The COVID-19 pandemic has me heartbroken by the death toll, saddened by the widespread fear, longing for social engagement, deflated by its economic impact, fascinated by the science, and — most of all right now — simply anxious to return to a “normal” that more closely resembles the old one than the current one.
I’m jonesing for this return because mid-spring through mid-fall is my favorite half of the year. I’m also financially dependent on it: guiding trips during these months is my primary source of income.
As infection, hospitalization, and death rates appear to be peaking, there’s increasing national and regional debate about when and how to regain normality. Among my readers, I’d like to have a more specific discussion: When and how will backpacking be safe and feasible again?
Safe & feasible
When I first drafted this post, the leading question only pertained to the safety of backpacking, which can be thought of in two equally important ways:
- By backpacking, are you putting yourself at risk, because of your own vulnerabilities to COVID-19? And,
- By backpacking, are you putting others at risk, by becoming a vector for the disease?
But there’s also an issue of feasibility. Backpacking normally involves travel and public lands, and both are subject to a patchwork of public and private mandates, guidelines, and decisions. Since these positions may not perfectly or promptly mirror the safety risks, they must be navigated separately. Moreover, there’s been a run on some critical items (e.g. hand sanitizer, instant rice, and water treatments), and it may months for supplies to fill backorders and match current demand.
At least by spring 2022, and probably more like 2021, and in some ways even in 2020, backpacking will become safe and feasible again. This point will have been reached when we have:
- A vaccine,
- Effective medical treatments, and/or
- Herd immunity.
- Outbreaks of COVID won’t stretch the capacity of our medical infrastructure, like workers, PPE, beds, and ventilators; and,
- Testing and contact tracing is widely available and implemented, so that flare-ups can be quickly tamped down (“seek and destroy”).
Most people and policymakers will interpret this set of conditions as a green light to proceed fully with life as we once knew it.
As of mid-April 2020, we don’t check any of the necessary boxes:
- We have no vaccine, rigorously studied treatments, or herd immunity;
- Medical resources are in short supply; and,
- Testing is relatively limited and slow, and our contact tracing systems haven’t been scaled up for a pandemic.
Leaders decided that the societal cost of inaction was too great, so since early-March in the US we’ve been subject to mass mitigation strategies that were painfully imprecise but ultimately effective. We were told to stay at home, and all things non-essential were closed or cancelled.
Under current conditions, it’s difficult to argue that backpacking can be done safely or that it’s even feasible.
As a case study, consider the circumstances under which I decided (or was forced, really) to postpone our guided trips in southern Utah that were scheduled to start on April 20th.
- None of our clients or guides have been vaccinated or are known to be immune.
- We’re unaware of who and how many people have the virus in our hometowns and in the gateway towns of Escalante and Boulder.
- If we were to need medical attention — due to a condition related or unrelated to COVID — we’d be putting stress on an already overtaxed medical system.
- Many clients reside in states with stay-at-home mandates, and/or were prohibited from traveling by their employers.
- Utah requires that all out-of-state travelers complete a health declaration form when entering the state.
- Escalante Outfitters, which we use as a base camp, has closed its cabins, campground, and restaurant until further notice. And,
- Recreation access to the Escalante River canyons has been closed by Garfield County.
Barriers to backpacking elsewhere may be different, but the story is essentially the same. For example, all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is closed, except for the parkway; the Pacific Crest Trail Association has asked hikers to stay off the trail; and the sheriff of San Juan County, Colo. implemented a “Locals Only” policy that prohibits access by outsiders to 220,000 acres of federal land. For similar reasons, I postponed our May trips in West Virginia, too.
It would seem unlikely that the current restrictions will be lifted before there is spare medical capacity again, probably in May 2020 for most locations.
But it seems equally implausible that they remain in place until we have a vaccine or treatments, probably in 2021 — the economic cost would simply be too great. I’m skeptical that we’ll even wait for widespread testing and contact tracing, the timeline for which is unclear to me but which intuitively seems unlikely by, say, Independence Day.
So Americans will probably be presented with opportunities to normalize — like returning to work, attending religious services, using mass transit, dropping off children at daycare or maybe school, boarding an airplane, and going on a backpacking trip — while the risk is still present, elevated, and somewhat unknown.
COVID-19 is new, but cost-benefit decisions are not — we make them everyday, such as when we drive a car, eat at Five Guys, or hike in bear habitat. During this time, each of us will need to independently consider the risks and our risk tolerance.
Personally, I’ll soon be preparing our clients and guides for this phase, especially those joining us in Alaska in late-June and Yosemite in July. I remain hopeful that these trips will run, but I’m doubtful that I can eliminate all COVID-related risks by implementing new safeguards (e.g. masks, hand washing, group sizes, social distancing) or that I can secure an Abbot ID NOW device for pre-trip testing.
Now let’s make this a discussion. I’m curious to know the circumstances under which you will feel safe backpacking again, and perhaps the context for or an explanation of your decisions. Specifically:
- Are you working off a timetable or waiting for specific developments?
- What must be the messaging from government officials and/or health experts?
- What resources must be in place, such as spare medical capacity, widespread testing, contact tracing, effective treatments, or a vaccine?
- What behaviors would you expect and demand of others in your group or on the trail?
- What best practices would you expect of an organizations like guide services, hiking clubs, and meetup groups?
I expect comfort levels to reflect the nature of the trip. For example, under what conditions will you feel comfortable:
- Hiking with friends or even strangers?
- Visiting high-use areas and corridors like the Appalachian Trail or Angel’s Landing?
- Carpooling to a trailhead with non-household family and friends?
- Traveling to a faraway destination that requires air travel and motels?
- Undertaking an ambitious and remote itinerary, such as a high route or the Alaskan bush?
Backpacking is unlikely to be the same in 2020, but some is better than none. I’d encourage you to be cautious and listen to the experts — our favorite trails, routes, and destinations will be there.