Hiking and Backpacking Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

What unique risks and safety practices should be considered when hiking during the COVID-19 pandemic?

One of the most positive aspects of the COVID-19 experience is more people than ever are walking, hiking and rediscovering their local neighborhoods and trail systems across the nation. As the weather warms and stay-at-home orders begin to ease, people will be hitting the trails and venturing farther from home for hiking and backpacking experiences. What unique risks and safety practices should be considered when hiking during the COVID-19 pandemic? We have a few specific safety ideas that hikers and backpackers of all skill levels should keep in mind to help minimize coronavirus transmission this summer.

Keep in mind the population of avid hikers and backpackers is generally healthy and low risk! The focus for many of these safety measures is to reduce transmission of this virus (a natural hitch hiker) to minimize risk to yourself and those more vulnerable.

Four Risk Areas

After brainstorming with other hikers during one of our online classes and events, we came up with four key areas of risk: High Touch, Group Activities, Close Interactions  and Travel. Let’s take a look at each of these areas more closely to consider key risks and possible solutions.

High Touch refers to areas on trails and around trailheads that require human touch for use. This includes front-country facilities like picnic tables, restrooms and drinking fountains; on-trail features like gates, rails and cables, and sign-in registries; and back-country items like summit registries. Use of all of these items means that you will be touching something that could be a source of coronavirus transmission.

Group Activities can range from group day hikes with family or friends to multi-night backpacking treks. Groups tend to share common sources of food and water, and come into close proximity around campsites and rest areas. By nature, social distancing becomes more challenging when hiking and backpacking with a group and the risk of coronavirus transmission increases.

Close Interactions occur when you come into close proximity with someone you don’t know outside your quarantine family or hiking group. These are interactions where you have less control of the situation – for example, you may be passing someone on a narrow trail, or passing people in a parking lot. Popular trails and high-traffic periods (like weekends) present a higher risk for transmission through close interaction with strangers.

Travel for hiking and backpacking refers to leaving your community and heading out of town for a destination hike, backpacking excursion, or long-distance thru hike such as the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail. The specific risk of coronavirus transmission when traveling for hiking and backpacking can take many forms, but here, the risk is also uniquely shared with the people and communities you interact with. Use of resupply communities, emergency response, accommodations, etc. all present new opportunities to acquire or spread the coronavirus disease.

Ideas To Minimize Risk

At the moment, many national, state and local parks and trails are closed and future access remains uncertain in many regions. Demand for nature, however, is high, and will possibly be higher than ever as we begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some ideas you can practice to minimize risk of coronavirus transmission when hiking or backpacking in the current environment.

Minimize High Touch Risks

Wash your hands before and after hiking – A common sense way to help minimize spread of the disease.

Consider using gloves – Protect yourself from direct contact with things like gates, drinking fountains, restrooms, rails, cables, etc.

Avoid registries when possible – If sign-in at a trailhead is required, consider coming prepared with your own pen. If sign-in at a registry is optional, consider skipping it this year to avoid risk of COVID-19 transmission. If you have kids who enjoy geocaching, consider temporarily deleting the app.

Bring your own water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer – Make sure to bring enough water so you can skip filling up at the trailhead and minimize your need to interact with front country facilities. If restrooms are open, be self-reliant with your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Bring a picnic blanket – Avoid common high-touch facilities like picnic tables and benches.

Minimize Group Activity Risks

Limit group size – Smaller group size limits the potential spread of the virus.

Practice physical distancing – Keep reasonable spacing between members of  your party when hiking with a group of people outside your household.

Designate a server or cook – Avoid open buffets and family style trail meals. Consider designating one person to handle both food preparation and serving to minimize opportunity for cross contamination and transmission during meal times.

No-touch water filtration – If filtering water on the trail, avoid direct contact between the filter output and a personal water bottle or bladder. Here’s an alternative solution for groups: consider bringing an extra “clean” container. Filter all your water into the clean container, then pour out of the clean container to refill individual water bottles.

Bring a hand washing station or hand sanitizer – If sharing meals during a long hike, or camping overnight on the trail, set up a hand washing station (hanging bladder and soap) for use before and after meals.

Minimize Close Interaction Risks

Hike off hours – Avoid the crowds and minimize interactions with the general public by hiking popular trails during less crowded periods, such as early in the mornings, late evenings, or during a weekday.

Use face masks – Just like at the grocery store, a face mask can provide an added layer of protection to help reduce virus transmission when close interactions are unavoidable on the trail.

Yield space – Be aware of your surroundings, make eye contact, and safely yield space to oncoming hikers (preferably with a smile and a wave!).

Practice social distancing – Avoid use of trails which you know to be popular or crowded.

Advocate for one way trails – If you’re active in your local community and the terrain allows, consider advocating for one-way trails to help manage the flow of traffic and reduce interactions on the trail. Some Bay Area communities have adopted this policy on popular routes.

Minimize Travel Risks

Stay close to home – The easiest way to minimize travel risks is to not travel and hike close to home.

Be self-reliant – If you do decide to travel, attempt to be as self-reliant as possible. That means making sure you have enough food, water and gas to minimize interactions with other people or high-touch points outside your community.

Don’t take unnecessary risks – This goes without saying during all times, however, keep it front of mind when on the trails this summer. Unnecessary contact with emergency personnel will lower risk of transmission for both parties.

Minimize time off-trail – If you’re planning a thru hike with resupply needs, attempt to minimize your time off trail and limit, or eliminate off-trail activities in resupply communities.

Follow local regulations – This summer is sure to be a fluid and fast changing environment. Before traveling, do some research to become aware of local regulations or guidelines in the area you plan to hike. Be considerate by following them at all times.

What to Expect

New regulations are being formulated at the national, state and local level as we write. Given the above risks, we expect high traffic, bucket list type destinations to be closed or severely impacted by new regulations throughout much of this summer. Think Grand Canyon Corridor Trails, or Yosemite’s Half Dome. These destination hikes traditionally require complex interactions with all the risk areas including High Touch, Groups Activity, Close Interactions and Travel. We’re hopeful that more remote locations, and local trail destinations that inherently contain lest risk will reopen sooner, rather than later, with revised guidelines. Ultimately it’s up to each individual to follow safe hiking and backpacking practices, and we hope this post adds some value, and safety, to your hiking experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Have an additional idea you’re like to share? Please leave a comment!