How to Recreate Responsibly in the Outdoors

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New coalition summarizes 7 key ways to stay healthy and protect public lands during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor’s note: This article was first published on May 21, 2020. It was updated on July 1, 2020 with the latest best practices for responsible recreation, including a new seventh guideline focused on creating a more inclusive outdoors.


Spending time outdoors has become more important than ever across America. As people hunker down 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.

Now that many states are easing stay-at-home restrictions, people are eager to get outside beyond their neighborhoods. But as parks, trails, waterways and other public lands start to reopen, it can be confusing to know what’s best to do.

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.

The group recommends three steps to take at home:

  • Know Before You Go: Check the status of the place you want to visit. If it is closed, don’t go. If it’s crowded, have a backup plan. (Read our Guide to Understanding Public Lands to figure out which agency manages certain lands).
  • Plan Ahead: Prepare for facilities to be closed, pack lunch and bring essentials like hand sanitizer and a face covering.
  • Explore Locally: Limit long-distance travel and make use of local parks, trails, and public spaces. Be mindful of your impact on the communities you visit.

And there are four steps when once outside:

  • Practice Physical Distancing: Keep your group size small. Be prepared to cover your nose and mouth and give others space. If you are sick, stay home.
  • Play It Safe: Slow down and choose lower-risk activities to reduce your risk of injury. Search and rescue operations and health care resources are both strained.
  • Leave No Trace: Respect public lands and waters, as well as Native and local communities. Take all your garbage with you.
  • Build an Inclusive Outdoors: Be an active part of making the outdoors safe and welcoming for all identities and abilities.

chart of 7 tips for recreating responsibly

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 126,000 people in the U.S. and over 512,000 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, but has quickly become a national effort. REI, the Outdoor Alliance, the Outdoor Industry Association, American Hiking Society, Children & Nature Network, Leave No Trace and others are launching what will become 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.”

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