Backpacking 2020: A Review

[What a year! Enjoy a little overview with links to snippets of adventure that wend through 2020 in backpacking trips with DC UL and also solo (and duo). Total mileage for me came out to about 387 trail miles, which is probably just about average for a year spent living in the DC area. I made up for the three dead months with some longer three-day trips in the second half of the year. Here’s to many more in 2021 and beyond!]

January. 30 miles. Backpacking in 2020 started with a project. Technically beginning in December 2019 with our Shenandoah National Park Alpha Trip, my DC UL “Alpha to Omega” series was designed to backpack Shenandoah National Park using Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) rustic cabins as Saturday evening refuges while pushing the miles and exploring some infrequently backpacked trails. Our January 2020 “Gamma” trip was a fantastic way to start the year. Mostly because Claudio showed up to surprise us with a feast at Jones Mountain Cabin. With such an auspicious start, how could backpacking in 2020 go wrong?

February. 0 miles. It went wrong almost from the get-go. For our “Delta” outing planned for February 21-23, COVID-19 was still a distant though looming threat and we were all set to head out. The DC UL crew did indeed explore Hazel Country in Shenandoah as planned. But I was knocked out with a high fever and a week of body aches. I attribute this to the flu and tested negative for COVID antibodies later, mind you. But still. I guess we’ll just chalk this up to dramatic sickness foreshadowing.

March. 0 miles. Right, March. Our “Epsilon” trip was planned for March 13-15. I booked Doyles River Cabin with the PATC. Things began to get weird from there. First, work pulled me into its COVID-19 response team. Our focus was on the worsening pandemic in Europe and I bailed on the trip to help the flood of emergency work coming in over the weekend. Second, Kylie and Karan — who agreed to take over leading the trip — canceled completely as the week descended quickly from normal to chaos. You remember it: the NBA went down first; President Trump declared a national emergency and banned most European travelers from entering the United States; we all realized that there was no escaping COVID-19.

April. 0 miles. My April was spent much like yours, I presume. Hunkered down and masked up. It was the strangest month of my life. Cheryl and I debated food security and toilet paper supplies. Work was a busy torrent but interestingly (and surprisingly) accomplished at home instead of the office. No backpacking, however.

May. 90 miles. Cooped up but excited as spring sprung around me in Alexandria, I planned a [somewhat] solo hike of my beloved 70-mile Massanutten Trail to preserve our spring “Death March” tradition. It was amazing, though unseasonably cold. I also slipped out for a quick Memorial Day weekend trip to Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia (also solo). Though I’m quite the extrovert and count trail camaraderie as one of the main reasons I love backpacking, these solo trips really fulfilled me.

June. 80 miles. Though in hindsight taking a couple months off from group DC UL backpacking isn’t a big deal at all, at the time it certainly felt momentous. Under Jen’s great leadership, DC UL came up with a COVID-19 mitigation plan and started group outings again, albeit with some necessary changes: 1) strict adherence to any and all federal, state, local guidance; 2) no carpooling or car shuttling; everyone drives individually to the trail head and we do loops instead of end-to-end hikes; 3) staying home if there is any chance of prior exposure or symptoms. I led a West Virginia trip out to Trout Run Valley and another to hike a loop we crafted out of some favorite Pennsylvania trails.

July. 70 miles. Claudio and I banded together for an eventful hike of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail that I’ll never forget. This really hammered home that backpacking was absolutely a COVID-19 friendly activity with nominal adaptations. Our UL style always has us in individual shelters anyways — and it certainly is no bother to stay six feet or more from each other in the woods.

August. 2 miles. I ended up taking some time away from the trail to recuperate from some foot pain. Sadly, I had planned a DC UL outing to St. Mary’s Wilderness that I had to hand over to others to lead, though ended up stopping by with Cheryl to join the crew at camp. After a trip to the podiatrist, I was surprised to piece together that all the work from home with bare feet on a hardwood floor over six months had not been kind to my body. Luckily, the fix was supportive house shoes.

September. 75 miles. I ended up back it at as a solo adventurer for the month. This included the 60-mile Loyalsock Trail and the much shorter John P. Saylor Trail. Both memorable. I felt blessed for these trail experiences.

October. 50 miles. A triumphant return with the DC UL crew saw us up in Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon during peak foliage season for Columbus Day weekend. We feasted and hiked and danced.

November. 30 miles. Though I got my hopes up of a return to Pennsylvania to continue hiking the complete network of PA state forest trails, we submitted to COVID-19 inter-state travel restrictions and stayed put in Virginia for a lovely weekend traversing some of the region’s most scenic overlooks.

December. 30 miles. I kept to a buck hunting season tradition and stayed in the protected confines of Shenandoah National Park to end the 2020 backpacking season. In December, the woods rightfully belongs to hunters. We had a pretty terrific time, though our original route had to be tweaked to ensure enough parking spots and to avoid any car shuttles. It was worth it. Just like that, 2020 concluded. It was a long ass year on every level. Three months of zero backpacking was assuredly “rough” — though in no way comparably difficult juxtaposed with the myriad hardships and tragedies of the year. It all reminded me of how damn important this hobby is to my mental, physical, and social health. As an outdoors activity, though, it rebounded better than most to the COVID-19 reality of 2020. Happy trails!

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