As of 05/13/2021 (Note: we will update this page regularly as conditions change.)

Hiking and Playing Outside in the Time of COVID-19

Frequently Asked Questions

#1 Rule:  Always, always practice social distancing and follow the guidelines of your local government or the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), whichever are more restrictive. And stay home if you have any symptoms.

Is it safe to go outside during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, spending some time outdoors every day (we recommend at least 10 minutes) is an excellent way to take care of your mental and physical health always, especially now. That said, there are multiple reasons (see below) why you may need to restrict your activity to a location close to home and mainly with members of your household/pod, at least for the time being.

Does the vaccine change any rules about hiking during COVID?

The short answer is: yes, if you and those you're with have been fully vaccinated.

The COVID-19 vaccines are totally safe, and we recommend you get one as soon as you can unless it is medically or religiously contraindicated for you.  The CDC recommends that, when outside:

  • Unvaccinated folks continue to practice social distancing, mask wearing, and preventative hygiene if they find themselves in a crowded area or are spending time with anyone outside of their household (see recommendations below).
  • Vaccinated folks do not need to social distance, nor wear masks.  That said, if regulations for the area you're going to still have those requirements, then obviously you'll need to abide by those.

How strict do I need to be about wearing a mask while outside?

If you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask outside, nor practice social distancing.

When outside, the risk of spread is far lower, but not by as much if you’re sitting or standing in place or if you’re moving along at the same pace as someone else and within 6 feet of them.  If you are not fully vaccinated, we recommend that you either stay 6 feet apart or wear a mask (or both) if in a crowded area or spending time with someone outside your household/pod.

Even if unvaccinated, if you are going for a walk/run/hike just with members of your household/pod or alone, then, unless you’re in a crowded area, you don’t need to wear a mask.

Occasionally walking/running/hiking past someone going the opposite direction, even if you need to pass closer than 6 feet, does not run a very high risk of COVID-19 transmission (unless they were to cough directly in your face) since the risk of transmission largely depends on the presence of the virus in a person, the effectiveness of the means of transmission (e.g., coughing versus breathing), and the amount of time spent in the presence of the infected person. When hiking past someone who is infected, their transmission efficacy is low (just breathing), and the time you spend near them is extremely short. Contrary to that non-peer-reviewed “study” that made the rounds last year on social media (which we will not link so as not to spread disinformation), the breathing of an infected runner does *not* leave a trail of dangerous coronavirus particles behind them hanging in the air, at least not outside.

All of that said, it is always best to bring a mask with you just in case and to wear one if you’re in doubt about safety. And if the trail or park rules state that you must wear a mask, then wear one, regardless.

social distancing outside in an urban park
Jennifer Birdie Shawker

How strict do I still need to be about social distancing while hiking/walking and generally spending time outside?

Social distancing isn’t just about protecting yourself; it’s about protecting those at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 and succumbing to extreme symptoms. When outside, the risk of spread is much lower, but not by as much if you’re sitting or standing in place or if you’re moving along at the same pace as someone else.  If unvaccinated, we recommend that you keep your 6-foot distance (and/or wear a mask) if spending time with someone who is not a member of your household/pod, especially if they are also unvaccinated.  Unvaccinated children should keep their 6 foot distance from unvaccinated adults as well.

If you are vaccinated, you do not need to practice social distancing.

What about taking my kids to the playground?

While the virus can live on surfaces for hours to days, there is little evidence to support the fact that the virus spreads in that way. Therefore, it is generally safe to bring your unvaccinated children to the playground. Just make sure that they wear a mask if they are 2 years and older (and it's not medically contraindicated) and aren't able to keep 6 feet away from unvaccinated adults and children who are not members of their household/pod.  Kids as young as 2 can be excellent about wearing masks for long periods and keeping their distance if taught -- it becomes a new normal and does not hinder their play.  If the kids can keep 6 feet away from others at all times, they should be safe outside without a mask.  Bring hand sanitizer with you to use periodically as they play (since touching their face is inevitable) and before they eat a snack. Also, note that many public restrooms in parks are closed, so have a potty plan.

What about picnicking and camping?

If you are fully vaccinated and hanging out with other folks who are fully vaccinated, then picnicking and camping is totally safe.

If not fully vaccinated, picnicking can still be ok in small groups. As long as you follow CDC or local guidelines (whichever are more strict) for the number of people in an outdoor gathering and follow mask and social distancing guidelines, it is reasonably safe to picnic outside and is a great way to see loved ones.

Similar guidelines would apply for camping, with the additional guideline that, if you are not vaccinated, we recommend you only visit campsites within a reasonable driving distance of your home and that require minimal contact with people and businesses outside of your community to lessen the spread of the virus. While at the campground, practice social distancing and masking if you're unvaccinated and near those not in your household/pod.

Can I finally travel to my favorite hiking and camping spots?

If you are fully vaccinated, then as long as you wear a mask and (to the extent possible) practice social distancing when on public transportation or inside airports/bus & train stations/etc., then, yes, it is generally safe for you to travel again.

If you are not yet vaccinated, we do not recommend that you travel long distances just yet.  The longer a distance you travel and the more people you come in contact, the higher the likelihood of spreading or contracting the virus. Even if driving instead of flying, from public restrooms to gas stations to food and supply runs, you will be coming in constant contact with others. Besides, the small towns that are often near those spots cannot absorb and deal with an outbreak the way that larger population centers can. All of that said, we are optimistic that, by summer 2021, with enough people vaccinated, travel in general might become far safer. Stay tuned to the CDC for guidance on that, and we will be sure to update.

Family practicing social distancing on a hike.

What about visiting National Parks, National Monuments, Wildlife Preserves, State Parks, trails, etc.?

If you are vaccinated, then it is safe to travel to and visit these areas.  Just follow the guidelines set forth by the agency managing that site.

If you are not vaccinated, then we recommend that, unless you live nearby for a quick day trip visit, you hold off on traveling to these areas.

Be aware, across the country, popular sites have closed or have become crowded and overwhelmed with visitors, making social distancing impossible and stressing trails and other infrastructure -- in that case, stay away, even if the site is technically still open.  Also be aware that not all facilities and services may be open yet.  And, regardless of vaccination status, masks may still be required inside visitor centers, restrooms, etc.

Where can I find out about trail-related closures and trail event cancelations?

  • Check The Trek for park closures that may affect trails.
  • For cancelations of events and closures that are related to the National Trail System, see the Partnership for the National Trail System website.
  • American Trails has resources on state park impacts.
  • The website/social media feed for your local hiking club, Friends of [Trail] group, etc.
  • The website/social media feed for your local Parks and Recreation Department (or equivalent).
  • Also check #RecreateResponsibly for easy-to-follow guidelines on keeping yourself and others safe in the outdoors during the pandemic.