It's a great time to get outdoors, but make sure you are doing so safely.
By Trent Jonas
We are living in unusual times, to say the least. With many of us living in cities and towns where parks and businesses are closed, it can seem like we are trapped inside our homes and have no place to go. Remember, though, that movement and fresh air are generally good for our bodies. And being in nature is calming and good for our wellbeing. The good news is—depending on the state you live in and whether a shelter-in-place order is in effect—you do have some options for getting outside, moving around, and enjoying nature, even while practicing safe social distancing.
Before you head out, make sure you’re aware of the current guidance in place from your state and local governments regarding closures, curfews, and movement. If you are able to leave your home, here are some tips for hiking while maintaining a safe distance.
Important Note: Due to overcrowding of trails and parking areas, some state parks, forests, beaches, and other trails throughout the U.S. are closing per government orders. Before visiting a hiking destination, first consult your local government resources to ensure you are not violating these orders.
The first rule for social distancing is being aware that other people are in the vicinity and acting to maintain adequate space (as of now, six feet is recommended) between you and others. If you see someone approaching, keep to your side of the trail, and don’t be shy about stepping off the path (while doing your best to Leave No Trace) to make a little more room. If the trail is too narrow and you have no place to go, turn your face away from the other hiker and move on as quickly as possible. Chances are, they will want to do the same.
To the extent that it’s possible, avoid touching hard surfaces that others may have touched, like door handles, railings, posted trail maps, etc. If you do have to touch something that has likely been touched by others, avoid putting your hands to your face or touching any of your belongings, such as your phone or GPS unit, until you can wash your hands or disinfect them with an alcohol-based sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol).
Which brings us to: Keep your hands clean! Bring supplies with you (and be prepared to pack out your trash) and wash/disinfect your hands as often as possible.
If you live in a city, go out a little farther. You may have gorgeous parks in your metropolitan area but these are going to be considerably more frequented simply due to their proximity to a populated area. Drive or bike to trails beyond the suburbs and exurbs of your metro area. You’ll not only avoid people but you will also get the opportunity to explore new trails and places you’ve not been before.
Try and bring everything you need for your hike from home. This way, you can avoid stopping for supplies in places where there are other people, and drive or bike straight from your home to the trailhead and back. Keep a daypack with your gear handy, so you don’t have to repack it every time and risk forgetting something. Always bring plenty of water, snacks, a jacket, a headlamp, a whistle, and supplies to start a fire. If your climate dictates it, bring sunscreen, a hat, and insect repellent, as well.
The National Park Service has announced that, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, it is waiving visitor fees for the time being, while, at the same time, limiting services within the parks. Some state park systems have made further announcements. The problem with this is that such announcements, combined with the recent drop-off in employment and school closures, may actually result in a lot of people in parks, and in the nearby communities that serve as their gateways. This is not good.
If you’re looking to get outside for a hike, think outside the park. Research trails in state and national forests, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas. There are a greater number of such areas than there are parks, and they tend to be much vaster than parks. These non-park resources are often dispersed across many units, allowing for many more entrance points and trailheads than you would find in a typical state or national park. These factors not only minimize the number of others you will run into on your hike but also enable more successful social distancing without straining the resources of gateway communities.
As a corollary, know your limits and don’t push them. The entire country is experiencing a medical crisis. Don’t take risks or put yourself in situations that may require the diversion of medical resources for something that could have been avoided. Stay on trails and hike within the abilities of your current fitness level. Now is not the time to through hike the PCT or AT, or take up mountain biking, trail running, or rock climbing for the first time—save your adventures for after the COVID-19 crisis.
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We are all in this together. Many park grounds are accessible, but services are limited. We encourage you to: • Pack out everything you bring into a park. • Plan a visit at times other than busiest of the day. • Maintain social distance from other visitors. • Park only in designated areas. • If you encounter a crowded trail or overlook, go elsewhere. • Never interrupt a Grizzly taking a bath. As a precaution to protect public health and promote social distancing, some bathrooms and visitor centers are not available. Check a park’s website and social media for the latest information. Updates about the NPS response to #COVID19 will continue to be posted on www.nps.gov/coronavirus. Image: Grizzly bear soaking in a wetland at Yellowstone National Park. NPS / Neal Herbert #FindYourPark #nationalparkservice #bear #socialdistancing
If you’re lucky enough to get out and enjoy nature, take pictures and/or record your hikes. Share the sights and sounds of your hike on social media so those who are unable to get out, like essential workers and folks sheltering in place, can enjoy the beauty of nature, as well, and experience it with you. Let them know that there’s hope, and that all that we love about being outdoors will be there waiting for them on the other side.