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How to Hit the Trails While Social Distancing

FAQs on Hiking, Biking, and Running Responsibly

During the days of uncertainty ahead, we’re doubling down on our mission to share stories about how you can keep the spirit of adventure going safely, from roundups of our favorite recent outdoor stories, recipes, and more, to ways our community is finding the backcountry right in their backyard.

And before venturing outdoors, please check the most recent official advice in your area to make sure that the trail or public lands you hope to visit are still open and not discouraging visitors. Also read up on the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO).

For those of us craving some trail therapy, what does social distancing mean for time spent outside? The National Institute of Health says that continuing to exercise outdoors is a vital part of maintaining a healthy immune system. In fact, thanks to the associated physical and mental benefits, Harvard Health Publishing is actually recommending it—though with some important points to bear in mind.

If you’re ready to hit the trails, but aren’t sure how to do so safely, we put together some FAQs to guide your trail recreation in the coming weeks.

Q: If I’m sheltering in place, can I still head to the trailhead?

A: Guidelines say that you can still go outside for essential reasons and “to get fresh air,” as long as you keep six feet of distance between you and anyone else on a mission to get some Vitamin D. That said, don’t go out if you’re sick, experiencing any symptoms, or are at-risk of spreading the virus.

Q: Do I need to go it alone, or can I bring a friend?

A: Again, it’s the six feet of distance that’s key. “You will still be able to walk your dog, or go on a hike alone or [sic] someone you live with, or even with another person, as long as you keep six feet between you,” says Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. 

Groups of more than 10 people should be avoided. You could also just enjoy some solo trail time to collect your thoughts. Of course, don’t make plans to hike or ride with anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or may have been exposed to it. And for now, avoid any big group activities—this is not the time to rally a shred crew for the nearest stretch of dry singletrack.

Q: What about other people on the trail? Can I say “hi?”

A: Just follow that six-feet rule. And just because you’re social distancing, it doesn’t mean you have to be socially awkward. Being friendly to our fellow members of the outdoor community will help us all get through these uncertain times. Wave hello or shout “how goes it?” from a distance.

Q: How far is too far to travel for a trailhead?

A: Current advice states that there’s no need to avoid heading outside, but you should try to limit your destinations to local trails, parks, and public lands where possible. Avoid traveling far enough that you’ll have to stop along the way for gas or to use a public bathroom. Unnecessary travel can help spread the disease, so search out your neighborhood’s nearest spots and get creative. Also check to make sure the trail or area you planned to visit is still open.

Q: Where can I find trails near me?

A: Alltrails is a great resource for finding nearby trails—download the app version so you can find the trailhead and navigate on-the-go. You can also order a copy of the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer map for your state (they’re available for all 50). Unfold the whole sheet, and get lost in its network of fire roads, tracks, and undiscovered trails. You’re almost guaranteed to find something new, and it might even provide a fresh perspective on old haunts you thought you knew like the back of your hand.

Q: Can I get sendy with it?

This is no time to get injured or stuck far out in the trail. With emergency personnel strapped, avoid a situation where you need help from others at all costs. Stick to nearby trails that you know well, carry a first aid kit, and keep a conservative pace. Don’t do anything risky, like mountain biking a trail that challenges your ability level or sprinting down a rocky hill. 

In addition, don’t go overboard on the mileage. You’re more vulnerable to infection when you push yourself in training. Whether you’re hiking, biking, or running, just enjoy the miles and keep it mellow.

Q: Can I bring the dog? Does fido need a mask?

A: Your pup may be hurting for fresh air as much as you are. While fido can catch certain strains of coronavirus, experts believe that canines can’t carry or transmit COVID-19. That said, you don’t want strangers petting your dog and getting their germs on fur, which you’ll inevitably later touch or find on your sofa. Keep your dog leashed to control its exposure on the trails.

Q: What does good hygiene on the trail look like?

A: The WHO recommends regularly cleaning your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or with soap and water. Stash some hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes in your day pack to keep on top of cleanliness between opportunities to thoroughly wash your hands. And whether you’re alone or with a significant other, keep up the habit of sneezing or coughing only into the crook of your elbow.

If you do end up passing people on the trail, sanitize your hands and wipe down your equipment (e.g., bikes, packs, hiking poles, etc.) afterward just in case.

Q: Aside from sanitizer, what else does a trail pack need in the days of distancing?

A: While we should always stay hydrated, now more than ever, drinking enough fluids will help keep your immune system healthy and avoid any instances of dehydration. This is also the ultimate time to practice preparedness. Bring plenty of snacks, navigation tools to avoid getting lost, a first aid kid, sun protection, and any other tools to keep you safe on the trail. 

Q: How can I keep my kids entertained on the trails?

A: If your little ones are complaining about hiking, turn the whole excursion into a learning opportunity. Bring a field guide and identify flora and fauna. Teach them a history lesson from the pages of the wilderness movement as you hike. Or address your lack of fresh produce with a little foraging. Spring is morel season if you live in mushroom country, and there are many medicinal herbs and plants you can find al fresco this time of year to add a little variety to your quarantine diet.