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Distance Hiking During a Pandemic

In August of 2018, my fiancé Jaye and I started planning one of the coolest and most memorable events of our lives—our wedding. The plan was to bring two of our best friends, one who is ordained (Eva), and one who is a photographer (Sam), and have them marry us at Chicken Spring Lake, the first alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the lake where we finished our last Pacific Crest Trail section hike at, so it has a special place in our hearts. 

Our goal was to hike up on July 13, 2020, spend the night camping romantically under the stars, and have Eva and Sam marry us the next morning. We would spend the afternoon celebrating with Champagne (we saved money all year so we could afford a really nice bottle), enjoy a nice Backpacker’s Pantry Meal for our first dinner together as an official married couple, and trade stories all night about love and romance. The next morning, our friends would hike back to the car with my suit, Jaye’s wedding romper, and our empty Champagne bottle, so we could hike the PCT for three weeks as our honeymoon. When we got back to town, we would have friends and family from across the country gather in celebration in an outdoor venue—just our style.

Then COVID-19 happened. 

When the news dropped in March that people were getting sick from this mysterious virus, cities were shutting down since no one knew how it spread, and full-on panic hit the United States. Our wedding wasn’t exactly on the top of our list of concerns, but as time went on and people settled into the social distancing scene, we came to the realization that the responsible thing for us to do was cancel our wedding and reception. We sent texts and emails letting everyone know we were canceling one of the biggest events of our lives. As time continued and we got closer and closer to July 13, we realized we were really in need of a getaway.  

Our friends Eva and Sam (in the middle) ultimately decided to hike with us! Eva’s mom, Normi (left) rented a van to drive us to the trailhead. The van allowed us to have six feet of room from her while we were riding, just in case!/Photo courtesy of Max and Jaye

Jaye and I work in customer service. While all of our friends were sheltering-in-place and attending Zoom meetings, we were continuing our normal day-to-day lives. We still had to go to work, but instead of asking people if they were finding everything okay, we were asking them to put on masks. Instead of greeting customers with warm smiles, we were spraying their hands with sanitizer. Instead of having pleasant conversations with clientele, we were getting yelled at and made to feel like we were walking on egg shells (from six feet away of course). 

Our lunch breaks turned into crying sessions with co-workers, and our employee count slowly dwindled. Less employees meant more work put on the shoulders of people who were still showing up. After five months of chaos, three weeks before our PCT permit began, we decided we had had enough and we were going to do everything in our power to go on our hike, in an effort to find our sanity again. 

So many thoughts went through our brains—was the PCT officially open? Could we re-supply safely on-trail? Were the usual re-supply places even open? Could we re-supply without hitch hiking Would people give us six feet of space on trail? Would we be able to have space between our tent and others? Is hiking the PCT really essential? After discussions with fellow hikers, some research about COVID on-trail, and TONS of phone calls, I decided we could responsibly hike as long as we followed a few rules:

  1. No mingling in small mountain towns if we didn’t have to. I figured this would save us from exposure, but mainly save these communities from our germs.
  2. We wanted to send as many of our food re-supply boxes directly to the trail,  that way we didn’t have to hitchhike to get our food. 
  3. If we did have to hitchhike for whatever reason, we would wear masks in the car, and look for someone willing to put us in their truck bed instead of the cab.
  4. We would set up our tent as far away from others as possible, within the designated campsites.
  5. We would pull up our masks anytime someone passed us on trail, and do our best to get six feet off trail.
  6. We would wash our hands whenever we had the opportunity, or use hand sanitizer if we had to touch communal surfaces.

For the most part, we were able to abide by these rules for the three weeks we were on trail. Some sections of the trail were harder to maintain a six-foot distance, like on the way up a pass or on a small single-track section of the trail, but the majority of the people we encountered were like-minded and were also in nature to escape the reality of the real world, so they gave us space (some even had masks!). We did have one re-supply box that required us to get off-trail, which meant we had to hitchhike, but we got SUPER lucky and landed a ride with two JMT hikers who had been on-trail for two weeks and had to get off due to an Achilles tendon injury. They brought us to the town of Bishop, where we picked up our boxes and got a ride back to the trail with one of Eva’s friends.

Most people were respectful of our space, but not all of the passes allowed us six feet!/Photo courtesy of Max and Jaye

Since our Trail Family was made up of four introverts, trail life was pretty similar to any other summer. We generally avoid large groups of people and we don’t participate in parties on-trail, so we didn’t feel like we were missing much. The trail itself seemed less populated than normal, which we really appreciated. There were some higher trafficked areas—Kearsarge Pass/Onion Valley, Evolution Lakes, and Red’s Meadow, to name a few—and we did our best to avoid these areas, and made a solid effort to hike away from them as fast as possible.  

Overall, it felt like we responsibly hiked through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in a safe and realistic manner. We set our group up for success by laying out a couple basic rules, followed social distancing guidelines, and respected other people’s space. We ended up seeing less people on-trail than we would in one day of working (we see up to 1,500 people daily at our job) and we didn’t spend more than a couple minutes with the people we encountered. I knew we would get some negative feedback from people for distance hiking during a pandemic, but taking time to revive my mental health was more important to me than a couple negative words on the internet. Our trip was an amazing adventure for the books, and was worth the chaotic last minute planning for sure.

Have questions about distance hiking during a pandemic? We respond quickest on Instagram, @nonbinarynomads, or on the Hello Ranger Mobile App under the “Gender Identity and Expression” category.

Header photo: Courtesy of Max and Jaye

Max and Jaye are a non-binary couple living on the West Coast. They’re avid backpackers, hikers, and animal lovers who are currently section hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail. They take one trip a month exploring the country, and are saving up for an RV to travel in full-time starting in 2021.

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