Welcome to American Backcountry’s Notes from the Trail. Here we share stories and thoughts from some of our favorite contributors. Each mountain is different and each trip has a different story – these are notes collected along the trail.
Should I Hike During COVID-19?
May 8, 2020
By Nancy East of Hope and Feather Travels,
BEST HIKING PRACTICES DURING COVID-19
Last fall, if someone asked me to make a list of what might delay someone’s thru hike or my own FKT (fastest known time) attempt this year, or even cause someone to sit and ponder where and if they should head out on a simple day hike, I’m pretty sure “pandemic” would have never made the list. But here we are, and COVID-19 is a reality none of us are enjoying. But it’s one that we all need to get on board with and face with more seriousness.
I’ve had lots of folks reach out to me and ask outdoor-related questions this week. My answers, like everything else revolving around the pandemic, are fluid. Every day our situation changes, according to the latest guidelines and restrictions that have been imposed on people’s communities; however, the one constant through all of it is that common sense prevails and we all have to adjust to a new normal right now, even outdoors.
The reason many areas are now closed is because people simply weren’t using common sense with their choices. Popular places were overrun with people, making it nearly impossible to practice social distancing guidelines. More than ever, we have to put every decision we face under a mental microscope and analyze it thoroughly, with a healthy dose of common sense factored into our choices.
And here’s the thing, the more we’re willing to sacrifice in the short term, the less time we have to spend away from our favorite public lands. It really is as simple as that statement. But I get it, it’s also as complicated as that too. We all need fresh air, Vitamin D from the sun’s rays (which is actually important for our immunity), and the reset button that Mother Nature allows us to push when we go play in her playground.
To be clear, I’m not condoning off-trail hiking as a substitute to popular trails or even hiking at all right now. If you feel that it’s best to stay home and not hike, whether it’s because you have a medical issue that makes you more susceptible to the more serious effects of COVID-19 or you simply believe it’s just not a good idea, there is nothing wrong with that approach. But since others are still trying to get out on a hike in a responsible manner, my hope is that this post lends some guidance of what I deem best practices during this time.
With that in mind, here are the questions I encourage you to ask yourself before heading out on a hike during the times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AM I STAYING LOCAL AND IS WHAT I’M DOING ALLOWED FOR WHERE I LIVE?
This is far and away one of the more important things you should ask. For example, my county implemented a “stay at home” ordinance, and I’m not supposed to leave my home for anything other than “essential business” (which is what I was trying to do even before these new regulations started); however, the ordinance specifically indicates that local outdoor activity such as hiking is allowed.
Here’s where that good ol’ common sense comes into play. I live in Haywood County, NC, home to Shining Rock Wilderness, which is one of the most popular places in the Southeast for folks to hike. You’d better believe it’s the last place I’d head or recommend to anyone else right now. I know it will still be a zoo, sadly because not everyone is still taking these measures as seriously as they should.
If every local trail is bound to be congested with people, I’d personally advise staying home and enjoying the beauty of your own backyard or neighborhood.
Finally, I’d define “local” as a 20-minute drive from my home, personally.
IS THE HIKE I’M CHOOSING RISKIER THAN AVERAGE?
It’s one thing to take a walk around the lake where I live and practice good social and physical distancing measures. It’s another endeavor altogether to go hike deep into the backcountry, miles from any trailhead or to choose an area with lots of rock scrambling or potentially sketchy water crossings.
Search and rescue teams, including the one I’m on, are stretched thin right now since many members work in emergency services and medical professions. The last thing I want to do is take away valuable resources from the frontline of the pandemic to come rescue me.
IS THE AREA OR TRAIL POPULAR?
Since I hike regularly, I know areas to stay away from, at least from a historical perspective in terms of crowds. But if you’re not sure, Google the trail’s name and see what pops up. If it comes up on several “Best Hikes of….” or “Most Popular Trails in…,” pick another one.
Also, if you think you’ve chosen a less popular area but you pull up and every parking space is taken, move on. Have a plan B (and maybe even a 3rd option) in your mind, if you encounter this scene but want to try somewhere else (again, only staying very local).
IS THE TRAIL, FOREST, OR PARK CURRENTLY OPEN?
Before heading out, make sure to check and confirm where you are headed and if it is even open to recreational use right now. If the area you want to visit is closed, please respect that and abide by the closure regulations. You don’t have to agree with the closure, but you should definitely respect it.
If you’re not sure if where you’re headed is open, a good place to start is the website or Facebook page of the agency who oversees the area or trail. For instance, if you’re heading to the Appalachian Trail, check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website. Or if you’re heading to a National Park, check their website. The U.S. Forest Service is regularly updating closures too.
DO I FEEL SICK, EVEN THE TINIEST BIT?
If you answer “yes” to this question, all bets are off. STAY HOME! I don’t care if you think it’s just mild indigestion, don’t chance it right now, please.
IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO IN MY OWN NEIGHBORHOOD THAT WILL FEED MY SOUL IN A SIMILAR WAY?
As much as I’m missing the Smokies right now, I am also discovering the magic unfolding in front of me in my own neighborhood. My daily walks around it (with my dog, who thinks she has died and gone to Heaven with our family home so much right now) are revealing an ever changing display of color and renewal. As much as I hate that I’m not on a hiking trail regularly during my favorite season of the year, I’m also grateful that it’s such a beautiful time of year to be at home.
Head early in the day (as in, when the sun comes up early). At any time, even the most popular trails are historically quiet and less congested early in the morning. There’s nothing like having a trail all to yourself too, especially popular ones.
Hike on a weekday rather than a weekend. While I recognize that many of us are home bound right now, many are not. The trails will likely be more congested on weekend days, even now.
Don’t carpool if you’re heading to a hike with a friend. Even if you own and drive a school bus (hey, some folks live in ‘em these days!), it’s still a good idea to drive your own car right now.
Practice Leave No Trace principles. Not sure what those are? I beg of you to read this and find out, and practice them at all times, not just during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Physical distancing is a must. Remember when we used to call this social distancing, like a week ago (that feels like a month ago during this crazy time)?! It really wasn’t the best way to phrase it, and physical distancing is a better way to convey that we should be 6 feet apart at any time, to avoid transmission of COVID-19.
Practice physical distancing even with close friends and family you don’t live with. I don’t care what lengths you or anyone else is going to right now to stay virus free, most of us are at least still grocery shopping and exposing ourselves to the virus. Taking shoulder-to-shoulder types of group photos should be avoided.
Have fun with it! If you head out on a hike or neighborhood walk with a friend, take pictures that you’ll remember about this unique phase of your life that highlight social distancing practices. A married couple I follow on Instagram took some clever selfies of themselves separated by 6 feet on a recent hike. I think they’re pictures we’ll look back on and laugh at one day.
Protect your secret spots. First, I don’t mean for this statement to come off as a selfish tactic, really and truly. But if you have discovered a local trail that isn’t wildly popular and you are still finding it relatively quiet right now, keep those cards close to your chest to avoid it turning into the same scene we’re facing on popular trails.
And really, this is a good Leave No Trace practice anyway. This is a topic with lots of debate even before the pandemic, and it is not my intent to open that can of worms in this post. If you’d like to read more about it from the perspective from the authority on LNT practices, this is an excellent post.
Finally, I encourage you to take a step a back and take a deep breath. There is nothing easy about our situation right now, and there are varying degrees and magnitudes of loss amongst us. Here’s my strategy that seems to be serving me well when I start having a pity party: I think of a young girl named Anne Frank who lived with 7 other people for over 2 years in an 800 square foot space with no access to the outdoors the entire time (or even the luxury of having the curtains open).
If the biggest challenge you’re facing is being able to find a trail that’s open or isn’t congested with people, count yourself as one of the luckiest people on Earth. I’m doing my personal best to keep everything in perspective right now. While it’s perfectly okay to grieve the (temporary) loss of our freedoms, it’s not okay to be selfish. We’ve got this, folks. 🙂
Happy trails (eventually),
I started Hope and Feather Travels in 2011 in the wake of my beloved mother’s death from cancer. She was my anchor in life and a saint walking the earth. Shortly before she died, she gave me a card with Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” hand written in it, because I had given her hope with my extensive research into treatment options. Writing became the perfect channel for me to process my grief in a healthy way after she died. Since the poem is so intimately connected to my mom, it felt fitting to weave it into my blog’s name.
I am a mom to three amazing kids, a wife to the love of my life, a veterinarian, a team member of our local search and rescue squad, a certified naturalist, and an active adventurer whose second home is in the Great Outdoors (and a chronic insomniac, which is why I can pack so much into one life!).
I love talking shop about hiking, backpacking, and traveling, so don’t be shy! I am happy to answer questions and offer suggestions, if I can be helpful in any way. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through my Facebook page.