Q. Dear Umbra
Should I go visit national parks now that they’re starting to reopen?
–So, Can One Undertake Trekking?
A. Dear SCOUT,
For months, many of us have been fantasizing about the possibility of returning to something resembling pre-pandemic life. So now that various businesses and destinations across the country are starting to “reopen,” it is very tempting to yell: Aha! The days of shelter-in-place are ending, just in time for summer! Let me escape this dull existence!
I love a sweaty summer excursion as much as — or more — than the next advice columnist, so it breaks my restless heart to inform you that the return of your dreamy summer days is far from guaranteed. Social distancing has helped slow the spread of the coronavirus thus far, but the pandemic is hardly controlled. That is unlikely to happen without the widespread and aggressive adoption of universal COVID-19 testing and/or a vaccine. In the meantime, to protect ourselves and our neighbors, we should assume public health-backed behaviors like social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-scrubbing are here to stay.
That clearly means foregoing a sweaty night outor a crowded barbecue, for this summer at least. But what about more outdoorsy activities? From a coronavirus-prevention standpoint, outdoor spaces are comparatively safer than indoor ones. With more space to spread out than you might find within four walls, it’s much easier for a cloud of virus particles expelled while talking or — gasp! — coughing to disperse without encountering a new human host. But regardless, the same rules apply outdoors as indoors: You should stay at least 6 feet away from people outside of your household, and wear a mask when you can’t.
Naturally, this gets complicated! We have all seen pictures of chockablock beaches and packed city parks. As always, access to green space contributes to crowding: Only half of residents in the 100 largest U.S. cities live within a half mile of a park. “Nature is free” is a popular dictum, but that’s not always the case. Getting further out of the city typically requires a car and time and money — in the form of park fees, gas, or proper outdoor gear — and those are unattainable luxuries for many; so of course, a lot of local, public, and outdoor spaces can end up overcrowded when the sun beckons. (In conclusion, there should be more parks! But that’s another column.)
Assuming you do have the ability to try to get out to larger, further-afield national or state parks and forests, the question of safety becomes slightly less about about timing and more about technique. I talked to a couple of rangers who work at national parks in California and Colorado. They would prefer to remain anonymous, but both had advice on how to enjoy open outdoor spaces without being inconsiderate.
The overarching theme of the advice is to be flexible. If you are looking for some outdoorsy time and have your heart set on a popular trail at a popular park, well, maybe lower your expectations. Consider venturing out during non-peak hours or days. Identify some alternative trails or even keep other parks or wild areas in your back pocket to explore if your preferred area ends up being too crowded. As one ranger put it: “Get off the beaten path if you are able; explore not just national parks but forest service lands, national monuments. Just go further. If you’ve got the fitness and wherewithal, take the gnarly trail.”
He also pointed out that a lot of the most popular national parks — think Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite — have sites that are set up to be accessible to people who have mobility challenges, like the elderly or disabled. One of the biggest motivations behind this mass mobilization to stay home is to be respectful of the limitations and dangers faced by the sick and elderly. If you are in good health, maybe do what you can to let those who aren’t so fortunate have plenty of room on the well-paved trail once it becomes available?
But this rule applies even if you find your chosen destination overrun with super-experienced and fit outdoors enthusiasts! One ranger said he’d noticed that rock climbers — whom he noted can be “a little bit more of a rule-breaking group of people, and they’re young and healthy and often don’t think of themselves as vulnerable” — tend to ignore social distancing rules, in particular.
“It’s definitely been frustrating watching people seemingly not take it seriously,” he said. “It’s totally fine to be out and doing your thing and going climbing and being outside, but you also need to be actively doing your best. We’re all having to make adjustments and sacrifices. And that’s a tiny sacrifice somebody could make, that you don’t get to climb the route you really wanted to.”
That’s the point, really. You should be thinking of taking advantage of what you can access that others cannot, and maybe ceding the more popular or less challenging space to those with physical or financial limitations. But it’s a balance! Definitely do not throw yourself into the wilderness without being prepared and put yourself in danger, stressing the limited resources of rural emergency workers.
Fundamentally, life during pandemic recovery is about prioritizing welfare over whims. It is OK not to do the BEST or MOST PICTURESQUE or MOST DRAMATIC outdoors excursion. A simple, vigorous stomp — yes, I’m aware that I sound like a British grandfather — in any forest really does the trick for exercising your body and calming your mind; you don’t have to drive across the country to see Zion this summer.
In fact, I’ll say it: you shouldn’t. Stay closer to home.
Rural areas are exquisite, peaceful, and deserve to be experienced, but they are also vulnerable in this pandemic. You don’t want to potentially bring the virus across the country to the small towns in, say, Wyoming that are not well equipped to deal with the potential devastation of an outbreak. For the same reason, you’ll want to exercise caution even when exploring remote areas closer to home: Limit stops to the absolute essentials, wear a mask, use hand sanitizer, etc. (I’m aware I’m repeating myself, but it really is that important.)
As one ranger pointed out to me, the golden rules of wilderness apply well to recreation in general during the pandemic: Use common sense and good judgment, and “be a ghost,” in terms of how much your presence is noticed. Since we’re surrounded by mass death, I’d like to modify that latter suggestion because it’s a little on the nose. Instead, I’ll take a note from my girl Grimes and recommend that you “be a body.” Be free, but don’t take up more space than you have to; be aware of your needs; and don’t infringe on anyone else’s.