As of 05/14/2020 (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.

Trails and parks are opening back up in my area -- does that mean I can go hike, camp, etc. like I used to?

Not exactly.  Public health experts are still recommending that we follow proper social distancing protocols, especially because testing and contract tracing is still not robust enough anywhere (not to mention the fact that there is not yet a vaccine).  Much of what we explain below still applies.  We've made a few modifications to the below to take into account the fact that different areas are opening back up at different rates.

How strict do I need to be about social distancing outside?

The short answer is: very.  Social distancing isn’t just about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting those at highest risk of contracting COVID-19 and succumbing to extreme symptoms. It’s also about protecting healthcare and essential services workers.  The quicker and better we do it, the sooner we “flatten the curve” and are able to resume normal, daily life.

What this means for all of us is:

  • When you venture outdoors, try to only spend time with people within your household (or, if you can't do that, limit as much as you can to grandparents, close friends, etc. who might, for example, be helping you with childcare and are also social distancing).  Just be careful -- even if other friends have also been self-quarantining, chances are, they (and you) have still had to go to the grocery store, get some gas, etc., so there is always a chance they (or you) have contracted the virus.
  • When you do spend time outside, try to stay within your neighborhood if at all possible (we know that not everyone has safe, natural space in their neighborhood), always stay 6 feet away from anyone else, and wash your hands (or at least use hand sanitizer) when you get home or before you eat anything.  (See below for traveling to a park or trail).
  • If you are sick, don't spend any time outside your home; self-quarantine until you feel better.

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 walk or run in your neighborhood, or playing in your own yard if you have one.

Do I need to wear a mask outside?

We recommend that you always bring a mask with you, but when you need to wear it depends on what you're doing.  Your risk of infection (or spreading it) depends on many factors, but, simplified, it depends on the time you spend in contact with the infected person and the viral load delivered (e.g., a cough spreads more than just breathing).  You are highly unlikely to catch the virus from simply walking, running, or biking past someone at a 6 foot distance (even if the person gets closer to you for a second) -- you're not in contact with the person for long enough.  So there's not necessarily any need to wear a mask when going for a walk/run/bike ride if you stay 6 feet from people and aren't stopping to chat with folks.  If you're going to stay in one place for more than 10 minutes with other people around, even if you're 6 feet from others, then we recommend wearing a mask (even if the risk is lower outside than in an enclosed space).

What if my location has a shelter-in-place rule?

Under such conditions, you are still usually allowed to walk your dog or take a walk or run in your neighborhood, as long as you practice social distancing the whole time.  But please always double-check the restrictions from your local government first.

social distancing outside in an urban park
Jennifer Birdie Shawker

What about taking my kids to the playground?

We don’t recommend doing that just yet, even if parks are opening up around you.  The virus can live on steel playground equipment for up to 48 hours (longer on plastic), and we all know it’s not possible to sterilize a whole playground nor to keep our kids from touching their faces before their hands get washed.  This is a tough one, we know, especially with younger children. Note that many local governments have closed playgrounds or are asking people not to use them.

If you want to just play in the park, that should be totally fine, as long as you practice social distancing.  Remember that restrooms and parking lots might be closed.  And please do take all of your trash with you when you leave and throw it away at home, even if the site has trash receptacles.  Some places might not be fully staffed and might not be able to keep up with maintenance.

What about picnicking and camping?

Picnicking might be ok.  As long as you can practice social distancing, only bring members of your own household (or those very close to you -- see above), avoid places where people typically gather (e.g., a picnic table could easily harbor the virus), and are using a space that is legal, open, and not crowded, then it can be fine.   Stay as close to home as you can so that you aren’t contributing to the spread of the virus and so that you can avoid use of public facilities (like restrooms) if possible during your outing.  Remember that some public facilities may still be closed.

Some camping sites are opening back up.  Note that there are some risks involved here.  Even if a campground is open, and tents are spaced far from each other, you’re likely to be using shared restrooms or other facilities, stopping for gas and bathroom breaks on the way, shopping for supplies, etc., all of which can bring you into contact with virus (or spread it from you to someone else).  Use your best judgment on this.  Some primitive campsites (i.e., no restrooms or other facilities) may be uncrowded and low risk; some might not.  See below about traveling to a trail or campground.

Please do take all of your trash with you when you leave and throw it away at home, even if the site has trash receptacles.  Some places might not be fully staffed and might not be able to keep up with maintenance.

Can I just go escape to a small town somewhere near my favorite hiking and camping spots?

Definitely not, not just for fun or to "escape".  From public restrooms to gas stations to food and supply runs and hotel stays, you will be coming in constant, needless contact with surfaces that others have touched and will touch on your way there.  And if you’re sick already and don’t yet know it, you’ll be spreading it far past your household. Most importantly, small towns cannot absorb and deal with an outbreak the way that larger population centers can -- you’d be negligently endangering their lives and their fragile economy.

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

Be aware, across the country, many popular sites are still closed or opening back up but 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 open.

If you live in a rural area, you might have abundant access to open space and trails, with few people around. In that case, if the park or trail you want to use is open, not crowded, and within a quick drive of your home (so that you stops are minimized), then, yes, visiting such places for a hike or camping is fine as long as you practice strict social distancing (see above) and are following the guidelines of your local government and the federal, state, or local land manager.  However, right now, we can’t risk diverting emergency medical care to wilderness injuries, so we urge that you only take an easy day hike in the front country.

Family practicing social distancing on a hike.

Do I have to stick within my own neighborhood for a hike/walk/run?

The answer depends on several factors, but ALWAYS, if you’re under a “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” order, then, YES, you must remain in your neighborhood to go outside.  

  1. Follow whatever the local government guidelines are (every city is under different restrictions right now).  
  2. Stay within close enough distance of your home that you minimize as much as possible stopping for gas, snacks, restroom breaks, etc., all of which could bring you in contact with the virus (or spread it from you).
  3. Use your best judgment on distance to travel, and this is a grey area, but generally try to avoid potentially spreading the virus to or contracting it from a different community (so that might be a different section of the city in an urban area or a different town in a rural area).
  4. If at all possible, avoid carpooling with friends or family who are not members of your household if at all possible (or close family/friends -- see above).
  5. If at all possible, do not hike/picnic/camp in any groups other than members of your household (or close family/friends -- see above).
  6. Look for parks or trails that are not crowded or find times to go when crowding is minimal.  Not only does crowding make it impossible to follow social distancing, but it puts extra wear and tear on trails and other park infrastructure at a time when volunteer crews cannot be operating.  Remember, trails don’t magically appear and stay hikeable -- that requires a lot of human labor (mostly from volunteers).  

Note:  Not everyone lives in or near a city.  Most urban residents are going to need to stay in their own or nearby neighborhoods, but many rural folks might be able to access parks and trails within a wider radius while still following social distancing and local guidelines.

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

This all sounds so lonely and a bit depressing -- how can I reclaim the joy of being outside during all of this?

We understand.  We really do. We’re looking at it this way -- it’s an opportunity to better appreciate the nature that is in our neighborhoods, even if it’s just a few trees, squirrels, and birds, surrounded by a lot of concrete with a blue sky above.   Unlike during and after natural disasters, outside is actually a great and safe place to be right now, if you follow the guidelines above.

And, once per week, on our Facebook page, we’re running a photo contest (prizes vary) to encourage each other to share our photos of our little outdoor escapes -- it’s a virtual group celebration of beauty in a time of uncertainty.  Come join us! And use #HikeResponsibly when you post!