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How Do I Enjoy the Outdoors Responsibly in a Pandemic?

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 9/30/2020 Lale Arikoglu
a close up of a tree © Getty

Earlier this summer, I bubbled together with a couple of friends and went up to Maine, where we swam in glassy lakes, ate an ungodly amount of lobster, and generally decompressed after months cooped up inside our apartments. The biggest reason for choosing the state was Acadia National Park, a 47,000-acre coastal preserve that promised all the nature and wide open spaces we’d been craving during lockdown. But when we hit the trails, it quickly became apparent that plenty of other people had had the same idea—and flocked to the park on the same 75-degree day we had chosen. Beautiful and breathtaking, yes. Quiet and empty? Not so much.

If there’s one silver lining to 2020, it’s been the surge of interest in the great outdoors. Yet entering a national park is no longer as simple as pulling on a pair of hiking boots; it requires factoring in COVID-19 precautions just like we do in every other facet of our lives, as a means to protect both ourselves and the communities we come into contact with. Of course, a walk through the wilderness is a little different from zipping to the grocery store. How should we be mindful of others in the outdoors while still finding ways to reset?

“In most areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with members of their household,” says Stephanie Roulett, the National Park Service’s public affairs specialist. But she also points out that “some trails may be crowded or narrow,” adding that “with so many people on the trail, keeping six feet of distance between yourself and other hikers may not be possible at all times.”

In other words, mask up. The NPS has posted COVID-19 safety signs around its parks, added floor stickers in gathering spaces to help visualize six feet of distance, and installed plexiglass at counters. It also advises all visitors to wear a cloth face covering—no matter what part of the trail you’re on. If hiking with a mask proves a challenge on the steeper inclines, Sandy Dobert-Snell, a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado, reminds hikers to cover their face as soon as they see people approach. And whatever you do, keep your distance. “Leave 6 to 10 feet between parties whenever possible,” says Snell. “My husband likes to say that we should think of people as skunks these days—would you get closer than 10 feet to a skunk?”

If you’re concerned about trails getting too crowded, do not try and go off-trail as a solution, says Roulett. If something were to go wrong, you’d be putting your own life at risk, as well as adding an extra strain on public service resources. Instead, plot your route ahead of time: Research less-frequented trails, aim for off-peak hours (“most parks experience large numbers of visitors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” says Snell), and bookmark places that have introduced reservation systems (Acadia, incidentally, just announced one). Additionally, some parks have made certain trail loops one-way to avoid hikers colliding with another. A packed parking lot is also a reliable insight of what’s to come, notes Snell.

It’s not just about being mindful of other hikers, either. Consider the safety and wellbeing of the park rangers—who have been working tirelessly to safely accommodate an increasing number of visitors, all while making sure that our parks remain as beautiful as we expect them to be. “It has been challenging, to say the least,” says Snell. “We've modified our operations, particularly education programs and visitor centers, to be available to our visitors and yet maintain safe conditions for them and for our staff. It's difficult to wear a mask all day and talk to hundreds of people, yet our front line rangers have adapted as best they can.”

And while most visitors have been respectful and observant of mask and social distancing guidelines, according to Snell, a growing number of inexperienced campers and hikers has led to greater environmental impact. “I would love to see more visitors to our parks and other public lands take the Leave No Trace principles to heart,” says Snell, adding that she frequently finds trash in Colorado’s backcountry and wilderness. Treat the park as if it’s your own backyard—because, in many ways, it is.


Video: Pandemic Matrimony: Couples Flocking To Popular Tahoe Spot To Elope (CBS Sacramento)

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