The COVID-19 pandemic has me heartbroken by the death toll, saddened by the widespread fear, longing for social engagement, deflated by its economic impact, fascinated by the science, and — most of all right now — simply anxious to return to a “normal” that more closely resembles the old one than the current one.
I’m jonesing for this return because mid-spring through mid-fall is my favorite half of the year. I’m also financially dependent on it: guiding trips during these months is my primary source of income.
As infection, hospitalization, and death rates appear to be peaking, there’s increasing national and regional debate about when and how to regain normality. Among my readers, I’d like to have a more specific discussion: When and how will backpacking be safe and feasible again?
Safe & feasible
When I first drafted this post, the leading question only pertained to the safety of backpacking, which can be thought of in two equally important ways:
- By backpacking, are you putting yourself at risk, because of your own vulnerabilities to COVID-19? And,
- By backpacking, are you putting others at risk, by becoming a vector for the disease?
But there’s also an issue of feasibility. Backpacking normally involves travel and public lands, and both are subject to a patchwork of public and private mandates, guidelines, and decisions. Since these positions may not perfectly or promptly mirror the safety risks, they must be navigated separately. Moreover, there’s been a run on some critical items (e.g. hand sanitizer, instant rice, and water treatments), and it may months for supplies to fill backorders and match current demand.
At least by spring 2022, and probably more like 2021, and in some ways even in 2020, backpacking will become safe and feasible again. This point will have been reached when we have:
- A vaccine,
- Effective medical treatments, and/or
- Herd immunity.
- Outbreaks of COVID won’t stretch the capacity of our medical infrastructure, like workers, PPE, beds, and ventilators; and,
- Testing and contact tracing is widely available and implemented, so that flare-ups can be quickly tamped down (“seek and destroy”).
Most people and policymakers will interpret this set of conditions as a green light to proceed fully with life as we once knew it.
As of mid-April 2020, we don’t check any of the necessary boxes:
- We have no vaccine, rigorously studied treatments, or herd immunity;
- Medical resources are in short supply; and,
- Testing is relatively limited and slow, and our contact tracing systems haven’t been scaled up for a pandemic.
Leaders decided that the societal cost of inaction was too great, so since early-March in the US we’ve been subject to mass mitigation strategies that were painfully imprecise but ultimately effective. We were told to stay at home, and all things non-essential were closed or cancelled.
Under current conditions, it’s difficult to argue that backpacking can be done safely or that it’s even feasible.
As a case study, consider the circumstances under which I decided (or was forced, really) to postpone our guided trips in southern Utah that were scheduled to start on April 20th.
- None of our clients or guides have been vaccinated or are known to be immune.
- We’re unaware of who and how many people have the virus in our hometowns and in the gateway towns of Escalante and Boulder.
- If we were to need medical attention — due to a condition related or unrelated to COVID — we’d be putting stress on an already overtaxed medical system.
- Many clients reside in states with stay-at-home mandates, and/or were prohibited from traveling by their employers.
- Utah requires that all out-of-state travelers complete a health declaration form when entering the state.
- Escalante Outfitters, which we use as a base camp, has closed its cabins, campground, and restaurant until further notice. And,
- Recreation access to the Escalante River canyons has been closed by Garfield County.
Barriers to backpacking elsewhere may be different, but the story is essentially the same. For example, all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is closed, except for the parkway; the Pacific Crest Trail Association has asked hikers to stay off the trail; and the sheriff of San Juan County, Colo. implemented a “Locals Only” policy that prohibits access by outsiders to 220,000 acres of federal land. For similar reasons, I postponed our May trips in West Virginia, too.
It would seem unlikely that the current restrictions will be lifted before there is spare medical capacity again, probably in May 2020 for most locations.
But it seems equally implausible that they remain in place until we have a vaccine or treatments, probably in 2021 — the economic cost would simply be too great. I’m skeptical that we’ll even wait for widespread testing and contact tracing, the timeline for which is unclear to me but which intuitively seems unlikely by, say, Independence Day.
So Americans will probably be presented with opportunities to normalize — like returning to work, attending religious services, using mass transit, dropping off children at daycare or maybe school, boarding an airplane, and going on a backpacking trip — while the risk is still present, elevated, and somewhat unknown.
COVID-19 is new, but cost-benefit decisions are not — we make them everyday, such as when we drive a car, eat at Five Guys, or hike in bear habitat. During this time, each of us will need to independently consider the risks and our risk tolerance.
Personally, I’ll soon be preparing our clients and guides for this phase, especially those joining us in Alaska in late-June and Yosemite in July. I remain hopeful that these trips will run, but I’m doubtful that I can eliminate all COVID-related risks by implementing new safeguards (e.g. masks, hand washing, group sizes, social distancing) or that I can secure an Abbot ID NOW device for pre-trip testing.
Now let’s make this a discussion. I’m curious to know the circumstances under which you will feel safe backpacking again, and perhaps the context for or an explanation of your decisions. Specifically:
- Are you working off a timetable or waiting for specific developments?
- What must be the messaging from government officials and/or health experts?
- What resources must be in place, such as spare medical capacity, widespread testing, contact tracing, effective treatments, or a vaccine?
- What behaviors would you expect and demand of others in your group or on the trail?
- What best practices would you expect of an organizations like guide services, hiking clubs, and meetup groups?
I expect comfort levels to reflect the nature of the trip. For example, under what conditions will you feel comfortable:
- Hiking with friends or even strangers?
- Visiting high-use areas and corridors like the Appalachian Trail or Angel’s Landing?
- Carpooling to a trailhead with non-household family and friends?
- Traveling to a faraway destination that requires air travel and motels?
- Undertaking an ambitious and remote itinerary, such as a high route or the Alaskan bush?
Backpacking is unlikely to be the same in 2020, but some is better than none. I’d encourage you to be cautious and listen to the experts — our favorite trails, routes, and destinations will be there.
Andrew, thanks for this thought out discussion. This is honestly one of the best summaries of the situation I have read of any publication. I have had too many conversations with people who think that once the cases start dropping we will just return to normal and be fine. I am personally vouching for the massive testing and tracing method to return to “new normal”. I work for Samsung, and seeing how our South Korean counterparts have been able to mostly weather the storm makes me think that they are the best model to copy.
As for my personal hiking, it is going to be dependent on outbreak statuses in the areas I’d like to hike in (probably PNW next) and the availability of testing at the time. If I can get everyone I will be hiking with tested before leaving and I know that Washington State is low on cases and has a lot of testing, then I could see myself pulling the trigger on a hike shorter than a week. I would probably limit it to that time frame just to make it easier to forecast the weather, and in case we come in contact with someone else that is sick, we could be back to civilization reasonably quickly.
Its really hard to tell exactly what that will look like, but I’m mentally tabbing late August to get a hike in, just to keep something on the horizon to look forward to. There are too many variables between now and then to really feel confident though. If travel is still pretty restricted I might look to drive to Big Bend instead (I’m from Texas) just to stretch my legs and get away, and because hiking season is later into the fall.
Do you have any sense for how long it will take to put in place a testing & tracing method? That’s the one piece I couldn’t get a good handle on — it seems like there are so many players in the mix (e.g. multiple levels of government, health care providers, private labs, Google/Apple) and I haven’t seen a national plan that puts all the pieces together in a coherent way. I’m going to assume that South Korea did not invent their system, which is often cited as a gold standard (deservedly or not, I’m not one to say, but I feel like I read this a lot), in two months.
I haven’t had a lot of luck finding articles that discuss the supply chain of testing. The impression that I got with South Korea is that they already had a lot of the raw ingredients, and testing infrastructure, leftover from the MERS outbreak, and they were able to quickly modify them to ramp up their testing quickly. Additionally their federal government stepped in almost instantly and pushed for a really really aggressive approval of the tests, so they cut down their time to start manufacturing by almost 2 months compared to what we did here.
The optimist in me is hoping that testing continues to ramp up along with cases, then when shelter in place allows cases to subside, the number of test kits required will be much lower, and therefore we will have enough to start the next phases. I don’t foresee us ramping up testing production fast enough to beat the virus. The number of tests that you need to effective trace falls drastically with how many cases you have though, so if we can keep people sheltered for another 6-8 weeks and keep increasing testing kit capabilities, I think we can start seeing a workable options by June.
We are ahead of the curve in WA, but currently basically all public lands in WA are closed – state and federal. That’s every state park, DNR land, fish and wildlife lands, and all USFS land. The closed ski areas are closed to uphill travel. The Mt Baker-Snoqualmie closure is currently until Sept. 30 unless conditions merit opening sooner. Not sure if specific dates have been placed on other federal lands, but I suspect re-opening will be coordinated to prevent overcrowding.
So even though we are on the downslope, there is a long way to go to make backpacking even feasible.
Well, it sounds like I will need to plan something in state (Texas) even later into the Fall. This year is nearly toast for hiking it appears. I’ll just spend the summer planning future trips then!
Replying more generally to the article than to you specifically.
Backpacking in and of itself is a low risk activity unless one is on a congested trail, in a large mixed group, or staying in mixed shelters or huts.
So the idea that an individual or small family group backpacking is somehow “dangerous” relative to sheltering at home is a falacy. It’s probably safer then sheltering at home because you aren’t making grocery runs, which are probably the riskiest places most of us are spending time.
The trail shut downs in many states are in my opinion an overreaction and will do nothing to prevent the pandemic. They may prevent a few SAR rescue events, which has some value in the setting of hospitals that need beds for COVID19.
But the idea that shutting outdoor recreation is the key to pandemic control is a falacy.
I see this argument a lot. The thing is, if someone slips, falls, sprains their ankle, dislocates their knee, has a heart attack, or becomes ill on a trail, even if they aren’t near other humans, that person needs to be evacuated or at least treated by SAR – which means an entire team is hiking in, unable to maintain social distancing.. if you have an accident in your neighborhood, grocery store, etc., the EMTs don’t have to hike in and carry you out. It’s a remote risk, yeah, but it happens every day in the backcountry. That’s a quick way to start a hot spot — the SAR volunteers are typically all coming from different communities….
Additionally, trails have been closing because people are not practicing social distancing on those trails. I work in land conservation and we’re trying really hard to avoid closing our trails, but as they get increasingly crowded, it’s becoming more and more difficult to ensure people stay >6 feet apart.
By it’s very nature backpacking necessitates you leave your immediate area. No matter how you slice it, leaving your immediate area increases the risk you could have contact with other humans and spread the virus:
1. stopping for gas
2. a flat tire or car trouble necessitating a tow truck/garage
3. outsiders from higher infected areas coming into lower-infection areas is always a risk–grocery, pharmacy. Many counties in my state have NO CASES and many of them are backpacking places
4. you are sure to have contact with other backpackers, rangers, personnel. It’s not reality to assume you can plan a trip where this never occurs.
And believe you me I want to get back out there and backpack and hike SO BAD. That said, when we decide to start lifting restrictions, I think trails and backpacking should be some of the first to be lifted, as they are some of the lowest risk. But unfortunately during this pandemic even low risk activities just a aren’t acceptable in most places right now. If everyone engaged in low risk activities, the sheer number of people doing it would by its very nature drastically increase the odds for contact among people. This is one no one can. This is fair.
Completely agree with this assessment. Mixed group backpacking poses some risk but family unit trips in non congested areas should be encouraged, not outlawed. Suspending public access to public land should have a very high bar for crossing and be Limited to actual high risk behavior with zero full closures
By luck or good management (or maybe both), our COVID-19 case numbers here in Australia have been controlled effectively – our national death toll stands at 97 right now. Some states are effectively free of cases and last weekend was the first time national parks were open for camping in the Northern Territory. I would expect that restrictions on access to National Parks in the rest of the country will be lifted very shortly.
Our case numbers are so low now that I would feel safe observing social distancing with others on the trail. I do usually hike solo or with my partner, so am not exposed to risk from other group members. Scrupulous hand hygiene would be necessary after using any public facilities such as bush toilets. Trail huts are few and far between here in Oz, but if I was hiking a trail that had them I’d be more inclined to sleep outside the hut in my tent I think.
Our health system is not overwhelmed and I would have no qualms about any hiking emergency taking medical personnel away from treating pandemic patients.
However a return to hiking won’t be possible until our health authorities consider it safe and allow travel, but given the low numbers of cases I expect that to be soon.
Agree 100% Happy1 All risks of travel can be mitigated by wearing a mask in public, washing your hands, sanitizing your surrounding area (as on an airplane) and keeping away from strangers. If an accident should befall you in the wilderness, be prepared to deal with it yourself and be extra careful. I would not go in a group of strangers.
Identifying those with immunity through antibody testing might be a better way to go ; Cellex Inc. has the only one that’s currently approved by the FDA
They have not yet established that antibodies will fully mark immunity. I understand that some people relapse. The science is not yet in on how to test for immunity.
That is good to know, David. Thanks.
I’m really interested in the antibody test, and how many have already been exposed. Hopefully we are farther along in this pandemic than is currently known. In that case, it may blow itself out and they can open things up. We will still need to protect those who are elderly or immune compromised until there’s a vaccine.
Contact Tracing infrastructure?
In the US the Patriot Act would probably already have spurred the construction and/or improvement of the infrastructure necessary to gather that data. Let’s not go further and ask for it to be made legal for application to US citizens.
This was an impressively thorough post, Andrew.
I don’t tend to backpack with other people, I avoid crowded places anyway and off-trail travel is my favorite. At first, I thought I had the perfect hobby for this scenario because I wouldn’t be affected by social distancing the way someone who likes nightlife or sports would be.
However, with walking/hiking/biking seemingly being the only possible activity right now, trailheads are a disaster everywhere. The closure of certain areas (like nearby RMNP) makes crowding worse in the areas that remain open but I understand their reasoning. Even with a predominantly off-trail itinerary in a “low-use” area, some close contact with people seems unavoidable for the limited on-trail portions. There are many trails where it’s simply impossible to stay 6 feet (or more) away from other people. I’m especially worried about what happens in June and July as people grow weary of mitigation measures and behaviors relax.
I’m also thinking about whether things like high-routes are simply a bad idea. I’m not saying they are unsafe, but the risk is clearly higher. Was my opening paragraph irresponsible for planting the idea of off-trail travel in the minds of inexperienced people right now?
I’ve been very surprised at the fraction of people I’ve seen out hiking, or even running in the neighborhood, the last month who apparently haven’t done it in years (or ever?). They are unsure/shaky on their mountain bike/skis or are simply walking with a limp due to injury brought on by a sudden change in their activity level. As usual, the consequences will be worst for people “trying it for the first time”. I have a feeling the SAR calls for Colorado 14ers this summer will be especially bad. Maybe the best approach is to only talk about off-trail activities once crowded, on-trail activities- and life in general- are safely back to normal? I honestly don’t know.
Good luck acquiring an Abbot device.
Some (many?) rescue organizations have explicitly asked people to stay away from trails to avoid potentially diverting resources. Does this factor into the discussion?
I didn’t specifically address our wilderness first responders because I think of them as a part of the medical community. The rescue teams are asking people to keep away because they currently have the same limitations as hospitals — not enough PPE, limited testing access, and sometimes sick personnel. And, yes, right now you should be very conservative with your outdoor rec for this reason.
The additional limitation for SAR groups is that many rural hospitals are closed, and those that are open have very limited resources in beds, equipment, expertise, personnel, etc. They also also just starting to see a rise in infections, even as some states overall are improving. Also, a lot of SAR people are also EMTs, nurses, medical personnel, etc. who have had their attention elsewhere. A lot of rural communities are begging people to stay away, and some places are even telling people with vacation homes they cannot come and are not welcome.
A few weeks ago, the last week a lot of places were open to hiking, the group I am associated with had 6 incidents on one trail in one day, many of them yahoos who stayed out too late and didn’t bother to bring a light. Re-opening is going to bring a lot more of them out of the woodwork.
Agreed! Great way to frame the general question of what and how to normalize back into activities not just backpacking . My trip is scheduled in September 2020, and as sad as it makes me to say it, I am skeptical of going under any circumstance. Maybe consider it if everyone in the group could be tested and confirmed as negative for the virus within 14 days prior to the start of the trip. . but I’ve also heard that the commercial lab tests are becoming inaccurate as the virus mutates.
“but I’ve also heard that the commercial lab tests are becoming inaccurate as the virus mutates.”
Anand, this is not true. Available tests produce a high number of false negatives but this is not a result of genetic drift. It requires a deeper dive to ascertain for yourself but the genetics that give the virus its physical (shape, makeup, environmental hardiness) and behavorial (infectiousness, virulence) characteristics remain stable. If you’re interested there’s a lot to wade through; a start: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=COVID+19+genetic
This article and discussion is in sharp contrast with the polarized viewpoints that have become commonplace on many forums. I am waiting to hike the CDT this year. What needs to be true? First, NM must lift the travel restrictions which is the biggest barrier. I am fortunate that I can do high mile days so it allows me to do a later May start when hopefully restrictions will start to ease. Second, I am doing primarily mail drops and longer carries like I did on previous hikes. This limits that amount of time and interactions in towns which is not a priority for me. Third, most of the areas north must be open. I am optimistic about the closed sections in Colorado. I don’t think long distance hikers were the primary issue. Finally, I likely will be liking solo and taking full social distancing precautions just like we have the current do in our state today. Lets hope some of the initial easing of restrictions help us get back on trail this year.
Hope your trip happens. I think you’re approaching it the right way, if there is such a thing.
While I was writing this post, it occurred to me that long-distance trails may need to be managed (and approached by hikers) differently. The AT, for example, would seem to have the greatest potential for spreading the disease — it’s the most heavily used, and the camping tends to be concentrated at and around shelters. In contrast, traffic on the Pacific Northwest Trail is generally light and scattered. Like how some communities and states and industires are going to come online before others, you might see traffic slower to return to these more popular corridors and areas.
In the West and awful lot is going to depend on the USFS. I doubt they are very interested in trying to manage particular trails differently than others. Much easier to just say a forest or district is open or closed. Certainly not within a particular district.
And crowding is only part of the issue. Being open means more rangers working (and potentially being at risk to each other as well as the public). It also means potential increases in fire hazard, SAR responses, etc. all of which carry their own Covid and non-Covid -related risks in areas of the country that are not well equipped to handle it.
I, too, am hoping to hike the CDT this year with the exception of Colorado due to time constraints. My plan has always been mailed resupply and minimal time in towns. As a solo hiker, interaction will be as minimal as possible. Not having to use public transport to the trail also minimizes risk. Here is hoping it can happen in May.
Hi Greg. I have the same plan and criteria as you, except that I’m willing to do a flip-flop hike starting in Colorado and cleaning up NM later in a case where RMNP and San Juan county reopen before NM’s travel restrictions. If I get out there this year, it’s definitely going to be unlike any hike I’ve done before due to all the precautions we need to take to avoid becoming vectors. I’ll enter all populated areas wearing a mask. I won’t stay in towns overnight, only visiting for laundry, the occasional shower, and to pick up a mail drop. I won’t hike or camp with other hikers. I’ll hike with a normal sized bottle of soap instead of a mini one. I’ll even employ some advanced backpacking techniques developed by most seasoned outdoorsmen (https://andrewskurka.com/pooping-in-the-outdoors-part-4-the-backcountry-bidet/).
Great summary of the situation. Couldn’t agree more at nearly every point.
Greg, we are a family of six optimistic for a CDT SoBo here. We are not capable of big mile days or 200+ carries though, so that leads us to one adaptation that I don’t hear as necessary on your end. We would look to be a supported trip with drops and resupplies delivered to trail by friends from larger towns along the way. That way we could eliminate contact with isolated communities altogether.
We are also open to starting on some chunks of trail that open earlier, should GNP extend their closure.
Of all the long trails CDT seems best suited for an earlier time frame. I hope the smoke clears for you.
Spot on Skurka. Tough decisions but I think you made the right call; sorry this is having such an immediate impact on your business. Your noted future guidelines for opening this thing back up are simple and realistic; the dates seem much more in-line with reality than any other source would have you believe.
As a Backcountry Ranger with the NPS, I have been very concerned with the initial response from government officials, the public, and the outdoor industry/community. This is a complex issue, but EACH States’ mixed-bag orders have really left things open for interpretation. Federal/State land agencies have failed to issue nation-wide, blanket statements to their users. For many, “Stay at Home” turns into more time on trail at their favorite outdoor venue. Public lands have slowly been “forced” to implement closures as traffic funnels into parks, trailheads, popular trails, overlooks, and small outlying communities; exposing the obvious. Uncontrolled, crowds at these places are inevitable. But put in control measures on who can/can have access and you take away one of the fundamental ideas that set these areas aside in the first place. From a public servants point of view, keeping things open and going about business as usual with so many uncertainties looming seems irresponsible on so many levels.
As far as opening when? Accurate, real time testing would be a good start. Re-evaluate from there.
I’m on the Alaska trip, and it saddens to me to say that while I continue to plan as if it’s happening…I am very doubtful that it will be feasible/responsible to continue with the trip in June. Of course, we’ll see! Maybe I’m too pessimistic about what recovery will look like. But the problem is that social distancing is currently one of the only tools we have available and it’s a pretty crude tool. It’s hard to imagine that this will have changed much inside of two months.
If I come out of all this and the worst thing that happened to me is that I had to cancel/postpone a few vacations, I’ll count myself very lucky. Between the health and the economic impacts of this disaster, there are going to be a lot of people hurting. Really feeling for you Andrew, as a small business owner in the tourism sector.
The main thing for me is that I anticipate that a “return to normal” will not be a big bang, but instead a slow trickle. I think that they will start to return certain businesses to work, but will continue to encourage/enforce that those who can work from home should continue to do so. I anticipate that there will continue to be encouragement/enforcement to reduce optional travel and increase social distancing.
For me personally, once it’s legal and seems responsible in CA, I’ll very likely head out to do some backpacking trips in areas that i can reach by car. I’ll most likely only go with my husband (which is normal for me anyhow) and we’ll aim for more off trail area, which was compatible with our goals this year before all this covid stuff. But we’ll see. Right now I’m just trying to keeping my mindset flexible and not be too married to any particular plans. I really have no idea what the next few months will look like and I don’t know if my city might be the next to spike like NYC.
Another factor that has been on my mind (for your July Yosemite trips) is how could my family be impacted if I’m away for a week in the backcountry? That will leave my wife alone with two kids, hoping nobody gets COVID-19 while we’re away because we’ve been isolating ourselves from friends (many of whom also have kids) and family (who are all old enough to be especially high risk) to keep everybody safer.
While I might be healthy (and very happy!) in the mountains, unless we have much better testing and contact tracing, it will create extra anxiety back home.
We’ll give you emergency contact info so that she can contact you (via us) while we’re in the field. And if we need to get you out, we’ll try to get you out. Almost no different than normal emergency protocols.
People have lost what my dad had as a kid when he was expected to take a hatchet and a few matches to march off into the woods and come back days later with meat for dinner while foraging for himself. That was camping.
I had the privilege of going out with my dad and his brothers to scout out some deer trails. It was a day trip in snow in Michigan. I learned to track and pick a vantage point. I learned how to start a fire easily with 1 match in the snow. Sticks where cut for toasting sandwiches and warm drinks where enjoyed all around. Then as quickly as the fire appeared, it was extinguished and hidden as though it had never been. Since I was a girl, i would not be invited on the week long trip camping. How I wished there was a way.
That is what hiking is for me. Beauty unspoiled, bonding with family and friends and passing on what we have learned from others.
Don’t over annalize or commercialize this thing, please. When we need a blood test to go in the woods this world is doomed.
Be safe. Think small numbers. Let the trail heal so it can help us to heal.
In the mean time I’ll continue to pass on through our family what I learned from my dad and old uncles. If you ever need a home there’s no better place than the woods.
The uncles have all passed away and I just got word my dad will be joining then in sleep soon from old age (89) and cancer. Not the virus!
Those old folks knew something we just have to be smart enough to look and listen to what nature has to teach. Isn’t that where viruses come from anyway? Something got out of balence because of people.
I have quite a few trips planned this year and have suffered my first trip cancelation (Skyline to Sea route south of the Bay) which was scheduled for next weekend as a mellow early season route with some friends. This year, all my trips are in my home state of California. I’m thankful for Gov Newsom and hopeful that our efforts to flatten the curve will pay off for everyone this summer. Usually pre and post trip, we stop at a small restaurant in an adjacent town to the park for a decadent meal. Not this year. If able to backpack, we’ll be skipping that stage and bringing in our own meals. I think eliminating any unnecessary human interaction in these smaller communities is the responsible thing to do to ensure I don’t bring anything novel into those communities who don’t have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with an outbreak. Other than that, it will be to practice social distancing as much as possible while in the established areas and then give everyone ample space on the trail – even if that means backtracking a bit to a wider portion of the trail if necessary.
After doing your CO trip last year, a few of the guys from the trip are getting together to tackle a loop in SEKI so with that one being ~50% off trail, our hopes are quite high for minimal human interaction. That trip also has the benefit of not being until mid-August so hopefully enough time for us to return to some level of “normal”.
My first “real” trip every year is to Trinity Alps Wilderness over the 4th of July weekend due to it’s lower elevation than the Sierras. My biggest concern there is that it’ll be overrun with folks who are novices which brings about concerns of bear safety, general safety, social distancing, practicing LNT principles and overcrowding. Overcrowding is my biggest fear as that means they’ll probably be forced to close the park as people aren’t practicing proper social distancing.
All in all, I’m playing it by ear and hopeful that by the 4th of July, California will have eased their shelter in place restrictions to allow freer movement within the state. Worst case scenario is that I don’t get in any hikes this year. While that would be the absolute worst case for me, the good news is that the mountains aren’t going anywhere and I’ll have banked a lot of PTO for 2021. Here’s hoping everyone stays safe and sane until we can get outdoors again!
Would be happy to look over the group’s SEKI plans and answer any questions. Love to hear when alumni join forces and undertake trips of their own. Have been disappointed a few times too though when groups didn’t think through everything and weren’t able to complete the trip, so please take me up on this offer.
I was able to sneak in the “Skyline to Sea Trail” just a couple weeks before our shelter-in-place was implemented in California. That trail was quite crowded even in early March. It would not have been an ideal social distancing situation by any means, especially near the trailheads and Park Ranger Station. Big Basin Redwoods HQ reminded me of a junior “Yosemite Valley” in terms of the crowd density. I’m actually quite grateful I learned the off-trail skills from my Skurka Yosemite trip last July as I believe once trails reopen, they will be quite crowded, much more than normal.
Living in California, our hospitals and first responders have been fortunate to handle the COVID-19 demand thus far. Social distancing and sheltering have worked on this first wave of the virus:
I believe we’ll be able to risk hiking in California sooner than some places as our weather heats up quicker in Spring, especially in the areas with dense populations (Los Angeles, San Diego, Bay Area). Studies are showing the virus has difficulty surviving temperatures over 78 degrees. That said, I believe we’ll most likely be able to hike by mid-May to early-June as states reopen their economies. My strategy to begin hiking again is three-fold:
1. Pick less popular hiking destinations
2. Pick routes that enable me to go off trail
3. Pick campsites farther from trailheads and popular landmarks
I’m able to shelter-in-place in my automobile (Subaru Outback) en route to and from trail heads so beyond that, I’d anticipate any needed shopping in small towns to be similar to my own town – wear a mask, social distance, disinfect myself and my groceries.
With the balance between keeping a healthy economy and keeping a robust medical response, we’re likely to see a few secondary waves of the virus come and go until we have a vaccine. I don’t believe it is realistic or even healthy to avoid the outdoors entirely until then. On the contrary, I believe it will be healthy to get outside again. We have to be sensible about it though.
My story is similar. I canceled my Skyline to sea (next weekend). I have a couple of trips in Yosemite in July followed by one in August. Let us see how this pans out.
Kevin – Were you in Andrew’s Yosemite 7-day trip last year? Your name looks real familiar and I think we were scheduled to be on the same trip until I got hospitalized over the 4th of July with Typhoid. Andrew was a peach throughout the whole situation and he really helped get me on the CO trip after I made a full recovery. Hope you are doing well!
Yes, that’s the same unforgettable Kevin Venable. The man arrived with an extra bidet screw-on for me to try. Who does that?
Who knew the bottle bidet would also become COVID-19 LNT friendly? I sell them from the back of my Subaru in the parking lots at Costco and Target to all those poor souls looking for TP ;-P
Thanks Brandon. Hope to see you on a future hike.
Andrew, thank you for putting your thoughts out there for us to consider and to start the discussion. I am scheduled for the Utah trip in October. When the April trip was cancelled, my immediate reaction was to look at destinations within driving distance in the Midwest for a 2-3 day solo trip to satisfy my immediate fix while managing risks. Many less-appealing than Utah, but acceptable destinations were all CLOSED – Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Kentucky, etc. This is when reality set-in for me with the fact that any overnight trip in the backcountry is probably off the table for the next couple of months. I appreciated the comments on this blog articulating the importance of “shelter-in-place” for the moment to limit any unnecessary burden for first responders.
I now spend time reflecting on my reasons for backpacking. I have found this exercise to be meaningful and to strengthen my desire to get out in the backcountry with a purpose when the time is right.
When is the time right?
* There is no timetable or specific developments for me to know it’s time to go backpacking or where to go backpacking. For starters, when states, national parks and forests open their doors to visitors. Secondly, I will need to determine if I am comfortable leaving my family for a week.
* Messages from government officials and the CDC will need to be that we are past the height of the pandemic and on the road to recovery, nationally and locally to my destination.
* Although risks will still be present when the time comes to consider a trip, are there measures in place to manage risks, including more known facts about transmission, mutations, airborne, surface life, effective treatments, conclusive testing, etc.
* I would expect behaviors of social distancing to exist within a guided trip. No sharing of equipment and food during the trip. Unfortunately, no room sharing and maybe no carpooling (not sure how that would work at the TH).
* Best practices for a guided trip: 1) pre-trip health questionnaire immediately prior, 2) pre-trip COVID-19 test, if available and practical; 3) No community food and maybe clients responsible for all their meals; 4) Maybe limit air travel for clients; 5) Limit pre-trip meet-ups.
The new normalcy will look different in 2020 and beyond than in 2019. I think it will start with conclusive facts about COVID-19 and what risk management strategies are available. For me, if I know the facts and can manage, limit or eliminate risks, I’m good to go.
It’s a delicate balancing act at my age, 65. How many more years can my body afford to wait to do a dream hike. And yet, I’m among the most vunrabale. I had planned on conquering the CT this summer. But I think the smart thing to do is put it off for one year. Let the population build heard immunity. I’ll spend the year on building my health, strength and personal immunity.
I ventured into a place of business for the first time in three weeks. I went to our local “farmer’s market” which is truly a produce store owned by a local family. I was wearing a mask and gloves, but was surprised to see no one else was. Children were running around touching everything. No one was wiping down the key pad after transactions and everyone was using the same pen. No wonder it spreads so quickly. I’m not leaving the house again any time soon.
I wear a mask while walking (suburban bay area) and often I am the only one. The mask works in perverse ways. People get out of their way if I am wearing the mask and not otherwise. Sad since the masks I wear are to protect *them* from me. This culture has to change. Masks have to become normal and that is when we can approach life normally.
Hey Andrew, nice write up. Thank you. FYI, Bettles VC is closed til July, as of right now. BRA isnt flying til then either. Alaska may still have a 14 day quarantine period in June. And Wright’s probably wont be flying Outside recreational travelers there either. Just a heads up incase you havent heard all these, but I bet you’re well informed. I hope for the best, for all of us. My own work backpacking trip to the Arrigetch on late June is already canceled. Cheers. Stay healthy.
We’re thankfully flying through Coldfoot this year, so not affected by what’s happening in Bettles.
But obviously still subject to the quarantine, which immediately would be a deal-breaker for us.
Wait and see for now.
Backpackers would be a great threat to communities ACTUALLY practicing ‘shelter in place’.However American citizens are still very mobile.A threat still exists,obviously,but no more than the threat mobile communities pose on themselves.A hiker resupply during COVID 19 can be done as safe as possible.Practicing social distancing,washing hands,wearing a mask…I see no reason to outlaw long distance hiking Unless a full quarantine is implemented.At first, hearing the reasons for ending hikes caused me to agree with the logic.Then the reality was revealed.Americans are not quarantined.Hikers Are safer practicing social distancing and are providing dollars for Trail towns and hostels who may not receive any federal help for the loss of revenue experienced during this crisis.
If everyone acted in line with the worst behaviors of select members of our society, we’d be in a lot of trouble, not just with COVID but with crime, drug use, lying, etc.
Hikers should do their part right now by following official guidelines, which apply to them just as much as everyone else.
>Hikers Are safer practicing social distancing
Hikers on long distance trails sleep and sometimes travel in clumps.
> providing dollars for Trail towns
Small town stores with likely burgeoning supply issues that need that food for residents.
> and hostels
All short term lodging in my state is closed.
Patrick, I think you have a valid argument that deserves further consideration. I agree with both sides of this issue, but I’ll add this to your comment and thoughts you shared…
When I go to the store today, does it matter which store I go to? The one 1.7mi, 3.5mi, or 6mi away? I don’t live with any of the people at or in any of the stores, so, I’m traveling no different than if I were coming into a trail town in another state, right? I’m washing hands, using hand san, wearing an N95 with bandana over it and would also do these things if I were hiking. So, honestly, how’s it any different, traveling outside of my home to shop in full PPE, regardless of where that is?
Counter point: If the trail town doesn’t have a case, I surely don’t want to carry it there and deposit it on a surface that someone else will touch, provided I’m not spreading it via exhalation because my mouth is covered. Also, now many Asian areas are having second spikes of COVID even though they are fully using proper PPE… which makes us wonder how it’s spreading… is the PPE enough? Are people failing in their PPE efforts, cross-contaminating it?
Maybe the bottom line is two things: there’s no hard, definitive answers to any of this yet and backpacking isn’t essential activity. Maybe if you can find a place that has little to no use, you could go out for a few nights, self-supported and be extra cautious in safety to not get injured… step off-trail if you see others, etc. Carry all your own food. I don’t know, maybe that’s still not ok… I think it’s all still unknown. Everything. Maybe time will tell. Right now, though, is still not the time to be going out doing anything that isn’t essential. Not yet. Maybe later in May, June, or even September… not to mention most public lands are closed right now.
In the immediate future, I’m staying in my county & the next immediate adjacent counties, which constitutes the major metro area where i live.
I won’t venture further without more info about the exact things you hit on: adequate testing (which indicates both active infections and past to identify those immune), adequate medical supplies and capacity for treatment has been normalized, and/or some sort of vaccine.
beyond that, it would be reckless for any of us to return to “normal” in regards to backpacking, or many other activites.
This is a good blog post, and while I appreciate the hopeful tone, I have severe doubts about hiking in 2020. The vaccine is still far away, and to assume it would be sooner would be far-fetched given what we know about vaccine-creation time tables. That would need to be released before anything can be planned or allowed on public lands. Otherwise, we could be spreading the disease unknowingly.
That brings about the importance of data in all of this. We have no hard data about who has or has had COVID-19, and this is the real weakness in trying to determine when it will be safe to hike again. We don’t need COVID-19 testing as is being used on a limited basis nationally, but we need antibody testing see who has the antibodies within to prove who has and has not had COVID-19. After all, without that information, we can’t be sure what the rate of spread is, nor can we even know what the death rate truly is. Beyond that, we just have a health care system that is doing their best, and death rate numbers being reported that may or may not accurately reflect COVID-19.
Thus, in this climate of incomplete data, the prepare for the worse and hope for the best mantra applies: 2020 is most likely out of the question for hiking, but 2021 and 2022 are definitely in play. At best, 2020 could be an option, but it represents an ideal that most likely won’t happen. Again, there is not enough evidence about simple things like death rates and spread, let alone the need for vaccines to make it safe to hike.
This doesn’t mean we can’t have the hiking feel in 2020 though. Go for long walks in your locales, and spend the night backpacking in your backyard. Continue harnessing your backpacking skills. Lock the door to your house, and commit oneself to exploring your local communities, while also practicing appropriate social distancing. By the day’s end, opt for leaving your house locked, go to your backyard, and camp and enjoy. Of course, this is if you have a backyard to camp in, but you get the point (I rent, so I have no backyard, but many people do). Be creative and overcome. We’ll get through this.
Well, at this point I hope only on summer killing the virus and by this enabling us get back into normal state. And it is really hard to grasp the amount of economic devastation created so I don’t even know how all the normal chains of transportation will change. Personally I only hope that in August we will be somewhat okay.
I live in Belarus and with all the contradictions I don’t see any specific way we or our neighboring countries can go.
As always Andrew, your insight and knowledge is solid.
I’m a Scout leader crossing my fingers that we get to do our Philmont trek this June.
Half my guys were supposed to be on a crew there, when a wildfire cancelled everything in 2018.
I’m doing my best helping the teenagers with the “mental game”.
They check out easily and can loose focus fast.
We are at the mercy of BSA and Philmont, along with the state of NM, who they are taking their lead from if the ranch will open.
Scouting has safety as a key focus, and they will not take chances.
We also have found Social distancing has kept the crew from bonding and the adults are doing their best to help them through this with group conference calls weekly.
I’m always looking for better ways to engage teenagers in our new ways of communicating.
Great summary. Thanks for standing up and giving facts from a hiker to other hikers.
Too many people are disobeying the mandates in Washington right now. Still crowded trails and viewpoints. People are even busting gates and vandalizing privies during this closure. It’s sad.
In simple terms – hiking is not essential – stay at home!
Great write up of the calculus involved. In fact, your reasoning can generalize to almost any situation where folks come together in community in our pre-herd-immunity, pre-vaccine COVID-19 world, whether for commerce or socially. Humans in physical proximity is the physics/context in which the virus operates, spreading, as it does, as mindless clumps of molecules from person to person.
Ben Hunt has written some cogent essays both on COVID-19 and also on the application of probability, risk and game theory to real life. His area of expertise is finance, but, as with expertise in backpacking and travel, the skills and paradigms he applies generalize to life in general, including to backpacking and travel ;-).
Basically, his thought is, in certain contexts, it is advantageous to switch paradigms. Most of us who read you or have been your clients are very familiar with the paradigm that employs probabilities, cost/benefit analyses and trade offs. This is certainly the spread-sheet world that Hunt swam in for decades, to great success and profit. But what he vigorously suggests (he’s a good writer) is that there are contexts, specifically the COVID-19 pandemic, where that the CBA/utility paradigm is not the only paradigm to use. At the very least, it never hurts to look at a situation by a variety of paradigms and then ponder.
Hunt’s blog post entitled “Once In A Lifetime” is a gateway to some of his thinking. I’ve included a link, titles of the most germane sections, and a few excerpts:
– The decision-making strategy designed specifically for uncertainty is Minimax Regret.
– Minimax Regret downplays or eliminates the role that probability distributions play in the decision-making process.
— Minimax Regret doesn’t calculate the odds and the expected utilities over multiple rolls of the dice.
— [Instead,] Minimax Regret says forget the odds; … [instead, take into account] how would you FEEL if you rolled the dice that one time and got snake-eyes?
— …Doing the action that gives you the… [least worse of your] worst results… is the rational decision choice from a Minimax Regret perspective.
– The motto of Minimax Regret is not Know the World … it’s Know Thyself
– [In sum,] it’s not [about calculating] trade off[s]
Here is Hunt applying the minimax regret paradigm to a purely financial context:
PS, Although, from the context, it appears to be 2020, please clarify, in your original post, whether you were referring to 2020, 2021 or 2022 in the following phrase: “Personally, I’ll soon be preparing our clients and guides for this phase, especially those joining us in Alaska in late-June and Yosemite in July.”
A very thorough review. However, I just read some of the usual false assumptions that dominate all discussions and create an incorrect situational analysis. So here we go:
Factors leading to an opening:
“A vaccine” – Will happen, a year from now.
“Effective medical treatments” – May or may not ever happen. Ventilators are a fake-out. Even hospitalization itself, amazingly, is not a major factor in survival fate. The old and infirm die, very few others do (5/1000 for Age 30-49), regardless of treatment.
“Herd immunity” – This does little for YOU; it’s a %/population reducer.
“Won’t stretch the capacity of our medical infrastructure” – Except for NYC and environs, our capacity is not being stretched. Rather the opposite: hospitals are struggling to stay afloat because their beds are empty. Mayo Clinic declared a $3 billion loss and laid off employees; Moab hospital “Has never been this empty”.
“Testing and contact tracing is widely available and implemented” – Great plan, unfortunately won’t happen in the US; wishful thinking (try purchasing a simple thermometer).
So what will re-open the world (and backpacking)? These very different realizations:
1. The blunt force plan of intentionally shutting down the world’s economy is not sustainable; the tipping point is now or soon where this will harm more people than it helps. More people may die from poverty than this virus (but is not talked about because that’s not us). This kill-our-own-economy plan is designed to keep old people alive at the expense of young people, and is fine for us wealthy folks while not safe nor sustainable for poorer people in urban environments.
2. The IMF stated the world economy will suffer a 7 trillion dollar loss. That loss is not caused by the pandemic – no, it is caused by our severe attempts to control the pandemic – an important distinction. (Please do not say “people’s lives matter more than money”; that is an attitude only us of privilege can afford while many others suffer and die from lack of resources).
3. People are going to die. Always and no matter what. We need to discuss this openly and shift from a fear based reaction to a rational plan that works the best for everyone.
4. There is no technological solution in the near term, so don’t hold out for the magic bullet.
5. The world will never be the same again, which in part, is a good thing. We will adjust to that fact sooner (easier) or later (harder).
6. The people who need to work for a living will be allowed to do so, which will gradually warm up our economy. The population in Assisted Living will be greatly reduced, which will also help our economy (sorry to be blunt). ** Those of us who can self-isolate will certainly continue to do so, and be as safe as we choose to be.**
So we will move from government Mandates to individual Choices. Which is a good progression. It will be gradual, and not catastrophic. There are many things to worry about, but you will live.
(And if after reading this, you want to reduce my Assistant Guide rating from “5” to “0”, ask Andrew if you can do that. Or as Stephen King recently said, “I’m sorry if you feel like you’re living in a Stephen King novel”. 🙂
Great points Buzz. We’re just now starting to move ever so slowly away from government mandates towards individual choices, and I welcome that. A risk-free life isn’t achievable, or worth living.
Yes, good points, Buzz, that are often overlooked. And it could be amplified that not only is illness and dying an everyday event, but plagues are also completely normal. That we have been spared them for so long has been only a lucky twist of fate given the decades we have lived. The mindful wilderness-goer, it seems to me, takes all reasonable precautions to protect self and other, and embraces “the full catastrophe” of mortal life (Kazantzakis), which is the deeper wilderness/mystery to venture into, eh? I haven’t taken any of Andrew’s trips, but have benefited much from his experience. If I were rating you as an assistant though, “5” is your due IMO.
Well said Buzz.
My wife is a nurse here in Tampa Bay Florida and she is continuing to be called off due to low patient ratio. None of the hospitals are allowed to do any elective surgeries. So even the hospitals are losing big time revenue.
Let’s get back to work.
FWIW, I’m in the high risk pool at 68, although my wife says I’m a very young 68. 🙂
Well said. It is time to get some occupations / some locations back to work before social unrest starts. And you would think that outdoor guide services and outdoor recreation would be the safest of all. No, we’re not going back to the old way of doing things like crowded airplanes, buses, subways , elevators and bars. But we can’t cower in our homes until a vaccine is produced neither. There is a common sense middle ground.
Excellent essay Andrew. ( retired MD age 73 )
Several things need to happen for me to be comfortable hiking in popular areas. Adequate testing, a vaccine, and good data.
Without a vaccine, we will eventually all be infected in the US and many millions will die. With testing, we can be more certain with group safety.
With good data we can make sensible decisions.
Regarding hiking partners, I would want to know immunity status and if they observed best practices regarding Covid in the preceding weeks.
The same would apply to guide services. On the trail, social distancing and note perfect personal hygiene. 10 strangers on the trail: impossible to prevent
potential exposure if one person infected.
Criteria for friends and strangers as above. High use areas would have a risk similar to grocery shopping. Airline and motels will require testing, vaccine, and good data.
Remote adventures will be fine with testing ( immunity or not infected ) and knowledge of hiking partner’s recent best practices.
Currently I hike and bike with friends observing BP. Hang with GF.
Tomorrow I plan to bike some logging roads in the coast range. My buddy’s wife is making us drive in two cars.
Good article. I have a hut to hut trip in the White Mountains planned for the end of June. I have not canceled it and asked for my money back yet, mostly because I don’t want to give up hope. Realistically I know my trip will not happen this year. My alternate trip is to go to the Quehanna Trail in PA. This trail is remote enough and not as popular as the White Mountains or the Adirondacks. We will see what June brings us. At this point, my employer has guaranteed my salary through Jun and allowed me to work from home. May we all live in interesting times.
Context: I grew up in the rural mountain West in a region that was not a tourist destination, within walking distance of public land backcountry. Loved it and still love it. Most of my life choices have revolved around obtaining and maintaining that experience.
I can pull up a public lands map of my greater region. On it I will find vast tracts of BLM land, Forest Service land, and National Park Service land. Some such public lands places are/were popular with tourists, lots of visitation and crowded parking areas. Other much less frequented areas, including some very close to my home, I can day hike or overnight backpack and never see another person. And I can start my hike from one of countless spots where nobody else is parking and that I can reach on less than a gallon of gas. That is what I have been doing. And am inclined to keep doing unless someone gives me a good reason not to.
So, from my perspective and context, I am honestly puzzled at the proposition that all backpacking or hiking must be forsaken as somehow risky.
But, I have learned a lot over many years about gear and clothing from others and their astute postings, especially this site, some of it potentially lifesaving. And I have had to adjust my thinking and perspectives accordingly.
Appreciate your work very much, Andrew. FYI, as of today, April 15, all of the Scouts USA High Adventure Bases, aka Philmont, Bechtel Summit, etc., are still planning for their summer seasons. (They are hedging by saying they’ll only hold these camps if they can do so “safely” within CDC guidelines.) Philmont alone has about 21,500 Scouts plus staff pass through in a typical summer. Scouts come from all over the country, using various means of travel. The nearest hospital to Philmont is a community facility 40 miles away. Initial treks begin early June; staff are supposed to come mid-May. Philmont and the other camps will update their plans on May 1. The science of COVID-19 is clear: it’s a contagious illness spread when people are in close proximity to each other for as little as 15 minutes. Twelve people in a crew might conceivably quarantine themselves for 14 days pre-trip…but the quarantine is broken the first time they encounter someone outside the crew, such as at an airport or stopping for gas or meeting a crew from a different state at camp. The only way to ensure a crew headed back country did not have any infected member would be to test each member. As you noted, Andrew, not everyone can get Abbott’s test machine (and there are reports in reputable media that the agents needed for all COVID testing are running low). So a crew could head out and three days later, someone is sick. Maybe it’s one of the adults and now they’re in respiratory distress at altitude. Will the rangers who come in to evacuate that person be in full protective gear? Sorry…my mind just boggles. I can see hiking with my family or mutually agreeing with friends to socially distance pre-trip… but gathering mass quantities of people to go backpacking this summer seems like a recipe for disaster.
In my current state of thinking, Philmont 2020 seems like a tough sell for me. I’m equally pessimistic about a marathon scheduled for early-June in Colorado that I’ve been training for since November. I think events and venues with hundreds (or tens of thousands) of people will be the last thing to come back, and robust testing/tracing infrastructure and maybe a vaccine will be required.
Philmont Ranger here, our arrival date has been pushed back until June 1st, with the first crews arriving on June 6th. We’re supposed to have online training to fill in. Personally, I’d prefer to see Philmont shut its doors for the summer, no matter how big of a blow that would be. I think the BSA doesn’t want to, considering 2018’s season cancelled from the Ute park fire, the BSA’s bankruptcy, and the fact that Philmont actually turns them a profit.
I think if Philmont opens its doors, you’ll have dead staff from COVID-19.
I’d be reluctant to assume that they don’t have the best interests of staff and Scouts in mind.
My operation is MUCH smaller than BSA/Philmont, and it’s been a huge effort to reschedule and re-coordinate the program. The situation is also rapidly changing, and what seemed like good policy/decision-making two weeks ago may already be outdated.
For example, last month the Boston and London Marathons were both rescheduled to the fall, which seemed reasonable at the time, but the conditions would have to massively change for these events to happen. Can you imagine in mid-September an event with 50,000 athletes, plus millions of people lining the streets of Boston? I can’t (today).
So give them some time, and see if they ultimately make the right call.
Interesting article. Interesting times. First paragraph sums it up. Agreed on not wanting to be a vector. Not sure we can keep things like this until there’s a vaccine, though. Crime and suicides are already increasing, along with the unemployment figures. We aren’t going back to what we knew as normal. It will be a new normal. Maybe better. Probably worse.
The virus is likely to come back with a vengeance in the Fall. You will need immunity if you want any kind of normal in your life. And the curve has the same volume of cases even if it’s flattened out.
The sun is shining. The snow is melting. I can walk from my house to several trailheads in Boulder. Everyone keeps their distance. Hardly anyone speaks or even makes eye contact. Especially during the week it can be spectacularly quiet. The air is the cleanest I’ve ever known it. The animals and birds seem more alive and less afraid. You can almost imagine what it would’ve been like pre-contact.
Personally, I don’t see how you would be be doing any harm to yourself or others by going solo backpacking for a few days right now – as far as C19 goes. However, you’d be taking a greater personal risk and you shouldn’t expect anyone to come to your aid. Backpacking in groups, however, is a different story.
Much as I try to avoid it, long distance backpacking requires hitching to town sometimes to resupply. Who is going to stop and give you a ride? Maybe some of you can lug 80-pound packs like Eric Ryback did in 1970, but at 70 I’m lucky to carry a week’s worth of food. I’ll see what next year brings, but in the meantime I have a lot of work I can do in the garden.
Thanks for the great article Andrew. Some good food for thought.
I have an early June trip planned for out of state. I haven’t officially cancelled it yet but expect it will likely be postponed. I don’t believe MT or WY have been particularly hard hit but the task of getting there (airports, etc) seems like an unnecessary risk and I don’t like the idea of potentially exposing others if I were to happen to be an asymptomatic carrier.
I’ve delayed planning any other large trips for this year until I have a better feel for the factors you identify.
Closer to home, I can walk out my front door and into 3,000 sq miles of federal public land within 5 minutes. For the time being, the forest remains open (although developed areas are closed). Front country trails are being heavily used, particularly on weekends, but the backcountry is largely empty. I’ve been doing some long day hikes so far, having good success at avoiding others. I’m considering some short 1-2 night trips close to home; going solo; avoiding popular areas; and heading out or coming back at off times to further avoid potential contact with others. Basically an extension of my current day hike approach.
My typical risk assessment for trips will be moderated (eg, ambitious off-trail trips are on hold) but I believe short on-trail but remote trips in my home county are within the realm of risk I’m comfortable with during these times.
Great discussion of risk management. It seems the risk itself is still poorly understood and that states are essentially experimenting with relaxing guidelines. Those that take on the risk are taking on one that is simply poorly understood. Sure, there’s a lot of information on how it spreads and how to practice hygiene to avoid it but the scope of its spread isn’t clear. I feel that widespread testing for the virus and for antibodies needs to be weeks behind us before group trips are feasible. A vaccine would be ideal. California officials were talking about relaxing regulations on Monday and Tuesday but by the end of Tuesday the State had its highest record of COVID-19 deaths and has since backtracked a bit.
“A vaccine” – Will happen, a year from now.
– See analyses by Scott Gottlieb, MD. Most likely in 18-24 months
“Effective medical treatments” – May or may not ever happen. Ventilators are a fake-out. Even hospitalization itself, amazingly, is not a major factor in survival fate. The old and infirm die, very few others do (5/1000 for Age 30-49), regardless of treatment.
– These points are easily demonstrated as false in fact or conclusion or are not germane to the calculus.
“Herd immunity” – This does little for YOU; it’s a %/population reducer.
– Incorrect. Herd immunity is of vast importance for an individual. It is why vaccination is one of the greatest achievements mankind has ever achieved.
“Won’t stretch the capacity of our medical infrastructure.” Except for NYC and environs, our capacity is not being stretched. Rather the opposite: hospitals are struggling to stay afloat because their beds are empty. Mayo Clinic declared a $3 billion loss and laid off employees; Moab hospital “Has never been this empty”.
– This includes some factual data, but the conclusion is wrong. Furthermore, we have not seen what the virus will do once it eventually spreads to less prepared urban areas, rural America, assisted care facilities, prisons, etc. Follow what is currently happening in Detroit, Louisiana, South Dakota and various nursing homes and prisons as a preview.
Protecting infrastructure I: When a dam breaks, the first people it sweeps away are the people who are busting their asses trying to keep the dam intact (health care workers, law enforcement, nursing home attendants, grocery store employees, food supply processors, etc.). In NH, 30% of COVID-19 patients are health care people.
Protecting infrastructure II: Once one dam breaks, dams downstream break in a chain reaction. You say, let the flood come, but, in general, you do not want to have areas where there are subfunctional hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, nurses, doctors, policemen, soldiers, sailors, food supply – havoc ensues if they are missing, and it takes a long time to recover from the damaged infrastructure, ravaged economies and critical work forces, etc.
“Testing and contact tracing is widely available and implemented” – Great plan, unfortunately won’t happen in the US; wishful thinking (try purchasing a simple thermometer).
– These actually will happen, eventually, but irregularly in time and place. Similar to how cellular phone service rolled out irregularly in time and place, and, of course, some places haven’t and never will get it. But cellular service, once a rarity, eventually became commonplace.
As for the 6 conclusions, here is a source for some alternative conclusions by folks who are working in the fields in which the conclusions play out (medicine, business, policy, finance):
Thanks for this very well-reasoned rejoinder.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this well-reasoned response. You said exactly what I was planning to say.
Some good thoughts! My annual July trip, will be my 11 y/o son’s first. We are going somewhere! I am a Firefighter/Paramedic and have been watching what is going on. I have not missed a days work in over three years. I know in my station, we all were sick back in mid January. We thought it was the flu, but looking back most of us felt it might have been covid. It barely affected most of us. I had a day, off shift where I had a fever and then a cough for about a week or so. It wasn’t bad, more annoying than anything. Especially laying down to sleep. No, I haven’t been tested.
If you look at who has been affected the WORST by this,besides the Immunol-compromised, it is the older, out of shape, smokers, and non-ambulatory. Healthy active people in GENERAL, have been non-symptomatic, or barely noticed any symptoms. Yes there are healthy people with severe symptoms, but it is the exception, not the norm. One thing I have seen escalate, is the amount of psych calls we get. People are freaking out from someone coughing near them and then call us and want us to take them to the hospital where they demand a test. This happened a lot early on!
One of the things I have been witness to, is life is very short and unplanned. No matter how much we think we have our schedule in place, there is a curve ball hanging in the balance just to knock you off course. Could be an injury or sickness to you or a family member. Could be someone close to the family where you need to give up time to help. Could be financial hard times stop you from moving forward. Whatever it is, it happens to everyone.
I will not wait, I will prepare myself for what is in the area of where we are going. If that area is stressed, we will go somewhere else. I will understand what my risks and dangers are and the effects of the local EMS/Rescue. I will prepare my son, what to do in an emergency. We will get out and have a good time or not. Either way it doesn’t matter. Every trip I have taken has produced some very memorable stories and some excellent photos! Isn’t that why we go?
I know when I go anywhere-hiking, local stores, work, I always wash my hands and try not to touch my face. When I have to touch my face, I use the inside of my shirt. Now with Covid, you should add 6 feet of space. Covid will be around for a while, even with a vaccine, but if people follow these recommendations, the flu might be a distant memory! Waiting for the vaccine? How well does the flu shot work? The flu has some crazy amount of variations. Guess what Covid 19 is? A group of virus that are respiratory in nature. Remember SARS guess where that falls into. On the CDC website there is a study that says deaths could be reduced by 1 million a year just by proper hand washing. Take that away and add a cell phone, I think we are seeing what could happen. I see people take their phone into a bathroom, use the facility, set the phone on the counter to wash their hands and then pick the phone right back up. The virus just said thank you for the drink! How many of you just had a bad feeling!
Somewhere along the way we forgot a few basic rules. To cover up when we cough or sneeze. To not go into work when we have a fever. Hell don’t go anywhere when we have a fever! Wash your hands -all the time!
I am going hiking! As soon as I can get away! As often as I can! I will be respectful to the trail and my fellow hikers. I will do my best to teach my son the same principals. God I hope to see all of you out there- just keep 6 feet away! Stay safe and enjoy your adventures!
I have four backpacking trips (between 5-15 day, US and international) planned this year, two have already been rescheduled. My trips now begin first week of July and run thru thanksgiving. With all my trip details in place, I have a daily wait and watch philosophy – no timetable, just watch the Coronavirus map on the John Hopkins website which has graphs and numbers for various regions/countries/sovereignties of the world. I do feel comfortable backpacking with groups (I think most of us can be aware, careful and considerate of any best practice implementation…such as practicing good personal hygiene; bringing additional hand sanitizer; exercising caution when serving food; maintaining personal distance in group settings; avoiding physical contact; avoiding sharing of water, food, and personal items; and isolating ill members of the group), but am more concerned about air travel/motels (which all my trips require), getting sick in a remote location (and not being at home or able to get home) or catching something without knowing and bringing home to my kids/older relatives.
As the situation develops, I will make decisions based virus data available and my own (and family’s) health and well being. I will cancel if I don’t feel comfortable – I have trip insurance and other options for cancellation.
California, Oregon & Washington have joined forces to return to normalcy in a balanced approach. This is a good sign as some local communities are beginning to open up parks with their blessing. Mammoth is also going to hold a meeting tomorrow to discuss their options going forward. This one is important to me as I have a PCT NOBO permit, resuming my 2019 NOBO, on May 28th. The PCTA has told me my permit is still valid, if I can start on that date & that location. I won’t start unless the USFS & Parks reopen. Otherwise, the PCTA did tell me they would consider a new long distance permit if it’s reopened.
My travel to Mammoth would not be an issue as I plan to fly my personal aircraft to Mammoth to resume my hike.
Good article. Based on the science out there, and epidemiology of demographics, I, as well as most fit backpackers without pre-existing conditions will most likely be asymptomatic. If they do come down with something, it would be the same question as what would you do if someone comes down with the flu or some other virus while backpacking or on a guided trip. The same protocol would be put into place.
Personally none of this bothers me. I, if allowed, would go out in public hiking tomorrow. I am just waiting for are things to open up. My own personal opinion how this is being handled doesnt sit well with me. There was, and still is a to much fear mongering when the masses will be 99.9% fine. The message should be for the masses to eat nutritious foods, exercise, and sleep and take care of yourself mentally and physically, stay away from elderly or those with underlying conditions, and if you get exposed, the data shows the chances of you being fine are quite good. Instead we are being told to live in fear, which I refuse to do. There is nothing I would require being needed to go out on a guided trip or solo, and would not expect anything different from others than was expected previously, except a love for and the willingness to protect nature and leave no trace, and not overcrowd trails. I would have no apprehension to camp near strangers.
We were planning on a Zion trip this year which was put on hold, and Would have no fears other than not being allowed to go. I would love to go on one of your remote itineraries,My only concerns would be keeping up with you and not having enough food because I would not want to haul all the food I would really want.
But if we doubled your ration of beans and rice, your tentmate might object!
very true! haha
At age 75, I am among those most likely to have a poor outcome if I wind up with Covid-19. I like to think that my continued long distance backpacks (>15,000 miles the last 14 years), have set my age backward a decade or so. My wife and the 89 year old aunt we care for don’t have that advantage. I’m very conscious of the risks of exposure of the various activities that I still undertake—both for myself, my family, and others with whom I may come in contact.
That said, April 3-5 I enjoyed a weekend in the Quehanna Wild Area in North Central PA with a small group of 40-something year old backpacking friends. The Quehanna has many trails and rarely does one see others while on trail. We saw only one solo backpacker and there were fewer cars than usual at the trailheads and on the highways. The travel and itinerary were permitted under both the PA and OH (my home state) stay at home orders and the public land (PA State Forest) was open for this activity. My risk analysis for this included the following determinations:
• Round trip drive to the trail head was within one gas tank fill up and required no rest area stops.
• Size of group was limited and strict social distancing was to be strictly followed. Everyone was to travel separately (no car pooling) and there was to be no gear sharing.
• Plan was to base camp in a large area several miles from the trailhead 300 yards away from our obscure trail and then spend a day and a half exploring off trail in a stream drainage.
• I knew the participants were responsible and that I could trust they would have backed out if they had any symptoms.
• The available information showed very little or no Covid-19 cases along the corridor I traveled to the trailhead.
A trip with an organized group that required long distance driving or public transportation would, for me, be an entirely different issue. Obviously, widespread use of an effective and safe vaccine would be ideal, but that is not likely until 2021. An alternative would be a proven effective, safe treatment that reduces mortality among those most at risk. Short of that here are other considerations:
• The current stay at home orders, travel restrictions, and public land closures must be lifted.
• The members of my group are not contagious or I’ll travel solo.
• There must be no outbreaks that tax the healthcare systems near the destination or along the travel corridor.
• The itinerary avoids high use areas of the back country and busy gateway communities.
• Use of public transportation and car travel amenities (rest stops, restaurants, motels) is not required.
• The trip has a limited duration (due to the possibility of me being previously exposed and needing to self-evacuate on the appearance of symptoms).
• The trailhead is relatively close to home, say within one day’s drive.
I was scheduled to start the PCT today (4/15) but about a month ago I could start to get the vibe it wouldn’t happen. Plan B was to jump in 400 miles up the trail in mid-May, but that just doesn’t feel realistic at this point.
So my new “plan” is to do a trail in the late summer / early fall. The CT and AZT are my two options. I had already bought all my food for the PCT, so I need to do something with the 750 bars in my possession.
I think that by mid-summer I will have a better sense on whether a hike will happen this year. I think it will become self evident. I won’t be looking at one single metric, but just a gut feeling. Depending on the situation at the time, I would probably take a face mask and gloves for town visits.
I went last weekend: Ouachita National Forest. Went with one other guy – we tried to maintain our distance but if one of us was really contagious (asymptomatic), not sure we avoided transmission. Otherwise, we didn’t come close to anybody although we passed a few others on the trail. It was two days, 21 miles and 3,600’ gain but that was tough on me because I have not been very active aerobically this year and nothing prepares you for carrying the 40#s except carrying the 40#s.
Have a 5 day scheduled for Gila Wilderness first week of June – hopefully things will be better by then.
I backpack mostly in the Sierras and the GC. You don’t necessarily know you have the coronavirus for a couple days. A key thing for me is when the first responders feel comfortable with folks in the backcountry, in the event you need a COVID-19 rescue.
There’s a report that a vaccine may be available from the UK as early as September, but when it becomes available to the masses is unclear.
I had planned to hike half of the CDT this year and of course cancelled this. Actually, I’m pretty pessimistic about 2021 too. Not so much that I’m scared of catching the virus (I’m hiking solo), but I’m afraid that some of the logistics will remain difficult for quite some time.
For example, when will people feel comfortable again to give a smelly hiker a ride into town?
Also, I worry that after lockdown ends, there will be second or third waves of infection. Even when they are not nearly as bad, they can still mess up your resupply logistics when local supplies of certain foods dry up, places close down, perhaps re-closing of some lands you need to cross, etc. And, coming from abroad, can I even get a flight?
I have already accepted that 2020 is a lost year for me. All I’m hoping for now is that things are normalised by spring 2021, but I’m still not betting on that.
For the time being, my backpacks are limited to overnights with close friends. We drive separately to the area and do not interact with anyone on the drive to/from the trailhead. We have always been self sufficient so we do not need to share any equipment. Honestly, the risk of passing/catching the virus in the outdoors is very slim as long as you keep some distance and stay home if you are sick
Thanks for such a thoughtful summary of the problem at hand.
I have three categories of comments— our lifestyles in general, my personal backpacking, and my planned guided trip with you:
Since a vaccine won’t be ready for a long time– and who knows how effective it might be– I believe that we will all need to resume a semi-normal (or “new normal”) lifestyle soon with restrictions/conditions in place, knowing that there will remain a risk of contracting the virus. And, I don’t know what “soon” means– that needs to be based on scientific data and advice from the experts, not personal needs or desires. The conditions will probably include requiring everyone to wear facemasks in places of business and in other occasions where close encounters between people happen. In my past trips to different parts of Asia, it was more common than not to see some people wearing facemasks while walking on the sidewalks. That is a standard practice and socially acceptable there for people concerned about spreading germs. I believe that the US (and other countries) will have a similar look very soon.
Like you said, life is full of risks, all of which need to be understood and properly mitigated. This virus is a new risk to be added to our already long list of risks. On the subject of multiple risks, when I finished each of my backpacking trips last year in the White Mountains of NH, I texted the following message to my family just after I left the wilderness: “I’m done with the safest part of my trip. Now I’m about to drive through Boston traffic!”.
For my own personal hiking— I have currently been hiking on local trails (within 10 miles of my home) in which I don’t see many people. All hikes are simple day-trips– nothing complicated– and I wear my balaclava over my mouth and nose when near people. I also jump well off the trail and let people pass. I’ve already stopped going to one location, as it got too crowded. As regions begin to open up and don’t require travelers to be quarantined, I will hike at locations that are farther away, but I will still avoid the popular sites. All but one of these trips involve same-day driving and no motels or airports. I do have one trip planned in late August to Wyoming (horse pack trip in the Wind River Range). This will involve taking a plane and using motels. Much of the trip will involve bushwacking and use of a permitted (exclusive) basecamp that is well off the trail. I have the most concern about these plans since it involves airports and motels, but if there are good practices in place at that point (such as everyone required to wear masks), I will strongly consider doing that trip.
For my planned guided trip with you (West Virginia; late Oct. 2020), I am relatively comfortable doing this trip for the following reasons: 1) Since it is scheduled for late October, this is well off peak season and I am guessing that there will be relatively few people in the wilderness. 2) With the plan for bushwacking much of the trip, that also keeps us away from most other people. 3) Since I live close enough (600 miles away) I will be driving there and not being in an airport.
Recommendations and questions for the West Virginia trip (this is all conditioned, of course, upon our being released from our travel restrictions): 1) We should consider breaking it into two smaller groups, with one guide per group. (Instead of one large group with two guides). This helps with the physical distancing requirement. 2) We should follow the new recommended protection protocols that should be in place by then, which I assume include requiring all people to wear masks (or balaclavas over our mouth/nose?). Should there be a balaclava washing protocol? Or, simply use a new mask daily and pack out the used ones? Should we add hiking-specific protocols above what CDC experts advise for the general population? 3) Food preparation and water purification: the food should be prepared/packaged well in advance by the guide so that any potential contamination is not a factor (that is, allowing for any virus present to become ineffective). Or, even better, the food should be prepared by each individual. Water purification should all be done by the individuals with their own purification system, not by a guide. 4) Hand sanitizer: We need to bring much more hand sanitizer along so that we can routinely wash our hands. 5) No sharing of rooms in the motel rooms. 6) Carpooling to the trailhead poses a risk. The solution to this may be specific to the trailhead.
What about healthcare costs? Without Covid19, I think the risks were a little more calculable in the non-flu season; most of the bigger risks are probably those associated with SAR in the backcountry due to injury. Other than that, getting to the trail/trailhead from my apartment did not involve huge risks that cannot be mitigated.
However, with SARS-CoV2, I think it’s very hard to calculate/mitigate the risk of hospitalization. And even with health insurance, it could cost thousands to get treatment (I believe treatment isn’t free, right?).
I didn’t read through all the other comments, so I don’t know if this was discussed. But I was curious if that angle had been considered, too.
Here in Alaska, memories of the 1918 Spanish flu are still fresh on the minds of many, especially the Alaska Native elders. During that pandemic about 1/3 of the native population died and some entire villages were wiped out. These remote places are often the staging areas for flights into the bush. It would be prudent to not expect these communities to welcome travelers with open arms anytime soon.
In addition to restrictions on interstate travel to Alaska, there is also a statewide restriction on inter-community travel, even for residents, except for designated “essential” businesses who are required to develop a pandemic safety plan. Anyone who does travel here has to self-quarantine for 14 days immediately upon arrival. These measures are scheduled to expire later this month, but they are likely to be extended.
I normally do a hiking/packrafting trek in the Brooks Range every year, and I have a route picked out for this summer just in case. But at this point I think the probability of all the logistics working out is low. So my backup plan is to focus on trips closer to home. Fortunately I can pretty much be in wilderness as soon as I walk out of town.
Thanks for this post, Andrew. Always nice to read your blog.
Can you expand more about your WV comment? Are there currently any restrictions for the area? My situation is this: my SO and I (and only us) are planning a backpacking trip through Dolly Sods at the end of this month (April). We will be driving from NC. Because the trip involves just us two and transportation is through personal vehicle, we feel that the trip is no more dangerous than going to the grocery store. However, we will not do this if wilderness areas/NFs are closed. Thoughts?
Check out Monongahela NF web page. Some roads in Dolly Sods are currently closed.
The tourist towns where we start our backpack trips are going to have to make the tough decisions on whether to open their economy to out-of-towners. We must be respectful of their wishes. I mean, if they open their economy because of low or no transmission of cases, why would they want out of towners from high transmission areas such as Bozeman, MT or New York coming to visit and re-infect their populations? What about the local search and rescue organizations and their individual members who are practicing social distancing and stay at home? They will feel obligated to go out on a search and rescue mission, driving together, and then working in proximity when providing care to a patient.
Just because you are an “experienced” backpacker/mountaineer/hiker” doesn’t mean you are immune from injury/illness/rescue.
It would seem to me that the only responsible and respectful way to get back out on the trails is if the regulating authorities of the land, permit it, the search and rescue teams are ok with it, and the local community is welcoming you.
Then it is a matter of personal tolerance of risk. Would I go on a backpack trip with eight other unknown people on a commercial trip? Personally, not without everyone having a negative COVID-19 test the day before departure, or without sanitary protocols on the trip that are strictly enforced by the guides. The inherent risk of participating in a commercially led trip to begin with is the lack of training and professionalism of the commercial operator’s guides. This isn’t true for all commercial outfits, but probably 70% of them would be a realistic number. It would be good to ask for and review a detailed emergency plan from your commercial outfit for multi-day trips and if they have the backend office support to execute it. A major emergency can cripple a small commercial operator’s staff, especially if they are running more than one multi-day trip at a time.
NOLS runs an excellent Wilderness Risk Management course each year to help commercial outdoor operators mitigate and prepare for risks. Having been to their conference I am all too familiar with the stories of unprepared commercial operators unable to deal with emergencies and or plan and prepare for in-the-field responses at the risk of their client’s well-being.
I am anxious to get back on the trail and head to Bishop, CA or Pinedale, WY to launch a multi-day backpack trip with my fellow quarantine members or family and friends whom I know have been embracing stay at home guidelines. But I do not think it is OK to do that unless the local communities, search and rescue, and land managers welcome you with open arms. To think that you can sneak in and out of town, go to the grocery store, take showers, and not impact the local community is both naïve and selfish.
The most reasoned reply I’ve read.
I’m due to hike the JMT nobo starting late July out of Horseshoe Meadow. If possible, I’ll get tested a few days before I head out. Unless proven ineffective I’ll see if I can get a course of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to take with me, or even take prophylactically. Lots of misinformation about it right now, but by then trial results will be known.
Getting to the trailhead is complicated by normally having to take YARTS and ESTA from the valley to Lone Pine and stay in Mammoth for a night between buses. I’m considering dropping my car in Yosemite and having my son drive me down if YARTS and ESTA are not an option.
The way I see it, nothing in life is without risk of one kind or another. I’m turning 67 this summer, so I’m not going to sit around waiting to die. I’m going to get busy living. Risks? My wife is a 70 year old smoker and one of my sons works at Safeway and lives with us. We can shelter in place all we want, but the outside world comes in the door every day.
Of course, all of this might be moot if there’s no way to resupply.
Thanks again for your thoughtful and thought provoking post. I am sorry about the impact to your business but hopeful for you. As usual this is a community of planners who will now take this risk into our safety considerations. I really appreciate all the points of view shared above. Pretty certain our family’s late June car camp trip to Lodgepole, SEKI is out. Even though we are all sheltering together now, I could not blame the NPS at all for taking the safety of their personnel into consideration. It’s not like they are giving up significant federal revenue. But I have been hopeful for our Sierra BP trips in July and Sept. Both are drive-able without really any local community interaction necessary (as other have noted above) and both are planned with immediate family. But the biggest concern this exchange has brought to me is, even with potential testing before the start, the risk presented by crowding at the trail heads and through out those first and last “day hike” miles. The scenario of getting through that and then 2-6 days into the back country having someone go into fever and especially significant respiratory distress (at altitude), gives me something to carefully consider.
What about solo? 😉
I plan to still do some stuff this summer but I am going to change my habits. At this point I’m planning to avoid tourist towns unless they give the go-ahead to come. I’m not going to go rock climbing, where there’s a lot more hanging around with other people including strangers and a lot of touching the same rock and gear, and I’ll do more hiking and trail running instead. I haven’t decided about my willingness to do group stuff versus more solo but certainly planning to go solo for the foreseeable future. I am almost certainly not going to leave the state of Washington for anything.
In my opinion, any plan predicated on the existence of an adequate testing program will fail, because it will not be stood up in 2020. What is evident is that there is no unified national response and a state by state testing program is just unworkable. The other wild card will be state travel restrictions. Oregon disallows fishers and hunters from out-of-state ( targeting Washingtonians where fishing is now closed) and Wyoming requires 14 day self quarantine. And today Wyoming has closed fishing licenses to non residents. I was hopeful that things would start to settle, at least here in the PNW, but without national leadership, which is absent, it will remain the wild,wild west, at least in the west until 2021.
As a solo hiker as is, my only deterrent is public lands being open in case of being stopped. Virus spread itself does not have an effect on my decision. I also tend to backpack fast and deep into backcountry, not popular loops, and when I do, I barely nod to folks. Color me an introvert. So, this summer is a go as long as counties and forest lands are open.
Thank you for another well thought out, reasoned and detailed article. I hope that you can resume you guiding service very soon.
I’m waiting for specific developments rather than a timetable for when I return to the backcountry. Frank Meyer put it well in his response above, “It would seem to me that the only responsible and respectful way to get back out on the trails is if the regulating authorities of the land permit it, the search and rescue teams are ok with it, and the local community is welcoming you.” I agree 100% with this and it answers many of the questions you pose.
Beyond that, before I take a trip beyond my local mountains, I would at least want to know that testing and some form of contact tracking is nearly universally available to me and the communities of people that I would come in contact with. I don’t think I would do something like load a pick-up with 3 days of food and a couple extra fuel cells just to so I could do that week long trip 3 states away that I have been dreaming about for years. I’ll wait until I’m reasonable sure that I will not be judged for traveling in a normal fashion. My response might be different if I had a August 2020 JMT permit, however.
As for best practices of groups, I would expect them to be aligned with what is occurring in broader society at the time of the trip. I would also want for the guiding service to inform all members of expected behavior ahead of time and make sure that clients understand that if they are unwilling to follow them or feel that they are not enough that they should not participate in the trip. Let’s say people flew in on 15 different airplanes to assemble for the trip without being expected to don PPE or quarantine for 2 weeks after. I would find separate hotel rooms or wearing cloth masks while hiking burdensome restrictions that would seem to my nonexpert mind have little or any chance of reducing the likelihood of transmission.
For me, the biggest issues (there are smaller issues too) are testing and travel.
To feel safe hiking with a group, the key is just knowing the people you travel with are healthy. Obviously, a fast, reliable test is critical. We need to be able to meet up at a pharmacy or testing facility, get clear and then head straight to the trail. At the end of the hike, or at least before you set foot back inside your residence, another test might not be a terrible idea.
Travel to and from the trailhead(s) is the other major factor. I’m not sure if people should be flying, taking buses, trains or any other form of public transportation to a hike. It just seems like these are high risk environments. Confined spaces with lots of people and recirculated air. So, I don’t know the answer to this but it would seem possible to me that a person who very recently was infected might not test positive until a certain level of virus or virus metabolites had built up? That would mean, a person could fly in, test negative and then become a carrier while on the trail.
I feel a person who drives themselves to the trail head is probably at much lower risk of accidentally smuggling in a virus picked up en route.
So there it is, my criteria; no public transport to the trail, test at the trail.
So i just have to ask. Assuming I could quarantine for 2 weeks, hike solo on the AT for 10 days (that is currently open), avoiding all bipeds by 20 meters, camp away from shelters and get resupplied halfway by someone who had quarantined, is there really any actual risk to others or myself?
I’ve seen people argue that I’d put strain on EMS by backpacking. I’m not sure how that would be worse than a day hiker going out. I get that the PR risk for thru-hiker infecting an AT town would be really bad. I’m also not entirely sure why the AT trail clubs are so vehemently against hiking.
I just want to have a better explanation to myself for not going.
I was supposed to be camping in JTNP this week with a bunch of families and that was canceled.
My next trip is with 3 other dads and our teen-age sons in the Sierras outside Bishop in mid-June. We’re planning on going given that the shelter in place orders are lifted and we’re allowed in the area.
Two other trips area planned for September and October up in that area.
I’m hoping for a solid antibodies test because I think my family and many in San Diego had it already. You may scoff, but my wife just about went to the hospital with an ‘un-diagnosed upper respiratory infection.’ That’s what they’ve been calling the ‘sickness’ in folks who have tested positive for the antibodies before they knew it was COVID19. We have the x-rays and blood work and are hoping to send them to the NIH. They are supposedly going to open up some kind of study in the near future where they select people to send in that data. Both my son and I were sick as well, but our symptoms were much milder.
My wife also got H1N1 during Christmas a few years back. So pardon my seemingly cavalier attitude. But we’ve been there already. And we have family in the medical health care profession, police force, and other agencies. We hear all sides.
The guys I’m going with all have their heads on their shoulders and we’ll make the best decision for our ‘team’ given the state of the state, country and all. We’ll take precautions we we deem necessary while ensuring not to endanger anyone. Hopefully there won’t be people where we are…we want the social distancing.
Don’t overthink it too much. It’ll all pan out. Just take it day by day/week by week as best you can.
This post has obviously stuck a chord with many of us. If Yosemite is honoring their Backcountry permits we are planning on going for the 1st week of July.
We’re both teachers and in the summer we are on a roster for Western assignment for wildfires. I’ll be curious how Forestry and NPS handles these large fires with crews and camps. That will be a challenging situation for them for sure.
I saw an article about wildfire crews, can’t remember where. I’m sure if you search you can find it. Agencies are aware that this could be a problem: tight quarters, terrible air quality, challenging sanitary conditions.
The NIH study you mention is now enrolling – see here if you want to enroll
Andrew – awesome job on the write-up and thanks to everyone for all the thoughtful comments. I had a June Rainier climb and West Coast Trail backpack that are already cancelled, but perhaps I will be able to squeeze in the Colorado Trail this summer (maybe not) and maybe the Florida Trail this winter.
If I try to boil it down as simply as possible as to what would need to happen for me to do a thru-hike or a big back-pack trip, this is what I have come up with:
1. The areas I want to go need to be OPEN (I am not going to undertake a thru-hike or epic back-pack which simply cannot be a “thru” due to closures)
2. The areas I want to go need to be WELCOMING. I believe as we open back up, there will communities that are desperately welcome to tourism again, and those that want to wait longer.
3. I need a good way of a) receiving support without over-relying on towns, and b) getting home if necessary so I could access health care in my home county, if the need arises.
Great starter Andrew. All I want to say is that maybe just maybe it’s not as bad as the experts say. What if 30% or more of us already have it and we are on our way to the Herd? I don’t understand why we have to cancel things so dramatically and so far out now. It is soul crushing. It is not reasonable to think that modern Americans are going to keep this level of SD up for the entire summer. Keeping people out of the woods is not the answer. I think scientifically but the psychology of humanity must be considered too.
Two months ago I had the dehydrator humming, I was already into regular workouts, and I was route planning for a solo of the SHR in late August/early September. Once I get off the trailhead I’ll be fine, but several things have to break my way. 1) Copper Creek TH has to be open. 2) I need a packer to bring one supply drop from the east. 3) Red’s has to be open for resupply. 3) Better but not essential for Tuolumne Meadows store should to be open. 4) I’ll have to consult with SAR. Red’s seems diciest. We do not know what the conditions will be like in August. We have to learn how to co-exist with this virus until there’s a vaccine, and that won’t happen soon. We’ll have to find something more rigorous than casual social distancing, but not as stifling as shelter-at-home. Common sense and a growing body of knowledge about the virus will get us there. If I can’t do the SHR this year, I’ll still be out there somewhere, safe, solo and self-contained.
I’m in a minority situation where I can construct any number of overnight loops within half an hour of my house. I also already do the vast majority of my trips solo. And I expect to be doing a lot more fishing and wildlife watching this year, especially as the weather improves and I need to avoid more popular trails.
I really feel for the folks who plan big hikes or are used to jumping in the car to haul off every weekend. I don’t see those types of trips becoming truly feasible (ethics + logistics + local/state ordinances) until spring or summer 2021. Too many facts are in short supply, in my opinion, to make any speculation as to availability of testing, vaccines, healthcare capacity, immunity, or travel restrictions.
I don’t think there will be a return to what was from this. Whatever happens going forward is up to us. I hope we can value human lives and wellbeing and come out of this with a better awareness of our interdependence not only on others but on the integrity of the ecosystems we recreate in.
It is one thing to evaluate the risk to myself and how I feel about taking that risk. It is quite another thing to realize that I may be putting other’s lives into my equation. I live with someone who is in the high risk category and I have friends who are in the medical profession and at risk because of the decisions made by the rest of us. At this point, finding out that I had caused someone else to suffer or lose their life is a nightmare I want to stay as far away from as possible. A friend who is a nurse said the current tests for COVID-19 seem to be having about a 30% false negative rate. It seems we are still fairly blind in this country about the full extent of this disease among us. Being blind I will do my best to attempt to stay away from that precipice of finding out that my actions hurt someone else. I can’t do everything and I’m sure I will make mistakes, but at least I can attempt to do my best.
I am hoping to go on a couple of backpacking trips this summer in my home state and to car camp most weekends in the mountains. Most of the places I go are either off-trail and do not see a lot of traffic. Unless the “Stay at Home” order is still in place for the whole summer and the trailheads are open, I still plan on backpacking. I am probably in the minority, but I do not see a problem with backpacking or hiking now in an area with little traffic (as long as it is not closed) that can be reached without stopping in a town for gas.
I live in suburban Maryland. I don’t see the harm in solo backpacking given the right conditions. Pennsylvania still has its vast state forest last open with thousands of miles of trails hardly anyone uses. You could already go there and hike for days without seeing anyone if you want. Doubt coronavirus will change that fact.
I am hoping and praying that I can hike my already planned trip of the John Muir Trail in mid-July. I am hiking the trail this year by myself and I am using a bare minimum number of resupplies to protect myself and others.
I am hoping that the various forest jurisdictions use this situation as a catalyst to expand their view of the permitting process. Over the years the permit process for the Sierra has improved but there are still many opportunities for major improvement. For instance, I have already obtained my permit for this year’s hike using the online process, but I’m still required to stop in the Ranger Station 24-48 hours before I hike to “get the permit”. Let’s change this process and allow me to review the policies at home, then sign that I have read them and understand them and will abide by them – then download the permit to my phone or print it at home. This allows me to skip going to the Ranger Station office (reducing face to face interaction with other people). The Ranger Stations can then be used for better purposes like answering questions for people that are not familiar with that area, etc.
I also believe that the States should be more open minded about opening some trails for day hiking with lots and lots of information, training, and enforcement of Social Distancing rules and guidelines. Staying in your house for the next 18 months is not practical IMO.
That’s an interesting thought. Like how “telemedicine” has increased and become more widely accepted, you could see remote permit distribution coming online for the safety of rangers. Consider: Rangers could easily become vectors for this disease — a backpacker gives it to them, and then they give it to the several hundred people who walk in the backcountry office over the next few days.
There are some technology hurdles (and perhaps some regulatory ones) to implementing this, but it could happen. And it’d be a good change for the long-term too. The backcountry offices are outrageously inefficient, and I think the processing of permits could be done more quickly and effectively even without in-person contact.
This seems to introduce other liability problems for the parks though. When I pick up permits in the summer it seems like other backpackers are asking the Rangers questions about things they have no idea about (“Can I camp on the summit of Longs Peak?” Is my all time favorite). A big part of the permit issuing process seems to be just making sure there’s a reasonable chance unprepared people don’t die.
Maybe there can be a tiered approach? If you submit a detailed plan and a map set electronically they can ok it by email. Others have to meet in person with a barrier similar to visitation in jails (at least in movies).
The crowd with details plans appears to be a vanishingly small fraction of who comes through though. Maybe they just move to a system where detailed electronic plans are required for the next couple years?
Adequate internet connections in many parks could be a problem.
You are going to implement an elaborate plan of itinerary submittal and approval (and probably tracking) so that we can be allowed to enjoy the great outdoors . . . in an effort to make sure that someone that is of the age of majority does not try to camp on top of Long’s Peak?
I’m proposing that NPS require people do themselves what they walk people through in person before issuing a permit.
Agreed. If I can get a boarding pass for an airline flight delivered to my phone, we should be able to do the same for wilderness permits. For all the complaints about Recreation.Gov (yes, it is a bit clunky) I much prefer getting my permits online for Inyo vs the email or other permit processes (e.g., still waiting, 4 weeks later, to hear back from SEKI). But I also agree, there is still is a lot of value to the trail ranger check in that day of or day before regarding trail conditions, etc. For example, we completely re-rerouted our early July trip in Jennie Lake/Kings Canyon last year, on our entry date, due to great advice from the ranger about water levels, snow and ice conditions that she had direct knowledge of. She adjusted and re-issued our permit and our trip would not have been the same without that near real time knowledge. But that also seems doable now via phone or web conference and probably more efficiently and more effective than in a crowded permit office/visitor center/gift shop.
It seems like you, Andrew, have some serious additional considerations:
1. What if one of your clients comes down with Covid-19 during one of your trips? [I’ve read first-hand accounts where people say it came out of nowhere and hit like a rock, so this is a possibility on a week-long trip.]
2. These first-hand accounts of young healthy people also say that even walking to the bathroom takes tremendous effort. Will you require your guides to attend to that person until SAR arrives? Gather water, feed them, help them out of the tent to relieve themselves?
3. What will the rest of the group do until SAR arrives?
4. Will you feel any personal responsibility in putting SAR in the position of dealing with a Covid patient?
5. As federal land reopens, is it possible that guided trips will be temporarily disallowed until widespread testing is perfected?
Indeed, these are all things that we must consider before we take out any group this year. Some of it is just a matter of better understanding the science (does it really “hit like a rock,” or is typically preceded by a fever or decreased lung capacity that we can measure in the field with consumer-grade diagnostics?), but we’ll also have to look again at our medical and evac policies.
One thing also to consider is: We’ve never been able to eliminate risk for our clients. We try, and we’ll try in the COVID era, too, but you can never get it to zero. Our clients have understood that in the past, and my sense from conversations with them is that they understand this now (though we will certainly lose a few who are uncomfortable with these additional risks).
I’ve received little guidance from land agencies about commercial services. Since we inject a significant amount of revenue into their budgets and since we are generally more experienced and better trained than private groups, I’m reluctant to think that commercial groups will be banned while private groups are allowed to carry on when/if land access is opened again.
Anyone going on a backcountry trip should prepare for and accept the inherent risks. However, communicable diseases differ from traumatic injuries. Both have ramifications beyond the individual, but contagious disease can keep on “giving.” I can to some degree control my chances of contracting Covid-19 by taking precautions. If I have the virus and (importantly) know it, I may be able to reduce the chances of transmission to others by my actions above and beyond basic precautions – assuming I’m not in serious condition. If I’m totally wiped out and can’t take care of myself while away from home, I’m going to need help. At that point, I really cannot do much to protect others. Once I’ve passed any contagious disease to someone else, it’s completely out of my control. Maybe it doesn’t cause further harm. Or maybe, in the case of Covid-19, it starts a cluster in which some people have “bad outcomes.“ Testing, contact tracing and isolation are fine, but with a significant percentage of false negatives, not a sure bet to stop further transmission. And certainly they don’t help those who have already been infected by me. Asymptomatic periods compound the problem. For me, it’s an ethical issue. Covid is not the common cold or the Flu. I’ll resume my AT thruhike only if I have a reasonably high degree of confidence that in 5+ months of intermittent town visits and hiking I’m not going to spread this virus, and a viable plan of what to do if I contract the disease. Right now, I think that means waiting for widespread deployment of a tested vaccine. I’m sure I’m not going to be able to get near the front of the line, so that probably means spring 2022 or even later. That’s a bummer, but it could be worse.
I have boiled it down this way:
When medical workers, first responders, rangers, and anyone else still showing up is adding to their personal risk already just by showing up; they by and large do not have a choice about that. Under those conditions I cannot justify to myself *choosing* to add even *more* to their risk by making easily avoidable *choices* for myself.
I think you are being very unselfish and your points are extremely well taken. It SUCKS not to be able to do these trips and I am so terribly sorry for your lost income. It just sucks, it blows, it’s unfair. I do believe it won’t be forever, but it is just so hard to know when the end date will be.
Just one thing I tend to disagree with, the repeated contention that medical care/supplies are in short supply. That simply isn’t the case, it simply isn’t factual. We were definitely warned repeatedly by alarmist officials this COULD be the case, but again and again, it has never borne out. All the numbers from University of Washington show we are in great shape medical wise in all fifty states, even NYC, which never once had a shortage of ventilators. In fact here in Los Angeles, a number of nurses got laid off because everyone is avoiding hospitals so there’s nothing for them to do. That said, it is unfair to the medical communities you are near if you get hurt to have to force them to go out and get you and bring you to your hospital. The problem is the risk of transferring the virus around however small when you introduce yourself to a community not your own, not a shortage of people to help you.
I did not scroll all the way through so forgive me if my concerns have already been mentioned. We have a permit to hike out of Mono Pass and complete the last 1/3 of a NOBO JMT trail in late July. It is a family trip, and we were planning using two private cars for transportation and shuttling between trailheads. Originally I was going to do a resupply in Mammoth and two hearty meals in TM. If we do/can go I will leave resupplies. I am not particularly worried about us as a group. However, my earlier trip was unfortunately in the middle of the PCT herd and they as a group constantly clumped. It might be hard to socially distance even if we travel alone as a group.
My concerns are more about the people living on the east side. Bishop, Mammoth, and other communities don’t have any excess facilities needed for critical care if someone introduces a new wave of virus into their communities. Inyo was asking people to stay away before the state wide shutdown precisely for this reason. I worry about the economic health of that region if the summer season doesn’t happen. But I worry more about the long term Physical health of the region’s population more. People are surviving this disease with severe damage to their lungs. I image if you live at altitude that will severely impact your lifestyle forever.
People of means in the Bay Area have escaped to second homes in the sierra. I don’t believe that is being responsible towards these smaller mountain communities.
This is a really good inside look at the impact of rescues now on SAR groups, hospitals, and families. This particular one is an avalanche, but any rescue could look very similar. https://www.outsideonline.com/2410862/backcountry-skiing-covid-19
My planned attempt on Mount Rainier for early May was cancelled, and for now I’m sticking to walks that I can do from my front door (I live in Los Angeles).
I’m hopeful that we will be able to backpack this summer, but I fully expect it to come with new rules and guidelines. As others have pointed out, hiking and dispersed camping in the backcountry by healthy people practicing social distancing poses little risk of spreading COVID-19. The big question will be hospital resources.
If we have indeed flattened the curve by June or July, and the concerns about hospital beds, respirators, and first responder resources becomes less of an issue, we should re-open those wilderness areas.
So much angst about something so trivial! It’s just hiking and backpacking folks – take a deep breath and readjust your plans for subsequent years.
On the one hand I do feel terrible for folks like Andrew who rely on guiding for their livelihood but then again many, many businesses and individuals are going to be hurt by the economic consequences of this pandemic.
So much carping about the permit processes…..just get over it! The folks doing those jobs do the best they can with the very limited resources they have. They also have to deal with the worst of humanity day after day….
Andrew, thanks for this well-written and well-thought-out piece.
Physician here with August JMT permit. Naturally, I am sorely disappointed at the strong possibility of my hike not happening this year. I have been planning it for years, and this year was going to be my best chance for years with regards to life/job considerations.
Additional considerations for the hopeful hiker:
1. What is the risk to your family while you’re gone?
-This is of course fluid, and depends on their personal risk factors and the local situation. My parents are in their 70’s. As I know that people can go from OK to dead very quickly, and they’re in a high risk age group, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable being in the backcountry right now, even with a satellite device. Let’s say I hear one of them is ill. Maybe I can text with them, but it might take me days to get out of the back country. They go on a vent or die in that timeframe, and I’ve lost my chance to talk on the phone or facetime. Thousand Island Lake will seem a lot less pretty then! Am I crossing my fingers that supportive & other treatments will have been improved developed by my planned hike time, so that their mortality risk is lower if they catch it? Or that I find out they’ve had it and that this means they’re immune? Yes, but that might not be the case. I’m frankly also not sure they’d ever forgive me prioritizing my vacation plans over the possibility of them being struck by a pandemic, even if they ultimately remain unaffected while I’m gone. :/
2. Is hiking, especially long-distance hiking, a more essential activity than… schools opening up? Some businesses opening up?
-If we’re smart about opening the economy back up, it won’t be everything at once. (Unless there’s a vaccine or otherwise proof of herd immunity sufficient that transmission rate would be below 1 with a completely open economy.) We should be prepared for the possibility that other things will open up first.
3. Do the people making official decisions in this country actually understand the risk considerations? (public health, individual risk, economics)
-The obvious answer on the federal side is no, since the committee on re-opening the country includes no relevant subject matter experts, but does include many people with a history of not working with experts when they should, and of not understanding the limits of their own knowledge. Some governors are setting a much better example.
-What’s my personal responsibility, both to myself and others, if public officials are clearly not acting based on expert advice?
I’m seeing a lot of comments here and elsewhere downplaying the epidemic. Folks, it has hit multiple parts of the country very hard (not just NY). Tens of thousands have died in 6 weeks, and that’s *with* public health measures. We’ve not yet seen the full impact on some key, at-risk and underserved populations, for example farm laborers and food prep workers. Yes, there are many areas of the country where hospitals are not full of covid yet, and those hospitals are relatively empty and clinics are shut down. I’m in one of those areas. We are thanking our lucky stars that we are not in NYC or New Orleans, and praying for patients and health care providers in those locations. We understand that we’ve not seen the full impact yet (cases are still increasing), and that our shutting non-emergent clinical activities down was part of greater public health measures to reduce spread. Rather than seeing this as an excuse for hiking, I see it as — me starting to see my patients again is a more essential activity than me hiking and travelling for fun.
I’m also seeing the assumption that because public health measures cause economic hardship as well as contributing to increase in domestic violence and other problems, those public health measures are not worth it. It’s a lot more complicated than this. For example, motor vehicle accidents were halved in California. As someone else mentioned, deaths from flu may go down. (I take this not as evidence of why bother preventing covid deaths, but – what can we do in normal times to better to prevent flu deaths?) But I digress. Economists have been considering the costs of the public health measures, and many have said that there is *economic* benefit to the public health measures. E.g. from U Chicago:
-I think that we should hope for broad public measures in the face of an infectious disease with high transmission rate that is initially projected to kill millions. We should also hope for ongoing input from experts in all domains relating to weighing the benefits and costs of those measures.
I would also encourage everyone to follow Angela Merkel’s approach. The German gov’t is working with experts — not only in public health and infectious disease, but also economics, ethics, psychology, etc. They are truly weighing all the considerations that armchair experts think they understand, and they have a better understanding of the virus in their country because they are testing more. They are considering which parts of the economy to open up first, and impact on the health care system and mortality with different actions. For example today or yesterday, they said bike shops and car dealerships (presumably car repairs) would be first to open back up. How nice, a rational approach that balances the many things that we’re all thinking about.
Lastly, we’re learning a lot as we go. I’m glad Andrew is looking for more information in key areas. I hope we all can look to experts and understand that experts’ advice is going to evolve as more information is gained and analyzed.
So much this. The virus is rolling out on a different timetable in different areas of the country. If we are too mobile too soon it will not go away and will keep flaring up. Maybe the death rate will go down because in many places resources won’t be as stretched, but death is *not* the only possible negative outcome. It is not the only cost. Sickness, medical care, economic strain, personal stress, etc. are all costs that can be ongoing and place strain on society as a whole.
TESTING, TESTING, TESTING!
I won’t go with the group I signed up with for a July Nevada backpack until I KNOW all of us have been tested. PERIOD.
I fully agree that widespread testing is one of the most important facets of an overall strategy to move things back to “normal”. However, the current tests we are using in our hospital have up to a 30% false negative rate. Obviously there is also a risk that someone could become infected after a previously negative test. This is a big reason why we are testing all of our patients on admission to labor and delivery vs. earlier in the office. We are all going to have to keep up with the mask wearing/hand washing and some level of social distancing until we have a vaccine and/or a reliable antibody test with some evidence that previous infection confers immunity.
An issue with these false negatives is that different people are initiating the swab in the nose, but are not going deep enough. My wife took care of 1 active covid & 2 pending patients this week. Upon doing the swab, she was told by all 3, that no one had ever gone so deep for a sample. It has to go deep to get an accurate sample.
Please share which test and which hospital. Shedding some light on the problem is the way to fix it.
My wife has spoken to Administration & I don’t wish to call out the hospital. Two of the tests were initiated at another facility. It was the covid-19 test with the nasal swabbing as indicated above.
One more consideration that I forgot in my original comment —
What’s the increased risk of non-covid injury, if trail crews haven’t come through? (Will this help us better appreciate how their ongoing work allows us to hike through the Sierras relatively safely?)
If the travel restrictions are lifted I am comfortable going to Alaska. Of course, I am also willing to follow any public health and safety recommendations. In the hopes that there are others who are also comfortable I would be happy to hike with them even though I haven’t met them prior to the trip.
Virus and antibody testing might not be available for all. Brainstorming here – practical measures could include an agreement by all follow COVID-19 safety guidelines and to have temperature checks with a forehead thermometer upon arrival, prior to starting and each day of the trips. Flu symptoms or fever above specific threshold would preclude one from the trip. Contingency plans could be preemptively arranged for ill backpackers identified after the start of a trip.
From speaking with folks working on solutions I am hopeful the massive allocation of resources and dedication of the scientists will yield breakthroughs. We will also continue to improve our processes to be “safe enough” while returning to more normal community activities. Despite and due to the high behavior and value variance in our country, I believe we will transition to an “uncomfortable normal” where plane travel is allowed while infection and death rates remain relatively unchanged (overall) through the Summer.
When not restricted by military and government mandates I plan to backpack solo or with my wife in low traffic, low risk areas in the DC area. Social distancing, mask wearing when social distancing is challenging and hand washing/sanitizing will of course be remain in place indefinitely for now. I don’t plan to hike with our local group anytime soon. IMHO backpacking will be far safer than going to the grocery store. Plane travel is still not appealing due to the potential for exposure, potential illness and subsequent transmission but I imagine by October air travel will be relatively normal and I fully plan on hiking in Utah then.
I didn’t order a new Dyneema tent just to camp in my backyard.
So I definitely will solo backpack into my local mountains because that is a safe way to do it.
If I run into a group ON the trail I’ll distance myself as I do on my day hikes. But if I see people at my proposed campsite I will move on and camp further down the trail. Since most of the campsites are above 9,000 feet I know that even in normal times I have seen very few people.
I live in Portland, Oregon and all public lands, including beaches, are closed with large warning signs and yellow tape at all trailheads. Anyone breaching those are selfishly violating regulations set forth for the greater good. I’ve heard many from the local hiking community are either cutting the tape, or simply disregarding those warnings in favor of self. From what I know of years on all those trails, they are narrow — too narrow for two persons to pass one another with the safe, 6 ft. distance UNLESS they develop a steadfast routine of stepping aside on the plentiful wide spots.
When I spoke to a Columbia River Gorge U.S.F.S. Ranger, he said they initially kept trails open, hoping everyone would adopt the safe distance routine by simply pausing, and stepping aside at wide spots. But they observed though many were being considerate, they were the exception. They had to apply hard closures. Closed for the behavior of the selfish few.
Regionally, the exceptions to hard closures are some parks. Those managed by Portland Parks, or Portland Metro are open with the exceptions of courts, playgrounds, or any venues which naturally gather or cluster persons. Greenways, trails, and paths are open, provided users maintain social distancing guidelines. All have clear signs asserting the social distancing requirements.
After a month indoors, I decided to just go and see how we are all behaving. Forest Park has networks of trails and fire roads throughout. The widest trail is the Wildwood Trail extending ~ 30 miles from north to south end. While it’s not a remote wilderness trail by any stretch, it is a trail meandering through a forest, with modest ups and downs. My observation is, in Forest Park, most of the runners, and hikers I came across last week were considerate of one another, and doing whatever required to maintain proper distance. I was mostly impressed and never uncomfortable. There are plenty of wide spots or turnouts (like a passing lane) where one can step aside and there’s no harm to sensitive vegetation. The fire roads are — as one would expect — wide enough two, sometimes three persons can pass abreast with 6’ or more distance. I was mostly interested (perhaps selfishly) in hill repeats on fire roads and had no uncomfortable engagements with others. We all behaved well. I was reflecting on my discussion with the ranger, and his comments that if we all behave properly, we can still enjoy some public spaces. However, if the few selfish few toss all caution to the wind, they ruin it for everyone.
Another local option are the pathways managed by Portland Metro. Again, nothing wild by any stretch, but decent models, perhaps, of testing how we all behave on a shared path.
The Westside Linear Trail extends almost 25 miles from home, to the north terminus. It meanders through a few neighborhoods and provides a great place to just get in some long miles and modest elevation gains. In most places, it’s ~ 8-10 ft. wide. It, too, has plenty of options for stepping aside, when needed. The behavior on that path was far worse than trails, or fire roads in Forest Park. In some instances, disgusting . . . lots of couples and groups running or walking along side one another, well aware of someone oncoming, but deliberately not yielding. It was a textbook example of the all about me culture. There were groups of 3-4 persons walking shoulder to shoulder, clearly disregarding others. My response was stepping off path a few feet, hoping, just MAYBE they’d get a clue to fall into single file. The only responses were lots of blank stares. It’s a potentially deadly virus, so the least of my concerns is what their perceptions are of me stepping aside to keep at least 6 ft. apart. I wasn’t the only one stepping off path for the large social groups. When I was out there with my spouse, we agreed the right and responsible thing to do is, if we are along side one another to always fall into single file in consideration of others. No exceptions. If the oncoming groups or couples do the same, there’s more than enough room to pass comfortably. I was so anal as to carry a tape measure once and measure the distance between two persons passing single file, both holding to their respective margins. In most places it exceeded 6’ and averaged 8’.
Age discrimination / profiling spoiler alert 1: as much as I don’t want to profile who are behaving best, my anecdotal observation is those persons or groups mostly disrespectful and disregarding safe distancing are younger adults. My guess is because they’ve heard reports suggesting the virus is most deadly to those over 50. They probably feel the likelihood of perishing from the virus is sufficiently insignificant for their age group, so they can carry on with business as usual. When I was in my 20’s I figured I was impervious to most anything out there and relatively immortal. And, hate to say, being considerate wasn’t as much a priority to me then, as now. Ashamed to admit, it was part of the job description. To be sure, there are plenty of exceptions. I came across several groups of younger adults that saw the old fossil (me) coming along and they paused the brief seconds to fall into single file. We greeted one another; they thanked me, and I in turn thanked them. It was refreshing, because it demonstrated if everyone makes those small sacrifices we can all still enjoy those few available spaces. To be sure, my observations are strictly anecdotal, and I came across plenty of old farts disregarding others, too.
The fraction of time required to either step aside, or fall into single file is a very small sacrifice in the big picture. Whatever social conversations one might be having can certainly pause those brief moments it takes to fall into single file.
The worst example was yesterday. Several individuals, couples, maybe 3’s were scattered up and down the Linear Trail. Everyone was keeping to the extreme margins on a long open stretch meandering up and down rolling hills. Along come two young bucks shoulder to shoulder running smack down the middle of the path. They were studs — impeccable examples of physical strength and fitness. Models for Men’s Health magazine. I watched from a hill top and waited. They plowed through like a bowling ball Hell bent on knocking aside as many pins they could. They made zero attempt at accommodating anyone but themselves. I watched everyone around them rush to get off the path so they could plow through like they owned the entire path. They were probably so caught up in maintaining some specific target pace that being considerate just didn’t fit into their routine.
All that said, it appears if everyone behaves, we can still enjoy open spaces. If not, the administrators have no choice but apply hard closures. My observations don’t directly apply to the topic of safe and feasible backpacking. There are far more variables to backpacking, day hiking, or extended trips with overnight camps than walking on an urban or suburban trail. However, with respect to individuals’ personal behavior, there are aspects which likely cross over. I also need to put myself in check. Just because those local public venues are open with caveats, is my being out there just contributing to the problem, no matter how stellar I think I’m doing?
I am so tired of hearing that hikers are “selfish” because they may invade someones 6 foot bubble in the course of a hike.
People invade bubbles all the time.
Grocery store, home depot, convenience stores …
How about buildings > 1 story?
An elevator(even when empty, as someone occupied before & after), same with a stairwell. The virus lingers.
All public transportation.
Should all these be shutdown? Are they all “selfish”?
Most people will get covid-19. Many have already, but we can’t find out until testing becomes mainstream.
We have to get on with our lives. If you feel uncomfortable stay in your house for the next couple years until this gets sorted out.
FWIW, I am 68yo & today my wife who is a nurse, happens to be taking care of 1 covid positive & 2 pending. I know the dangers.
What Phil is talking about is idiots who would NEVER get off the trail to give Cheery social distance B/C they are inconsiderate to say the least.
I’ve encountered these selfish people and no milder term properly describes them. I always get off the trail first and let people pass, like young macho trail runners who have no intention of slowing down for making a proper social distance. They SELFISHLY did not want to slow their pace.
But these people are not usually true day hikers, just show-offs out to make a point that it’s all about them.
Yes, those demonstrating the most inconsiderate, selfish, and arrogant behaviors on shared pathways are the same ones who never yielded to others even pre-virus times. I’ve no doubt they’re the same ones blasting through red traffic signals, indifferent to anyone’s safety or others’ lives. Whether 18, or 68, inconsideration is deliberate disregard for others. Distancing myself, or politely asking others for distance isn’t much of an imposition, aside from perhaps injuring someone’s pride. It hasn’t diluted or spoiled the outdoor experience.
Once upon a time, it was considered appropriate and considerate to yield to hikers making their way uphill. I rarely see that anymore. It’s pretty much a free-for-all on local trails. The forgivable exceptions are those times one comes around a corner and someone might be right there on a tight switchback. It’s not deliberate, it happens, and those instances are the exception in my personal experience.
And I most certainly won’t cut yellow tape at trailheads and forge forward. I’ve zero respect for those that are out there cutting tape. There are lots of every day regulations I may not always agree with, but I do so to be a responsible member of a civil society. If someone feels it’s the Wild-Wild West out there, I can’t control that. But I can control my behavior and hopefully extend some measures of common courtesy.
As far as how serious I consider the virus, and which credible suggestions to heed, I’ll stick with advice from our local university medical doctors and virologists who are also active outdoors persons.
Great article which leaves us all with many things to ponder. How will wilderness permits be issued? It’s hard to get these with practicing social distancing. Talking with Rangers as to what is open, how many people are on the trails, etc. If people go in without them and something happens, no one knows they are there and cell phones don’t work out in the wilderness so good luck there.
With the arrangements I have when backpacking I feel safe in the Sierra Nevadas. I’m with a buddy or two or three, we stay at his cabin in the mountains before heading out to a trail head the next day. You bring up some great points with traveling in a vehicle with a few buddies though. Once at a trail-head I feel social distancing can be executed quite well throughout the venture. Not worried about food as there are many options if you are creative enough with the selections you make for the journey.
We usually go out once or twice a year for about five days somewhere in the Sierra’s. We may stop for gas but not too concerned about that as we are doing that now, maybe not as often but still having to venture out to resupply basic needs every couple of weeks and taking those necessary precautions.
Still hoping to be able to make it happen but all parties need to be in it and we’ll just have to wait and see as we approach July/August.
My first post here emphasized TESTING.
1.We all know that testing and tracking are the FIRST keys to containment of COVID 19 infections.
2. We also all know testing has been sorely lacking in this country. And that problem can be laid directly at the feet of the Federal Government for its total lack of coordination and adequate funding for testing development. (When Trump says we are ahead of any nation in testing he is disingenuously talking about absolute numbers, not percentage of population tested, where we are far behind other developed nations.)
So any talk of group backpacking trips is, like any talk of return to normal work, out of the question until we, AS A NATION, do the proper testing and tracking.
If I have brought politics into this discussion it is because it has been tragically politicized by this administration – and we are all paying for it.