It’s been two months since America relocated indoors. The buds are blooming. The novelty of baking bread is burning off. In all likelihood, you’ve been thirsting to get outside and sweat. You could go for a run around your neighborhood. But who wants to compete for sidewalk space when you could hightail it to the woods or mountains and go for a socially distant hike instead?
Hiking might seem like the perfect stew of social distancing and cardio. You chuck some snacks in a bag, fill your water bottle, drive to the trailhead of your choice, and disappear into the realm of bobcats and chiggers. In a moment of collective anxiety, where close contact with others can be deadly, it’s easy, perhaps even intuitive, to think of hiking as a sport of rugged individualism.
But it’s not.
What a lot of hikers forget is that they’re sharing the backcountry with other hikers. I know this because I’ve logged some miles outdoors. I spent nine seasons running wilderness hostels in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In 2018, I charted 78 trails across Northern New England while researching a hiking guidebook. And lately, I’ve seen more than a couple people being assholes in the woods. I’ve watched fit young people without masks barrel past elderly hikers, without so much as a vocal warning to move aside. I’ve stumbled upon spruce saplings that have been festooned with used surgical masks, like the shittiest Christmas tree ever. Just the other day, I watched a trail runner veer off the beaten path and trample through a bed of fresh spring wildflowers, to avoid braking for a large family approaching from the opposite direction.
Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not one of those misanthropic backwoods curmudgeons you’ll find sipping a black beer at the dark end of the closest rural bar. I think everyone should have the means to get outdoors, especially during a pandemic. Hiking can be a superb way to work your muscles, settle your nerves, and soak up some immune-boosting Vitamin D. But this only works if people are cool to each other in the backcountry—if they understand that hiking is a sport that runs on reciprocity and consideration of others, especially during a novel coronavirus pandemic.
And the good news is that going hiking right now, without being a dick, is actually quite easy. Here are some guidelines to follow for hitting the trails, adapted to our pandemic times.
1. Wear that mask
Look, I get it. Nobody likes wearing a mask while working out. But visit almost any backcountry trail authority website and you’ll find a common request: if you’re going hiking, mask up. Even if the rate of Covid-19 transmission is dramatically lower outdoors, there’s still a social case for wearing a mask while hiking. People are really freaked out about this virus. We’re still learning about how Covid-19 is spread. Many folks still aren’t wearing masks at all. So think of masked hiking as an act of respect toward fellow hikers, and a chance to model good social distancing behavior. Months from now, we might not be wearing masks outside anymore. I hope we get there! I want to smell white violets again. But for now, be humble and cover your face outside.
2. Save the summits for 2021
Every year, thousands of Americans fuck themselves up while hiking. ( I’ve fucked myself up in the backcountry.) When this happens, volunteer search and rescue crews are deployed to the wild to treat or evacuate injured hikers. But during a pandemic, you don’t want to get hurt in the outdoors. Rescue teams could be scaling back their volunteer operations, to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 exposure. And staying out of a hospital is in your best interest for the indefinite future. So for now, skip the arduous mountain climbing. Try something more temperate, like a waterfall hike, or one of those swampy trails with lots of cool bog bridges. Tougher is not always better.
3. When in doubt, yield
Inevitably, you’re going to run into other hikers on the same trail. So who stops and who gets to pass? This question still sparks arguments between hikers (I usually defer to people climbing uphill, if I’m descending the trail,) but with Covid-19 spreading across the country, let’s simplify this. If someone is approaching and you’re not sure what to do, just slow down for a moment, stand aside, and let them amble by. This will ensure sufficient spatial distancing, it takes all of 10-15 seconds, and it’s a charitable thing to do. It will make your post-trail beer taste crisper.
4. Stick to the beaten path
A lot of people are going hiking these days. A lot of people were hitting the trails long before Covid-19 arrived in America. Surging hiker traffic leads to erosion of trails, and if hikers aren’t careful about staying on the path, the damages can get much worse. Since we’re not likely to see many volunteer crews hitting the backcountry for trail repairs anytime soon, resist the urge to step off the path and bushwhack. This could mean allowing more hikers to pass you, politely asking slower hikers if you can pass them, or even just avoiding highly popular trails altogether.
5. Be social
Okay, this one might be more divisive, but when I encounter anyone outdoors, even in passing, I like to acknowledge their presence in some way. Maybe it’s a brief, “Hi there,” maybe it’s just a Jeremiah Johnson-esque nod of approval, but I think this can foster solidarity among hikers in the backcountry, during a time of mass trauma, grief, and loneliness. It’s a way to break out of your social distancing shell for a moment. The other day, as I was wandering along a pond on the outskirts of Boston, two masked hikers asked me how I was doing. It felt like a verbal hug.