Pandemic Crest Trail: Thru Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the Summer of COVID-19

  • Updated: May 01, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

Hello, my trail name is Masochist and I am one of the dirty rebels who thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail during the summer of 2020.

In the highly uncertain early days of the shutdown, talk about whether it was responsible or even possible to hike this year reached some slightly excessive levels of vitriol. Now that it's several months down the line and we've all hopefully regained a bit of perspective I feel it's important to relate the thought process leading up to my decision to hike and also document how COVID-19 actually affected life on trail this year. Because I still see people online repeating statements that are just wrong.

I started down in Campo on May 5th when things were past the peak of uncertainty but still very much up in the air. I finished at the Canadian border on September 29 when life still wasn't back to whatever passes for normal these days. Along the way I encountered heat waves, earthquakes, landslides, fires, unhealthy levels of smoke, rain, and finally a bit of snow. And for what it's worth the only disease I personally encountered or even heard of others having on trail was waterborne giardia. 

As far as I'm aware I didn't get anyone sick or contribute to anyone getting sick though that's impossible to know for sure and I would personally feel horrible if I had. I set out taking what felt like an appropriate amount of precaution and despite the early weeks of uncertainty this became the best year I could have asked for to do the trail.

Also if you're one of the people who feels strongly that people shouldn't have been hiking this year I completely respect your opinion and won't try to convince you otherwise. Hopefully this will at least demonstrate to you that a good deal of thought went into hiking the trail this year at least for some of us and give a little more realistic view of conditions on the ground.

If anything below is incorrect or you feel I left something out or misrepresented please let me know and I'll make corrections.


In January of 2020 people started to be aware of a respiratory virus coming out of Wuhan China. The first US case was officially confirmed on January 21st. 

March 13th after what could at best be described as a lot of mixed messaging a national emergency was declared in the US. 

March 16th the Pacific Crest Trail Association sent out guidance urging people to consider the situation when it came to hiking the trail and sharing common sense suggestions for safe hiking.

March 19th after a series of regional orders the state of California issued a statewide Safer At Home order closing many businesses and instructing people to avoid any non essential travel. Exceptions were made for homeless people which you could make an argument many hikers were having gotten rid of apartments and such.

That same day the PCTA sent out a strongly worded email asking that everyone postpone or cancel their PCT plans. At the bottom of the email was a statement that the trail was actually administered by U.S. Forest Service and that our existing permits were still valid. 

Several other websites followed suit declaring the PCT thru hiking season canceled or taking resources offline to make it harder for people who might still decide to hike.

On March 20th Yosemite came out with a statement that the park was completely off limits making it impossible to complete an end to end thru hike unless the situation changed or you decided to walk roads. (This closure was softened well before most of us got up there)

A few other parks like Lassen also closed and by the end of March all state parks in California had followed suit. The closures varied in scope and severity from those like Yosemite barring any entry and others that just closed trailheads, day use areas, and bathrooms. Often the trails themselves were unaffected.

A constant stream of updates and clarifications followed from the various levels of government causing no end of confusion. Several times I saw something new come out only to have both the hiking and not hiking sides declared it supported their position.

This whole situation left the people who had started hiking the trail at the beginning of March in a very hard position. Many people here to hike from outside the US were encouraged by their governments to return home as international travel restrictions were being put into place meaning that if they stayed they might not be able to get home anytime soon. 

Some people decided to leave the trail, some decided to continue. And then there were people like me with our start dates still in the future.

Vanlife, Campgrounds, and AirBNBs

I had quit my IT job last spring and after a series of outdoor adventures my girlfriend and I made the decision in late summer to finally go hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020. I spent early January doing a series of longer backpacks trying to get my hiking legs ready for the biggest trip I'd ever attempted.

I took public transportation up to LA the first week of March to thru hike the Santa Monica Backbone Trail as a warmup. There were only a few people wearing masks but I do distinctly remember people on the bus reacting nervously to others coughing and in general people seemed to be just becoming aware we had something major happening.

I normally spend January to March teaching a wilderness class in Orange County. The same day the national emergency was declared we made the call to cancel the remainder of the class and my April mountaineering class soon followed leaving me with no further commitments holding me in town.

Of course complying with a stay at home order is easy. Unless you happen to have already gotten rid of your apartment and moved into a van in a local campground. A campground that promptly closed along with all the other local options due to COVID-19.

When we had to leave the campground and with no access to a bathroom or shower my girlfriend and I temporized by moving to AirBNBs. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge since many counties shut them down completely. We ended up staying for about a week at a time in Desert Hot Springs, Las Vegas, and Lake Havasu moving further and further afield to find places that were available.

Meanwhile I came down really sick. I'd had direct contact with someone who was later confirmed to have COVID-19 and the symptoms all fit. I talked to the local county health office and they said they didn't really have tests available and just to continue isolating as best I could unless things became serious. 

After a few really rough weeks and one amazing car wreck of a tiger based documentary that I still say is the most unifying event in 2020 I was mostly recovered and we had to figure out a plan since staying in AirBNBs forever wasn't maintainable. 

April 9th to 26th I did a trial run and section hiked the Condor Trail with Jen periodically delivering me resupplies. That experience confirmed that it felt a lot safer in the backcountry vs being around town and that this might still be workable work. 

Everyone had to make a choice

Like many people I spent March and most of April glued to a computer screen watching every new development. We were only temporizing with the AirBNB stays and and Condor Trail and if I wasn't going to be on the PCT for the next 5 months I wasn't sure what we were going to do. 

At the worst point where numbers kept going up and the shutdowns kept becoming more severe I was almost certain our PCT plans were done for. But I had the advantage of a May 5th start date so I could afford to wait and see.

Posts from people already out on the trail showed a good number exiting temporarily or permanently. And of course the internet being what it was we suddenly had no shortage of self proclaimed experts sharing opinions. Loudly.

I should have known better but I was still shocked by just how nasty and over the top the online discussions quickly became.

There is a Class of 2020 Facebook group run by the PCTA that quickly devolved into outright hostility for anyone even considering not canceling their hike. Any indication you were out hiking was met with people accusing you of spreading death, dramatically informing you that history will judge you, and even making the occasional over the top threat like that guy up near Big Bear saying he'd shoot people on trail. 

As of March 27th the official position of the group became that saying you were hiking or supporting people who were hiking was disallowed and moderation went through several  phases as strong feelings on both sides triggered some rather nasty posts. 

Fortunately a few guys stepped up and started the Still Hiking PCT Class of 2020 Facebook group and took a hard line on removing trolls who came in to try and start fights. This became the main hub for those of us hiking or people supporting us out on the trail.

Elsewhere the less said about the subreddit r/pacificcresttrail the better. For me they peaked when someone claiming to be a SAR volunteer, former thru hiker, and trail angel started relating anecdotes about sick hikers willfully disrespecting rangers and hiking into towns not caring about infecting anyone. To listen to her the disease was actively spreading along the trail none of which was ever backed up by other sources. Then came the thread where she claimed to have spiked a food and water cache with UV powder in order to show a hiker the error of his ways...

The early chatter from those of us still leaning towards hiking was avoid posting anything online. Comments on some of the vlogger folks posts had become quite uncivil.

I give special thanks to Jackie McDonnell aka Yogi who runs Triple Crown Outfitters in Kennedy Meadows. She seemed to be one of the most consistent voices of reason when it came to trail developments and calling people on it when they made inaccurate statements like “the trail is closed.”

I still see the online narrative that hikers that went out this year were selfish and just didn’t care if they were putting people at risk for the sake of their hike. I ran into a few individuals who held something close to that opinion but most of the many many conversations I had in the first few months boiled down to the fact that hiking felt like a reasonably safe way to go.

The amount of virtue signaling online especially by those canceling their plans reached slightly obnoxious proportions. For a while the #pct2020 hashtag was flooded with people posting about this being their start date and patting themselves on the back for not hiking.

Personally as with many things in life it came down to looking up all the information available and making a judgement call.

The Argument Against

The main arguments I saw against hiking was the risk of spreading the disease to isolated towns and resorts along the PCT. The idea was that they had at risk populations and insufficient medical care to deal with any cases severe enough to require ventilators and with the asymptomatic period it was impossible to know if you were spreading it or not. Also any high risk recreation would put search and rescue personnel at risk. (I don't know that I'd really call the PCT high risk recreation for most people but there are always a number of SOS beacons sent in slightly ridiculous circumstances every year.)


So what did I decide and why?

My girlfriend Jen and I had a discussion in March where I really thought we might have to cancel. I wasn't going to go if I felt like I was going to be doing people harm and it seemed like every day brought news of higher infection rates and additional closures. 

At the same time permits were confirmed to still be valid and it only came down to a few places that said they were actually closed to hikers.

In the end as things seemed to settle down at least a little and after my experiences on the Condor Trail trip I felt comfortable setting out with appropriate precautions and then playing it by ear. Living only a few hours from Campo if things became worse or I started to feel uncomfortable with the situation I could exit the trail fairly easily. And since Jen was teaching class remote she could drive out and resupply me away from towns at least until she planned to join me on trail in June.

It also came down to feeling like the trail was going to involve a lot less contact than being around town. And it wasn’t like I was going to be able to change gears and get a job / apartment in the middle of the shutdown.

So I drove down to the border on the evening of May 4th and started hiking without even seeing another person until almost Lake Morena.

I was later interviewed by a reporter out of San Francisco on this topic while I was in the Sierra. You can read the article here: ‘To hike or not to hike?’ Pacific Crest Trail can’t escape coronavirus debate

How they said it would be

To hear some people talk online this year was going to be impossible or at the very least not enjoyable, And yet many of us out on the trail soon started referring to it as the perfect year.

"The trail is closed"

I heard this repeated online quite a bit and also had a few people at trailheads react with surprise when they saw me thru hiking because they thought the they'd read that the trail was closed. This seemed to mostly come from news stories reporting on the PCTA statement.

For the record the PCTA stated quite clearly that they didn't have the authority to close the trail or to cancel the permits that had already been issued. 

Meanwhile the Forest Service and various national park service were the ones who actually had that authority and they explicitly did not cancel permits. For the most part it was trailheads and vehicle accessible areas like campgrounds that were closed but you could be on the trails themselves. 

A few individual parks or wilderness areas like Yosemite did close for a time early on but by the time I reached them they had all reopened. 

"Everything will be closed"

There were absolutely less services and facilities available along the trail this year but there were still more than enough.

Most stores, gas stations, and similar were open and just had signs up asking you to wear a mask and limit the number of people inside. And stores often had their bathrooms closed.

Early on I walked passed several campgrounds and day use areas that were closed / taped off and a good number of vault toilets along the way were locked. (Granted some of the latter near roads appeared to have been broken open with crowbars.)

Many towns and campgrounds closed their showers meaning the only option left was to get a hotel room or do without. Many of the smaller resort seemed to keep them open but again it was inconsistent. Some hotels weren't operating or wouldn't book all the rooms. And pretty much no one was offering the complimentary breakfasts and such that usually come with a room.

Some areas like Tehachapi had pulled the trail angel information that is usually found at the trailheads and there were a lot of TA's that took the year off. But generally at every location there was at least a few still available and we could get their information from Guthooks comments. It probably did provide a lot more business for those people who offered paid shuttle rides like the guy near Walker Pass.

One of the bigger disruptions was Tuolumne Post Office and store saying they weren't going to open for the entire season. Any packages they were sent ended up rerouted to Yosemite Valley 53 miles away. This didn't affect me since I resupplied in Mammoth and pushed on to Kennedy Meadows North but for those who had already sent a package it was a major inconvenience.

Also a few places like Big Lake Youth Camp closed completely for the season though they let us come in to get water from their faucets. Others like Trout Lake initially said they were following PCTA guidelines and asked people to stay away but later adjusted as everyone got a better handle on the situation.

Some places did get rid of their hiker boxes. I was really bummed at Elk Lake in Oregon when I had to throw out a significant amount of extra unopened and not inexpensive food. In Crater Lake the closest they had to a hiker box was "Go find Dwight at the restaurant".

Especially early on a lot of restaurants were takeout only though again that soon varied depending on the location. Paradise Valley Cafe was the first time in months I'd been able to sit out at a restaurant and eat though it was outside seating only. It was also flooded with far more tourists than hikers which was a common thing this year.

And sometimes the situation varied widely from location to location sometimes even in the same town. the Stehekin Valley Ranch for example barely had any masks in evidence and people were packed close on benches while down the hill at the Lodge everything was locked down.

Also some locations were closed to tourists but open hikers. Burney Mountain Guest Ranch and Wildwood Tavers both welcomed us exclusively while places like Belden and Grumpy's were mainly hiker focused but had a few tourists around.

In the end there was never a danger of not being able to resupply. 

"No one wants you in their town"

This was one of my biggest concerns and why I decided to skip several of the early towns like Mount Laguna and Warner Springs while things still felt very much in the air. Keep in mind that during the height of the shutdown there were reports of people going a little crazy in some places with locals in Mammoth threatening to block the road and someone allegedly chasing down hikers on San Jacinto.

I specifically went into Julian because the Julian Market was appealing for hikers to come in. I ended up masking up and hitching into town with some apprehension only to be picked up by two local trail angels who expressed strong support for those of us out on the trail. And that was a common theme for the rest of my hike.

I did have conversations more than once where locals expressed that it was the drive in tourists they saw as a risk while us hikers were largely considered “safe”. 

I mean, which would you feel more comfortable around? A mask wearing hiker who has been on the trail for months and hadn’t been anywhere near a town for a week or a family who just drove in from LA running around sometimes without masks? Even I felt uncomfortable in Mammoth and Tahoe.

"Hitchhiking will be impossible" 

Another prediction was that it would be impossible or dangerous to get rides into towns. People wouldn't want to pick up hikers and being inside any sort of enclosed space with a stranger wasn't safe.

I mostly avoided hitching for the early section taking advantage of my girlfriend being close enough she could drive me into town for hotels and other needs. But once I was through the Sierra and it felt like everyone had a handle on how to do this safely did start hitching regularly.

I probably hitched about ten or fifteen times in the course of the trail and I never had to wait longer than about 30 minutes. And often it was just a few minutes or people would volunteer rides before I even had to ask.

Often the hitching would consist of jumping in the back of someones vehicle so you're not even in close quarters. And when I did ride inside there was generally enough space I felt comfortable while wearing the rainbow buff I used as mask. 

I also had a number of people tell me they'd wear a mask but that I didn't have to since they felt they were a bigger risk to me than vice versa.

Interestingly enough the places it was harder to get a ride seemed to be areas with more tourists and when I did get picked up it was almost always a local. And many times they were older which did surprise me.

"You won't even be able to get any trail magic"

Yea, not sure what to say about this one. I mean sure, we had less trail magic this year. It was even a bit sad when I talked to someone along the trail who had tried to do a big hamburger trail magic at a SoCal trailhead only to have only two hikers show up the entire day. But it makes you appreciate the times when it does happen and trail magic isn’t why I’m out there to hike.

The times I did run across trail magic like these amazing folks at Ebbetts Pass or just the random bucket of beer left along the trail it made it all the more special.

And then there's my personal favorite... 

"I'm not going to acknowledge anyone who does the trail this year"

The PCTA is still as of October 2020 saying they won't recognize anyone who finished the trail this year which did upset some people.

Personally it seems a little silly to get worked up about not getting a certificate or a chunk of metal you can pay $40 for but I do feel bad for the people that did want those. And it does feel to me like it's indicative of just how out of touch with the whole situation the PCTA is. It feels like they're annoyed personally that people didn't follow their advice and despite everyone coming together and figuring out how to manage things safely 

As far as private individuals not acknowledging my hike all I can say is I did the trail for myself not them.

2020 The Perfect Year?

So if the claims above ended up being wrong then what about the positives?

Less people on trail (and that was a good thing!)

There were a lot less thru hikers this year. I heard estimates that there were only 10-15% of last year, that 700 people had made it to Kennedy Meadows south, and that later there was maybe 100-150 of us still hiking by Northern California.

Solid numbers are always hard to come by since completions are self reported and often people do the trail across multiple years or by flipping around to do sections out of order but it's clear this year saw less hikers than any recent year.

And personally that was glorious! I'm as social as the next guy but I also really enjoy the feeling of being out in actual wilderness vs hiking along a crowded highway of a trail. In fact when I got serious about doing the PCT I was bracing myself to deal with the crowds since I'd seen posts the last few years of just how many people were out there these days.

This year I usually ended up seeing someone a few times a day. Near towns that number went up and  especially in northern Washington with a bit of effort in the more remote sections I could move in synch with groups ahead and behind and manage a day or two without running into anyone.

There were enough people out there that you could easily find people to hike with if that was your thing and several of the towns were giant hiker parties.

I'm the sort of guy who likes to camp alone and even with the smaller number of hikers this year there were times especially in Washington where I struggled to find a campsite to myself. I can only imagine what Rock Creek must be like in a more normal year because everything was taken when I went by in early September.

When I think about potentially thru hiking the trail again the one thing I really wish I could manage would be finding a year with similar or even lower numbers on trail. (But then keep in mind I'm the sort of guy that does trips like the Theodore Solomons or the Desert Trail section where I can spend days at a time without seeing anyone.) 

Social distancing is easy when everyone smells bad

Returning to civilization has really drove home how much easier it was to maintain social distancing on the trail.

I quickly fell into a routine of carrying a buff in my hip belt pocket and anytime I came to a town or resort I'd pop it around my neck and quickly pull it up when I needed to go inside. Others were running around with bandanas looking like they were about to rob a train and I saw a few with the cloth facemasks that have become so ubiquitous over the last few months. 

As things settled into a routine at least for me people fell into two categories. Hikers who had been on the trail for any length of time felt like less of a risk. I still didn't go up hugging people or getting closer than necessary but it felt like the risk there was relatively small since anyone coming down sick was going to be getting off the trail rather quickly and we mostly went long periods between potential exposure. Also as more time went on all reports seemed to be that the risk of outdoor transmission was much lower.

When it came to the people around town or the flood of dayhikers that started appearing a few months in I was a bit more cautious. Interestingly enough I had several trail angels and locals I talked to who expressed that they were much more worried about tourists and felt thru hikers were a very low risk.

Even the smaller remote towns like Seiad Valley or Stehekin had floods of people who had driven in and they didn't seem consistent as a group on things like mask usage or distancing. I just about went crazy in Mammoth and Tahoe trying to stay a comfortable distance from the masses of tourists and I was quite happy after that to avoid big towns.

Full disclosure before someone tears into me in the comments. I did hitchhike and I did end up in rooms with larger groups of hikers a few times along the way. Both were a calculated risk based but it was a judgement call.

Almost no one was checking permits

I was carrying a valid PCTA issued thru hiking permit and Jen had a long distance one for the 10 weeks she was with me. And in 5 months and 2,653+ miles I was only ever checked once and that was in Jefferson Wilderness.

The backcountry rangers in the Sierra were where I was really expecting to get checked but every cabin I passed had a sign up saying due to COVID-19 they were there only for emergencies and please don't approach.

I did hear of a number of folks getting checked at Tuolumne but there were also anecdotal reports that even those people who didn't have permits weren't being discouraged or cited because there were so few people out this year. And at least a few people did the entire trail without a permit which I'd strongly discourage in general since they are really there to help everyone.

Online was downright toxic but on the trail people were (mostly) amazing

As you can imagine setting out on the trail with so many unknowns was a bit imposing. Especially after witnessing the nastiness online and hearing second hand about people receiving threats.

I myself never received any direct threats but I also avoided posting in the PCTA Facebook group and similar locations. The first couple of weeks I really felt on edge anytime I came near a town though that faded eventually after I never encountered anyone who told me I shouldn't be out there or acted hostile. The closest I got was a few real world friends sending me messages with the PCTA guidance and encouraging me to get off trail when I first started posting from the trail.

Anecdotally the worst of the online posts seemed to be a small number of really loud people sometimes declaring on behalf of an entire city that they didn’t want you at x. 100% of the locals I ran into in all the various small towns, resorts, ect were incredibly supportive even those with no economic skin in the game.

The worst thing I came across were dayhikers who would see me coming, stomp off trail, and face away refusing to even respond to a hello as we passed. That made the busier sections kind of exhausting and I ended up proactively stepping off the trail and calling out super positive and greetings well before they got close.

I even had a conversation in Oregon with someone who claimed to be a PCTA board member who in contrast to the official position expressed interest in what we were actually facing and claimed that the official statements were coming from a few people in the leadership.

There Were Unanticipated Challenges

The great Oregon / Washington fuel shortage of 2020

It is one of the oddities of this summer that a good number of people were the sort to spend their time sitting at home watching TV when faced with being officially told to stay home started running outdoors in massive numbers. And combined with production and shipping delays due to things shutting down this resulted in shortages specifically of hiking shoes and butane fuel canisters.

I first ran into trouble finding fuel in Oregon and the problem persisted off and on all the way through Washington. 

It's become a trend the last few years for people to do the trail stoveless relying on cold soaking their food or just eating dry foods. To each their own but personally coffee inside my sleeping bag while watching the sun come up is one of the highlights of my day and worth the relatively small amount of weight and volume it takes up.

So how did I get by? I'm fairly conservative when it comes to how much fuel I carry so at the first few places that didn't have any to sell I was able to stretch what I had to make the next stop. This did mean getting rid of some items that required longer cooking and even sometimes *shudder* limiting myself to only a single cup of coffee in the morning. 

I was also able to buy extra fuel off weekend backpackers on the trail more than once. Granted this only worked in areas that had weekend backpackers and was much more likely to be successful on a Sunday when people were headed back out vs Friday or Saturday when they were headed in.

I was also very fortunate to have an active outdoor social circle. Being based nominally in SoCal I assumed once I was past the Sierra I probably wouldn't see any friends until I was back home. But as it turned out I kept having friends coming out of the woodwork and letting know they were in the area even up in Washington and several times they were able to bring me fuel or other items I was in dire need of.

Also I should point out there was fuel around just not enough. I know plenty of people who were able to buy it at Cascade Locks but when I came through they were out until the following week.

I also starting carrying more fuel so the two 230g canisters I was able to get in Snoqualmie were enough to comfortably last me to the Canadian border.

Mail delivery became a problem, twice!

In the early months it wasn't unusual for packages from Amazon and elsewhere to be delayed unpredictably as everything non essential tried to shut down. Even local stores like REI only reopened for online ordering and curbside pickup with a delay of hours to sometimes a day or more.

Things seemed to have normalized a bit until I was hiking through Oregon a new Trump appointee came in at the postal service, made some changes, and suddenly mail was getting delayed left and right. Despite a really cautious buffer I ended up arriving at Fish Lake to find my food package had never arrived and I had to scrimp by to the next stop on what I could scrounge from the hiker box and their small store.

As a result I had to have packages sent even earlier meaning there was a fairly significant lag time on being able to get any replacement gear. By the end of Washington I had to work about two weeks ahead and a whole lot can change in two weeks on trail.

The Aftermath

The 2020 hiking season wasn't without its challenges but it was still an amazing year that I'm incredibly grateful I was able to experience it like I did. 

Based on posts online a number of us finished the entire trail though many were impacted by the smoke and fires that characterized most of September. 

Sadly actual hiker numbers are going to be impossible to come by with the PCTA refusing to track completions and others refusing to complete the Halfway Anywhere 2020 Hiker Survey after he came out against hiking back in March. 

As of October 2020 the COVID-19 situation is still far from over particularly in the US. Infection number have gone up and down but so far I've not seen any direct evidence of someone getting sick or spreading the disease along the trail.

I did see a post about an outfitter closing after a hiker was taken away from the town in an ambulance the following day but I've yet to see any details on what was actually wrong with the hiker or that anyone became sick in the store. I've also seen posts from people alluding to the fact that they knew someone that had had COVID on the trail but again no details were provided. If you hear otherwise please do let me know.

Meanwhile things online have became even messier when the PCTA declared they wouldn't be running the October lottery for summer 2021 hiking permits. Now a number of people who canceled their 2020 hike as requested have joined the F the PCTA bandwagon and it looks like 2021 is going to be the year of people return to getting the individual permits.

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  1. Great story. You did a wonderful job of sharing what it was really like hiking the PCT this year, and answered a lot of questions that my unused 2020 PCTA permit sitting on my desk didn't answer.

  2. Thank you so much!!!

    I plan to hike in 2021 so this was super useful.

  3. Thank you so much for this detailed account!!!

    I plan to hike in 2021 so it was super useful....