The coronavirus has created opportunities for trail hikers by providing time to pursue the leisure activity as they practice social distancing in wide open spaces.
Jake Caples, 27, says he has traversed 500 of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,190 miles since May 23 as coronavirus shutdowns slowed his work as a touring audio technician in Hampstead, Maryland.
“Otherwise, hiking the Appalachian Trail was a long lifetime goal. I thought I’d be doing it in retirement like most folks out here,” Mr. Caples said from the trail.
Nora Sands, who has been hiking the Appalachian Trail since March 14, said even the most experienced hikers have been “dropping like flies” due to worries about the spread of the coronavirus.
“When people talk about the AT, they’re like, ‘I love the AT but it’s getting way too crowded.’ This year, it’s like we’re hiking like back in the 70s when nobody did it,” said Ms. Sands, 24, a traveling nurse whose father is an editor at The Washington Times.
About 48 million people hiked in the U.S. in 2018, according to Statista, a German company that compiles statistics for market and opinion research.
Wesley Trimble, program outreach and communications manager for the American Hiking Society, said there are a variety of risks along the spectrum of day hiking to thru-hiking (walking an extensive trail from end to end) in the age of COVID-19.
“Most of our guidance has been around encouraging people to stay local in their areas because by traveling distances, there are greater chances of the spread and transmission of the virus,” Mr. Trimble said of his nonprofit organization, which focuses on preserving trails.
The hiking society advises its 7,500 members to use their “best judgment.” Its guide to COVID-19 states that sharing public restrooms and shopping for supplies at campgrounds could bring hikers in contact with the virus or spread it to others.
Sherrie Dulany, an avid hiker in western North Carolina, says restrooms aren’t the only shared items hikers are wary of.
“I did notice that many of us that take pictures offered to take and text pictures to other families/couples rather than being passed phones to take the pics on theirs. It was nice. A little unsettling giving your number to someone else with your picture, but it felt safer than spreading germs,” said Ms. Dulany, 49, a special education coordinator.
Cleaning restrooms is a priority for the maintenance staff at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, said Chris Derman, chief of interpretation and education at the site.
Mr. Derman said Big South, which runs from Kentucky to Tennessee, is lucky to have open spaces in its campgrounds and trails, so they have not had to enforce crowd control at popular spots.
“It’s a park that is popular to people because on almost any given day, you can go out on the trail and feel like you have the whole place to yourself,” he said, adding that other campgrounds with closely packed campsites have resorted to closing every other site to ensure spacing between groups.
According to American Hiking Society, there are nearly 88,000 miles of hiking trails on federal lands across the country, including 73,000 miles managed by the U.S. Forest Service and 9,000 miles overseen by the National Park Service.
Some of the longest U.S. trails include the 6,800-mile American Discovery Trail, which starts in Delaware and cuts through 15 states to end in California; the 6,800-mile Great Western Loop, which spans nine states in the West and the Pacific Northwest; and the 5,400-mile Eastern Continental Trail, which snakes northward from Key West, Florida, to Belle Isle, Newfoundland.
The Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, currently has only 5.2 miles of its total length closed, says the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The nonprofit preservation group says it likely will recommend hikers to return to the trail, barring increases in coronavirus cases.
Mr. Caples said there is a split in the hiking community about whether thru-hiking is safe right now.
“Well, I think with the right concessions and with the right change in how you do things a little bit, just like everybody else has, I think hiking can be a safe option right now,” he said from the Appalachian Trail near Damascus, Virginia.
Bob Palin, vice president of public relations for the American Discovery Trail, said his team recommends its hikers take only day hikes right now and isn’t tracking thru-hikers, though there are some on the trail.
“It basically reflects the whole of society. It’s a split between the people who think being outside and not having a lot of contact makes it worth being up and those of us who are more conservative and want to stay closed until we know it’s safe,” Mr. Palin said.