New normal: How can Covid-19 risk in the backcountry be minimized?

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.


Big picture

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.

Creating space between you and others will be the most effective way to mitigate the risk of Covid-19.

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.

Required precautions

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.

When social distancing cannot be maintained, wearing a mask will be necessary.

Greetings

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.

Travel

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).

Post-trip

  • 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.

Face coverings

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.

Guides

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:

Diagnostics

Testing

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.

Symptom checks

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

Preparation

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.

Hand-washing

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.

Post-trip meal

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.

If you are on a trip with a member of your household, it’s not necessary to social distance and you are still welcome to share food and gear.
Otherwise, try to keep a 6-foot buffer between others. It usually will be easy to do.

Program policies

Group size

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.

Route planning

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.

Campsite selection

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.

Water purification

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.

Close-contact sessions

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.

Demo gear

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.

First aid

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.

Emergency protocols

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.

Equipment/supply checklist

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?
Posted in on May 7, 2020
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16 Comments

  1. Chris Finley on May 7, 2020 at 9:39 pm

    Nice considerations. For sleeping bags and tents, you might try a UV wand; although, that could degrade the fabric. You could also try medium dryer heat (135 degrees F) which may be effective inactivating the virus https://www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-heat-kill-virus-1498074

    It also has the benefit of drying and de-stinkifying.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 8, 2020 at 7:27 am

      If we were running the trips close to one of our residences, a dryer would be possible. If I think finding a dryer that won’t destroy sleeping bags might be difficult in a public laundromat, which themselves are difficult to find in some of the towns where we run trips.

      I’ll look into that UV wand though. There’s probably not much difference in the damage it would do to a fabric versus the sun.

      • langleybackcountry on May 8, 2020 at 2:38 pm

        As i mentione in the part1 thread there appear to still be a lot of unknowns about UV/sunlight as a disinfectant. I would be doubly unsure about passing a wand over a surface with many seams, wrinkles, high porosity, etc. as reliable.

        • Lynne on May 11, 2020 at 7:57 am

          I use diluted hydrogen peroxide that I spray on my mask to kill any virus. Not sure if that would damage synthetic fabrics though.

    • Colin on May 13, 2020 at 10:58 pm

      Have you heard back about topical sprays for fabric surfaces? Some paddling outfitters here in Canada have asked similar questions about life jackets and yoke pads and I’ll yet to get a definitive answer.

  2. Hunter Grantham Hall on May 7, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Solid.

  3. Jeff D on May 8, 2020 at 5:42 pm

    For sleeping bags, if your location permits, use a homemade ozone tote. We use one to clean some produce and some packages. Cost of parts is about $150. I am a retired Ph.D. Chemical Engineer and a bit of a polymath. We use either a slow cooker / sous vide, or a custom built UV box, to disinfect N95 respirators. We use dilute bleach to disinfect the packaging of most perishables. We use 2x Aquamira as a produce wash, and an ozone generator in a 40 gal Sterilite tote for everything else. Contact me if you would like more info.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 10, 2020 at 4:34 pm

      I appreciate this suggestion, but I’m not sure it’d be practical. To treat a half-dozen sleeping bags, we’d need a really big box, and I don’t know how we’d get it there or store it between trips. I suppose we could do one at a time, but the timing between trips is tight and I’m not sure that I want to man the tote for two hours when I need to be packing my own gear or replenishing calories.

  4. Grammar police on May 9, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    The. The. Dupes.

    Face coverings
    Consider the the long-term performance of your face-covering,

  5. Grammar police 2 on May 9, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    The. The. Dupes. Part deux.

    So I’m giving guides the the discretion

  6. MRS on May 12, 2020 at 1:37 am

    Hi, healthcare worker here. Hospitals run employees through tests to properly fit N95 masks. You can’t ensure a proper barrier without testing to make sure air doesn’t enter while speaking and moving your head around. I don’t know what the solution is called, but hospitals use machines that pump a sweet tasting solution into the air around your mask while you’re performing different vocalizations and movements. If you taste/smell something sweet, there’s an incomplete seal and your mask is the wrong size. It should also be noted that any facial hair renders an N95 mask ineffective. Last tip, they need to be donned properly, watch some YouTube videos about common mistakes.

  7. Bill on May 22, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    Very helpful and thoughtful piece. I am leading a group of 15 in September and have been searching for ideas of keeping folks safe.

    1. Transportation to the departure point seems the highest risk. Airlines, then sharing vehicles to get to the trailhead town. Second highest risk are visits to local stores for supplies.

    Perhaps N95 masks will be more available at that time. Certainly frequent hand washing and other CDC guidelines have to be followed.

    2. We also have to change our routine with meals: outside dining/picnic style pre- and post-trip, no shared food on our first night “happy hour”. Group photo shots have to change as well.

    2. With continued development of testing, it would certainly be useful to have testing at the trailhead town prior to departure. Either a (+) antibody test (now known to confer a level of immunity) or 2 (-) antigen tests (Abbott or other with sufficient sensitivity) should be adequate. The problem would be the availability of such tests at small trailhead towns (Pinedale in our case). Even a town as big as Jackson would be challenged for that level. Perhaps thermal scanners for people arriving (as well as thermal scans at point of flight departure) might catch some of those infected.

    I would hate to be found infected the day I arrive at a destination I had been waiting months to visit not to mention the money wasted. Devastating news. It’ll be interesting to see how airlines (and passengers) handle this over the next few months.

    • langleybackcountry on May 23, 2020 at 3:21 pm

      What is your source for “now known to confer a level of immunity”? As of May 5, CDC says regarding antibody tests “It’s unclear if those antibodies can provide protection (immunity) against getting infected again. This means that we do not know at this time if antibodies make you immune to the virus.”

      Even when making the assumption that there is immunity, there is a lot of hesitation at guessing how long it lasts.
      “Per our findings, we can only confirm that COVID-19 patients can maintain the adaptive immunity to SARS-CoV-2 for 2 weeks post-discharge,” https://www.livescience.com/covid-19-immunity.html

      I am not trying to argue, but there is nothing out there that says with any degree of certainty what is required for immunity or how long it lasts.

  8. Bill on May 23, 2020 at 6:59 pm

    This is a study done at Emory University, recently released and submitted for peer review. The CDC and FDA are slow agencies. Of course, it’s “unclear” until large scale studies are done with statistical significance over large populations with different cohorts.
    https://news.emory.edu/stories/2020/05/coronavirus_antibody_study_sheds_light_on_immunity/index.html

    What *is* clear from the Emory study is that “nearly all people hospitalized with COVID-19 develop virus-neutralizing antibodies within 6 days of testing positive.” (40/44). 44 patients is not good enough for the CDC or FDA to inform the general public but the strength of that data, together with all the reports of how effective convalescent plasma has been in treating severe cases offers strong support for the fact that antibodies produced in the disease “confer a level of immunity”. Immunity requires virus-neutralizing antibodies. Interestingly, 44 is close to the same number (45) patients that are in the Phase 1 trial of the Moderna vaccine. Final proof? No. Highly indicative? Absolutely. I spent 25 years in pharma, with multiple programs advancing to clinic. There is *always* uncertainty.

    Scott Gottlieb, former FDA Commissioner has also commented on how significant this finding is. Of course, no RCT has yet been done to prove immunity timespan or the strength of immunity. Those studies are underway. But, many experts *expect* that immunity to this virus will be similar to similar viruses (including Gottlieb and Fauci). That would put it at about a year.

    As Andrew stated in the article, it isn’t about *eliminating* risk, it’s about *reducing* risk. I would feel more comfortable on a group trip if either I was (+) for antibodies or had 2 (-) antigen tests. Now. Even more comfortable after more is known 2 months from now. Others may need to wait until a vaccine is proven and fully administered to everyone willing to take it in order to feel comfortable.

    So, testing prior to a trip and/or at the arrival airport might add a level of comfort. Several states have free COVID antigen testing for everyone that requests it, including asymptomatic. Wyoming unfortunately isn’t one. But, things may change over the next few months.

    • langleybackcountry on May 23, 2020 at 9:21 pm

      Appreciate the detailed response. Definitely good info to keep an eye on.

  9. Bill on May 24, 2020 at 6:49 am

    Research is moving rapidly on testing for active infections as well. Key to providing a higher level of safety for group outings and travel in general.

    The goal of 300M/d cheap, rapid readout, highly accurate tests is unlikely to be met, but even accomplishing throughput at 10% of that is thought by many experts to be sufficient to allow more normal routines to resume. There are always trade-offs (just like backpacking equipment).

    This has a good recent overview. The final 2 paragraphs are very useful. Don’t trust a single result, but don’t wait for perfection either.

    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/coronavirus-antigen-tests-quick-and-cheap-too-often-wrong

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