UPDATE: This past weekend everyone who hasn’t hiked decided it would be a good time to start, and many parks and trails were overrun with people. Some parks reported the highest volume of hikers they had ever encountered, making safe social distancing impossible. As a result, more and more agencies, parks, cities and counties are closing trails and entire parks. Most of what what follows from the original post remains true, but today, I would add we should only be walking from our home, only with members of our own household, and maintaining a minimum of six feet social distance. I’m not saying this is the The Rule, but in light of how rapidly Covid-19 is spreading, and how quickly the rules and restrictions have been tightened, it’s the smart call. – March 23, 2020.
I’ve been deluged with questions from fellow hikers asking “is it safe to hike during the COVID-19 pandemic?” Regardless of where you live, all of us are faced with some level of restrictions on travel. Many businesses are closed. Outdoor retailers like REI and Patagonia have closed their retail outlets for the time being. Toilet paper is in high demand for some reason. Clearly a lot has changed in a very short period of time, and our guidance will change as we learn more about the spread of the Coronavirus, but here’s what we can say today.
Asking social media “is it safe to hike?” is not the way to get informed. Get reliable information on the latest on COVID-19 from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. What other strangers are doing on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram should not inform your pandemic strategy.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics suggests you stay home, or stay local. Walking the dog, trail running and hiking are all excellent ways to maintain physical and mental wellness. That’s why we have terms like “stir crazy” and “cabin fever”. We need to get outside, and being outside is generally good for us. Hiking solo or with other members of your household okay. Avoid group hikes for now. You could even hike with a friend, but don’t carpool together, and maintain a minimum of six feet of distance between you and other hikers.
Maintaining six feet of social distance can be very difficult on a busy single-track trail, so avoid crowded trails. You can go to less popular trails, or at less popular times (early in the morning usually works for me). For me, the trails in Griffith Park are perfect. They are close to where I live, and although they are popular, they are broad (usually even wider than a double-track) making it easy to allow 6 feet of space when passing others.
When you go, be prepared for closures. Many facilities are closed, including visitor centers, parking lots, bathrooms and even entire parks. Check the park or agency website for the latest information before you go, and even then, come prepared with extra water, food, hand sanitizer and yes, even your own toilet paper. You don’t want to have to stop for food or supplies and risk exposure.
Don’t overdo it. Physical activity can be good for a healthy immune system. But over-exercising can actually reduce your immune system’s defenses. It’s not the time to push hard or go for that personal record.
Play it safe. Sure, life is risky, and there are always opportunities when hiking for something to go wrong. But there’s a big difference between twisting an ankle on a trail in Griffith Park versus doing so on Ontario Peak (which currently requires winter mountaineering gear and expertise). Our medical professionals and other first responders are already busy enough. Don’t add to their workload, or put them at risk of exposure.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association issued a statement on March 19th asking hikers to cancel or postpone their Pacific Crest Trail plans.
“Because no one can travel long distances on the PCT and be certain of avoiding any exposure to the coronavirus, and because anyone at any time can be a carrier of the virus without knowing it, it is clear that anyone traveling the PCT and resupplying in communities along the trail represents a serious risk to others on the trail and people in those communities—particularly high-risk individuals for whom the virus could be deadly.” – pcta.org
Speaking of mountain towns, many of them are asking visitors to stay away. Recognize that this is a difficult decision for them to make, especially since so many of their businesses rely on visitors. The rationale is simple: because COVID-19 often doesn’t present symptoms for 2-14 days, you may have it right now even though you aren’t exhibiting symptoms. And for some people, the symptoms they do get don’t seem very severe. Spreading the virus to small communities with limited medical facilities just because you want to hike there is ultimately an act of selfishness. Please choose not to go.
Avoid international travel. On Thursday, March 19th the “…Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.” There are some exceptions if you are returning to your home country–if you can find a way home–but that trek in Nepal is going to have to wait.
The Question of “Can I?” versus “Should I?”
The “should I…” questions are answered above. The “can I…” question is trickier, and evolving on an almost daily basis. Where I’m currently living, the entire state of California is under “Safer at Home” guidance that has a lot of people confused. Really there are two questions:
- “Is it legal for me to hike?” and
- “Is it safe for me to hike?”
As of March 20th, it is legal for you to hike in California, as long as the governing agency has not closed a trail and/or park. Griffith Park? Open (except for certain facilities). Claremont Hills Wilderness Park? Closed. Yes, you can travel to the trailhead, though keep in mind the further you travel, the great the risk. What happened if your car broke down and you were separated from your family? Will you be in trouble for driving an hour or more to a trail? Not today. Is it illegal? Not yet.
California Executive order N-33-20 states (emphasis mine):
The supply chain must continue, and Californians must have access to such necessities as food, prescriptions, and health care. When people need to leave their homes or places of residence, whether to obtain or perform the functions above, or to otherwise facilitate authorized necessary activities, they should at all times practice social distancing.
N-33-20 does not specifically mention outdoor exercise (such as hiking), the “Shelter-in-Place” order previously put in effect for five Bay Area counties considered hiking, walking or running outside as an “essential activity” similar to obtaining medical care or grocery shopping. An excerpt from that order exempts “Engaging in outdoor activity, such as walking, hiking, or running provided that you maintain at least six feet of social distancing.” This was echoed in Governor Newsom’s address.
My personal advice? Stay home, or stay local. I’ll be walking the dogs in the neighborhood.
visiting Griffith Park (3 miles away), and might drive up to an hour to a trailhead for a longer hike. Some people would say that’s paranoid. Others will call it reckless.
One thing I am certain of, all of this will probably change again in a few days.
Ocotillo Storm photo by Jason Fitzpatrick
Safer at Home is the LA County order. The State of California issued a Stay At Home Order by the public health officer that only allows for necessary travel and maintaining infrastructure. While the guidance is appreciated it is factually incorrect. The LA order and the state order are slightly in conflict, causing confusion. Additionally, comments by the Governor during his press conference do not sync with the order itself. I encourage everyone to read the order at covid19.ca.gov that superceded the county order. Make an informed decision and do what you think is appropriate but understand the facts before you go.
Jeff Hester says
Thanks, Scott. I’ve updated the article to clarify. I have linked to the Stay at Home order, which makes exceptions for “essential activities.” The previous Shelter in Place order for the five Bay Area counties made similar exceptions, but spelled out exercise outdoors as one such activity. It’s true that the Stay at Home order does not specifically mention exercise as essential, but Governor Newsom alluded to this in his speech.
Obviously this applies specifically to our Californian readers. Other states may have similar restrictions.
Karl D. says
Yup! I have been doing a little driving to trailheads and bike routes. I gas up in my own neighborhood, go alone, and don’t touch anything besides what I brought with me.
Pearl Dey says
This is actually a great tip to try on less popular trails so that even social distancing norms can be followed with ease. But even then I would suggest people to not try hiking at this moment,. First let the dust to settle first, and then we can go to those places without any worries.
David Earley says
Illegal to hike – who would have ever thought such a thing would exist? Walking the neighborhood, or going to the grocery store still seem far more risky to me. I just don’t get it.