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Hiking Responsibly: From our friends at American Hiking Society

Frequently Asked Questions for Hiking During the Covid-19 Pandemic

#1 Rule: Always, always practice social distancing and follow the guidelines of your local government or the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), whichever are more restrictive.

How strict do I need to be about social distancing?

The short answer is: very (if your livelihood allows it). Social distancing isn’t just about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting those at highest risk of contracting COVID-19 and succumbing to extreme symptoms. It’s also about protecting healthcare and essential services workers. The quicker and better we do it, the sooner we “flatten the curve” and are able to resume normal, daily life.

What this means for all of us is:

  • Only spend time with people within your household. Even if other friends have also been self-quarantining, chances are, they (and you) have still had to go to the grocery store, get some gas, etc., so there is always a chance they (or you) have contracted the virus.
  • When you do spend time outside or need to run an essential errand, stay within your neighborhood if at all possible, always stay 6 feet away from anyone else, and, as much as possible, sterilize anything you touch before you touch it (and wash your hands afterward).
  • If you are sick, stay in your home and, if at all possible, ask others to run your essential errands or order delivery.

Is it safe to go outside during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, spending some time outdoors every day (we recommend at least 10 minutes) is an excellent way to take care of your mental and physical health always, especially now. That said, there are multiple reasons (see below) why you may need to restrict your activity to a walk or run in your neighborhood, or playing in your own yard if you have one.

What if my location has a shelter-in-place rule?

Under such conditions, you are still usually allowed to walk your dog or take a walk or run in your neighborhood, as long as you practice social distancing the whole time. But please always double-check the restrictions from your local government first.

What about taking my kids to the playground?

We don’t recommend doing that. The virus can live on steel playground equipment for up to 48 hours (longer on plastic), and we all know it’s not possible to sterilize a whole playground nor to keep our kids from touching their faces before their hands get washed. This is a tough one, we know, especially with younger children. Note that many local governments are closing playgrounds or asking people not to use them.

What about picnicking and camping?

Picnicking might be ok. As long as you can practice social distancing, only bring members of your own household, avoid places where people typically gather (e.g., a picnic table could easily harbor the virus), do not have to run any errands specific to the activity (because those would not be considered essential errands), and are using a space that is legal, open, and not crowded, then it can be fine. Stay close to home so that you aren’t contributing to the spread of the virus and so that you do not have to use public facilities (like restrooms) during your outing.

We do not recommend camping at this time. Even if a campground or picnic site is open, and tents are spaced far from each other, you’re likely to be using shared restrooms or other facilities, stopping for gas and bathroom breaks on the way, shopping for nonessential supplies, etc., all of which violate best social distancing and quarantine practice.

Can I just go escape to a small town somewhere near my favorite hiking spots?

Definitely not. It is not possible to practice social distancing if you travel. From public restrooms to gas stations to food and supply runs, you will be coming in constant, needless contact with surfaces that others have touched and will touch. And if you’re sick already and don’t yet know it, you’ll be spreading it far past your household. Besides, small towns cannot absorb and deal with an outbreak the way that larger population centers can — you’d be negligently endangering their lives and their fragile economy — and many of these towns might be under quarantine already.

What about visiting National Parks, National Monuments, Wildlife Preserves, State Parks, trails, etc.?

Be aware, across the country, popular sites have closed or have become crowded and overwhelmed with visitors, making social distancing impossible and stressing trails and other infrastructure — in that case, stay away, even if the site is technically still open.

If you live in a rural area, you might have abundant access to open space and trails. In that case, if the park or trail you want to use is open, not crowded, and within a quick drive of your home (so that you don’t have to stop for gas, restroom breaks, supplies, etc.), then, yes, visiting such places for a day hike is fine as long as you practice strict social distancing and are following the guidelines of your local government and the federal, state, or local land manager. However, right now, we can’t risk diverting emergency medical care to wilderness injuries, so we urge that you only take an easy day hike in the front country.

Do I have to stick within my own neighborhood for a hike/walk/run?

The answer depends on several factors, but ALWAYS, if you’re under a “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” order, then, YES, you must remain in your neighborhood to go outside.

  • Follow whatever the local government guidelines are (every city is under different restrictions right now).
  • Stay within close enough distance of your home that you can avoid stopping for gas, snacks, restroom breaks, etc., none of which allow for social distancing — running essential errands in your neighborhood is one thing — errands that result from traveling to a hike for fun are not essential.
  • Do not carpool with friends or family who are not members of your household.
  • Do not hike in any groups other than members of your household.
  • Avoid parks or trails that have become crowded, even if the area is officially open. If the parking lot is crowded, there are already too many people there. Turn around and find another location or go home. Not only does crowding make it impossible to follow social distancing, but it puts extra wear and tear on trails and other park infrastructure at a time when volunteer crews cannot be operating. Remember, trails don’t magically appear and stay hikable — that requires a lot of human labor (mostly from volunteers).

Note: Not everyone lives in or near a city. Most urban residents are going to need to stay in their own or nearby neighborhoods, but many rural folks might be able to access parks and trails within a wider radius while still following social distancing and local guidelines.

Where can I find out about trail-related closures and trail event cancellations?

  • Check The Trek for park closures that may affect trails.
  • For cancelations of events and closures that are related to the National Trail System, see the Partnership for the National Trail System website.
  • American Trails has resources on state park impacts.
  • The website/social media feed for your local hiking club, Friends of [Trail] group, etc.
  • The website/social media feed for your local Parks and Recreation Department (or equivalent).
  • Washington Trails Association, Leave No Trace, and Outdoor Alliance have also put together guides for getting outside responsibly during the pandemic.

This all sounds so lonely and a bit depressing — how can I reclaim the joy of being outside during all of this?

We understand. We really do. We’re looking at it this way — it’s an opportunity to better appreciate the nature that is in our neighborhoods, even if it’s just a few trees, squirrels, and birds, surrounded by a lot of concrete with a blue sky above. Unlike during and after natural disasters, outside is actually a great and safe place to be right now, if you follow the guidelines above.

For more information, please visit American Hiking Society.

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