Californians, Americans, everyone: hiking and walking locally during the coronavirus pandemic is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health, as long as you do it locally and wisely. This post discusses why you should still hike and walk, and how to do it in a manner that prevents spread of the coronavirus and minimizes the possibility you will have an accident that will strain the already overburdened medical system.
Updated March 30, 2020
This Information Applies Beyond California
As the author of several guidebooks on Northern California hiking trails, I know best what’s going on in my native state. However, these hiking/walking suggestions in general apply to many other parts of the United States and the world.
First, If You’re Sick, Stay Home and Self-Isolate
Seriously, if you have any symptoms of coronavirus/COVID-19, or you have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus/COVID-19, self-isolate at home and follow current guidelines. Don’t go hiking. Don’t go walking. Don’t go out in public. It’s crucial to protect others.
Second, Follow Government Rules and Guidelines for Hiking and Walking
Government rules and guidelines have been changing almost daily since I first published this post in mid-March. Pay attention to local news to find out where you can and can’t go, and always check the managing agency’s website and social media channels if you are at all unsure.
Social Distancing: How Crowded Is the Trail?
Social distancing requires a minimum six-foot distance from other people. The ability to practice social distancing will vary for each hiking trail. The key variables:
How Many Hikers Are on the Trail?
You want trails that are relatively uncrowded. Hiking early in the morning is usually a good bet, and also in the early evening. Be willing to hike less popular trails to make social distancing easier, and also dirt roads where few people think to hike. (And read my other post about hikers NOT adequately social distancing.)
Can You Easily Move Six Feet Off the Trail?
How easy is it to move six feet or more off the trail to let other hikers pass by? This depends primarily on vegetation and steepness of terrain, and also on the width of the trail itself. For example, some trails are old dirt roads, which make it easy to safely pass other hikers.
If you hike trails you’re familiar with, you likely already know the answers to these questions. Otherwise, use hiking guidebooks and online sources like Facebook groups and AllTrails, and also contact the managing agency.
Hike and Walk Locally
California and many other state and local governments have already mandated that people only travel for essential reasons. So far, they are allowing people to go outside as long as they can safely practice social distancing, and in some areas, it’s still allowable to travel short distances to go hiking.
Be aware of the risks for you and society when you travel to hike, especially if you travel to remote places. If you need to be rescued, you are pulling professionals and possibly Search and Rescue volunteers from other duties, and likely requiring them to use personal protective equipment (PPE) when treating you, PPE that is really needed for treating potential and actual COVID-19 patients.
The farther you travel, the more likely you are to have a vehicle accident, which, again, will strain medical resources that are needed for others. In addition, by hiking locally you use less gas, which means fewer times you have to go to a gas station and touch that pump handle that hundreds of others have touched.
And what if your vehicle breaks down and you need a tow to a mechanic? The few times I’ve been towed, I sat in the tow truck with the driver. That’s not safe now.
Finally, those small towns that are usually so welcoming generally don’t want you and your potential coronavirus germs around, either to spread it to the local population or to get sick and need care in their small hospitals.
Is the Hiking Trail Accessible?
As of this most recent update on March 30, 2020, many California hiking trails are closed on local, state and federal lands. In some cases, even though facilities may be closed, you can still access hiking trails, plus dirt roads and open lands for walking.
As I said above, rules change almost daily, and this early in the coronavirus crisis, it’s pretty much all been in the direction of less access.
Check the agency website for current information. So far, they are providing timely updates.
Local Hiking and Walking Is the Best Alternative
My sweetheart Stephanie and I live in Ashland, Oregon, a modest-sized town just north of the state line. We walk every day, usually an hour or so before lunch, and then for 20 to 30 minutes after dinner. We stay away from downtown and walk the neighborhoods, and also explore dirt roads adjacent to town.
We find it’s easy to do social distancing on the sidewalks and roads. There’s not that many people out, and we when we do encounter others, it’s no problem to stay 10 or more feet apart.
If you live in downtown San Francisco or Oakland this will be more problematic, but you may still be able to make it happen, especially if you go early in the morning.
And Some General Advice for Hikers, Walkers… Everyone
Follow the Guidelines from Scientists and Government Officials
You know the basics by now: social distancing, washing hands frequently and using hand sanitizer, and isolating yourself if you may have coronavirus/COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone with coronavirus/COVID-19. But also pay attention to other key advice and measures, and keep an eye on the medium-term and long-term course of the coronavirus pandemic.
This includes having reserve stores of nonperishable foods, plus medicinal supplies like cold and flu medicines, pain relievers, and any prescription medicines.
Focus on Health
Eat well, drink plenty of water, get lots of sleep, exercise daily (including local hiking and walking), minimize stress, and maintain social relationships as best as you can (video chats, phone calls, texts, emails, social media).
Pay Attention to the News
It’s good to be informed, but take it in moderate doses. I check the news mid-morning, early afternoon, and late afternoon.
But Spend Substantial Time Away from the News and Off the Internet
Spending too much time looking at news sites and browsing Facebook is not good for your mental and physical health.
Stephanie and I have a rule: after 6:00 p.m., no more news, no more Internet, no more phone. We spend quality time with each other (including a neighborhood walk), and we also read and watch some Netflix.
Get Outside and Go Hiking and Walking!
Yes, the coronavirus pandemic is a major part of our lives now, but you can boost your health by getting outside in nature, breathing fresh air, and moving your body, all while following the guidelines discussed here.