Can Thru-Hiking Survive in the Age of Megafires?
Backpacker (July 14, 2021) by Maggie Slepian
Long-distance hikers face a short window to finish their treks. Climate change could close it even further.
For a few years, I’ve had the Colorado Trail on my radar. Its 500-mile length is ideal for a summer thru-hike for me, and with an average elevation of over 10,000 feet, it seemed like the perfect combination of beauty and challenging terrain.
Finally, I decided to just do it. When my schedule solidified late in June, I bought a ticket to Denver just weeks before my planned start date. The Colorado Trail allows for that type of last-minute decision: Permits aren’t required, and resupply opportunities are spaced well enough as to not require tons of planning or a maildrop strategy. I was confident in my ability to pull off this thru-hike— a refreshing feeling after the past year. Covid had put a stop to my Pacific Crest Trail hike in 2020, and this spring, a family emergency stalled my Sheltowee Trace trip just days before leaving.
“As long as I don’t get injured, there won’t be any issues with the Colorado Trail,” I told a friend after getting my flight confirmation. The words had barely left my mouth when I froze. There was one thing out of my hands that could still shut down my trip: wildfires.
In the past, I’ve given wildfires the same level of consideration as late-season snow storms or the idea of grizzly bears. You know these elements are an inherent risk, but not a true limiting factor for the west’s primary backpacking season. But with the fire season starting earlier, lasting longer, and growing more intense every year, how long will that be true?
Prime time to hike the west’s high-elevation trails is relatively short. Historically, snowfall has dictated when we can access these trails end to end. Hikers need to get through the first mountain ranges once the snow has melted enough to be passable—but before it starts falling again—which sometimes leaves us a window of just a couple months to travel hundreds of miles. In the past several years, this narrow weather window has been further complicated by a hazardous maze of wildfires. And it seems to be getting worse: In 2020, Colorado saw the three biggest wildfires in its history, one of which leapt over a mile of rock and tundra along the continental divide to ignite a fire on the other side. .
As the fires worsen, we have to wonder the unthinkable: Thru-hiking in the western US might not be viable in the long term.
If this sounds paranoid to you, well, it shouldn’t. After booking my flight, I looked up the fire situation in Colorado. It was mid-June, and there were multiple blazes across the state. My own corner of Montana was already under a fire restriction, and news of worsening droughts were all over the airwaves.
Some hikers have already seen their trail attempts get shut down by wildfires. Last summer, a friend was preparing to hike Washington’s 93-mile Wonderland Trail after getting incredibly lucky in the permit lottery. His plans came to a devastating end as excessive smoke from a complex of fires made the air too dirty to breathe. Stories of Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Tail hikers trudging for miles around fire reroutes—or yellow-blazing around the longer closures—were splashed across social media. After the fires, images of the trail winding through ashes and charred tree trunks felt like a foreshadowing of what we might be heading for in subsequent hiking seasons .
Even after the fires, the trails we return to might not be the beautiful escapes they were before. This spring, we’ve seen plenty of fire-related closures on the Arizona Trail corridor. A friend of mine had recently completed the AZT, and she wondered aloud to me what awaited future thru-hikers, imagining a smoldering landscape so different from what she’d passed through. Late in 2020, another hiker friend sent me photos of his face swollen from poodle-dog bush, a toxic plant with seeds that lie dormant until a disturbance (like fire) causes it to spread across recently burned areas.
“The trail will always be there” is a phrase you hear a lot in the outdoors community. The saying is meant to make hikers feel less guilty or regretful when they have to cut a hike short, cancel plans, or turn back on a summit day. It’s a bit of compassion when plans don’t work and a reminder to prioritize backcountry safety when conditions are dangerous.
But as instances of extreme weather become more common and each season brings enough natural disasters to make this the “new norm,” our already narrow backpacking window can slam shut on a moment’s notice. At some point, it isn’t unreasonable to wonder if traversing a 500-plus-mile trail within this summer gap—avoiding impassable snow on either end and fire in the middle—will be possible.
This wildfire season could be one of the worst in recorded history. Each year, more of the western landscape will be altered in the long term by extreme fires and weather events. While backpacking is just one part of the outdoors equation, the condition and viability of these trails is one small sign of the reality of our changing climate. If we’re creating a world where we can’t even go for a long walk in the woods anymore, what else are we losing?
To me, “the trail will always be there” has become a kind of anachronism. As the cycle of low snowpack, drought, and fires continues each season, the phrase feels less like a reassurance and more like wishful thinking. It leaves me wondering if climate change is going to make the joys, struggles, and memories I’ve made on long trails a thing of the past.
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