Can I camp or backpack in Pennsylvania under coronavirus? Should I?

A view from the Appalachian Trail near Hamburg in April 2019. [Photo: Kyle Bagenstose]

By Kyle Bagenstose

If you’re like me, early spring is a favorite time of year. As temperatures warm, I head down to the basement to dust off and take inventory of all my camping and backpacking gear. Living in Philadelphia, French Creek State Park and Hickory Run State Park are typically my first targets, where I’ll spend a night or two to get back in the swing of things before targeting parks or backpacking trails farther afield.

This year however, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in all those plans. Many campgrounds are shuttered, and there also seems to be a gray area between what’s legal to do and what’s recommended. I’ve seen this gray area spark many wars of words in online backpacking and hiking groups. So I’ve attempted to assemble a useful guide here of what’s open and closed, along with the do’s and don’ts.

Should I be camping or backpacking?

Let’s start here. And let’s be clear: we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. While it’s certainly annoying and dispiriting that COVID-19 is impacting our ability to do the activities we love most, that burden pales in comparison to those who are fighting for their lives or love somebody who may have already lost theirs. A chunk of warm weather lost to camping is far less valuable than a lost life.

But, health experts and leaders in government obviously do recognize the value of getting outdoors. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide shutdown order explicitly allows for “life-sustaining” activities like exercise and hiking.

So what’s what?

The underlying theme running through most messages is to avoid unnecessary travel.

“Please keep in mind Pennsylvanians are being asked to NOT travel long distances,” Terrence Brady, press secretary for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told me in an email.

The idea is pretty basic. We’re trying to socially distance, which means staying away from other people. Because COVID-19 can become contagious prior to an individual showing symptoms, one could quite easily travel from a “hot” area like southeast Pennsylvania, and expose people in other parts of the state or even nearby counties and communities.

Compounding the problem, rural communities are particularly at risk from COVID-19. If outsiders bring in the illness, the health care facilities are typically far less equipped to handle an influx of patients than the big hospitals in Philly metro.

Different governmental entities have had different definitions for what “nearby” means, but many seem to advocate a distance of 15 minutes or less by car. Other tips are to make sure you maintain good social distancing, practice good hygiene, don’t take risks that could lead to interactions with EMS and health care workers, and buy any essentials (food, gas, etc.) from your local store before heading out.

Thus, in considering what camping you’ll do and where, you should start from this viewpoint. Is it nearby? How can I limit my close contact with others? Can it wait a few months?

What’s closed and what’s not

Many are already aware that all organized campgrounds at Pennsylvania state parks are closed through at least April 30. So all those SEPA favorites– French Creek, Hickory Run, Ricketts Glen– are out. After calling numerous private campgrounds in Chester and Bucks Counties, I’ve been told they are all under state order to not allow any tent camping through the same time period.

With Delaware requiring anyone entering the state to quarantine for 14 days and New Jersey in more or less full shutdown under the order of Gov. Phil Murphy, that doesn’t leave many options within striking distance of the Philly metro area.

But, there are a few options.

Pennsylvania has a robust state forest system, where backpacking is allowed in almost all cases.

“Primitive backpack camping is allowed on virtually all state forest land, with the natural areas exception,” Ryan Reed, a spokesperson for DCNR, told me. “As of my last briefing [April 7], all state forests remain open for use.”

Reed noted that all organized camping areas in state forests, along with all facilities and offices, are closed. Campfires are also prohibited through May due to fire risk, but stoves are permissible.

But with this opportunity comes responsibility. Reed added that “Interest in primitive backpack camping in state forests at this time has been the highest I’ve ever seen.”

“We have recently had issues with increased litter,” he said. “This has been a real problem lately at Roaring Creek Tract, Weiser State Forest.”

So the rules and advice here are the same: avoid crowded trailheads and be doubly sure to Leave no Trace.

So at this point, you know the rules: Only go to a state forest tract nearby, get all your supplies local, practice safe social distancing, and observe LNT. But where can you find a state forest tract? DCNR maintains a list of state forests, including several sprinkled throughout the southeast and Lehigh Valley, mapped on its website.

In addition, the Allegheny National Forest in northwest Pennsylvania also allows for backpacking. The U.S. Forest Service announced the closure of designated campgrounds and facilities on April 9, but says paddling and backpacking are still allowed.

What about the Appalachian Trail?

When I think backpacking near the Delaware Valley, the first thing that comes to mind is a few nights on a section of the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, this is probably the most controversial asset at the moment.

As of April 9, the Appalachian Trail remains open. However, federally administered shelters and other infrastructure are closed. Check the latest information here.

But, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is essentially the centralized voice and caretaker of the trail, has called for the AT to be fully closed. It’s citing crowds, a lack of social distancing, the possibility of area-to-area spread, and other concerns. In addition, there are reports and indications that local authorities are closing down popular access points like the Hamburg Reservoir parking area, and some municipalities are generally asking hikers not to enter their townships.

Further, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area announced April 9 it is closing the use of all backcountry camping sites on the section of the Appalachian Trail within its borders due to crowding. The Water Gap has also closed the use of its riverfront camping sites, typically accessible by paddling.

Eric Pavlak, with the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, wrote in an email that the organization has suspended all of its activities through at least April 30. They’re advocating the same guidelines as many: stay local. Here’s what the organization told its members:

We are good citizens who set a good example. Please don’t drive somewhere distant just to hike or ride. Keep it local. When you travel you may unknowingly bring COVID-19 to a new area, or you may unknowingly bring it home with you. Follow both the letter and the spirit of the stay home orders.

Pavlak added that in a typical year, the chapter hosts more than 800 camping, hiking, paddling, and cycling events. But all are on hold for now.

“When things return to normal, we will resume these activities. For right now, the word is stay put, but stay active,” Pavlak wrote. “Walk and bicycle in your local area.”

Criticisms of the advice here? Know about something we don’t? Feel free to email me at kyle@delvaloutdoors.com.

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