The COVID-19 impacts on hiking include the universal disruption of plans, including ours.
Like lots of people, I’m going more than a little stir crazy due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ve been taking local hikes to get some fresh air and exercise and this really does help. It’s been a challenge to keep up with constantly changing COVID-19 impacts on hiking activities. Active guiding is on hold for now and near-term trips that were planned have been canceled. Longer term everything is tentative, although we are still taking bookings for guided trips. These will be dependent on both public health policy and local rules as well as common sense regarding COVID-19
Officially, we are still encouraged to get outside, but there are important common-sense guidelines. Below are some key takeaways regarding COVID-19 impacts on hiking and camping, my personal thoughts and interpretations regarding access and safety considerations, and some links you can use to keep track of rapidly changing guidelines for outdoor recreation
COVID-19 Impacts on Hiking – Takeways for Backcountry Users
The good news is that most parks and trail systems are open and being outdoors is considered low-risk when it comes to contracting or spreading COVID-19. The bad news is that doesn’t guarantee access to your favorite park or trail:
- Stay local. The definition of local varies, but some are using “within 10 miles of home”.
- Even if a park is “open” there may be local access issues or closures. Check before you go.
- Maintain at least the 6-foot social distancing standard. If you arrive at a parking area or trailhead and it is crowded, leave.
- There are no park services or indoor facilities available.
- Accept the reality of the current situation and stay close to home. Get your exercise through low-risk local activities
COVID-19 Impacts on Hiking – Parks / Forest Preserves
Most parks are open for hiking and most state lands are open for hiking, but the devil is in the details. A key to understanding the COVID-19 impacts on hiking plans is to recognize that it has altered the entire landscape for all aspects of life and the usual outdoor traditions are also out the window:
- Traveling more than 10 miles from home for outdoor recreation is being strongly discouraged. Drastically reducing travel should reduce opportunities for the virus to be spread
- Travel services are limited. Gas stations may be open, but food and comfort stations are not. Restaurants will be closed (except for curbside take-out if you are lucky) and local lodging options may not be available.
- People are scared and rightly or wrongly, there is a strong backlash against perceived “outsiders” traveling in some areas. While there are valid reasons for this concern, it may also degenerate in places to examples of ugliness in our species where reason is irrelevant. This crisis will not last forever and it’s best not to poke the bear.
- Individual municipalities and in some cases individual departments of those municipalities have taken it upon themselves to declare trails closed. This includes trails on DEC managed lands that are not in fact closed. Different agencies in the same area are not coordinated, not uniformly in agreement, and in some cases at odds with one another. The net result is you may travel to a trailhead in your own area and find the parking blocked off. This may be wrong, but again, it will pass soon enough and it’s best not to poke the bear. If it really gets under your skin, remember who is responsible come election time. I’ve a hunch we’ll be forgiving and forgetting for all but the worst offenders by then.
- The Town of Hunter, NY has requested that residents and visitors do not access trailheads, public recreational areas, or local landmarks within the Town until further notice. This covers a significant amount of access to DEC trails in that section of the Catskills. In my opinion if people instead go to neighboring townships, the result will be more crowding in those areas. Unless people voluntarily stay away, there will be pressure on neighboring municipalities to make similar declarations. If you are staying local to your home, this shouldn’t be an issue.
- Park services will not be available. Visitor Centers and Contact Stations will be closed. For New York State Parks, as of March 28 the following notice is posted: “Playgrounds, sports fields and indoor buildings will be closed to the public. Parks, trails and grounds of historic sites remain open for open-air, outdoor recreation.”
- Group sizes have been restricted and then further restricted and so on. It isn’t worth putting a number on it. Unless you are a small family group or individual, it is likely that you are going to run afoul of a group size restriction.
- All campgrounds in New York are closed. Primitive camping seems to still be allowed in the places where it is usually legal but groups of campers should not go.
- Fire towers are closed. You may be able to hike to a tower, but don’t touch anything.
- Trails are open in the White Mountain National Forest, but trailhead and backcountry facilities are severely restricted. Most toilet facilities and several recreation sites have been closed. This is changing daily, and not for the better. Check with the Forest Service before you go (assuming you are local, otherwise don’t go at all).
- Crowds have been showing up for spring skiing at Tuckerman Ravine despite the stay at home order in place in New Hampshire and neighboring states. The forest service snow rangers have announced that they will stop issuing avalanche forecasts after Sunday March 29. It is likely that Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines will be declared closed to the public this week.
- The National Park Service has closed all overnight shelters that they administer along the Appalachian Trail. This includes 56 shelters between Virginia and Maine as well as all privies.
- The AT is no longer considered a viable place to practice social distancing and The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has requested that all hikers avoid the trail. Anecdotally, a lot of thru-hikers have postponed the start or ended their hikes early but popular trailheads are still seeing lots of day-hikers. The story is similar on other long-distance hiking trails in North America.
- All Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) properties are closed at least through April 30. Programs scheduled through April 30 have been canceled. Parking lots managed by the ADK are open and fees are still required.
- The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) has suspended all public operations until at least May 4. This means that huts, lodges, camps, and cabins are closed and programs canceled. This impacts facilities in several states in the northeast, including the New Hampshire hut system. Huts that would otherwise be open for self-service season are closed.
- Parks Canada has closed all facilities, ceased services, and prohibited motor vehicle access to National Parks. This includes the closure of front-country camping facilities and backcountry camping until further notice. Some trails and day use areas are open and others are closed.
- The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) has suspended all operations through June 13 due to Coronavirus. All ACC properties are closed and hut bookings through 6/13 are canceled.
COVID-19 Impacts on Hiking – Safety Considerations
- Getting to the trailhead has its dangers. You can pick up the COVID-19 virus from a gas pump handle, or you can leave the virus on the handle for someone else to pick up.
- It’s hard to avoid touching things things and it’s even harder not to touch your face when hiking for hours. It’s also nearly impossible to properly wash your hands with soap while hiking. Signing into trail registers is suddenly a bad idea. The virus can live on metal surfaces up to 5 days. That means stay away from fire towers too. In normal times people are constantly touching both of these things.
- If you get into trouble in the wilderness, help will be further away than usual. This isn’t the time to push your limits or go for that “epic” hike. Keep it simple, keep it safe, then go home.
- Higher-risk activities such as rock climbing should be completely avoided.
- Rangers, police, fire and other emergency personnel have been overwhelmingly tasked with duties related to the current public health crisis. In addition to rescue times being extended, you’ll be pulling critical resources away from activities that are much more important than your hike.
- You shouldn’t have touched the trail register anyway which means it will be harder to determine where you might be when you are overdue. Most backcountry tragedies start with a cascading series of small errors. Now doing the right thing becomes one of the errors that can compound.
- If you do need to be rescued and carried out you will be compromising social distancing for the large SAR crew that would be required. Any member of the team and/or you as the “victim” could be positive for the virus and spreading it to the others. A hiker’s bad decision can harm dozens of first responders.
- A complaint from some rural communities has been that they don’t have enough hospital beds to take care of visitors that get injured. Taken literally, I think this is a stretch (a broken leg or a concussion or two is unfortunate, but not a significant drain on the system), but the real concern that they have is about more people spreading the virus around town. If you are well enough to take a hike, you’ll probably be well enough to get back home before the virus takes you down, but you will also be well enough to pass the virus on to others before you do.
- About the 6-foot social distancing guideline. If strictly followed, two tall people stretching their arms out have about a foot of space between each other’s fingers. Some people seem to have trouble visualizing 6 feet. They may be the same ones who think 3 inches is 6 inches.