Trail Etiquette: Avoiding Outdoor Confrontations During the Pandemic

trail running alone
bluedog studio / Shutterstock

It’s no secret that there’s a social distancing problem in the great outdoors. Some people honor the basic guidelines for responsible outdoor exercise during the current COVID-19 crisis, others don’t seem to care. There’s the hiker who pushed a Texas park ranger into a lake, and the Massachusetts father who allegedly pulled a knife on an unmasked jogger. And in my otherwise friendly hometown of Bend, Ore., recent conflict between outdoor users resulted in a bike ban and one-way hiking designation on parts of the highly trafficked Deschutes River Trail. In other parts of the city, vandals defaced “closed signs” and forest service barriers to signal their displeasure at attempts to restrict their freedom of movement.

With governors and local legislators easing stay-at-home restrictions and reopening parks, beaches and other public lands, outdoor etiquette amid a deadly pandemic is critical. It’s confusing enough to determine where you can hike, bike, paddle, surf or ski, how far from home you can venture, and how many people can recreate in a single group.  It’s even more stressful when you’re trying honor social-distancing guidelines while others are flagrantly ignoring them. With battle fatigue overtaking us as the weeks go by, spirits are flagging, and tempers are high.

The novel coronavirus has changed the world, and will continue to do so. Until there’s a viable and proven cure, how you travel outdoors needs to change—because getting outdoors, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and immune system, is also a part of the solution. Here are some common-sense rules to avoid trail meltdowns and ensure that everyone has the space necessary to stay healthy and happy.  By avoiding conflict and over-crowding, we can avoid community spread, keep ‘the curve’ flat, and prevent further closures of our public spaces.

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Play it safe

Follow CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines for visiting public places. This means not going out if you are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, avoiding crowds, maintaining six feet between you and other people, washing your hands, and not touching things like play equipment. Asymptomatic spread is a real danger with this novel virus; even if people don’t look or feel sick, they can infect others. Officials are easing restrictions because we’ve flattened the curve, let’s not backslide by ignoring the “new normal.” Check with your state, city and community parks & rec recreation organizations to determine what is open.

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Stay local

Most states and communities request that you stay close to home in order to avoid spreading the virus. In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis has asked people to recreate within 10 miles of their homes; in Oregon, the limit is 50 miles. Don’t duck barriers to enter closed parks and campgrounds. Police in Cannon Beach, Ore., had to remove about 800 people from beaches over Mother’s Day weekend—most from out of town.

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A crowded April parking lot at Boulder Colo.’s Flatirons Vista trailhead indicates hikers are undeterred by social distancing. Elliott-DK / Shutterstock

New parking paradigm

Best practice is to keep every other parking spot open at trailheads. Leave one space between your car and the one next to you; that way you’ll avoid close encounters of the unpleasant kind. Plus, fewer people in the parking lot mean fewer people on the trail. If a parking lot is full, find another adventure. Or better yet, walk or bike from your house to the trailhead. Make sure you have a Plan B (and C) for recreation; your Plan A will be there for another day.

Ready. Set. Go

The days of tailgating in parking lots, while you sort your climbing rack or oil your gears, are done—at least for now. Dave Weins, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), offers suggestions that are as true for paddling and climbing as they are for biking. “Get completely dressed at home so you don’t have to hang around in a crowded parking lot,” says Weins. “Park, put your helmet and gloves on in the car, grab your pack, unrack your bike and ride away. Same when you are done: Rack your bike, get in your car and you’re off!”

Think small

Most states still prefer that people go outdoors solo or in twosomes. At the very least, recreating with only family or household members is advised. As stay-at-home orders are eased, our “bubbles” will become bigger, but save those larger get-togethers for socially distanced yard and neighborhood parties. Keep it small for biking, paddling, running, surfing or hiking. Reduce the need for crowded shuttle rides. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

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Be prepared

The “10 Essentials for Hiking” just became 11. Pack a face mask, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. Consider wearing a neck gaiter or bandana. Pull it up when you wind your way through cars in the parking lot or pass people on the trail. Plus, they are great for blocking UV rays and dipping in water for a quick cool-down on hot days. Tip: Avoid a “mask tan” by using sunblock. And remember, while parks are open, most restrooms, food-services and ranger kiosks are closed. Plan on being self-sufficient.

off the beaten path

Plan an off-the-beaten-path adventure

Expect boardwalks, city parks, and other easily accessed recreation spots to be packed during daylight hours. But as seasoned adventurers know, all it takes to find solitude is to head a couple of miles into the backcountry, or go early or late. If you are fit, self-sufficient and an explorer at heart, leave the front-country for the dog walkers. Instead, pick a destination that’s not in the guidebooks or tourist maps. In one word: Explore.

Keep moving

If you’re going to sit and commune with nature, move off the bike path, trail or middle of the river channel. Situational awareness is key to maintaining social distance in the great outdoors. Don’t stop in the middle of the trail to text or to put on sunscreen. Rather, look for a pull-out where you can have personal space without disrupting the flow of traffic.

single file
marino bocelli / Shutterstock

Single file

This might be the biggest learning curve for most people. If you are hiking, biking, skiing or paddling with a friend, drop back or move forward into a single line when you’re group is passing another person or party. Obviously, there are allowances if you’re assisting someone who’s not steady on their feet, but still try to honor the six-foot rule by moving aside to let faster parties play through.

Be chill

Hospitals may be seeing a drop in the number of COVID-19 cases, but you still want to avoid unnecessary strain on your local medical providers. This means not pushing the safety envelope. Axie Navas, New Mexico Director of Outdoor Recreation, advises people to enjoy the amazing outdoors, but to use common sense to do so safely. “That means putting the health of others at the top of their priority lists, respecting closures and being chill,” says Navas. “Now is not the time to get rad, to have an adventure that could require Search and Rescue to come rescue you.”

Walking Germany’s Kiel Canal near Suchsdorf. Petra Nowack / Shutterstock

Avoid confrontation

We’ve all been stymied by inattentive people blocking trailheads or clogging pedestrian bridges. Sometimes a pleasant “passing on the left” elicits better behavior. But if people are tone-deaf, just pull up your mask and move on. Mike Gauthier, superintendent at Nez Perce National Historic Park, points out that on-the-trail attempts to modify a stranger’s behavior are generally not the best option. “Give everyone space; let patience and courtesy guide how you travel on trails, particularly ones that have other hikers,” says Gauthier. “Step aside in safe locations when approaching other parties and let them pass if they are moving more quickly than you. When you encounter that someone who disregards the physical distancing needed to be safe, swallow your ego and safely stay away from them. They will pass and you’ll likely never see them again and be on your way!”

Be kind

Most people are working from home, out of work, or furloughed. Few people are on a tight schedule, so standard weekend crowds are a daily occurrence at popular put-ins and trailheads. Everyone is stressed out, and many people who are traditionally indoor or team-sports athletes are taking up outdoor recreation (see: the boom in biking). A smile goes a long way when it comes to avoiding conflict. Of course, if you’re wearing a face mask, make it a nod or “good day” wave. What are your options if others are ignoring social distancing guidelines? Cailin O’Brien Feeney, director of Oregon’s Office of Outdoor Recreation says, “Patience and grace are the most important reactions. We are all in this together.”

RESOURCES: IMBA’s COVID-19 riding recommendations page, plus guidelines and advice from the American Alpine Club, American WhitewaterSurfrider, and American Hiking Society.

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