The recent pandemic has produced so many negative effects it's impossible to name them all. But there's at least one good thing - lots more people are getting outside. While it's fantastic to have more people interested in the outdoors and nature, it comes with some practical challenges. I'm a hiker, not an epidemiologist - but after doing diligent research and spending time on the trails this summer, I'd like to share some suggestions for hiking during the pandemic.
It's extremely unfortunate that there is so much controversy and misinformation about the pandemic. In order to be more transparent, I've linked my sources of information below. I encourage you to read further, so we can all be respectful, considerate, gentle on the environment, and of course, safe.
Be prepared for bigger-than-usual turnout at the trailheads, and plan accordingly. In the Adirondacks, where parking is notoriously limited, I've heard reports of parking lots filling up at 5am on weekends. Lincoln Woods, NH had nearly a half mile of cars parked on both sides of the road - in addition to a huge, full parking lot.
So, unfortunately, now isn't the best time to do the #1 most popular hike on AllTrails. Instead of googling "10 Best Day Hikes," try digging out your trusty topo map and look a bit closer. Instead of peakbagging the NH 4,000-footers, why not explore some lesser-known hiking trails and parks near you? In addition to making physical distancing easier, this also spreads out the environmental impact of overcrowding on the trails. Also, when you can, plan visits during less busy times such as midweek or evenings.
It's been well-documented that wearing masks is extremely effective in inhibiting the spread of coronavirus. While masks with ties can be safer for preventing the virus spread, buffs can be more comfortable for hiking. The research suggests that 2-layer cloth fabric masks or buffs are effective and should be a feasible option for most people. And bring extras - masks are less effective when wet, so if you get sweaty on your way up, put on a clean mask for the hike down! Make sure your mask is UP when you pass people, not just a fashion statement.
It is best to hike with the people you have been quarantining with. If you choose to hike with people outside of your household note that this is at an increased risk. Outdoor activities are much safer than indoor activities, but it can be difficult to maintain 6 foot distance on narrow rocky trails and it is difficult to breathe wearing a mask for 8 hours in the hot sun. It is also important to hike in small groups as this makes passing on the trails much safer.
If you see hikers up ahead, find a safe pull-off where you can step off the trail, put your mask up, and let them pass. Hikers going uphill have the right of way, but it is important with COVID-19 that everyone is cognizant of safety. When stepping off trail make sure to avoid stepping on fragile plants.
Choose a hike that is within your comfort zone and have backup plans for emergencies. Performing a rescue is riskier than ever for search and rescue professionals, many of whom already have limited resources. Not to mention, if you are careless and get injured you could be taking a spot from someone who is very ill.
Being prepared includes not just bringing the right gear, but also knowing your route and having plans and backup plans. Be prepared to bring all of your own food and water, and expect bathrooms, campgrounds, and huts to be closed.
It is always a good idea to bring hand sanitizer when you hike, but especially now! On rugged trails where you need to use your hands, remember that many people may touch the same handholds, and be sure to disinfect before eating or touching your face.
A love of the outdoors is such a meaningful and fun way to connect with people. Staying physically distanced, covering your face, and avoiding people doesn't mean that connection is gone - it just changes the game a bit.
Everyone's risk tolerance is different. Remember that what might seem okay to you might endanger other hikers. We all need to do our part to protect everyone else by being courteous, respectful, and responsible.