To Hike or Not to Hike?

People have reacted differently to the coronavirus pandemic, as have our cities, counties, states and land management areas. There are new restrictions and regulations that guide our everyday actions and there are strong recommendations and opinions that impact our decision making.

In Asheville, North Carolina we have a “stay home stay safe” order along with Governor Cooper’s “Shelter in Place” mandate. Both ordinances allow for outdoor recreation with social distancing. This includes use of nearby trails and greenways that are open to the public. 

The Blue Ridge Parkway and several adjacent trails remain open, however, other land management agencies including The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Dupont State Forest, and Mount Mitchell State Park have closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Some land management areas such as Pisgah National Forest have recently announced the closure of "most trails" and "roads. And the Appalachian Trail are caught in a confusing predicament where the non-profit agency that manages the trail has asked everyone to stay off the footpath but the National Park Service has stopped short of closing the 2,190 mile trail.

For the past month I have observed both sides of this predicament trying to shame the opposing parks and the park users. It seems if you are closed then you are taking away people’s right to use public land and access to trails and rivers that are able to bolster mental and physical health. On the other hand, if you are still allowing access or recreating in public places, you may be putting yourself and everyone else at an increased risk for coronavirus. But can’t we agree with both those statements at the same time – and still get along?

It Depends...

Right now, some of you are thinking that if there is even the slightest increase of contracting coronavirus on the trail… that should be enough to stay home and stop this blog right here. But, here’s the catch, for each individual the amount of increased risk is going to be different. And for some it is minimal and worth the benefits of spending time outdoors.

Personally, I have continued to recreate outdoors with my family while adhering to state and local guidelines. We go to places that are open to the public. We try to visit low use trails at off-peak hours and we practice social distancing. And it has been the highlight and lifeline that has sustained our family over the past month. We have spent the majority of our time outdoors splashing in creeks and hunting for crawdads ("crawcrabs" as my son calls them), salamanders, fresh water snails, and rock treasures. It is rare that we encounter more than one or two hikers during our outings. Here are additional considerations:

  • Our neighborhood is situated in an urban current of joggers, walkers, essential commuters, construction workers and delivery trucks. We are farther removed from human contact and touchpoints in the woods than at home.
  • I have a deep knowledge of local trails and places where we can recreate away from crowds. Plus, again, creeks. We have not encountered anyone else creek stomping and the water rinses everything off every second of every day.
  • I am trained in Wilderness Medicine and I carry a stout first aid kit on every trip. I can care for non-emergency incidents in the backcountry without putting additional resources or strain on park employees.
  • I have a three and seven year old. (I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a factor.)
  • And, although no one in my family is immune from the severity of coronavirus, no one is considered to be high risk.

If I didn’t know where to go… or how to do it safely… or if anyone in my family was considered high risk… or if I lived in a place where I had a creek in my backyard… then I would not be accessing public lands during this time.

"Both and" versus "Either or"

The pandemic is a universal experience that is unique to every individual. I have a friend that’s a doctor who has asked me for trail recommendations so that she and her family can experience something opposite of the hospital setting where she works. I also know an avid outdoors woman who has survived breast cancer and doesn’t see the trail as a safe place for herself or others. Isn’t is easy to see where both women are coming from?? One person’s set of circumstances might dictate his or her choices in an opposite manner of another person with similar ethics and different circumstances. I hope that as a community of outdoor recreationalist that we can be a little more “both and” and a little less “either or.”

I respect the parks that have closed – and the parks that have stayed open. I commend the people who stay at home – and the individuals who are taking appropriate precautions to safely recreate outdoors. This is not a cop-out. I have opinions, strong opinions. (Just ask my husband.) But in a challenging and unprecedented season, my strong opinion is that we all need to extend a little more grace to our friends, neighbors, fellow hikers, and federal lands.