Hikers Not Social Distancing During the Coronavirus Pandemic: My Unsettling Experience

I hiked the Lower Table Rock Trail in Southern Oregon on Friday, March 20. Sadly, most hikers were NOT doing the social distancing necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Note: by Friday, March 20, 2020, all Americans should have known that coronavirus is a serious problem, and that social distancing is a key way to slow its spread.

Bad social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic: two hikers walk too close to another hiker on the Lower Table Rock Trail in Southern Oregon.
Two young women walk about three feet from Stephanie during our hike. Definitely not proper social distancing! They easily could have walked single file.

Social Distancing and the Coronavirus

As hopefully everyone now knows, the coronavirus is a serious threat to human health. In addition to minimizing being around other people in general, CDC guidelines call for maintaining a minimum of six feet of distance from others.

In my last post, I advocated for hiking and walking locally during the coronavirus pandemic as an important way of maintaining our physical and mental health. I discussed the importance of social distancing and choosing trails that are a good combination of wide, less-traveled, and nearby, all while following regulations regarding movement outside the home.

Coronavirus, Inadequate Social Distancing, and Our Hike

Stephanie and I live in nearby Ashland and wanted to take advantage of a beautiful day to hike. I chose the Lower Table Rock Trail near Medford because it’s four feet wide and nearly always has room to step off the trail to get the recommended six feet of social distance, and I hoped it wouldn’t be too crowded.

When we started the hike, I just assumed people would practice good social distancing, like nearly everyone does in Ashland. I was wrong. Here’s what I observed.

Out of about 50 times we passed other hikers on the trail, only 5 or so times did the other party exhibit awareness of social distancing, and these were all hikers in their 40s to 60s. Most of the time (but not all of the time), Stephanie and I were able to move off the trail, but even then, many people were oblivious and would still walk on the edge of the trail nearest us, often closer than 6 feet.

There were several groups of two or more mothers with 3-12 kids. Neither the mothers nor the children exhibited any obvious concern about social distancing from us. The mothers never asked their kids to move to the side, or even walk in single file on their side of the trail.

There were multiple groups of 3-10 young people in their teens and twenties. These young people practiced no social distancing at all. They were touching each other, walking side by side in tight groups, and putting their arms around each other for pictures.

Finally, when we were in the parking lot preparing to leave, two full carloads of people showed up. They were obviously meeting to hike the trail. They got out and mingled closely, while one young man from one car shook hands with an older man from the group in the other car.

I acknowledge the developing concept of “social cohort” in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This involves being at closer distance to a small and select group of a few people that mutually choose to spend time with each other during the duration of the crisis. But much of what I saw seemed to go well beyond that.

(Note: there was a flyer at the beginning of the trail that discussed social distancing. It was small, and we actually didn’t see it when we started the hike.)

A group of hikers not practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic: Lower Table Rocks Trail, Southern Oregon, near Central Point.
A group of hikers close together on the Lower Table Rock Trail during our hike. Note: I’m not singling out this group. They never walked by us, and there’s a chance they are all in a single family.

When I Can’t Do Adequate Social Distancing, I Do This

I’ve been practicing this technique for decades whenever I have to pass near someone that seems sick with a cold or flu, and I of course diligently apply it now during the coronavirus pandemic:

  1. When I’m about 15 feet away, I begin taking a deep breath.
  2. By the time I’m about 10 feet away, I’m holding my breath with my mouth closed.
  3. From about 8 feet away, I slowly release a small stream of air out my nose, and I do this until I’m about 8 feet past the person. My reasoning is that the air coming out of my nose will prevent most or all of any pathogens from entering my nose.
  4. Once I’m 8-10 feet past the person, I release my breath and resume normal breathing

I apply this all the time, especially now when I’m shopping and have to pass close to people. Stephanie and I did this every time we passed people on the Lower Table Rock Trail.

Note: the likelihood of picking up the coronavirus by just walking past someone at relatively close distance is not very high; it’s far lower than spending extended time with an infected person at close quarters. So I’m not going to freak out about briefly passing people a couple times on the trail at a distance of 3-4 feet. But it’s not good when it’s frequent, and you have to pass closely to large group of people.

Social Distancing and Hiking: My Suggestions

First, do everything you can to practice social distancing yourself at all times, including when you’re on hiking trails.

Second, choose trails that are a combination of wide enough, easy step off of, and with low enough usage that you can practice effective social distancing.

Third, choose trails that are close by, hopefully within walking distance of your house, or at least only a short drive.

Fourth, politely remind and educate others about social distancing every way you can. If you can’t easily move the minimum distance off the trail, ask the other hikers to do so. You may also need to ask them to walk single file instead of side by side or in a clump.

Fifth, follow all regulations.

Questions or Comments About Hiking and Social Distancing?

What have you observed on the trails?

Put your thoughts in the comment form below. Note: I moderate comments, so I’ll have to approve it before it shows up.

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