Hiking, by nature, is an activity that requires planning – sometimes only a little and sometimes months’ worth of research. So, it should come as no surprise to the serious hiker that the key to safe and respectful hiking during the COVID-19 pandemic and the shelter-in-place & social distancing mandate is thorough planning and preparation. (Aka, the boring, but critical, “paperwork” side of hiking/camping/backpacking.)
Many local governments have listed “Hiking and Outdoor Recreation” as an Essential Activity during this crisis – a categorization I wholeheartedly support for many reasons. This support comes with a ruthless caveat though; if you cannot maintain social distance, you have to travel outside of your local jurisdiction, or you do not have the physical capability, appropriate gear or knowledge of what you are doing, then you should 100% find an alternative activity or stay at home. Seriously.
The reason I support local outdoor excursion is three-fold: exercise is necessary for maintaining physical health, time outside is critical for mental health and staving off panic or depression, and the ability to get minor, controlled breaks from home will ultimately lead to stronger social distance commitment as stay-at-home orders (possibly) extend over multiple weeks.
No detail is too small to not take seriously right now.
The first step is finding a trail that you can maintain a 6ft minimum distance from other hikers. Because of this, I highly suggest limiting your potential trails to 1) terrain you’ve hiked in before, 2) recreation areas that you know are lightly trafficked, and 3) trails that are either along fire roads, carriage roads, or have ample space on each side of the trail to step off if necessary. Avoid single track trails that wind up steep ridges or have thick tree and foliage density on each side. You will not be able to maintain a safe distance on the trail if you pass other hikers plus you should avoid any unnecessary risks that might result in SAR being called or require medical staff.
You should map out several possible trails/areas and be prepared to move along if you pull up and the area is crowded. It’s better to hike somewhere else if your #1 choice has too many other hikers or even to go home that day. This reality should be part of your expectations.
You should also download a map to your phone; while many trails have paper maps at the trailhead, you shouldn’t expect rangers to be restocking these. Nor would I want to touch a communal area like this!
We’ve all seen photos on the news by now of popular hiking destinations having crowds reminiscent of 4th of July madness. Because of this, more popular destinations have been completely shut down and are not open to the public.
Other areas have shut down parking areas while keeping the trails open or have modified hours. It is your responsibility to research what is/isn’t open and comply with these rules.
Fill your car with gas at your local station – don’t stop at gas stations near your trailhead. (I’ve personally been putting a dog poop bag over my hand when using the station pump and then washing my hands and steering wheel down afterwards with sudsy water.)
Load your backpack up with all items you might need; this includes meal and snack options, plenty of water, your first aid kit, extra layers, etc. Really, these should be supplies that always come in your day pack, and right now it is critical that you are fully self-sufficient on the trail.
Leave room to pack out your trash as you should avoid using trash receptacles at trail heads. Not only are they communal, but it is also unlikely that trash service is happening.
Remember, we are all in this together! Most, if not all, people you meet on the trail are going to be hyper aware of maintaining social distance which should remove all awkwardness!
These areas are notorious bottlenecks, and this is (likely) where you will encounter the majority of people. Plan on parking with enough space so if your car neighbor is loading/unloading at the same time, you still have room to maintain social distance. If the parking lot is mobbed, move onto your next trail choice. Your goal should be to get through parking lot/trailhead areas as quickly as possible. My dog and I jogged through the parking lot on our last hike until we reached an area where trails started branching out.
If your trailhead has a sign-in box, think twice and only fill out your information if you have a way to sanitize your hands. It’s hard to make blanket statements, but this is something I would probably forgo and instead send a text out to a family member or friend confirming the trail you are on and that you will be in touch when you are off trail.
On the other hand, if you're parking somewhere that requires registering/paying at a trailhead, bring your own writing utensils.
Avoid ALL communal areas (which most will be closed anyway) such as restrooms, water fountains, trash bins, etc. Act as if these are danger zones, because they are.
If you’ve done your homework and prepared well, you should be in an area that has few other hikers around at that time. If you do encounter other hikers, step off to the side to allow plenty of passing room. Since I hike with my German Shepherd, I always take the initiative to step off and have my dog in a down while the other hiker passes. For you, trail rules will most likely dictate who steps off. Remember that hikers going uphill always have right of way, so if the uphill hiker isn’t making an obvious move to step off trail, it is the downhill hiker’s obligation to step off. On flat trails, it will depend on the terrain, situation, etc.
If your trail has gates, either try to open the gate with your foot, sock your hand up with a dog poop bag, or sanitize your hand after touching the exposed surface. It’s important to remember that COVID-19 can live for days on certain surfaces, and since you don’t know who has been there before you, you should act as if is a contaminated surface that needs to be cleaned after exposure.
Other than that, use common sense and make smart judgement calls! I can’t stress this enough. Social distancing is easy to maintain out on the trails if you’ve taken the right precautions and planned smart. And, please, please, do not try to avoid the rules by having friends arrive in separate cars and coincidentally "meeting" while on the trail.
Enjoy the time outside and let the sound of nature sap the stress from your mind and body.
Stay safe and healthy, my friends!