I have never been so familiar with the streets within a half-mile radius of my house. When a neighbor fills a flower bed, I notice. The same kids are always kicking a ball outside the house on the corner. I know which sidewalks are sunny in the morning, and which get more light in the afternoon.
Everyone — government officials, health experts, my boss — has been telling me to get outside, and I’ve been listening. In self-quarantine, I take at least one walk every day, observing my neighborhood with newfound purposelessness. I love these 20-minute strolls. I’m grateful to be in a position to take them: I am physically able to leave my house, with a job that lends itself to taking a break every once in a while. But when you’re spending every other minute of the day inside, a quick walk might not satisfy your need to be outdoors.
It’s hard to know how to get outside right now, especially in cities. Parks are either dangerously overcrowded or, like the one down the street from my house, patrolled by members of the National Guard, closed to anyone who isn’t exercising. But even running or walking can be problematic. Try as they might, some people just can’t seem to use sidewalks correctly.
The official guidance can be confusing, says Kate Van Waes, the executive director of the American Hiking Society. While many stay-at-home orders specifically make exceptions for outdoor activities — hiking, running, biking — officials are also urging people to stay close to home and wear masks. The American Hiking Society has been telling its members to #HikeResponsibly.
“We definitely don’t want people staying cooped up in their homes, and not getting outside at all,” said Van Waes. “But it’s complicated.”
There is a right way to get outdoors during coronavirus. Here are some tips.
You want to hike, but you don’t live near any trails: Is it okay to get in a car and drive? That depends, says Van Waes. If you leave your community, “you could bring the virus with you, possibly without knowing it.” Hiking trails often start from rural areas: When mountain-loving city-dwellers go to small towns, they put the people there at risk. It’s best to “stay local,” says Van Waes — but if you do travel to the outdoors, make sure you can reach the trailhead without making a stop. When Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running, went for a hike with her family, she packed snacks in advance and made sure all her kids used the bathroom before they left. “We went straight in, then came straight home,” she said.
If you’d prefer to stay put — or don’t have a car — you can still be outdoorsy, says Van Waes. Liz Thomas, who has hiked the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, is a proponent of “urban hiking.” She hiked 200 miles in downtown Seattle, calling the city’s many stairways “upright parks.” “Paved hikes in the city provide many of the same benefits of backpacking in nature,” she says: “exploration, discovery, physical exercise.” When you aren’t running an errand or walking to a specific destination, Van Waes says, you can train yourself to see things in a new way.
It’s a great time to work toward a physical goal, says Kindra Ramos, communications director for the Washington Trails Association. That can include building up distance for a race, or wearing a heavy backpack to train for a tough camping trip. “Ask yourself: What is it that I really need to work on?” Ramos also recommends looking into local plant and bird life, carrying around a guide book to identify the things around you.
“For me, this has always been true: The journey has always been more important than the destination,” said Ramos. “Ask yourself: How can I bring that spirit to my daily walk?”
“First and foremost, you have to find out what is open near you,” says Ramos. Municipalities are making their own decisions about which parks and trails to close, often shutting down particularly popular areas, where social distancing would be difficult. Before you embark on an outdoor adventure, Ramos says, check the website of the place you want to go: town and city parks fall under municipal guidelines, while national forests and national parks will have their own websites, updated regularly with closures.
Even if an area is technically open, you still might not want to go there, says Nadine Siak, the public affairs officer for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Many open trails are overcrowded, she says, swelling with the large numbers of people looking to escape Washington, D.C. or Richmond. If you’re heading to a national park or forest, Siak says, call the ranger station before you leave: Tell them what kind of hike you’re looking for, and they’ll recommend a few trails “no one knows about,” she says.
Don’t hesitate to change plans at the last minute, said Van Waes. “If you get there, and there are a lot of people gathered around picnic tables and bathrooms, you need to leave.” Ramos recommends avoiding any parking lot that is “more than half full.”
“I wake up at 5 a.m. to run,” says Volker. If she waits too much later than that, she says, the trail system in downtown Minneapolis, where she lives, will be too crowded. Try to avoid hiking on sunny weekend days, when trails are likely to be packed, adds Van Waes. If you are currently working and have a flexible work schedule, she says, consider taking a “weekend day” during the week, working on a Sunday so you can go for a hike on a Monday. For a more local excursion, work later into the evening so you have time to go out in the middle of the day.
It’s a particularly bad time to injure yourself in the outdoors, said Siak. In national parks and forests, search and rescue operations are limited right now, typically powered at least in part by volunteers. “People should really avoid high-risk activities like rock climbing,” said Siak.
While Volker always carries a personal alarm when she’s running, those kinds of protective measures are especially important now, she says. “Now there is a lot more solo running,” she says, “but there is still evil in the world.” She urges the women in her community to carry some kind of bell, whistle, or alarm.
Volker doesn’t like to wear a mask the whole time she’s running, but she always has one on hand. When she’s out, she wears a running buff around her neck. If she sees a group of people coming her way, or she’s passing someone at an especially narrow point in the trail, she’ll pull the buff over her mouth and nose. She’s not sure how much it helps, she says, but it makes her feel better.