Based on what we currently know about Covid-19 and on the best practices that you plan to follow, you may deem the risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19 acceptably low. And, therefore, you want to start your trip.
I would generally concur with you: thoughtful behavior in a backcountry setting — which has constant air flow and ample space, and where small groups are the norm — would not really seem demonstrably riskier than shopping at your local grocery store or running on a popular bike path.
For the 2020 season, though, I suspect that the bigger obstacle to backcountry use will not be your personal assessment of the risk but instead the layers of restrictions that have been placed on outdoor recreation and travel more broadly.
I think these restrictions are typically well-intended, even if they’re poorly nuanced or lacking factual basis. But what I think — and what you think — is irrelevant. As responsible backcountry users, it’s important to abide by the rules.
In deciding whether your trip is a go or a no-go, what conditions should you consider?
This is a four-part series of backcountry best practices in the coronavirus era, and should be read as a whole.
- Executive summary
- Part 1 || Covid-19: Objective risk assessment
- Part 2 || New normals: Policies and codes of conduct
- Part 3 || Navigating restrictions on backcountry use
Green, yellow, or red?
In pondering the fate of trips I have scheduled for 2020, I’m looking at nine criteria, and assigning a red-yellow-green rating to each.
A single criteria with a “red light” amounts to a deal-breaker. Ideally, they’re all green, but certain yellow lights may be acceptable. I don’t think a point system would be useful here — instead, consider the conditions as a whole.
Stay-at-home order in your locale or in the gateway communities
- Red light: Order is in effect through the starting date of the trip.
- Yellow light: Order is currently in effect, but set to expire before the start of the trip.
- Green light: No stay-at-home order in effect.
- Red light: Travel is restricted in your locale or in the gateway communities.
- Yellow light: Your itinerary involved air travel.
- Green light: Travel is not restricted and it’s practical for you to drive to the trip location.
Quarantines for out-of-state visitors
- Red light: Order is in effect through the starting date of the trip, unless you have the time to go through the quarantine process.
- Yellow light: Order is currently in effect, but set to expire before the start of the trip.
- Green light: Order has been lifted.
- Red light: Public access to the trip location is forbidden through the start of the trip.
- Yellow light: Access is currently forbidden, but the ban is set to expire before the start of the trip.
- Green light: Public access is permitted.
- Red light: Medical facilities near the trip location and/or in your locale are strained by the outbreak, resulting in staff and PPE shortages, bans on elective surgeries, and overcrowded facilities.
- Yellow light: Medical facilities are operating near capacity or are concerned about being overwhelmed by an outbreak.
- Green light: Medical care is functioning normally.
- Red light: Binding mandates restrict access by non-locals.
- Yellow light: Non-binding preference for local access only.
- Green light: Open for business.
Trip supplies (e.g. food, fuel)
- Red light: Panic or supply shortages has resulted in critical items being unavailable.
- Yellow light: Critical items are available if you look hard enough, or suitable substitutes can be found.
- Green light: Normal availability.
- Red light: Official statement that personnel are not available for backcountry search and rescue.
- Yellow light: Exceptional discouraging of ambitious itineraries and risk-taking.
- Green light: Normal risk-adverse guidance.
- Red light: Plausible scenarios where self-rescue would be impossible, combined with unavailable rescue personnel.
- Yellow light: Limited opportunities for self-rescue or assisted rescue.
- Green light: Relatively easy access if things don’t go according to plan.
Clients and guides
As a commercial operator, we must also consider the willingness and availability of our clients and guides to join and lead trips in this new coronavirus era.
- Red light: Too few clients can join or too few guides can lead, in which case the trips would not be economical or the client/guide ratio would not be maintained.
- Yellow light: If current restrictions are not lifted soon, there is a risk of losing too many clients or guides.
- Green light: Enough clients and guides are available for the trips to be economical and for the minimum client/guide ratio to be maintained.
Leave a comment!
- What other criteria should be accounted for in your go/no-go decision?
- Do you have suggestions for improving mine?
It feels to me like air travel is another factor that could make the list. Restrictions on leisure air travel are a concern, as well as the increased risk factor of a trip that necessitates air travel vs one that allows you to travel be private vehicle.
I thought about making that a separate item, too, but maybe I wasn’t thinking about broadly enough. I was originally thinking “travel bans,” but we haven’t see that explicit policy — it ends up being part of a stay-at-home order.
But you’re right about local v faraway trips. Seems like if air travel is entailed, that’s at least a yellow light.
Andrew – This is brilliant! I wouldn’t expect anything less from you – always topnotch – but this is super helpful and meaningful. It also means we’re seriously rethinking our plans for 2020.
The thing I’m still struggling with is understanding the risk I will impose on others by traveling through small towns. I’m used to taking calculated, low but nonzero risks when it comes to my own health so the nightmare scenario for me is finding out an outbreak sprang up somewhere like Bishop or Lander in the weeks after I had passed through. Obviously I could rely on the local government to tell me if they think it’s OK for me to come, but if people end up dying after I visit for fun I’m still going to feel super guilty. I was hoping a testing and contact tracing system would give me the tools to understand how likely my travel would be to create a vector, but I don’t really hear much talk of doing that anymore (or maybe it’s just not happening anytime soon)…
I can appreciate that risk, and I think a lot of other backcountry travelers share it.
If you have not already, you should read the objective risk assessment that’s part of this series. My findings suggest that spreading the disease would be most likely if you were in close contact for extended time in a confined space with local. Imagine, for example, eating in an indoor restaurant, and for your entire 45-minute meal a local was sitting immediately behind you and the air flow in the room was pointed towards them.
It doesn’t seem as likely to pass the disease during short and casual encounters, like when shopping at the grocery store. The disease is very infectious, but it’s not that infectious, and it takes either a really high intensity event, such as someone sneezing in your mouth as you’re yawning, or it takes a longer period of time with more normal interaction, such as singing with your choir for 2 hours in an enclosed space.
Bottom line, I think that you can safely pass through a gateway community without putting that community at grave risk, assuming that you are taking some precautions. And given that you are concerned about this risk, I would assume that you are the type of person that will do that.
Risk assessment is a lost art.
Hard part will be figuring out the rules.
Some anecdata: I just returned from a seven week hike through Eastern AZ and Western NM on the GET. I talked to about 15 people during that entire time and saw, from a distance, about the same number as they drove by on their ATV’s.
In the small towns and hamlets I passed through I experienced a complete disregard by the locals for any kind of social distancing. At the time there were low single digit to zero cases known in these low- density counties and the conclusion appeared to be that this was overblown. The rise in infection numbers in the countryside that is being observed now in many states is a consequence of this blasé attitude. I was, rightfully I think, more worried about catching something from the locals rather than introducing something into the local community, given that I was careful and they were not.
If you as an even only modestly aware hiker practice elementary distancing, the additional risk you introduce amounts to a minor rounding error. This calculus will obviously change if you intend to hike in the most popular places (which at this point are closed anyway), e.g. Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Yosemite.
There are so any trails and there is so little time. If you choose wisely and explore the trails less traveled, you should be able to so with a good conscience.
Thomas, what kind of vibe did you get in those towns towards your presence? Did they welcome you or did they chase you out with pitchforks?
This actually describes what I’m afraid of—small insular towns that haven’t had any cases because they’ve been isolated all winter. As a result their population has no antibodies and many people may not take safety measures seriously. But as soon the virus is introduced in such an environment, it’s likely to spread quickly. While the risk that I bring the virus may be low, the consequences are very high and it’s the high consequences that make me standoffish.
Even worse if I’m part of a stream of a travelers, that low risk across each person eventually adds up to a non-trivial level. As you mention this part at least can be mitigated by going places no one else is going to, but squeezing that into the rest of life (especially without the cheat code of air travel) will take some creativity and research. But I suppose if there’s anything I can do right now it’s plan and research…
Wouldn’t developing covid pneumonia in high-altitude back country would impose a major burden on rescue services and a cost to the public?