Respect New Social Norms While Hiking

Hiking these days requires more thoughtful planning

By Heidi Mills


September 8, 2020

This story appears in the July-August combo issue of Seattle magazine and Seattle Business magazine. Subscription information is here.

The pandemic threw a lot of plans off course, but it didn’t cancel alpine wildflower season, bright yellow autumn larches or mountain waterfalls.

Despite social distancing guidelines, there’s no better time to escape to nature. Studies show both exercise and time spent in the forest lower stress, reduce blood pressure, prevent obesity and boost the immune system. In addition, we are less likely to contract the virus in outdoor spaces, making hiking a safer way to spend one’s leisure time.

“Hiking will help us mentally and physically to get through this pandemic,” says Meryl Lassen, communications consultant with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. “Vigorous exercise is obviously wonderful for your health, but you can also get benefits from taking a stroll in the woods or sitting under a tree and reading.” 

To be sure, hiking during a pandemic requires more thoughtful planning and responsible action than outdoor adventuring in a typical year. Hiking experts created the web site Recreate Responsibly, which suggests the following guidelines when venturing into nature: 

  • Know before you go: Trip planning became exponentially more complicated when COVID-19 hit. Trail closures depend on whether you are hiking in a national park, national forest, tribal land, a county park, or a state park, and what’s opened and closed can change week to week. Washington Trails editor Jessi Loerch suggests visiting the WTA website’s hiking guide and looking for an alert at the top of the hike’s page to determine if the trail is open. Annette Pitts, executive director of the Cascade Loop Foundation and Cascade Loop Association, follows up initial WTA website research by calling the land manager in charge of the trail to make sure it is open. If you arrive at a trailhead and find an unexpected closure, have a Plan B for another hike nearby. 
  • Plan ahead: Pack food from home and fuel up before you leave the city to avoid burdening small towns that lie near hiking trails. In addition to bringing typical hiking essentials, Pitts suggests carrying several masks or face coverings in case one ends up dirty or lost. 
  • Practice physical distancing: When passing others on the trail, be prepared to yield to uphill hikers and step as far off the main trail as possible without trampling the flora and fauna. “It’s a delicate dance,” says Lassen. Tommy Farris, owner and founder of Olympic Hiking Co., says his guides are going out of their way to find turnouts safe for both the environment and for their group, even if it means backtracking on the trail. Hikers should also have masks or bandannas ready to cover their face when they see others. Loerch wears her buff around her neck, which makes it easy to move it over her face quickly. One of her coworkers prefers to wear a buff on her head and pull it down. Other hikers clip a mask with ear loops to the side of their backpacks. If someone asks if you’ll take their picture with a cell phone, the best response is to say you’d love to but you are trying to manage exposure. If you forget in the moment and handle the phone, pack hand sanitizer and use it. Lassen says she’s found fellow hikers to be extremely polite and thoughtful during the pandemic. “It gives me hope for humanity,” she says.
  • Play it safe: A pandemic is not the time to try a hike or scramble that challenges your athletic abilities or climbing skills. Medical facilities and search and rescue teams are already burdened during a global health crisis. 
  • Stay close to home: Hiking enthusiasts readily acknowledge that this is the trickiest guideline to follow, as trails closest to Seattle are also likely to be the most crowded. They suggest interpreting this advice as keeping your outings to a day trip. Some campgrounds remain closed, and overnight trips put a greater strain on small local towns. “Think about planning that bigger multiday trip in a safer season when you can go to that restaurant and hotel and help those communities recover economically,” Farris says. 
  • Leave no trace: Always a motto in the hiking world, this becomes even more important in a pandemic. Restrooms and garbage collection may be temporarily shut down, so come prepared to pack out all of your waste.

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