As of 03/26/2021 (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: not quite yet. The COVID-19 vaccines are totally safe, and we recommend you get one as soon as you can. Scientists are still working to determine whether and under what circumstances the COVID-19 vaccines prevent one from becoming infected with the virus altogether versus lessening the severity of the symptoms (not unlike the flu vaccine). Because of that, it is entirely possible that you could be vaccinated but still be an asymptomatic carrier, meaning that you need to follow all proper protocols to keep others safe. Additionally, it is not yet known when children under the age of 16, especially very young children and babies, will be able to be vaccinated. Until enough of the population is vaccinated to reach herd immunity and therefore critically slow the spread of the virus (how much is enough is still being studied), we must all follow proper safety protocols. We will be sure to update this page as vaccination becomes more widespread and shifts guidelines. We are optimistic that by summer 2021, things might start looking closer to “normal”.

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

When outside, the risk of spread is 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 you are spending time outdoors with anyone who is not a member of your household or in your “pod,” we recommend that you wear a mask. 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 probably 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 lower, but not by much if you’re sitting or standing in place or if you’re moving along at the same pace as someone else. We recommend that you keep your 6-foot distance if staying in one spot or if walking/running/hiking with someone who is not a member of your household or “pod”.

What about taking my kids to the playground?

The virus can live on surfaces for hours to days, longer on porous surfaces like upholstery and shorter on hard surfaces like metal -- but there is little evidence to support the fact that the virus spreads in that way. Therefore, it is generally safe to bring your children to the playground. Just make sure that they wear a mask if they are 2 years and older (and don’t have medical breathing difficulties) and keep 6 feet away from others 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. 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?

Picnicking can 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, mask up when not eating, and practice social distancing within your group (if not with household/pod members and especially when eating and unmasked), 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 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 when near those not in your household/pod.

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

We’d recommend not quite yet, but we totally understand the urge. 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, needless 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 -- you’d be negligently endangering their lives and their fragile economy. All of that said, we are optimistic that, by summer 2021, with enough people vaccinated, travel might become far safer (especially if practicing social distancing and masking). 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.?

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.

If you live in a rural area, you might have abundant access to open space and trails. 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 don’t have to stop too much for gas, restroom breaks, supplies, etc.), then, yes, visiting such places for a hike or camping is fine (see above) as long as you 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 or camp in designated campgrounds (versus backpacking).

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 we’re optimistic that, by summer 2021, enough people will be vaccinated that travel and, more importantly, hugs will start to become normal again.