As States Open Trails and Parks, Here’s How to Return Outdoors Safely

June 17, 2020
getting safely outdoors
Paula ChampagneHikers make their way along the Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire. As states open trails amid the COVID-19 pandemic, users should observe safety protocol and physical distancing to prevent further spread.

Three months after many Americans began physical distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, most states are beginning the slow process of reopening their economies and public spaces. For outdoor enthusiasts, this means a return to some natural recreational areas that haven’t been accessible for the last several months.

But despite the urge to get back outside, it’s important to remember that the virus is still very much present, and that undertaking any outdoor activity must mean keeping the safety of yourself and others in mind.


plan ahead
Paula ChampagneHeading outdoors this summer? Be sure to plan carefully to avoid crowded trails and parks.

Plan ahead and prepare

Before leaving for a hike, people should “be aware of the government orders for where [they] are and where [they] will be traveling,” says Colby Meehan, AMC’s leadership training manager. For example, for those intending to cross state lines, such as a group of backpackers from New York going to hike in Vermont, stay-at-home orders should be lifted in both states before the trip takes place.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy agrees, and suggests that hikers “stay local” so as to avoid stops at gas stations or restaurants along the way to the trailhead.

Before departing, the ATC says to ask yourself three questions: Is anyone in your group showing symptoms of COVID-19, or have any of you been in contact with someone who has? Has the section of trail you plan to hike been closed? And do you have the proper gear to have a safe hike while preventing the spread of the virus?

Hikers and paddlers will also want to ensure that any trails, rivers, or parks they’ll be using are open to the public. Updated information on outdoor recreation policies in the AMC region can be found here:

When planning a trip, avoid crowded routes and have backups in mind, Meehan says. This may mean forgoing the most popular trails and peaks in favor of equally rewarding but less populated options. As Meehan puts it, “Prevention is still the best medicine. If you show up and the trail parking lot is full, it’s time to pick another day or pick another trail.”


measured return
Paula ChampagneHikers and other outdoor users should consider easing back outdoors in smaller groups of close friends and family.

A measured return to full group trips

AMC is currently in its second phase of reopening and volunteer-led trips are currently capped at a group size of 10, which includes leaders and participants. There isn’t an exact date on when groups will be able to expand, and for good reason. AMC operates across a large region and will be looking at how different states respond to reopening. “We’re all about data-driven decision-making in the risk management department,” Meehan says. “We’re relying on state guidance and guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control]” to make such decisions, she adds.

Throughout the reopening process, hikers should try to keep trips to people inside their contact group—those they’ve been isolated with for 14 days or more.

If interacting with people outside of your contact group, observe the recommended 6 to 10 feet of separation and wear masks when distancing is not possible, according to the ATC. For volunteer-led hikes, AMC’s Meehan notes that food should be prepared individually, participants should sanitize before using group equipment, and no one should sleep in close quarters to those outside of their contact group.

While carpooling is otherwise a great tool to reduce carbon-emissions, now is not the time to pack different groups of people into a small, confined space for a road trip, Meehan says. “The big difference there is the ability to social distance,” she notes. “The potential for infection is significantly greater versus an outdoor space.”


protecting people
Paula ChampagneDuring this time of physical distancing, proper trail protocol and etiquette are more important than ever—including carefully moving off-trail for oncoming hikers.

Protecting people and nature

To keep yourself protected on the trail, have your mask accessible—on your hip, in your pocket, or around your neck—so that it can quickly be donned if an oncoming group rounds the corner ahead.

When passing another hiker or group on a tight trail, keep a safe distance from others while also protecting vegetation by adhering to Leave No Trace (LNT) principles—with a special focus on sticking to durable surfaces. If you encounter individuals on the trail, step off the trail onto non-living surfaces like rocks, dirt, or fallen trees, where possible, rather than onto moss, grass, or flowers. Especially at higher altitudes, such as in the alpine zone, these plants have difficulty re-growing after repeated human contact. “Our natural areas will likely be receiving less attention from staff and volunteers right now. This means our shared spaces need us to act as stewards more than ever,” according to the Center for Outdoor Ethics website.

On the trail, “The descending person should yield to the person coming up the trail, which is the standard etiquette anyway,” hiker and writer Mike Cherim wrote recently at Redline Guiding, “but now we will want to move well off-trail via a drainage or on some other durable surface. We cannot forget LNT.”

With regard to moving off trail, leaders should have a good understanding of the route they’re taking and know whether physical distancing or stepping off trail is possible. For example, some thin ridgeline trails, such as Katahdin’s Knife Edge, which drops off steeply to either side, may need to be avoided for now.

And it should go without saying, but the same, pre-COVID LNT rules apply now—even if rangers aren’t present to enforce them. With park and trails staff being being asked to quarantine or, in some cases, being furloughed, some recreational areas have seen an uptick in litter, vandalism, tree-cutting, and trash dumping from inconsiderate users. Holding each other accountable, and doing the right thing ourselves, will safeguard our outdoor spaces and make for the most enjoyable experience during this time.


When nature calls

Whether on a single- or multi-day trip, bathroom breaks are inevitable. Plan for this in advance and avoid front-country public restrooms as much as possible. Investing in a trowel or a travel toilet could be prudent, but when nature calls, make sure to follow LNT principles, which suggest relieving oneself at least 200 feet from a water source, burying human waste, and packing out used toilet paper.

Using backcountry privies is still acceptable and recommended, and privies continue to provide a great alternative to digging “cat holes” in high-use areas, says Rachel Cheatham, AMC’s Group Outreach Coordinator. “AMC caretakers will be cleaning the privies throughout the day,” she says. “We will also provide wipes and cleaning solution to help hikers maintain personal hygiene.”


what's next
Paula ChampagneThere may be continued health precautions after states fully reopen, but the outdoors will remain a necessary lifeline for many.

What’s next?

Even after states have reopened and residents have fully returned to the outdoors, a “new normal” of precautions will exist to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For now, it is difficult to say when this will be or what it will look like, but it will rely on assessments of how widespread the virus is, how accessible testing is, and whether there is a vaccine or treatment available.

But for the time being, activities like hiking, canoeing, and climbing are low-risk ways to get outdoors and exercise, if proper precautions are maintained. Just be aware of the rules guiding where you can go, pack protective equipment like hand sanitizer and a mask, keep a safe distance from anyone outside your contact group, and remember to enjoy the trail.



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Will Katcher

Will Katcher is AMC’s editorial intern.