Stay-at-home orders are loosening in lots of places around the U.S., and most of us feel long overdue for some solid outdoor time. But is it really OK to head to the trails? What about climbing? Or camping? Should we be doing anything differently when we do head out? We consulted the experts to find out what we all need to know about heading outdoors.
Is it safe to go outside during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes—but with certain precautions, according to the American Hiking Society. It’s crucial for mental health to spend time outdoors. There are safe ways to enjoy outdoor recreation—we just need to adjust our habits to help keep the virus from spreading.
REI has collaborated with dozens of partners—nongovernmental organiations, government agencies and the Outdoor Industry Association—to form a new Recrate Responsibly Coalition with the goal of synthesizing, simplifying and amplifying the new set of norms for responsible recreation. Their #RecreateResponsibly Resource Hub is packed with sport-specific information to keep you up to date.
Do I still need to be strict about social distancing outside?
According to the American Hiking Society, yes—very strict. “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,” according to the site’s guidelines. “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.”
Do I need to wear a mask outside?
The AHA recommends you always bring a mask with you, but when you need to wear it depends on what you're doing. According to the AHA’s statement, your risk of infection (or spreading it) depends on many factors. But, simplified, it depends on the time you spend in contact with the infected person and the viral load delivered (e.g., a cough spreads more than just breathing).
“You are highly unlikely to catch the virus from simply walking, running, or biking past someone at a six-foot distance (even if the person gets closer to you for a second)—you're not in contact with the person for long enough,” according to the AHA. “So there's not necessarily any need to wear a mask when going for a walk/run/bike ride if you stay six feet from people and aren't stopping to chat with folks. If you're going to stay in one place for more than 10 minutes with other people around, even if you're six feet from others, then we recommend wearing a mask (even if the risk is lower outside than in an enclosed space).”
The Washington Trails Association suggests having a face covering at the ready so you can cover your nose and mouth if you encounter others on trail. “When you see approaching hikers, look for a spot where you can get off trail and maintain 6+ feet of distance,” the organization recommends in a statement. “If you can't, be sure to use that face covering. As long as you're briefly passing one another, risk of transmission is low, and even lower with your mouth and nose covered. Here's how to pass others quickly and courteously.”
Is it OK to visit National Parks, National Monuments, Wildlife Preserves, State Parks, trails, etc.?
“Many popular sites are still closed or opening back up but 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 open,” suggests the AHA.
According to the AHA: “If you live in a rural area, you might have abundant access to open space and trails with few people around. 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 your stops are minimized), then, yes, visiting such places for a hike or camping 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.”
You may need to avoid parks and trailheads even if they are technically open, Kindra Ramos, communications director for the Washington Trails Association told The Lily. “If you get there, and there are a lot of people gathered around picnic tables and bathrooms, you need to leave,” she says. Her rule of thumb is to avoid any parking lot that is “more than half full.”
Can we go out in groups again?
For now, avoid groups unless it’s your immediate household, says the AHA. “If you can't do that, limit as much as you can to grandparents, close friends, etc. who might, for example, be helping you with childcare and are also social distancing.” Remember: 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, according to the AHA.
What about climbing?
The Access Fund is asking climbers to consider “chilling out” right now. “Climbing isn’t great for social distancing, and it’s not the most sanitary pursuit. We share gear, belay areas and narrow trails,” a statement from the Fund points out. If you’re wondering about climbing in your local area, the American Alpine Club put together the following set of guiding principles to help you decide whether it’s safe and ethical to do so right now:
- Don’t go climbing if you’re feeling sick!
- Climb with people from your own home. If you can't do this, consider climbing with just one partner.
- Recreate close to home, don't travel to climb. Be respectful of vulnerable rural gateway communities.
- Follow federal, state, county, and city health emergency guidelines and recommendations, and take cues from your local land managers and climbing organizations.
- Keep your outdoor objectives conservative. Climbing accidents will place further stress on first responders, search and rescue teams and hospital staff.
- Practice frequent hand sanitation before, during and after a session; treat the rock and gear as you would surfaces in town and avoid putting climbing gear (your rope as you pull slack to clip, for example) in your mouth.
- Wear a mask when near others.
- Have a plan B, or even plan C, in case your local crag is crowded. If you get there and it's too crowded to maintain social distancing guidelines, head to another spot. Keep in mind the conditions of your approach—is it vulnerable to erosion or damage if you have to leave the trail to maintain six feet of distance?
- Be kind, respectful and patient with one another during this time. We all want to feel safe spending time outside; let's work together to create an environment that allows this.
What about camping?
This one’s tricky, and depends on where you live. If you can camp near your home without traveling through small rural communities where you may spread the virus (don’t forget, you can spread it without having symptoms) then the key is to tune in to your local authorities and follow their guidelines.
For example, as campgrounds are beginning to open in Colorado, the governor urged campers to “fill up your car in your area, get the supplies in your area that you need, including the food, then travel to the great outdoors, recreate and come back. Don’t risk infecting areas that have been free from the virus or, perhaps, acquire the virus in a place that has it and bring it back to your home.”
As with climbing, only go camping with members of your own household, and only in your local region. And be ultra prepared—facilities may be extremely limited. Pack all the water and toilet paper you need, as well as any food, fuel and cleaning supplies. You may need to be completely self-sufficient. Many campgrounds are opening on a reservation-only basis, so do extensive research before leaving home.
What about other sports like paddling or mountain biking?
The same considerations apply: Stay close to home and avoid crowded parks. Stay at least six feet from other people (and cover your mouth and nose if there are moments when you can't) and only touch your own gear. Take it easy, too—it's not a good time to require emergency assistance or to take up space in a hospital.
It all boils down to this: Be respectful.
We all want to get outdoors, but even if we’re feeling healthy, our actions have consequences for the people around us. We’re all at risk of contracting the virus at any time without knowing it, and any time we move from one place to another, we risk transmitting it. Since many climbing areas, hiking trails and campgrounds are in remote, rural areas with limited healthcare facilities, they can easily be overwhelmed.
It’s crucial to take the long view right now. While it’s sad to cancel plans, or have to stay local when we’re chomping at the bit to get away, the more we isolate and distance ourselves, the quicker the curve will flatten. The mountains and trails aren’t going anywhere. And we have the power to make sure more people are able to enjoy them in the future.
Non-Outdoor Research images courtesy of Logan Weaver and the United Nations via Unsplash.