COVID-19 Safety

FAQs: ATC Guidance for Hiking During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On May 11, 2021, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) revised its COVID-19 guidance for hikers — click here for more information. Below are answers to common questions regarding this updated guidance.

Updated on June 9, 2021

Is the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) open?

All parts of the A.T. footpath and all trailhead access points are currently open aside from any closures unrelated to COVID-19 (e.g. – the seasonal closure of the A.T. on Katahdin in Baxter State Park). For more information on Trail conditions, shelter advisories, bear activity, including closures and/or detours, visit appalachiantrail.org/updates.

Are there travel restrictions?

Travel guidelines have been changing rapidly, therefore we encourage all guests to check individual states before traveling. More information and links to the latest guidance can be found on the ATC’s A.T. COVID-19 Restrictions page.

Travel guidelines will likely continue to ease as more people are vaccinated but may tighten again if COVID-19 cases increase or variants that are more contagious or deadly become more widespread. Refer to CDC guidelines  for more information.

Are there still group size restrictions?

Due to recent CDC guidance, the ATC is no longer advising hikers to limit their group sizes to six or fewer to reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, hiking in a small group size is still encouraged to reduce crowding during the pandemic as well as to reduce overall impacts to the resource. Crowded conditions, even outdoors, can lead to virus transmission, and smaller group size helps preserve the quiet beauty of the A.T. Keep in mind, the footpath is narrow and overnight sites are relatively small. The guidelines for group use on the A.T. are a maximum of ten for overnight use and a maximum of 25 for day use.

Is the A.T. crowded?

Many parts of the A.T. are extremely crowded, especially for day-use in areas that are well-known or close to population centers, and particularly on weekends and holidays. Overnight sites in popular or accessible areas may also be crowded on weekends. The moving “bubble” of thousands of northbound thru-hikers that started in Georgia can create crowded conditions at overnight sites over hundreds of miles. Hostels and other services may become full in trailside communities during certain seasons. However, on weekdays many areas see relatively light use.

What special things do I need to be aware of when hiking during COVID-19?

Update 5/13: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or physically distance in most cases, whether indoors or outdoors. Those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks and physically distance as recommended by the CDC. Some regions and businesses might also continue to require masks and physical distancing. Learn more: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html

Remember to always have a well-fitting mask ready in case you find yourself in crowded conditions, sharing car rides with people outside of your household, and when indoors in trailside communities. Carrying a trowel is always recommended on the A.T. so you can dispose of human waste properly when you are not near a privy. During the pandemic, it is especially important because camping away from shelter sites (where permitted) may facilitate social distancing. Storing your food in a personal bear-resistant container, such as a bear canister, is another way to expand your campsite options in areas where dispersed camping is allowed.

How do I plan for a day-hike during COVID-19?

Avoid popular spots, especially on weekends, go early in the day, and have a back-up destination at a less-crowded spot on the A.T. or another trail. Avoid parking on roadways when parking lots are full, which can create safety hazards and block emergency vehicles. View our Day-Hiking Checklist to make sure you have all the right gear.

Are there any special concerns for overnight/multiday backpacking trips?

Update 5/13: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or physically distance in most cases, whether indoors or outdoors. Those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks and physically distance as recommended by the CDC. Some regions and businesses might also continue to require masks and physical distancing. Learn more: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html

All overnight and multi-day hikers are encouraged to register their hikes on www.atcamp.org to avoid popular locations that can be overcrowded, especially on weekends and holidays. Be sure to bring a personal shelter, a trowel, hand sanitizer and a mask. View our backpacking checklist for a complete list of items, and our Hiker Resource Library for tools to help you plan your next adventure.

Can I use A.T. shelters?

Update 5/13: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or physically distance in most cases, whether indoors or outdoors. Those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks and physically distance as recommended by the CDC. Some regions and businesses might also continue to require masks and physical distancing. Learn more: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html

Shelters on National Park Service (NPS) A.T. corridor lands (55 shelters from central Virginia through Maine) remain closed during the pandemic due to public health concerns about community transmission.

Due to COVID-19, all shelters on the A.T. in Massachusetts are closed and all camping is prohibited on state lands; camping is permitted only at designated sites on the A.T. in Massachusetts, leaving only two sites currently open (on NPS lands) for camping. For a state-by-state list of shelters that are closed, visit appalachiantrail.org/at-restrictions.

Because shelters may be crowded and social distancing may not be possible, hikers are advised to be self-reliant and use a personal shelter. Visit our Camping page for more information.

If shelters are closed, can I still camp around them?

In almost all cases, when shelters are closed you can still camp around them. However, there are some exceptions, such as the Wise Shelter in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia, and shelters on state lands in Massachusetts.

Can I use a backpacking hammock on the A.T.?

Backpacking hammocks may be used on the A.T. wherever tenting is allowed. Be sure to use wide straps to protect the tree’s bark and choose trees and location carefully. Do not hang a hammock from any part of a shelter, as shelters are not designed to support them. Check out our video on hammocking best practices, considerations for choosing a campsite, and other helpful tips.

I want to avoid crowded campsites and shelter areas. Do I have to camp in designated spots?

Dispersed camping, which means campers have the freedom to select the location of their campsite, is allowed in some areas of the A.T., but requires more time, effort, and skill to find a comfortable and low-impact site than using a designated site. Dispersed camping often means you must carry water for a longer distance but can offer solitude that may not be available at designated sites. Dispersed camping opportunities are most abundant on the A.T. in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia on US Forest Service (USFS) lands. It is prohibited in many areas, so it is important to know local regulations. Visit our Camping page for more information.

Are privies closed?

Privies in most areas have now re-opened, including 75 on NPS A.T. corridor lands that were reopened on May 4, 2021, as more information became available from the CDC on how the virus spreads. Hikers should always bring a trowel to dig a cat hole 4-6 inches deep and 200 feet away from water or campsites, along with hand sanitizer and/or biodegradable soap, in case a privy is not available when needed. Before you go, check out our tips on digging a proper cat hole.

Where can I find information about current COVID-19 related closures or restrictions?

Visit the A.T. COVID-19 Restrictions page on the ATC website for the latest information on COVID-19 related closures or restrictions.

Can I start a thru-hike in 2021?

Starting May 11, 2021, hikers can begin their 2,193.1-mile journeys anywhere on the A.T. and will be eligible to have their thru-hikes recognized by the ATC.

Baxter State Park headquarters is currently closed to the public, but information is available by phone at 207-723-5140, 7 days a week, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Please note: Baxter State Park in Maine is closed until the Trail re-opens for the summer season in the second half of May or June, depending on weather and trail conditions.)

All thru-hikers traveling northbound should time their hikes to reach Vermont no sooner than Memorial Day to avoid unpleasant and challenging Trail conditions when mud season closures are in place and Trail environments are fragile and susceptible to damage.

I began my thru-hike in the period between March 31, 2020, and May 11, 2021. Do the miles I hiked during that time count toward 2,000-miler recognition?

No. Only miles hiked on/after May 11, 2021, or before March 31, 2020, will be counted toward 2,000-miler recognition whether a hiker is vaccinated or not. Thru-hikers who began their journeys this year prior to May 11 will have to repeat their hiked miles to count toward the ATC’s 2,000-miler recognition. If a hiker chooses to repeat those miles, we encourage the hiker to choose times outside March and April when returning to the southern end of the Trail in order to avoid the most crowded conditions there. These hikers will also have an additional 12 months to complete the remaining miles of their hike. Fall can be a beautiful time to hike on the A.T. in the southern states. A.T. hikers of any distance are asked to follow all CDC guidance in reducing the spread of COVID-19, which includes getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

Where is a good place to begin my thru-hike in May?

Mid-May is a good time to start a “flip flop” thru-hike northbound from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, or Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Toward the end of May, Shenandoah National Park becomes more crowded with northbound thru-hikers, so Harpers Ferry is a better start location. Completing a northbound thru-hike starting in Georgia in mid-May may be feasible for fit, experienced, and disciplined hikers. However, a faster-than-average pace is required to reach Katahdin before October 15 (the approximate date when the risk of weather-related closures in Baxter State Park increases). For additional suggestions, visit our flip flop thru-hiker page.

What about starting a southbound thru-hike in Maine for 2021?

Starting a thru-hike in Maine in June or early July can be a good option for experienced and fit hikers but is not recommended for novices due to the extreme climb of Katahdin followed by remote, rugged terrain throughout Maine. Visit our southbound thru-hiker page for more information. If you are a novice hiker planning a June or July start for your thru-hike, we recommend starting at an alternate location. Visit our flip-flop thru-hiker page for suggestions.

How can I register my plans online to start a thru-hike?

Register your thru-hike at www.atcamp.org, which will enable you to choose a less-crowded day to start, help other hikers know when and where crowding exists, and sign up for critical email and/or text alerts. Use our Hiker Resource Library to plan and prepare for your hike.

Is there a paper registration I should sign when I reach the starting point of my thru-hike?

Registration sign-ins are available for thru-hikers at the following locations:

  • Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center, Dawsonville, Georgia
  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy Visitor Center, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
  • Appalachian Trail Visitor Center in Monson, Maine
  • Katahdin Stream Campground, Baxter State Park, Maine

Will 2021 hangtags be available?

The ATC will resume distribution of A.T. 2021 hangtags for thru-hikers and section hikers who have the goal of hiking the entire A.T. when ATC-staffed visitor centers re-open. Hangtags may be obtained after hikers either:

  • Participate in a brief Leave No Trace orientation at designated A.T. visitor centers.
  • Complete the ATC’s online Leave No Trace certification. Those who successfully complete this program will be provided an online certificate (printable version coming soon), which can be shown to a visitor center representative as proof of completion.
2021 A.T. hangtags can be obtained at the following locations:
  • Amicalola Falls State Park, Dawsonville, Georgia (began May 31)
  • ATC Headquarters and Visitor Center, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (began May 27)
  • A.T. Visitor Center, Monson, Maine (began June 2)

Correction 5/12: A previous version of this answer indicated that only those who started hikes after 5/11 would be eligible for an A.T. hangtag.

Will ATC mail a hangtag to me?

Currently, hangtags will only be available at designated visitor centers (see above question).

Are hikers eligible to count miles hiked between March 31, 2020, and May 11, 2021, toward a 2,000-miler recognition if they were fully vaccinated?

No. Only miles hiked on/after May 11, 2021, or before March 31, 2020, will be counted toward 2,000-miler recognition whether a hiker is vaccinated or not. Thru-hikers who began their journeys this year prior to May 11 will have to repeat their hiked miles to count toward the ATC’s 2,000-miler recognition. If a hiker chooses to repeat those miles, we encourage the hiker to choose times outside March and April when returning to the southern end of the Trail in order to avoid the most crowded conditions there. These hikers will also have an additional 12 months to complete the remaining miles of their hike. Fall can be a beautiful time to hike on the A.T. in the southern states. A.T. hikers of any distance are asked to follow all CDC guidance in reducing the spread of COVID-19, which includes getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

Will any thru-hikers be recognized in 2021?

The ATC will recognize thru-hikes competed in 2021 if a hiker starts May 11 or later. A thru-hike is defined as completing an entire hike of the A.T. in 12 months or fewer — in other words, a thru-hike can take place over two calendar years as long as the time elapsed is no more than 12 months. A hike of the entire A.T. of more than 12 months is considered a section-hike (with the exception noted below). Hikers who complete the Trail in either time frame are considered 2,000-milers. More information about the ATC’s 2,000-miler recognition can be found on our 2,000-miler application.

I got off the A.T. in March 2020 during my thru-hike due to the pandemic and have been waiting for the all-clear from ATC to resume my thru-hike. Will I still be considered a thru-hiker even though more than 12 months have elapsed?

A special exception has been made for thru-hikers who left the Trail in March 2020 and have chosen to wait for the all-clear from the ATC to resume their thru-hikes to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Those hikers will have an additional 12 months to complete the remainder of their thru-hikes once they resume their hikes on or after May 11, 2021, and will still be considered thru-hikers.

Will section-hikers be recognized as 2,000-milers in 2021?

Miles hiked in 2021 starting May 11 or later can be counted toward a section-hike that will be recognized by the ATC. Miles hiked after March 31, 2020, and before May 11, 2021, will not count toward 2,000-miler recognition.

Are shuttles available during COVID-19?

Update 5/13: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or physically distance in most cases, whether indoors or outdoors. Those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks and physically distance as recommended by the CDC. Some regions and businesses might also continue to require masks and physical distancing. Learn more: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html

The availability of private shuttles may be reduced in some areas due to the pandemic. Be prepared to wear a mask and be mindful that the enclosed space of a vehicle may have increased risk when riding with those who may not be vaccinated. As always, ride-sharing services may not be available in remote areas of the A.T. Cell service may not be available at trailheads, so plan ahead. Links to shuttles service providers (unaffiliated with the ATC) can be found at www.appalachiantrail.org/transportation.

When will the ATC’s Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry reopen?

The ATC Headquarters and Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, reopened with modified operations and COVID-19 safety protocols on May 27, 2021. For more information, please visit the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center page.

Will thru-hikers and eligible section-hikers be able to get their photo taken for the official hiker album at the ATC Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry?

Yes, this service is available now that the ATC Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry reopened on May 27, 2021. We do ask hikers to be flexible and patient, as our staff and volunteer capacity may be reduced until operations normalize.

Are hostels along the A.T. open during the pandemic?

Some hostels along the A.T. have remained open, but many are operating at reduced capacity due to local COVID-19 health department requirements. Some may be closed. Hikers should be prepared to follow individual hostel’s guidelines as well as local health regulations regarding masks, and have a back-up plan in case space is not available.

Can thru-hikers get vaccinated along the Trail?

Thru-hikers who have not been vaccinated are encouraged to get vaccinated at sites in towns along the Trail. The website www.vaccines.gov can help hikers locate sites in Trailside communities or nearby towns. We encourage thru-hikers to get vaccinated before they start their thru-hikes.

How was the decision made to not recognize thru-hikes during the pandemic?

The ATC convened a partnership of land management agencies, staff, and public health professionals to form a COVID-19 task force. Long-distance hiking, as a form of interstate travel, was identified as a high-risk activity with the potential to cause outbreaks among hikers and in trailside communities. Based off this risk, the partnership made the decision in the best interest of the broader public during the pandemic.

Is it advisable for all hikers to now attempt long-distance hikes?

While we have changed our guidance noting that long-distance hiking can be considered a safer activity and an increasing number of Americans are now vaccinated—with vaccines now widely available—we will note that CDC still recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated, stating that travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Although ATC will not require proof of vaccinations for 2,000-miler recognition, we encourage anyone to postpone hikes involving interstate travel until they are vaccinated to avoid putting themselves and others at risk, especially if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or are traveling to or from areas with high COVID-19 case rates. We also encourage hikers to honor states’ travel guidance even if issued in the form of recommendations rather than requirements.

How many people are currently attempting to thru-hike the Trail?

Our estimate as of May 11 is that approximately 3,000 thru-hikers have begun treks this year, which is similar to recent years prior to the pandemic. As of May 2, a total of 2,164 aspiring northbound thru-hikers (NOBOs) had signed the register at Amicalola Falls State Park. However, not all NOBOs sign the register or start at the park. Also, a small number of NOBOs will continue starting through the month of May. Although we do not know how many flip-flop thru-hikers have started, about 300 are registered online via www.atcamp.org through May 11. At the time of this post, the total number of hikers registered via www.atcamp.org to start thru-hikes in 2021 (NOBO, flip-flop, and southbound throughout the entire year) is 3,686.

Will the halt in 2,000-miler recognition skew the historical data on how many people are accessing the A.T. and/or attempting to thru-hike the Trail?

The data on Trail usage and Trail completions by thru-hikers and long-distance section-hikers in 2020 and 2021 will be skewed due to several factors related to the pandemic. The ATC’s 2,000-miler recognition pause was one of multiple sources of data that will be incomplete for those years. However, during a pandemic that has resulted in the loss of more than half a million American lives, our number one priority became using the tools available to us to help reduce potential spread of the virus by actively discouraging non-essential travel.

Did the ATC ever close the Trail, shelters, campsites, etc.?

No. The ATC does not have the authority to close the Trail, shelters, privies, campsites, or trailheads. Those closures can only be enacted by the land-owning agencies for each area. During the pandemic, NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, and several state and local agencies closed the A.T. or facilities under each of their jurisdictions. However, the ATC is the only entity with the ability to effectively track changes across 87 different agencies that each has a role in managing the A.T., and clearly communicate those changes to the public trail-wide.

I followed all CDC, state, and local guidelines to the best of my ability. Why won’t my hike be recognized?

Until recently, the CDC has advised against all non-essential travel, stating, “Travel increases your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19. Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, even if you are vaccinated.” This was a key part of our decision in pausing our 2,000-miler recognition program.

I would like to provide Trail magic/hold a hiker feed along the Trail. What is the best way to do this?

If you would like to be part of the wonder that the A.T. experience offers hikers, we recommend the most essential support is volunteering with a local Trail club or the ATC, where help is needed now more than ever. Information about volunteering can be found at www.appalachiantrail.org/waystovolunteer or by contacting your local Trail club.

If you are still thinking about supporting hikers in other ways, visit our Trail magic page at www.appalachiantrail.org/trailmagic. Keep gatherings small and off-trail, choose prepackaged food and drink when offering them away from kitchen facilities to avoid spreading food-borne illnesses, and follow Leave No Trace practices.

I contracted COVID-19 and I think it happened on/near the Trail. Where should I report this?

If you think you have symptoms now, please follow CDC guidance to determine if you should get tested or need to take other steps. If you think you think you have contracted COVID-19 on/near the A.T. at any time during the pandemic, fill out our Report A Covid-19 Diagnosis form.

Will ridgerunners and ATC Trail crews be on the Trail this year?

The usual number of ridgerunners (about 30) will be out on popular sections of Trail this year during periods of peak use, educating visitors about Leave No Trace practices and local regulations. A.T. ridgerunners also mitigate impacts and report on Trail conditions.

ATC trail crews (Konnarock, Mid-Atlantic, S.W.E.A.T. and Rocky Top) and crews run by Trail clubs will be performing their usual trail relocation and rehabilitation work. Due to COVID-19 concerns at the time of planning for the 2021 season, some ATC trail crews may be delayed or have reduced capacity. Any updates will be posted at www.appalachiantrail.org/crews.