In 2020 I’m hopeful that my personal and guided backpacking trips will take place. But it won’t be business as usual — on both private and commercial outings, individual behaviors and program protocols must reflect the new risk of Covid-19.
The preceding post is an objective assessment of this risk, and it serves as a factual basis to develop and identify mitigation tactics. The prescriptions on this page are specific to my guided trip program, but they can be a starting point for other backcountry users and organizations.
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
The recommendations on this page are primarily designed to:
1. Prevent transmission
Covid-19 is thought to spread mainly through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. To prevent transmission of these droplets, take steps to:
- Most importantly, create distance between people; and,
- Avoid sharing potentially contaminated surfaces, especially without first washing or disinfecting them.
2. Protect vulnerable populations
The risk potential of Covid-19 is heavily skewed towards:
- Older age groups, and
- People with underlying health conditions.
These populations — and those close to them — must be especially conservative in their risk tolerance.
Can we really run trips safely?
In early-April on a video call with Joe McConaughy, my trip manager, I rhetorically asked him how we could safely run trips with this new risk of Covid-19. I didn’t have an answer at that time, so I spent days researching the disease and looking at our program protocols to see if there was one.
I do believe that we can safely run guided group backpacking trips in 2020, at least from trailhead to trailhead:
- Our venue offers constant ventilation and ample space to spread out;
- Our groups are small, capped at ten or twelve, and can potentially be divided by half, so five or six;
- Our participants are self-sufficient, and can therefore avoid sharing items and surfaces; and,
- Precautions can be taken to further reduce the risk, such as hand-washing and mask-wearing.
The highest-risk component of the trip will probably be the travel, especially if it entails flying or other forms of public transit, when you may have more human contact, less air flow, and limited social distancing options.
Individual code of conduct
To participate in our 2020 trips, we expect the following behaviors from both clients and guides:
Pre-trip health assessment
Stay home if you:
- Have symptoms consistent with Covid-19;
- Had a confirmed or suspected case of Covid-19 and cannot yet discontinue home isolation per CDC guidelines; or,
- Within the last fourteen days have been in close and prolonged contact with someone who displayed Covid-19 symptoms, at the time or since, and were not equipped with medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE).
If you are a medical professional:
- Abide by the guidelines above; and,
- Contact me if you’ve been exposed to Covid-19 within the last fourteen days so that we can discuss your unique situation.
Pre-trip risk assessment
The risk of Covid-19 can be reduced but not eliminated. Do you accept the risk of contracting it, and possibly spreading it to your group, your family and friends, and your community?
If you are in a high-risk population (i.e. older and/or underlying health conditions) or cannot avoid contact with those who are, please think twice. You are not at greater of contracting it, but the potential consequences of contracting it are greater. These statistics were discussed in the risk assessment, but I’ll repeat two here:
- Ninety percent of hospitalized Covid-19 patients had an underlying condition, notably hypertension, obesity, diabetes, or lung or heart disease.
- For those between 65-74 years-old, the hospitalization rate is 12.2 percent, or about five times greater than the risk to 18-49 year-olds.
If you are in a high-risk population, you are strongly advised to consult with your medical provider before participating in a trip.
Expect that a clause pertaining to Covid-19 will be added to our Participant Agreement, which clients have always had to sign before joining us on a trip.
Starting fourteen days before your trip, take steps to minimize your risk of contracting Covid-19, if you are not already doing them. This conduct should continue throughout your trip and — ideally, though it’s less consequential to those in your group — afterwards as well.
- Minimize social contact.
- Maintain a distance of six feet whenever possible between you and others.
- Wear a face covering when you will not have a six-foot buffer for more than a few seconds.
- Wash your hands with soap, especially after being in public spaces and before eating.
- Abide by group size limits, which vary by jurisdiction.
- Cover your face with a tissue or elbow while coughing or sneezing, and wash hands afterwards.
- Respect the mitigation behaviors of others, which may be different than yours.
Equally important, do not:
- Touch your mouth, nose, or eyes with unsanitary hands.
- Share food or touch others’ belongings with unsanitary hands.
- Share your water or water bottle.
If you are joining us in Alaska, please familiarize yourself with the Covid-19 policies for Coyote Air, our bush plane service, which are mostly consistent with our own.
This should go without saying, but shaking hands, hugging, and high-5’s are forbidden. Instead, try one of these, or another of your choosing:
- Air hugs or air high-5’s,
- Slight bow,
- Hand over your heart,
- Blow kisses, or
- A secret dance.
Getting to (and returning from) the trailhead will probably be the highest-risk activity of your trip.. Unlike when we’re in the field, while traveling you may have more frequent and more prolonged contact, fewer opportunities to socially distance, and confined air space.
As an extra incentive to take special precautions while traveling, consider that the average time to onset (4-5 days) would mean that you’d be near the middle of a 5- or 7-day day itinerary (or near the end of a 3-day itinerary) if symptoms appear.
To help minimize your risk while traveling:
- Drive if you can; fly if you must.
- Socially distance, wear a mask, and wash your hands at all opportunities.
- Reduce contact by starting travel with all necessary food, drink, and fuel.
- Rather than staying in motels, consider camping nearby.
- Only share vehicles and lodging with members of your household.
- Disinfect shared surfaces before use (e.g. plane trays, rental car).
If you must fly, familiarize yourself with the risk, discussed well here. The air on a plane is filtered, recirculated 20x per hour, and divided into zones. The bigger risk is probably surfaces like seat-back trays and overhead compartment latches, plus other unavoidable aspects of travel like sitting for long periods and getting poor sleep (source).
- Have available a reliable quarantine option in the event that you feel sick or came into contact with someone who was sick.
- If you develop symptoms, self-quarantine and please inform me.
Consider the the long-term performance of your face-covering, since you may have to wear it for extended periods while traveling and hiking. Find one that is comfortable and stays put, that doesn’t itch or pinch, and that can be quickly engaged and disengaged.
Personally, my go-to covering has become an elasticized polyester Buff. However, while on a commercial airplane I will probably use a true mask (N95) to combat the higher risk in this setting.
Additional precautions and behaviors must be adopted by guides:
- When reviewing client gear at the trailhead, do not touch it.
- Favor verbal direction over physical assistance, like when setting up a client’s shelter.
- Role-model good behavior. And,
- Kindly enforce the new rules, and be willing to discuss the rationale openly.
It may take a few trips to get everything right — I may not have thought of everything we could do, and public guidelines will probably continue to evolve. So I’m giving guides the the discretion to improve or modify our best practices based on observation or group input. Please share feedback and tips with other guides and with me.
Client self sufficiency
Because guides will have fewer opportunities to physically assist clients, clients should practice or develop some skills beforehand, notably:
- Packing your backpack;
- Pitching your shelter, including knot-tying;
- Operating a compass; and,
- Taking care of your feet.
If clients and guides were tested for Covid-19 before their trip, it would lend confidence but wouldn’t be a magic bullet:
- A negative viral test offers no assurance that you did not contract the disease between the time of the test and your arrival at the trailhead; and,
- A positive antibody test has not yet been proven to convey future immunity.
Rapid testing for Covid-19 at the trailhead or just before you leave for your trip would be more useful, but currently there are significant obstacles in making this a formal protocol.
- A testing device like the Abbbot ID NOW is available only to authorized laboratories and patient care settings;
- The limited testing capacity is currently being dedicated to those with symptoms; and,
- For most trip locations it’d be logistically difficult to corral all clients and guides before the trip in order to be tested.
I will continue to pursue this opportunity, however, and hope that testing capacity will eventually allow for pre-screening of clients and guides.
For early detection of potential Covid-19 cases within our ranks, clients and guides will complete symptom checks twice daily, including at our meetup spot on the first day.
Each client and guide must have a personal oral thermometer to check for fever.
A pulse oximeter will be added to the group first aid kits to help detect for hypoxia, which is being found in Covid patients.
Be aware that Covid-19 and acute mountain sickness share some symptoms, including headache, loss of appetite, and fatigue. Shortness of breath at rest is common with Covid-19 and severe AMS; shortness of breath during exertion is common with mild AMS.
Even if no clients or guides have Covid-19 symptoms, the core mitigating behaviors (social distancing, masks, hand-washing) must be maintained, since the group may have presymptomatic or asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
Food and meals
The program will continue to supply breakfasts and dinners. These meals will be prepared at least 14 days in advance of your trip in accordance with normal food preparation guidelines.
Distribution & packaging
At the trailhead, clients and guides will be given their breakfasts and dinners by a guide with clean hands.
The meals will be packaged so that clients will be more self-contained than in the past, with fewer (and ideally no) group ingredients that are distributed in camp.
Before all communal meals — specifically, breakfasts and dinners — all clients and guides must wash their hands. Guides may want to make this a formal part of mealtimes.
After each trip we normally have an optional group meal at a nearby establishment. We will look for an eatery with take-out and ample outdoor eating space.
Normally our maximum group size is 10 (on 5- and 7-day trips) or 12 (on 3-day trips), including two guides.
Group sizes must adhere to the current restrictions imposed by local policymakers. Guidance will be sought first from the land agency; if no guidance has been given, we will look to county or state officials.
To further reduce group size, guides are permitted to split into two independent patrols, assuming that normal protocols are followed, such as having an established meetup spot and time, and have a reliable communication system between the patrols.
For the sake of trip quality, we sought out low-use areas even before Covid-19. We will continue to find such locations in 2020, for the added purpose now of minimizing on-trail contact with others.
The chosen routes must still be appropriate for the group’s abilities and in the context of on-the-ground conditions, however. The risk of overextending a client is probably greater than the risk of sharing an outdoor space with others.
Loop itineraries will be planned so that groups do not need shuttling.
Select campsites that have sufficient space to observe social distancing:
- Between individual sleeping spots; and,
- While eating and gathering.
This should not be a challenge for our 2020 trip locations, where generally we have lots of room to spread out. But I could see this being problematic for areas with:
- Small designated campsites like Rocky Mountain National Park, or
- Limited campsites and/or high-use, which will cause crowding, such as along many sections of the Appalachian Trail.
Clients and guides will be given their own set of Aquamira drops so that water purification is a self-sufficient task.
To eliminate the risk that identical water bottles will be mixed up, please mark them distinctly. Tape works best — marker/Sharpie gets rubbed off after a few days.
It may not always be possible or desirable to maintain a six-foot distance from others, like when reading a map or spotting a client on a difficult scramble. In these close-contact sessions, all participants must wear their face covering, and the session cannot start until everyone is safely covered.
If clients are uncomfortable with borrowing gear from us, they should obtain their own.
Between trip locations, any virus particles on demo gear will not survive, since there’s at least a two-week gap between blocks. Thus, the first trip in every location will have reliably coronavirus-free gear.
Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and shelters will not be used on two consecutive trips at the same location, creating a gap of at least seven days, in excess of the known longevity of virus particles.
Stove systems will be sanitized in hot soapy water after every trip.
Additional PPE will be added to the kits, to supplement what is used or lost during the trip.
Guides should clean their hands before using or dispensing any supplies.
Respiratory distress that cannot be resolved is a life-threatening emergency, regardless of whether it’s related to Covid-19 or not. Normal evacuation protocols should be followed while still maintaining Covid-19 best practices (social distancing if possible, mask if not, hand-washing).
Hospitalizations for Covid-19 tend to happen in the second week. So assuming early detection from daily symptom checks, in most cases the client and/or guide will have several days to exit the backcountry before symptoms would become severe.
In addition to your normal backpacking kit (defined in your gear list), each client and guide must wear or carry:
- Face covering
- Hand sanitizer
- Liquid or bar soap for hand-washing
- Oral thermometer
- Daytime snacks/lunches
- Personal water purification, breakfasts, and dinners, which will distributed at the trailhead
The following items will be added to the group kit:
- Extra PPE
- Replacement face covering(s) in event of loss
- Pulse oximeter
Leave a comment
- Do you have questions about any of these policies?
- Do you feel like any are unwarranted or insufficient?
- If you’re familiar with our guiding program, do you think I’ve left anything out?