The novel coronavirus has upended life as we once knew it. With therapeutic treatments and vaccines, we’ll revert to our old normal eventually, but in the meantime we’ll have to learn to live with it — How can we still work and play without compromising our own safety or that of our family, friends and neighbors?
As an avid backpacker and the owner of a backpacking guide service, I’m particularly motivated to develop and adopt backcountry best practices for this coronavirus era. A fact-based set of policies and protocols can help to reduce risk, minimize unfounded fears, and perhaps even encourage land managers to lift restrictions.
This four-part series is motivated by my guided trip program, but it has significant relevance to the broader backpacking and outdoor communities. Some of it was directly influenced by reader feedback to a very popular post from last month, “When & how will backpacking be safe and feasible again?”
Approach, and table of contents
Backcountry travel — and life, more generally — has never been risk-free. In an ordinary season, I will encounter swift water, lightning, grizzly bears, steep snowfields, cold soaking rain, and shifting talus, among other variables that are inherently not safe, oftentimes while leading a group of clients.
That may sound like chest-beating, but I point this out because I’m approaching Covid-19 the same way that I address every other risk:
- Understand it, and
- Take steps to mitigate it.
Part 1 is dedicated to the understanding of Covid-19. It’s an objective assessment of this new risk based on what is known and not yet know.
Part 2 describes specific behaviors and policies that my guiding program will implement for 2020 in order to reduce our Covid-19 risk.
After understanding a backcountry risk and identifying mitigation tactics, typically the choice of whether and how to proceed is left with the individual. In the case of Covid-19, however, broader public safety concerns have resulted in layers of restrictions. In Part 3, I highlight the ten criteria that I’ll consider in making go/no-go decisions about my trips.
Covid-19 is a highly contagious respiratory disease. Common symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, and fever, among others.
Older populations (65+) and those with certain underlying health issues (e.g. obesity, diabetes, lung or heart disease) are at substantially greater risk of hospitalization and death due to Covid-19. No surefire treatments exist at this time.
Covid-19 is thought to spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person talks, coughs, sneezes, or even breathes. Most cases have been associated with close and prolonged exposure to an infected person in a confined area, such as a house, care facility, or restaurant.
From trailhead to trailhead, backcountry users are at low-risk, especially if precautions are taken. Maintain distance (6+ feet) between people, and wear face coverings when that’s not possible. And be sensitive to the risk of contaminated surfaces by washing hands and not sharing gear or supplies.
The most high-risk part of backcountry travel is probably getting to the location, especially if it entails public transportation. The factors that make backcountry travel low-risk (ventilation, space, small groups, self-sufficiency) are the same factors that make travel high-risk (limited airflow, tight quarters, more contact, and more shared surfaces).
Restrictions have been placed on outdoor recreation and broader travel to help minimize the spread of Covid-19. To assure that a trip is not illegal, impractical, or simply ill-advised, consider:
- Stay-at-home orders
- Travel options
- Quarantines for non-locals
- Public land closures
- Medical capacity
- Guidance from gateway communities and rescue teams
- Availability of trip supplies
- Bailout/self-rescue options
Why am I sharing this here?
I have not before shared core program resources, like our emergency protocols or operations plan. But posting these best practices online has multiple advantages:
1. Clients and land agencies rightfully want to know how we are handling this risk. I can easily point them here, where I can keep our policies current as we learn more about the virus.
2. Organizations large and small are trying to figure this out, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. In this case, more heads is better than one, and I’m hoping that public feedback can lead to marginal improvements.
3. Covid-19 has been a monkey wrench for many organizations, including mine. Perhaps I can help save time and improve program safety for a hiking club, Scout troop, or less established guide service.
1. The extent of my medical training an 80-hour wilderness first responder course plus biannual 24-hour re-certifications. So don’t put stock in my medical advice, though I think you’ll find the content to be consistent with the opinions of medical experts.
2. Our understanding of COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and I expect to update my policies and recommendations accordingly. These pages should be accurate as of the most recent publishing date.