The New Rules of Social Distancing for Trail Users
Help keep trails open by not abusing them
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.
By now you know to only head out with household members, stay local, remain six feet apart from other trail users, and take it easy so as not to end up in the ER. But as we settle into social distancing and some communities see as much as a 200 percent uptick in trail use, there’s even more nuance to consider if we want to keep our open spaces open. If the outdoor community doesn’t do its part to self monitor its social distancing, others will do it for us.
That’s not an idle threat. Many California and Florida beaches are closed to surfers. Yosemite is closed to climbing. And our trails might be next. In early April, the City of Boulder, Colorado, seriously considered shutting down its Open Space and Mountain Parks. In parts of California, that’s already happened. Trailheads in Florida, Nevada, California, and other states have been closed, as have numerous state and national parks across the country. This is, in part, the fallout of failing to social distance while we recreate.
As we learn more about how COVID-19 is spread, and as officials see problems arise, recommendations and restrictions will change. But for now, these are the new rules of the trail.
Know When to Go
If you’re part of the 90 percent of Americans under stay-at-home orders, outdoor exercise is generally considered an “essential” activity, but let’s not abuse it. Four civic leaders in Boulder recently penned a letter to citizens imploring them to stay at home if at all possible and to limit their time in open space and parks for actual exercise before promptly returning home. That advice should be heeded universally. As for the time of day: seasoned trail users know enough to go early or go late. If we want trails and trailheads to remain open, we need to disperse in time and space.
Evaluate the Trailhead
Most new users generally don’t get more than a mile or two deep, says International Mountain Bicycling Association chief Dave Wiens of the folks who are out hiking because all other options have been closed to them. But as they mix with traditional users, our trailheads are growing cluttered, which is making officials nervous. If you can’t avoid that congestion to start your pursuit (is there a legal backdoor entrance to that network?), find another trail.
Select Your Trail Carefully
Avoid steep and tight trails where stepping off to avoid people may be risky or impossible. Boulder’s Open Space Department is encouraging citizens to opt for less frequented trailheads and wider paths. I expect more land managers will follow suit.
Wear or Carry a Mask
As you know, you shouldn’t pirate the supply of N95 masks that our health care workers and first responders so desperately need, but it’s now recommended that you wear some form of face covering on trails. You should have one at the ready if you hit a pinch point in the trail and can’t distance fast enough or must navigate a crowded trailhead before you disperse. Obviously, you won’t be able to properly disinfect your hands after touching the mask as advised while running or biking, but in this case, it’s about protecting others. Don’t touch your face until you wash up. “I get it,” says Cindy Farr, the coronavirus-incident commander of Missoula County, Montana. “Nobody wants to be breathing hard through a mask if you’re riding hard or running, but we need to be ready. Our trails and paths are packed with people. If you sneeze or cough, the blowback will hit the person behind you.”
Walk Single File, Even on Wide Trails
This is common sense (which means it has to be spelled out for some people). If you and your family are walking two or three abreast on an eight-foot-wide trail, you’re forcing anyone passing you to choose between stepping off the trail or breathing your air. Don’t narrow trails further.
Enforce That Six Feet—and Then Some
Anybody who has ever followed skiers on a skin track or ridden in a peloton knows that your exhalations are briefly visible in cold air. In warm air, they’re not. “To be safe, don’t breathe someone else’s breath,” says Stephen G. Warren, professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s department of atmospheric sciences. “Normally, it’s hard to know where your exhalation has gone right after you exhale. But when the outside air is cold and humid, the water vapor in your breath condenses onto tiny aerosol particles to form a fog of liquid droplets, showing exactly where your breath has gone for a few seconds after you breathe out. This is similar to the condensation trails or contrails behind jet airplanes. So stay away from other people’s contrails. When bicycling, keep your spacing much more than six feet.”
Keep Moving: Don’t Create a Coronavirus Gauntlet
You might have experienced this scenario that Donovan Power, a ski coach and mountain biker from Montana, recently described to me: two parties of foot travelers recognize each other and step to opposite sides of the trail to chat safely from a distance of six feet or more. But then along comes a cyclist or runner, and that person is forced to hold his or her breath—tough on an uphill—and plunge through a fog of exhalations or wait it out indefinitely. Act as if you have the virus. Pretend you can see that invisible cloud. And keep moving so as not to force a gauntlet run.
This has been long ingrained in the mountain-bike community, but even seasoned riders tend to forget. It’s imperative that trail users get vocal right now. If you’re approaching a slower group and matching their pace is intolerable, let them know you’re coming, and communicate with them to decide on a safe place to pass. Runners and cyclists need to ring bells or call out when approaching blind corners. We need time to make way for each other.
In normal times, mountain bikers are supposed to yield to hikers and runners, but now everyone should yield first and then figure out the next move. “I’m always in the mindset of yielding to everyone all the time anyway,” says the IMBA’s Wiens, “but now that’s even more important. Many of those new trail users are terrified of mountain bikers. And other folks are understandably scared of encountering strangers right now. You don’t want them jumping off the trail and getting hurt.”
Step off the Trail. It’s OK—for Now.
We’ve been trained not to. But now’s the time to temporarily forget that training. That’s according to Phillip Yates, spokesperson for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (though the public-health officials and trail advocates I interviewed all agreed). Here’s the proper method: If the trail isn’t wide enough for proper spacing, step gingerly off the trail at a 90 degree angle, being careful not to tread on plants if at all possible. Once you’re six feet off, wait for the approaching party to clear the area before delicately retracing your footsteps. If you’re a mountain biker, says Wiens, lay your bike down by the side of the trail first. Whether you’re on foot or on wheels, don’t cut a new trail parallel to the existing track—that’s called braiding, and it’s a long-term problem because your sucker tracks attract other users.
Refrain from Posting on Social Media
This is not the time to gloat about your exploits and indirectly promote more trail use. The world doesn’t need to know that you’re gnarly, the world needs to know that you care. The exceptions are shots of you and your dog on remote, gated Forest Service roads with nobody in sight for miles. Let’s lead by example.
Can the Après
I can’t believe I still have to hit this note, but: No parking-lot beers with friends. No hibachi grills. No summit photo shoots with eight people high-fiving. No painting all outdoor users with a brush of entitled negativity. Exercise and fresh air is essential. Good times with friends are, too, but we’ll have to wait.