Editor’s note: This article was first published on May 21, 2020. It was updated again on November 24, 2020 with the latest best practices for responsible winter recreation.
Spending time outdoors has become more important than ever across America. As people limit activities to slow the spread of the coronavirus, they’re finding time in nature to be good for their physical and mental health, and for reconnecting with the outside world.
People flocked to trails, parks, waterways and other open spaces in the spring, summer and fall. And they continue to do so in winter. But it’s not always easy to know how best to recreate outside during a pandemic.
To minimize confusion, REI and a coalition of nonprofits, recreation businesses and agencies have come together to summarize and amplify the emerging best practices. They have laid out seven simple guidelines at RecreateResponsibly.org. As seasons change, the group have released the winter edition of those guidelines.
“Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen trail use skyrocket,” said Ryan Chao, president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, who is a member of the coalition’s advisory committee, said in a statement. He added that “with more people using these amenities, and many who are new to trails and the outdoors, it’s essential that we all take care to keep each other and our outdoor spaces safe and healthy.”
The group recommends three steps to take at home:
- Know Before You Go: Some areas can become dangerous with winter conditions. Research your destination, as roads and facilities may be closed in winter.
- Plan Ahead: Check local conditions and prepare for the elements, packing extra layers, waterproof clothing, and avalanche safety gear for the backcountry.
- Explore Locally: Consider exploring locally, as driving and parking may be more challenging in winter. If you travel, be mindful of your impact on Native and local communities.
And there are four steps when once outside:
- Practice Physical Distancing: Be prepared to cover your nose and mouth. When possible, opt to eat and rest outside. If you feel sick, stay home.
- Play It Safe: Know your limits and your gear. Slow down and choose lower -risk activities to reduce your risk of injury.
- Leave No Trace: Did you know that snow is our water supply? Keep our winter playgrounds clean. Pack out any human or pet waste. Be respectful of land.
- Build an Inclusive Outdoors: Everyone deserves to experience a winter wonderland. Be an active part of making the outdoors safe, accessible and welcoming for all identities and abilities.
At the coalition’s website, the tips are available in English and Spanish. The group has also provided a toolkit and urges people to download and share the guidelines. They offer a starting point for how to get outside during this public health crisis. As circumstances evolve, the coalition intends to update its tips to keep them fresh and accurate.
Outdoor recreation rules vary across state land managers and local jurisdictions. Many states and federal land agencies are taking a phased approach to reopening, so rules and access are quickly changing.
Federal land managers and other state officials say they could be forced to reclose parks and open spaces if they see crowding, lack of social distancing or outbreaks of new cases of the coronavirus. The disease is thought to spread mainly from person to person and has killed over 337,000 people in the U.S. and over 1.7 million people globally.
“Whether you are hiking, biking or paddling, the guidance not only offers the basics for how to keep yourself and others safe, it will also help keep our public lands open,” says Taldi Harrison, REI’s manager of community and government affairs.
Lisa Carlson, president of the American Public Health Association and an administrator with the Emory School of Medicine, says it’s important that people use nature as a respite during these times.
“Our outdoor spaces are sacred spaces, and they’re also public health opportunities. Trees and nature are really important for good health,” she says. “We need to be more intentional about how we’re outside. But it doesn’t mean we can’t figure out how to make it work.”
The #RecreateResponsibly Coalition initially started as an effort in Washington state. It has since grown into an international community of nearly 1,000 businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, outdoor media and influencers. REI, the Outdoor Alliance, the Outdoor Industry Association, American Hiking Society, Children & Nature Network, Leave No Trace and others have a national campaign to help spread the message.
“We’re trying to protect one another’s health,” says Tania Lown-Hecht, communications director for Outdoor Alliance, which helped bring the national coalition together. “We all want to do everything we can to maintain access to these places because they’re so important for so many of us right now.”
The guidelines are in line with what public health experts say about outdoor recreation. “Generally speaking, it is safe to do these activities outdoors, such as fishing and hiking. But we do have to follow local and state recommendations in terms of social distancing,” said Dr. Humberto Choi, a pulmonologist and critical care doctor at the Cleveland Clinic. “We need to have a little common sense too.”
The main reason to take proper precautions, Dr. Choi says, is because people without symptoms can still carry the virus. “The risk of getting infection outdoors is low, but it doesn’t mean you should not use precautions, especially social distancing,” he adds.
“It’s a community issue and it’s not just a personal issue,” says Dr. Marilyn Roberts, a professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, department of environmental and occupational health sciences. “We have to all do our part to make sure we have as few infections as possible.”