it’s significantly more likely that there would be no available space in town for much-needed rest.
At least one hostel on the trail has already closed because of the coronavirus, and more closures are likely on the way.
Other Town Services
Laundromats are important, since washing clothes on-trail can be difficult. It’s unclear if they wold be considered an “essential service” and be open, or not.
I’ve mentioned post offices before in the context of food, but, hikers also use them to send “bounce boxes”. A box can be loaded up with nonessential supplies that might not be needed until later, such as maps, or gear temporarily not needed, and sent to a post office further ahead on the trail. If unopened, the box can be forwarded to another post office further down the trail free-of-charge.
Every hiker hopes never to see the inside of a medical facility while hiking, but the possibility for accidents and injuries is always there, and medical centers are likely to be preoccupied with coronavirus patients.
And of course, there’s all the other services we rely on in towns: stores for fuel canisters and replacing broken equipment; movie theaters for entertainment; barber shops; and the list goes on.
Shuttles & Hitchhiking
If the southern terminus shuttle stops running, starting the trail becomes significantly more challenging.
And while hitchhiking is not necessarily required in New Mexico, it’s all but required on the rest of the trail, as the trail further north doesn’t neatly go directly through towns often. If it becomes significantly harder to hitchhike to town, one could find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere with insufficient food and water.
Search and Rescue
If something happened on the trail and search-and-rescue services were required, I suspect they would be very hard to get. My guess is that first responders will probably be busy dealing with coronavirus patients and have little time to deal with people requiring assistance in the remote backcountry.
Early-season trail maintenance programs will likely be delayed or cancelled. This might not be a problem in the relatively flat and open New Mexico landscape, but is more likely to be needed as the trail enters more mountainous terrain in Colorado.
While one should never rely on the presence of trail angels, they provide a great service and assistance to hikers. My experience is that most trail angels are generally older, which makes them particularly less resilient to the virus.
With many physical stores closed, getting (or in particular, trying on) gear is more complicated. And at least one gear company I planned to purchase from has even temporarily closed for online orders. I’d planned on replacing some of my gear for this hike (which is what I’d intended to be writing about this week), so the shutdowns are making that more difficult. I could hike with my existing gear, but I would not feel comfortable about some aspects of it, and would very likely wind up trying to manage an on-trail replacement of some of it.
The Spread of Disease
New Mexico wants all out-of-state travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days. This is necessary to reduce the spread of the disease. It’s entirely possible to be healthy leaving home, and pick something up while traveling, since most modes of travel are going to involve large numbers of people in small enclosed spaces.
This really is the worst part of this pandemic. The coronavirus has a very long period where you are both contagious and symptom-free. This means that by traveling around, a hiker could unintentionally spread the virus between trail towns and not even realize they are doing so.
This is one reason why trail towns are asking visitors to stay away. One town in Colorado has already done so, and I’ve seen two towns on the Pacific Crest Trail do so as well. Many trail towns are small out-of-the-way locations, with little in the way of local healthcare facilities. Those facilities should be reserved for the people who live there. They will likely be quickly overwhelmed if the virus were to spread there. Hikers would just make matters worse, between spreading the disease more quickly to otherwise relatively isolated areas, or requiring medical assistance to the detriment of residents.
For this reason especially, thru-hikes this year are borderline irresponsible, opening up many people to an unnecessary (and potentially deadly) risk if things go wrong.
Which is why the CDC is currently recommending avoiding discretionary travel, which a thru-hike certainly is.
And which is why the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, as well as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Pacific Crest Trail Association, have all issued guidance recommending postponing or cancelling thru-hike plans. Even before that, the CDTC was warning thru-hikers to be prepared with the mental and financial resources to be able to self-isolate in a hotel room in a small town for two weeks if they became infected.
Because even though it’s inconvenient for hikers, it’s necessary for the survival of the communities along or in the vicinity of the trail.
What this means for my hike
As I write this, it’s technically possible for me to start my hike as planned. Realistically, though, I don’t think a northbound CDT hike is going to work this year. The logistics are going to become incredibly complicated and uncertain, and the threat of getting sick (or worse — getting other people sick) is too high.
I’d planned on taking a train from DC to Albuquerque, NM, rather than flying. But a train is, I think, more open to having possible sick passengers. So even before travel restriction requests and closure orders, I was already a little nervous about that. And if the restrictions in New Mexico are extended and the terminus shuttle (and water caches) cancelled for the remainder of the season, that’s going to make it extremely difficult to actually start. The 14-day quarantine on arrival in New Mexico is possible to navigate, but would be costly and a huge loss of time.
My original departure date is just under a month from today. While it’s possible things will improve between now and then, it’s very unlikely. I don’t have a whole lot of wiggle-room to start in New Mexico and still have time to complete the whole trail. A southbound hike, starting in June, would be worth considering, however the snowpack in Montana is significantly higher than average, and I don’t want to start hiking in a ton of snow. And, unless things do significantly improve between now and June, a southbound hike is going to have all the same problems as a northbound hike.
So, while I’m not yet cancelling my thru-hike — I’ll make a final decision in a couple of weeks — sadly, it’s extremely unlikely I’ll be hiking the Continental Divide Trail this year.
There’s always next year, though…