Virtual CDT Trail Days

Virtual CDT Trail Days

COVID-19 cancellations bring events online worldwide

by Amanda Wheelock, Policy and Communications Manager, Continental Divide Trail Coalition
Amanda Wheelock has worked, volunteered, and occasionally lived on national trails for most of the last decade. This fall, she is embarking on a new adventure as a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, and is eager to find new favorite places along the North Country National Scenic Trail. 

Each March, Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) staff and volunteers from the Gateway Community of Silver City, N.M. face crunchtime in preparation for the annual Continental Divide Trail Days festival. There are permits to be acquired, bands to be booked, and food to be ordered—but this year, all of that work came to a screeching halt as it became clearer by the day that COVID-19 was going to stop any sort of big in-person gatherings. 

Trail Days is CDTC’s largest annual event and celebrates not only the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), but also the welcoming towns like Silver City along its length. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to bring the CDT community together just because we couldn’t do so in person, so we hatched the idea for Virtual Trail Days. After confirming that the speakers and performers we had scheduled for Trail Days were willing to switch to a virtual format, we created a month-long calendar of events, including a weekly gear giveaway to help recognize the corporate sponsors who help make Trail Days happen. Pre-show tech checks ensured that our Zoom to Facebook Live events went off (mostly) without a hitch. 

Jean Ella Smith, one of the first two women to hike the Continental Divide Trail, joined Virtual Trail Days to talk about her trailblazing adventures. Photo courtesy Jean Ella Smith.

Virtual Trail Days turned out to be a fantastic way to celebrate the CDT and engage people who would never have made it to Silver City for in-person celebrations! The live presentations were marked with high levels of engagement and great questions from the audience, and Facebook’s large user base ensured that our videos reached tens of thousands of people—almost half of whom weren’t already CDTC Facebook followers. 

Renowned author and thru-hiker Cindy Ross spoke about her family’s adventures on the CDT and raising kids outside as part of Virtual Trail Days. Photo courtesy Cindy Ross.

A conversation with the first two African-American Triple Crowners, Will “Akuna” Robinson and Elsye “Chardonnay” Walker, and a concert with thru-hiking musical duo 3,000 Miles, were especially big hits. More than 750 people entered our gear giveaway, and our Facebook following grew by more than double what it had in March. Moving forward, we have great video content that we can reshare on all of our social media channels in the coming months. 

Although some States began to lift stay-at-home orders at the end of April, we knew that many people were continuing to stay close to home, and we wanted to find a way to keep our audience engaged after the success of Virtual Trail Days. We decided to launch a virtual “group hike” of the entire CDT. Using ChallengeHound, we set a goal of 3,100 miles, and invited our audience to sign up and track their walks, hikes, and runs through the website. Along the way, we posted to Instagram and Facebook two to three times a week with updates on how far we had made it and interpretive information on those sections of the trail. With almost 100 participants, it only took 27 days to make it from Mexico to Canada! Several folks emailed or commented to express their appreciation for the opportunity to learn more and feel connected to the trail from afar. 

Both Virtual Trail Days and the virtual hike kept CDTC’s audience connected at a time when people couldn’t connect with the trail in person. These events even had the added benefit of engaging folks who live far from the trail and may never have stepped foot on it before. Virtual Trail Days involved quite a high commitment from staff and would be challenging to pull off while concurrently planning an in-person festival—though CDTC is hoping to stream at least one or two Trail Days events next year after the success we saw with the virtual format. The virtual hike, on the other hand, took minimal time to plan and execute, and we are considering making this an annual tradition to kick off another year of enjoying the CDT. 

Learn more about Virtual Trail Days:

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