Long-Distance Hikers Navigate the Hazards of a Changing Climate

For those who hike America’s thousand plus-mile national trails end-to-end, the benefits transcend the risks. But the effects of a warming world challenge even the most intrepid.

By Will Babb

The author, with sunglasses and a beard, smiles for a photo in front of Crater Lake, which appears faded in haze from wildfire smoke. He carries a large backpacking pack, binoculars, and a pair of hicking poles.
The author along the Pacific Crest Trail in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, August 2021. A day after this photo was taken, the lake from the same viewpoint was obscured by drifting wildfire smoke.

Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

Since Earl Shaffer first trekked the length of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in 1948, the number of people thru hiking (hiking long distance trails in one continuous effort) has skyrocketed. Self-reported records suggest that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail end to end grows in popularity every year. These months-long tests of endurance and mental fortitude have a powerful, transformative impact on participants. And one has only to look to John Muir’s legacy for evidence of what profound experiences like these can do to spark conservation action. But climate change threatens the landscapes that host America’s long-distance trails, particularly in the West. Most thru hikers I know have had to skip sections due to things like wildlife closures, smoke, and unhealthy air quality. Some have suffered heat stroke, dehydration, and even death. Despite those grim realities, the allure of long-distance hiking still outweighs the drawbacks for many of us.

A Newfound Passion

My own thru-hiking journey began in 2016, when I embarked on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail as a way of finding myself, my passions, and what mattered most following my high school graduation. Thru hiking as an 18-year-old has a way of instilling responsibility, maturity, and independence in a young, unsteady mind, and I owe much of who I am now to that hike. I discovered intense passions for camping along mossy streams, conserving our nation’s most valuable natural resources, and sharing it all through written words. Like me, many successful thru hikers may finish with a newfound passion for protecting our environment.

Thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2021 was more than a search for adventure; it was a quest for peace.

After a four-year study at Ohio State University that left me with a bachelor’s degree, I was unsure how to use it in a Covid-embattled world. Thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2021 was more than a search for adventure; it was a quest for peace and understanding my values and priorities. The Appalachian Trail had given me a love for America’s long trails, lonesome passes, and wild places. The Pacific Crest Trail reminded me of that love, but it also showed me its fragility. The trails I’ve come to love are threatened, and so is the legacy of thru hiking that goes with them.

The sun glows a dim yellow-orange through clouds, smoke, and the skeletons charred evergreen trees.
Twilight arrives at midday amidst smoky skies, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California. Even in already burned areas, wildfires remain a threat.

Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

Wake-Up Call

America’s long trails are jointly and cooperatively managed through a collaboration between federal agencies, Tribes, businesses, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and state and local governments. They are the caretakers of the trails, which were established by an act of Congress to maintain them forever. But parks like the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (Pacific Crest Trail), Everglades National Park (Florida National Scenic Trail), and Glacier National Park (Continental Divide Trail) are experiencing more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, and forest fires.

Seeing the jewels of the Triple Crown—­­the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails—diminish is where climate change hits closest to home.

For those of us who revere the long trails that wind across the nation, seeing the jewels of the Triple Crown—­­the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails—diminish is where climate change hits closest to home. The ice fields glimpsed from the Continental Divide Trail as it passes through Glacier National Park may soon melt into oblivion. The giant trees that have for eons stood as sentinels of Sequoia National Park are threatened by fires and pests. And the waters that carved the Grand Canyon may flow with a little less force in the future, to the detriment of those who depend on them. This is a wake-up call to the damage occurring in front of us.

The Year of Fire

In 2021, I thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, and already the force of climate change could be seen on my journey. Heat waves wracked the West that summer, breaking records and forcing hikers to seek shade, water, and rest. One day, I stopped for lunch in the middle of a long, dry stretch of trail—the Hat Creek Rim in Northern California. I encountered a distressed hiker and his two companions.

The hiker was fatigued, nauseous, and vomiting, unable to keep food or water down. He and his friends hoped to rest for a while before hiking 12 miles to town later that day. From my wilderness first responder training, I knew a sooner evacuation was needed before his heat exhaustion worsened. I convinced them to bail at a road crossing two miles down the trail and get a ride to the hospital.

A deep orange sun sets over hazy bluish treelines, viewed from a dry, grass- and shrub-covered ridge.
Wildfire smoke from the Dixie Fire descends on the Hat Creek Rim at sunset in July 2021. This is one of northern California’s driest, most exposed sections of trail, a challenge heightened by deteriorating air quality.

Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

I learned later that the hiker spent a night in the hospital undergoing intravenous rehydration but was on the trail again a few days later. He and his companions were grateful I pushed them to get out sooner. This happened along a notorious 30-mile stretch with no water sources, where it is difficult to carry enough water and shade is sparse. That year, one hiker on the trail died during a triple-digit heat wave near Anza, California. The intense heat and water shortages were a prelude to what my fellow hikers referred to as “the Year of Fire.”

As I hiked, I scrolled the comments on my thru-hiking app to read reports of usually reliable springs and streams that were now dry. California baked in drought, worsened by a low snowpack in the highest passes. Although this meant I could traipse the splendid Sierra without the added weight of boot spikes or an ice axe, I carried instead the burden of smoke from wildfires.

Few thru hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail that year didn’t feel the impact of wildfire.

Wildland fires, though necessary for healthy old-growth forests, are now hotter and more intense than they were historically. In addition to their often devastating effects on whole communities, they disrupt the long-distance hiker’s experience perhaps more than any other climate change impact. In 2021, fires complicated logistics and blanketed hundreds of miles of trail in smoke. Few thru hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail that year didn’t feel the impact of wildfire. Sections burned a year or two earlier remained closed to foot traffic, and new fires loomed on the horizon, plumes of smoke rising from distant peaks. Most hikers I know had to skip sections of trail due to closures and unhealthy air quality.

On my hike, walking through Northern California felt like walking through a minefield, my eyes scanning for signs of smoke, always fearing the rumble of thunder that could mean more fires. I was keenly aware of the humming of planes or helicopters cruising overhead to fight the latest outbreak. In July 2021, the Dixie Fire sparked, forcing me to skip 55 miles of trail to stay ahead of the blazes. As what would soon become California’s largest single fire exploded, hikers behind me were forced to find a way around three to five hundred miles of inaccessible trail.

Trail lined with the skeletons of towering trees, and shrouded in a thick haze.
Smoke fills the air near Lassen Volcanic National Park in July 2021 as California’s Dixie Fire spreads.

Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

Smoke masked the views that drove us out there in the first place and affected our breathing for weeks on end. As a testament to the severity of the Dixie Fire, by the time I had walked another 1,000 miles and completed the trail, the fire was still burning in Northern California. The Dixie Fire wasn’t the only one to threaten hikers that year. The Caldor Fire burned swaths of majestic forest I’d walked through near Lake Tahoe, and the Tamarack Fire forced hikers behind me to route around trail closures. Eventually, the impacts of those fires shut down all national forests in California so fire crews could focus their efforts on what mattered most.

Thru Hikers’ Reckoning

Long-distance hikers routinely endure the elements and push their bodies’ limits. They are quick to point out that on thru hikes, the biggest challenges are emotional. Yet despite thru hikers’ penchant for embracing suffering, the stress from wildfires and smoke adds to the mental and emotional burden. People often ask me if I’d recommend a thru hike like the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m torn when I answer, because in many ways this exploration of the West was one of the most amazing, meaningful things I’ve done, though the fires tested my willpower more than any other obstacle.

View of a peak shrouded in a thick haze, framed by surrounding conifers.
In 2021, Pacific Crest Trail thru hikers endured weeks on end of wildfire smoke, including thick haze like this in southern Oregon.

Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

Right now, I’d recommend hiking America’s long-distance trails. But in the not-so-distant future, I’m not sure I’ll be able to say the same, because this historically meaningful, quintessential experience will be completely different. Every thru hiker of the Pacific Crest Trail or Continental Divide Trail from here on out will be forced to reckon with disappearing water sources, intense heat waves, and severe forest fires, skipping miles to dodge the infernos.

Fires turn shade trees into charcoal. Where do hikers rest if Northern California is little more than a continuous burn scar?

Even when direct impacts from fires aren’t felt, their impact remains salient years after the ash has settled. In midafternoon, when the heat is fiercest, hikers tend to siesta in the shade of ancient trees. But fires turn shade trees into charcoal. Where do hikers rest if Northern California is little more than a continuous burn scar? And what motivation does a hiker have for trekking through ash? Nature always prevails. Burn scars eventually heal. The trees will return. But regeneration of scorched forests will take longer and need timely management action as saplings combat worsening drought and heat.

A Long and Storied Legacy

For thru hikers, 2021 was particularly stressful, but every year from here on out is potentially just as bad. As major portions of the Pacific Crest Trail burn each year, affecting countless hikers, there has never been a more fitting time to talk about climate change on long trails. Long-distance hiking is not something every park visitor will experience, but it has a long and storied legacy in the United States. Traversing the nation’s long trails leads to encounters with diverse habitats, picturesque landscapes, and iconic national parks.

Small, white glaciers nestled among rocky peaks, viewed from a burned forest with new growth among graying, decaying tree trunks.
Glaciers atop rocky peaks in Washington State, September, 2021. Year-round ice on mountain peaks is diminishing due to a warming climate, while burn scars are spreading from increased wildfires.

Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

Many hikers feel called to protect these landscapes as a result of their journey. Tackling climate change on an individual scale is overwhelming, but that doesn’t negate the need for each of us to do our part. Volunteering with citizen science or similar programs in national parks and other protected areas plays an increasingly critical role in preserving them. Reducing energy and water use and lowering how much waste we produce will help. Diet, lifestyle, and consumer choices can make a difference. And it’s just as important to find time to explore the world around us to remind ourselves what’s at stake.

My own experiences in impressive park landscapes heightened my commitment to protecting natural resources. It's no accident that I studied environmental policy in school and became a communicator for a public land management agency. Ensuring future thru hikers can experience similar transformations is essential for recruiting and retaining them as stewards of our environment. In the face of climate change, it’s important to protect the lands along national scenic trails in perpetuity and preserve these profound experiences. Hikers who seek out those experiences in spite of the challenges brought about by climate change will be rewarded. But their journeys won’t be without increasing adversity.

Bright pink flowers on lush green, chest-high stalks beneath a grove of charred tree trunks.
Fireweed grows in the sunlight beneath a previously burned forest near Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington.

Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

Headshot of will in hiking gear, wearing a baseball cap, backpack, sunglasses, and a beard.

About the author
Will Babb is a staff writer with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. Image © Will Babb. Used by permission.

Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Everglades National Park, Glacier National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Last updated: January 11, 2024