Extreme social distancing on the PCT in 2021

Traveling the Pacific Crest Trail can be about the people you meet along the way.  The trail has led to lifelong friendships and even marriages. But the defining aspect of a PCT journey has also always been about getting away, finding quiet and being in wild and scenic places.

2021 is a good year for us to return to that more solitary long-distance hiking experience. The Covid-19 pandemic is still in full force, and by the time the hiking season begins, only a small percentage of the population will have had a Covid vaccine. So, it’s a good year to embrace solitude, and have a more self-reliant experience.  This will mean carrying more weight, resupplying less often and avoid sharing rides, all to reduce exposure to Covid-19.

You can choose to be safer

It’s a given that being in remote, mountainous areas may be one of the best places to be during a pandemic. But the trail is popular, the experience includes resupply stops, and there are countless opportunities to be close to other people along the trail.

For starters, there are the people you may end up hiking with for an extended time: your trail family or “tramily.” Many times these are new friends you meet on the trail and strike up a friendship. But being a long-distance hiker doesn’t automatically mean someone is zero-risk for Covid. Ask your hiking partners for their real names, and if it’s a possibility, be up-front about any potential recent exposure to the virus you may have had.

Does this photo raise a red flag during the pandemic? (It should.) Hikers napping in the shade in the Mojave Desert. Photo by Leonardo Nicoletti.

It’s not unusual for people to camp and socialize together along the trail; this is a cherished part of the trail experience. But it’s safer to avoid socializing closely with strangers. Camp away from other people and enjoy the stars and the quiet. If you have to camp right next to others, try not to share the air and keep a safe distance between everyone. You’ll also pass people along the trail where there isn’t room to step six feet off the tread. Have a good mask and easily be able to put it on.

Getting to and from trail towns for resupply: use your legs

On a long-distance trip there will obviously be times when you need to visit a town or resupply. In earlier years, a classic part of the experience was spending time in our trail towns. This is not the year to do more of that. Riding in a vehicle with a stranger has an elevated risk of coronavirus infection—and that risk goes up if you’re packed into a vehicle with several other hikers.

This is the year for road walks into town—avoid hitchhiking. Photo by Sean Jansen.

This year, plan your days to include walking into town when possible. Just say no to that stranger offering a ride, no matter how kind they may seem and how tempting it will be. There are dozens of resupply locations along the PCT that are walkable from the trail. Carry food between those places so that you can avoid the risk of a car ride.  We understand this isn’t convenient, but it’s far better than possibly catching or spreading Covid-19. 

Other tactics you can use to stay safer include

  • Carry a few extra days’ worth of food so you don’t need to resupply as often.
  • Consider buying a solar charger so stops in town aren’t necessary to recharge your electronics.
  • Take a zero day out on the trail in a beautiful location—all zero days don’t have to be in towns.
  • Hike fewer miles per day—you’ll reduce the chance of injury (requiring a town stop) and be less exhausted.
  • Embrace being dirty! Go longer without needing a hot shower, and/or bring a bucket or plastic milk jug cut in half to scoop water from a stream and take it 200 feet away to do your laundry and rinse yourself off on the trail.
  • Ship resupply boxes to yourself so you can avoid hanging out in grocery stores and can quickly get in and out of towns.

Once you’re in a town there are all kinds of possibilities for close contact: shopping in grocery stores and pharmacies, going to restaurants (if they’re open), standing in lines at post offices and sharing hotel rooms are just a few. There’s also the natural desire to socialize. We get it. The PCT connects us. This year, connect with nature, rather than the strangers you might meet.

Avoid the temptation to join crowds along the trail—for any reason. Photo by Mariel Feider.

You may think, why not hang out in town? You’d do many of these things if you were home. But there’s a big difference between coming down with Covid on a remote mountain trail than in your own home. On a long-distance journey through remote areas, the stakes are higher. If you are infected by the virus and become ill with Covid deep in the wilderness, it won’t be just you but many others you could put at risk.

Think of the potential consequences and make responsible choices

Lots of us love the social side of the PCT. We love forming bonds with new people through this incredible trail. This year, try to get by with less. This is the year for a wilderness experience.

We all want to get back to normal as quickly as possible. And we recognize that many trail town businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic. We’re asking you to think of the consequences to yourself and others if you were to contract and spread Covid.

Our goal is to get through the 2021 season safely—both on the trail and in trail towns. With good planning and the willingness to experience the PCT like the pika and bears do, we can make it a successful season.

For more information on being on the PCT during the pandemic, read our PCT Covid Guidance.

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.