Last updated March 28, 2020
Well, guys, I can’t say I ever thought I’d write this article. We’re all wading into unknown territory and I’ll be the first to admit that I need the outdoors more than ever right now. With our daily lives changing so much, I’ve found myself seeking some sort of normalcy through nature. It seems like just a few weeks ago it was life as normal, but now, not so much. But before you head outside, make sure you’re doing it responsibly. A lot of harm can be done if we don’t safely explore.
I know we’re incredibly privileged here in Canada to be able to enjoy the outdoors right now. There are a lot of places around the world where that’s simply not possible. Before I get into this article, please, please respect what your local governments and health organizations are saying. The guidelines are changing every day, so it’s important to check them before you head out. The information might change at any time — just look at how different this week looks from last. Let’s take this day-to-day and do the best we can.
I’m sure most of you already know this, but it never hurts to reiterate it. As I’m writing this (March 24), the recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada are to isolate at home if you’re sick, social distance by staying a minimum of two meters away from others, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, and disinfect high touch surfaces. Many doctors and health officials are currently recommending people to get outside to enjoy fresh air and exercise, though, so that’s a plus.
Tips to enjoy the outdoors responsibly
Since we are still able to go outside, I wanted to address something that’s on a lot of our minds. And that’s how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly during this season of uncertainty. Since it’s one of the few places we’re allowed to go, the outdoors are keeping me sane right now. But before you rush outside, please make sure you’re prepared.
I also wanted to take a moment and say that it’s okay to feel how you’re feeling. It’s okay to grieve your canceled plans and the toll it’s taking on your life. It’s okay to feel helpless or overwhelmed. You’re allowed to acknowledge this — you don’t need to push it away. We’re being forced to change our thinking extremely quickly, but you need to decide if you’re going to wallow in your grief or take this as an opportunity to grow.
I find comfort in knowing everyone in the entire world is going through this. For perhaps the first time, we’re literally all in this together.
This isn’t the time to go to that mountain you’ve been eyeing up for years. You need to avoid traveling or road trips at all costs. Many mountain towns are asking us to stay away because their health care systems can’t manage an outbreak. It’s incredibly irresponsible to put those areas as risk just so you can go hiking. While it’s unlikely it’s the outdoor areas themselves that’ll be the issue, it’s all the places you might stop on your visit. It’s the gas station you fill up at or the place you grab dinner or even the public washroom you use. It’s depleating those small towns of their already limited resources (like toilet paper, c’mon guys, what was that about?)These are all places you could unintentionally spread the virus to other, vulnerable communities.⠀
This is the time to get to know your local area. Discover trails that you’ve never been on or replay some of your favourite hikes that are close to home. Take a walk around your neighbourhood or hang out in your backyard. Who knows what amazing things you’ll discover? Check out AllTrails, they have a ton of awesome hikes. I bet you can find one close to home. If you decide to drive, can you get to your hike without stopping anywhere? For example, if I’m going to drive I’ll pick hikes that are within a few kilomentres of my house where my only stops are my car, the trailhead, back to my car, and back home.
You need to think outside of yourself right now. Only fill up at local gas stations, grab supplies from home, and don’t interact with other communities. I’d usually encourage you to contribute to the economy of the area you’re visiting, but now isn’t the time.
Pick your trails with intention
Social distancing definitely applies when you’re outdoors. Just because you’re outside doesn’t automatically mean “the virus won’t get you”. Before you head out, choose a few trails you’d like to explore — preferably ones that aren’t already popular. By visiting less popular or unknown trails, you’re helping disperse crowds. Or you can always consider visiting at lower trafficked times, such as sunrise or sunset.
When you do get to a trailhead, if you notice a lot of cars or people, skip it and move onto your next pick. You can always come back later. There will likely be more people on the trails in the coming weeks, so we don’t want to crowd these public spaces. By doing a bit of research before you leave your home, you can find a trail where you can enjoy the outdoors responsibly.
Avoid group hikes
Group hikes are amazing, but they’re not a responsible way to enjoy the outdoors right now. It’s too easy to accidentally spread the virus. Instead, challenge yourself to hike solo or rally the people you already live with to join you outside. You shouldn’t even hike with friends or family you don’t live with right now, but if you do, DO NOT CARPOOL. I know that’s really hard, but it’s an extremely enclosed space and you can’t maintain proper social distancing. Instead, meet at the trailhead and always keep two meters between yourselves.
When you come across other hikers, make sure you give each other lots of space. I’ve heard it’s recommended to even turn your back and keep your mouth closed as they pass. Please still be friendly to your fellow hikers, though! They’re not the enemy, we just need to be cautious. You can still say hey from a distance and see how they’re doing. This is a great time to be a courteous hiker.
Play it safe
This isn’t the time to challenge yourself outdoors. It’s too easy to hurt yourself and our health care systems are swamped, so we need to do all we can to reduce potential accidents. That means going on hikes or adventures that are well within your skill level and in areas where there’s little to no natural dangers, such as steep cliffs or avalanches. There is always gonna be an element of risk when you head outside, but there’s a lot you can do to minimize it.
Remember, there’s no shame in easy hikes. Keep to your regular routine, pick trails within your skill level, and don’t put yourself or others in unnecessary danger. And as always, let people know where you’re going and when they can expect you back.
Before you head out, make sure you have all the right gear, plenty of water, and have researched your hike. The better prepared you are, the more responsible you’re being. We don’t need SAR looking for you right now. But what exactly does that mean?
Remember to research your potential trails, especially if you’ve never been there before. Many parks are implementing safety measures, including closures of services such as water, washrooms, and other facilities, so make sure you know what you’re headed into. For the trails themselves, is it within your skill level? Do you know how much elevation change there is, its level of upkeep, or are there obstacles like rivers or steep cliffs?
These are just a few things you should consider, but always be prepared for things to change quickly.
Practice Leave No Trace
Just because we’re going through a totally new experience right now doesn’t mean you should throw Leave No Trace principles out the door. If anything, now’s the time to get really serious about them.
Many of our beloved outdoor areas will have fewer staff to maintain them, which means things like recycling and garbage cans won’t be emptied as often. The result is overflowing bins which can seriously harm wildlife and the environment. If you bring anything in, be prepared to bring it home with you. This also applies to using the washroom. If you’re hiking somewhere where facilities are closed, you’d better know how to poop in the woods.
If you see someone not practicing Leave No Trace, please don’t freak out on them. Kindly share why it’s important to follow these guidelines and show them how to do it — from a distance!
Be considerate of others
Just because we can’t physically hang out together, doesn’t mean you’re suddenly all alone. We’re all in this together, so please be considerate of the other people enjoying the outdoors with you.
We all know to wash our hands regularly, but you’ll also want to avoid touching things like handrails, benches, or gates that others may have touched. Avoid playgrounds. Don’t share water bottles, always cough or sneeze into your elbow, and keep your groups very small. If you encounter park staff, be kind to them. They’re still working so you can enjoy the outdoors, so help them do their job by being respectful of one another and the environment.
Remember, this will pass and we’ll make it through. One day it’ll be in the history books and our grand kids will ask us for stories. What will you tell them? I hope you can share stories of people banding together and how you were able to enjoy the outdoors responsibly as we all navigate these unknown waters.
And remember, you don’t have to go outside! There are tons of ways to bring the outdoors into your home and I’ve written about the cool ways you can enjoy nature from the comfort of your home in my next article.