The Merits of Caution During a Pandemic: Be Safe Hiking

Please note: This article originally appeared on January 16, 2021.

Last year, when the coronavirus had just reached our shores and the full scope of the coming tragedy was not yet known, thru-hiking season was just getting underway. 

Once the pandemic hit the U.S. full force, the wisdom of starting or continuing a thru-hike was a hot topic online and off, and prompted a challenging decision for those who had planned for months, if not years, to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail or other long trails.  Some hikers made light of the risk.  Others ignored it.  Others went by incorrect or flawed information.  Many cancelled their adventure, though not all.

Backpacking continuously over the course of several months requires a certain level of courage. Not everyone can tolerate the risks of backcountry living such as tick bites, gear failure or injury far from town, bad weather events, illness, and sometimes simply loneliness. The Trek’s 2019 survey demonstrates that for those who intended a full thru-hike, injury was the number one reason hikers got off trail, followed by family/personal issues, running out of money,  running out of time, and illness.

There has been no illness like COVID-19 in a century.

The Facts About COVID-19

The best way to ensure you have the correct information about a tough topic is to go to the people or organizations you know are reliable.  I consider the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to be chief among these, so I refer to them often. Here’s how they explain COVID-19.

What it is: COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. “Novel” means it has not been seen before in humans.  It is a respiratory infection that spreads from person to person. Symptoms can be mild to severe, and as the families of 370,000+ people in this country can tell you, it can also result in death.  On the other hand, it is quite possible to be infected with the novel coronavirus but asymptomatic.  If that happens, you are infectious to others.  Feeling well isn’t a sign you should lower precautions.  Quite the opposite.  Mask up.  You could make someone else sick.

How it spreads: Human behavior is a primary driver in the growth of an epidemic.  Experts in virology and epidemiology, including those who have studied other pandemics and outbreaks, agree on this.  Studies such as this one bear that out.

The CDC lists these primary ways that the coronavirus is spread to others:

During close contact:

  1. When people with COVID-19 cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe they produce respiratory droplets.
  2. Respiratory droplets cause infection when they are inhaled or deposited on mucous membranes, such as those that line the inside of the nose and mouth.
  3. As the respiratory droplets travel further from the person with COVID-19, the concentration of these droplets decreases.

From airborne transmission:

  1. Some infections can be spread by exposure to the virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours. These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.
  2. Through surfaces – this is considered far less common than other means of infection. It could happen if a person touches a surface where respiratory droplets of someone infected have landed and then touches his mouth, nose or eyes. This can be avoided simply with handwashing and sanitizing.

To recap: the virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets.  That’s why wearing a mask and social distancing are critical to stopping the spread of the disease.

Testing plays a critical role in stopping or slowing the transmission of the virus. If you think you may have been exposed to someone with the virus, get tested so that you know whether or not to quarantine if your result is positive.  There are more details about testing on the CDC website.

COVID-19 is a terrible illness, even if you survive it

Nothing like the COVID-19 pandemic has happened within the lifetimes of the backpacking community, so it’s understandable that some have less than realistic views of COVID, but in the U.S. it has killed 374,000 [as of 1/11/21) people in a year – and rising.  Take it seriously.

I sometimes hear people dismiss the disease by citing high survival rates. However, survivors of COVID-19 don’t always return to their pre-COVID life.  Clinical studies like this one and this one have demonstrated that even mild cases of COVID-19 can cause lingering and serious symptoms – these people are sometimes referred to as “long haulers.”

Young people and athletic people can get it

Physically fit hikers would do well to pay attention to a study produced by the CDC Morbidity and Mortality weekly report, which noted “Even among young adults aged 18–34 years with no chronic medical conditions, nearly one in five reported that they had not returned to their usual state of health 14–21 days after testing.”

And from Johns Hopkins Medicine, this article reviews the risks to young adults, saying “Coronavirus infections requiring hospitalization are not only possible in younger adults, but the rate of these cases is increasing as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus continues to spread.”

This article translates data from a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association about COVID’s effects on people ages 18 through 34.

It’s not all about you

We live in an interconnected world. Those of us who love nature and the outdoors surely realize this.  Further, how we treat the planet is linked to how successful pandemics occur.  (To learn more, read this article by Jim Robbins.)

COVID-19 tests our ability to care for those around us.  You can feel fine but still be infected and thus a risk to others.  If you develop COVID in a rural area you might end up stressing a small health care system that lacks robust resources.

Please note: This article was originally published on January 21, 2021.

Specific guidelines for outdoor activities

The CDC’s guidelines for outdoor recreation can be summarized as follows: Wear a mask, socially distance/avoid crowded places, and wash your hands often. They note that traveling a distance can be riskier than staying near home because of the larger number of people you might be exposed to. Their camping guidelines are basically just that simple: Stay at least six feet away from people you don’t live with, wash your hands often and thoroughly using soap and water if available; otherwise, use hand sanitizer.

They also stress a very simple point: outdoors is safer than indoors.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has stated that they won’t recommend long-distance hikes until there is a universally available vaccine.  Several areas along the AT have prohibited shelter stays or overnight camping.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association is issuing permits for 2021, but at the same time they encourage Pacific Crest Trail hikers to delay their trek until 2022.  Notably, California is under a fairly strict stay-home order right now.  Southern California, including San Diego county, has 0% ICU beds available and is under the highest level of restriction.

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition website has several really good points – that because of the pandemic, drivers will probably be far less willing to pick up hitchhikers, and towns along the trail may be similarly inhospitable.  If you become ill while on trail, you may not be able to get to a place to quarantine without risking infecting others.

The “new normal”?

We are being asked to do things that go against human nature, such as refraining from gathering, limiting hugs, muting or canceling traditionally fun holidays such as Halloween and Christmas.  In some cases we are being forced to let go of dreams.  But a good argument can be made that when we sacrifice, we do so for the good of our communities, our state, our country, our world. COVID-19 forces us to ask the question, “How will my behavior impact those around me?”

I see no way that we will ever go back to what we viewed as normal. So many lives have been lost, terrible financial crises borne, and the stress of dealing daily with the threat of COVID-19 all overshadow the old normal.  Children have had their education and social lives disrupted.  And Americans’ view of the epidemic has been polarized and politicized.  Even the vaccine can’t turn back time.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and we can help shape the new, post-epidemic world.

Don’t wait for things to get “back to normal.”  Make your own future, and make it beautiful and bountiful and full of peace and respect for the world around you.

Stay informed about infection rates, hot spots, travel warnings, and vaccination outcomes.  Then assess your risk and decide if you can maintain the behaviors that will reduce the spread. Thinking hard before committing to a long hike during a pandemic is worth it.

This originally appeared on the COVID-19 Observer.