outdoor recreation during the coronavirus pandemic

Adventure On? Outdoor Recreation During the Coronavirus Pandemic

If you’re wondering if it’s safe to go outside and play during the current COVID-19 situation, you’re not alone — lots of us don’t want to spend weeks on the couch. If you’re ready to head outside, here’s some info that can help you recreate more safely.

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There's a lot of panic in the world right now. With the current state of things with COVID-19, plenty of people are starting to feel a little anxious. We know that playing outside can help, so if you're wondering about outdoor recreation during the Coronavirus pandemic, here's what you need to know.Like me, you’ve probably already read, watched, or listened to TONS of information about the current COVID-19 situation. Even if you didn’t want to. Coronavirus is all over the news, it has spread across social media, becoming the star of serious posts and humorous memes. I don’t want to rehash what you’ve already read, watched, or heard. I’m not a doctor or an epidemiologist — I just write about playing outside. But right now, even heading to the great outdoors can pose challenges, depending on where you live. If you have found yourself getting a little bit of cabin fever during this time of social distancing, here’s a few things you should know about outdoor recreation during the Coronavirus Pandemic.

NOTE: I want to reiterate that I am NOT a doctor. Don’t take this article as medical advice — check out the CDC’s prevention guidelines, and seek appropriate medical attention if necessary. I should also point out that I’m not a representative of any of the organizations mentioned in this article, and new information is popping up all the time. I’ll try to keep this current, but be aware this might not be the latest info. 


6/14: After about three months of tracking and posting about Covid-19 related outdoor recreation news, this will be the final update for the time being. Should there be drastic changes moving forward, I will do my best to keep you in the know. As you make plans for adventures this summer, please make sure that you’re taking precautions to keep yourself and others safe. 

6/14: Maybe we shouldn’t visit National Parks this summer. Here’s why. 

6/11: “With states across the country experimenting with phased reopenings, here’s what the rest of the summer could mean for outdoor adventure.”

6/11: “Concessionaire Delaware North started to reopen lodging in the National Park System on Thursday, and is also rolling out a program designed to minimize the spread of coronavirus.”

6/11: The Pandemic has revived interest in the great outdoors. With that in mind, here’s how we should re-open the outdoors.

6/11: “While visitor traffic has been building in Yellowstone National Park, park employees and staff so far seem to have been able to avoid contracting Covid-19, according to the latest testing.”

6/6: “This global pandemic will have both immediate and longer-term effects on protected and conserved areas. The pandemic has already resulted in the closure of parks and protected areas in many countries, resulting in a cascade of impacts…” Here’s an interesting article about protected areas and COVID-19.

6/4: How the Pandemic forced ski towns to rethink their approach to tourism.

6/4: “At the end of nearly two weeks since the park reopened, no Yellowstone National Park employee had tested positive for Covid-19, according to the park.”

6/4: “Trail Ridge Road Through Rocky Mountain National Park Is Open” (for those who already scored a reservation.)

6/1: “Xanterra Announces Reopening Schedule For National Park Lodges.”

6/1: “Yosemite’s Re-Opening Plan Will Mean a Much Less Crowded Park.”

6/1: “Denali National Park staff, trying to minimize the spread of coronavirus, has come up with a plan to let private vehicles travel sections of the Denali Park Road this summer.”

5/30: “Limited lodging is scheduled to return to Yellowstone National Park… with the possibility of more rooms becoming available later this summer.”

5/29: “The country’s national parks are reopening in phases, and park officials are instituting new protocols and messaging to promote social distancing.”

5/29: “Thirty-nine out of 62 park units have begun phased reopening. Several others never closed for the pandemic. Here’s how to stay safe if you visit them.”

5/29: REI has published an activity specific guide to safe outdoor recreation. Stay healthy out there!

5/28: Need a Mask? These Outdoor Brands Make Them.

5/28: Grand Canyon National Park is moving toward a full re-opening.

5/27: Rocky Mountain National Park is looking at re-opening this week, with a “timed entry system to reduce park visitation by 40 percent for the immediate future.”

5/21: Eager to hit the trail or campsite? As stay-at-home restrictions are being lifted, these six steps can help you recreate safely. 

5/20: Here’s another list of what National Parks are open, thanks to Adventure Journal.

5/19: Some National Parks are open, and others remain closed. Rules and regulations vary from one location to the next, but here’s a good set of guidelines for visiting National Parks from GearJunkie, as well as a list of expected openings and Parks that remain closed. 

5/18: “Some Ski Resorts Re-Opening For Last-Minute Spring Runs.”

5/15: “Spartan Race plans a comeback despite the Coronavirus. Most endurance events are canceled for the summer, but Spartan Race will hold its first event since the pandemic from June 13 to 14 in Florida…”

5/15: Columbia Sportswear reopened 30 stores in the US today, putting 250 furloughed employees back in action. Columbia will require face coverings for employees, adjust store layouts for social distancing, and delay the restocking of clothes tried on in fitting rooms for 24 hours. In addition, employees will clean high-touch points regularly, and cashiers will wear gloves.

5/15: Interest In RVing Grows Exponentially During Coronavirus Pandemic.

5/14: The latest course updates from NOLS.

5/13: Rocky Mountain National Park will begin a phased reopening on May 27.

5/13: “Coronavirus Closures Could Lead To A Radical Revolution In Conservation.”

5/13: Colorado Nonprofit First Descents plans to thanks healthcare workers with free overnight expeditions via their nationwide Hero Recharge program. That’s pretty cool.

5/13: “More people are cycling during COVID-19. That matters. Cleaner air, quieter streets, more people riding—there’s an opportunity here for cities and cycling advocates willing to grasp it.”

5/12: Eric Artz, president and CEO of REI, has announced that REI will be reopening its stores. What that means will differ from place to place — curbside pickup in some locales, limited numbers allowed in stores in others. At all locations they will be taking steps to ensure the health of customers and staff, and will be working in accordance with state and local regulations. That’s cool. REI hopes to have up to half of their stores open for curbside pick up by their Anniversary Sale, May 15–May 25. Happy upcoming 82nd anniversary REI. As a heads up, all staff will be wearing masks, and they ask all customers to do so as well — be cool and don’t lose your shit over it. 

5/12: I think it was pretty obvious, but data is making it more official — “Special Survey Of Homebound Campers Shows They’re Eager To Camp.”

5/11: NOLS is one of the best outdoor guide programs in the nation (if not the world). From experiential learning in the field, expeditionary courses, and teaching weirdos like me how to be Wilderness First Responders, “NOLS counts more than 350,000 alumni of its courses worldwide, including 29,000 in 2019 alone.” And the pandemic is tossing the organization a beating

5/10: Great Smokey Mountains National Park reopens. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great idea to go. 

5/10: Here’s an updated list of NPS sites that are open, from National Parks Traveler.

5/9: As we’re trying hard to stay safe, we haven’t forgotten our four-legged friends. Check out this guide for keeping your doggo safe during the pandemic from FluentWoof.

5/8: Another helpful article from Andrew Skurka — “Should I stay home or can I go? Navigating Covid-19 restrictions.”

5/8: Can we figure out a safe and effective way to house National Park employees and concession workers? 

5/7: “In the South, a series of hostels have welcomed hikers, defying trail closures and guidelines. They say they’re acting on behalf of their communities.”

5/7: Here’s another helpful article by Andrew Skurka — “New normal: How can Covid-19 risk in the backcountry be minimized?”

5/5: Thinking about doing some backpacking during the pandemic? Check out Andrew Skurka’s “Covid-19: What’s the objective risk to backcountry travelers?” and his equally informative “Backcountry best practices in the coronavirus era” for helpful guidance.

5/4: “Capitol Reef National Park Announces Initial Reopening Schedule.”

5/3 “Will Coronavirus Spur Changes To How We Visit National Parks?”

5/2: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area slowly opening access this month

5/1: Yellowstone may be closed for the time being, but you can bring a little of the park into your home with this short film

5/1: Planning underway to mitigate possible Coronavirus exposure for fire personnel for the upcoming wildfire season

4/30: “Parks Will Be Reopened Incrementally,” says top Interior and NPS officials, and with an emphasis on visitor safety. 

4/29: “How to Prepare for Natural Disasters During a Pandemic.” Personal preparedness is going to be incredibly important, since response is likely going to be slow and limited. 

4/29: Phased re-openings coming to National Parks.

4/29: As we reopen National Parks, is it time to limit admission numbers?

4/28: Andrew Skurka asks, “when will our National Parks re-open?” And can we do it right?

4/28: Shiloh National Military Park cancels Memorial Day activities.

4/25: Could the Coronavirus make wildfire season even worse?

4/24: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area begins allowing limited access to Lake Powell

4/23: The new rules of social distancing for trail users — how we can help keep trails open by not abusing them.

4/22: President Trump says National Parks could reopen soon, but are we ready?

4/20: Virgin Islands National Park reopens beaches and trails in wake of COVID-19.

4/16: Theodore Roosevelt National Park Closed.

4/15: Great Basin National Park Closed.

4/15: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will close until May 4 in an attempt to reduce impact to local communities. 

4/14: “Towns near National Parks Feel the Impacts of Covid-19.” Some parks are closed and some businesses are on lockdown, leaving park towns facing financial trouble. 

4/14: How an enzyme originating in Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs may be used to help create a Covid-19 vaccine. 

4/14: Sierra Magazine in collaboration with Type Investigations has published an article that includes a memo from the Public Health Department of the National Park Service to the deputy director of operations, recommending that all National Park Sites close immediately. The memo states, in part; “We can say with absolute certainty that leaving our parks open to the public when social distancing is not being practiced, onboarding employees originating from throughout the country and world, and permitting significant shared housing environments will result in a significantly greater burden of disease and death than if we had taken the proactive measure to continue to close these parks and/or limit operations.”

4/13: With no people around, wildlife is “reclaiming Yosemite National Park.”

4/10: Concerns for the health and safety of staff and visitors alike make deciding when to re-open National Parks a complicated affair. 

4/9: My favorite National Park in Utah, Capitol Reef, is now closed. That means all of Utah’s National Parks are shuttered for the time being.

4/7: Here’s another list of Parks and NPS managed lands and their level of shutdown. I recommend staying away from National Parks at this point, but if you choose to go, check each Park’s website first. 

4/7: “With national parks in shutdown mode, employees are capturing the stillness — and movements — in places like Yosemite National Park.”

4/6: You’re probably getting a little stir-crazy by now, right? I included my article about dealing with cabin fever in the original post, but if you need more idea on how to deal during social isolation Cam at The Hiking Life has published A Hiker’s Guide to Staying Productive During COVID-19. I’m following some of this advice myself.

4/6: Hey all you cool cats and kittens, here’s an unexpected update — a tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive for Coronavirus. Does this mean we need to worry about our pets? Probably not, but check out the CDC guidelines in the same article here.

4/4: Death Valley National Park is officially closed

4/3: Zion National Park, Utah’s most popular and America’s fourth most popular National Park, is now officially closed

4/1: Grand Canyon National Park, America’s second most popular park, has been officially closed (finally).

4/1: The current state of the pandemic AND the current state of the National Parks means that the Coronavirus could have incredibly negative impacts on our National Parks

3/31: REI released an updated list of National and State Park closures. It’s pretty comprehensive. 

3/31: Seven NPS employees have tested positive for Coronavirus, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wants all Interior employees to “fulfill their duties and responsibilities as assigned…” Everyone, maybe don’t go to the parks right now. 

3/30: Over 30 outdoor brands are taking steps to help frontline workers and affected communities. Some are donating money, others are doing things like making masks. When it’s time to buy new gear, I want to support those who supported us. I urge you to do the same. 

3/29: There are a number of closures on the Pacific Crest Trail. I recommend considering the PCT closed for the time being. Right now 4 out of 5 states on the Continental Divide Trail are under stay-home orders, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition is urging hikers to stay home

3/29: Through all of this, I have focused on NPS closures, without really thinking about National Forests. Turns out, the Forest Service IS closing many trails, so be aware. General Forest Service updates can be found here, but you’ll probably have to check individual National Forest or district pages for specific information. Expect National Forest campgrounds to be closed. Many trailheads in Colorado are now closed, and both Oregon and Washington have closed all National Forest Sites AND trails. All National Forest Recreation Areas in California are closed

3/28: “Effective immediately, the National Park Service is closing all overnight shelters (56 total) and privies (75 total) on land administered by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Park Office in the states of VA (11 shelters, 12 privies), MD (1 shelter, 2 privies), PA (8 shelters, 6 privies), NJ (1 shelter, 1 privy), NY (5 shelters, 5 privies), CT (7 shelters, 16 privies), MA (1 shelter, 4 privies), and ME (22 shelters, 29 privies).”  If you’re still on the AT, now is the time to get off. For all intents and purposes, consider the Appalachian Trail closed. 

3/28: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park have both been closed.

3/27: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended enforcement of environmental laws yesterday, essentially “telling companies they would not need to meet environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak.” I think that the decision was made with good intentions, but fear that many companies will abuse this laxity.

3/26: If you’re suffering from cabin fever and need to get outside, REI has published a blog post by Phuong Le that helps highlight how to maintain social distancing while playing outside. Similarly, one of my favorite outdoor writers, Wes Siler, has published some helpful guidelines on Outside Online, and Nicole Qualtieri at GearJunkie  has also issued some guidance worth checking out. The Leave No Trace Center updated their Recommendations for Getting Outside During Covid-19 guidelines today as well, and I still think this is an excellent resource for anyone yearning for outdoor recreation during the coronavirus pandemic. 

3/26: “Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has refused to allow Grand Canyon National Park to close over the coronavirus pandemic, a decision opposed by local health officials and criticized by the National Parks Conservation Association.” Not a wise move in my opinion. 

3/25: Feeling bored and cooped up? Take a virtual tour of a National Park.

3/25: Outdoor brands like Orucase and Eddie Bauer have shifted from manufacturing gear to manufacturing medical equipment

3/25: Don’t worry, your dog can’t catch the coronavirus, and it’s super-duper incredibly unlikely that you could catch the virus from them in any way. 

3/24: A friend just sent me this list of COVID-19 campground closures by state. If you choose to camp in the near future, your best bet is dispersed camping in public lands like National Forests and Wilderness Areas.

3/24: Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park have both closed. State highways and necessary roads that cross park boundaries will remain open for travel, as will “facilities that support life safety and commerce.”

3/23: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is asking ALL hikers (thru, section, or day) to stay off the AT completely. Apparently the trail and several trailheads have been more crowded than in normal seasons. Dangerously so. Please consider avoiding the AT if you’ve been thinking about hiking.

3/23: This is old news (3/13), but I just got a message about it — “The Nepalese government has closed Mount Everest ahead of its busy spring climbing season as a ‘precaution’ against the coronavirus outbreak.”

3/23: I’m a little behind on this one, but Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park have all closed.

3/23: The following ski resorts are now closed; Alterra Mountain Company, Vail Resorts, and Eldora Mountain in Colorado. Terry Peak, here in the Black Hills, has also closed for the season as well. 

3/20: Trail Days, the popular AT community celebration held annually in Damascus VA, has been cancelled. Additionally, many shelters and campgrounds are closed now, and we can expect more to do the same. If you’re still on the trail, consider forming a bail out plan — services may be hard to come by in some areas. Check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s list of Alerts and Trailwide Updates, which includes closures due to COVID-19.

3/20: More National Parks have closed infrastructure and services. Plan accordingly. The full, official list of closures and warnings can be found here.

3/19: Adventure Journal has put together an updating list of impacts, including relevant information on public lands and retail closures. It can be found here.

3/19: Several states have now closed state park campgrounds, and some have completely closed state parks. A full list of closures can be found here.

3/18: I’ve just been informed that the Leave No Trace Center has provided “Leave No Trace Recommendations for Getting Outside Amidst Covid-19,” and I think that they’re pretty good guidelines to follow.

3/18: Based on direction from David Bernhardt, the current Secretary of the Interior, the National Park Service will no longer be collecting fees at any National Parks that stay open during the Coronavirus Pandemic. This is an effort to allow people to continue recreating outside without having to have direct interaction at upon entry. So, maybe that’s a silver lining… if we don’t abuse our public lands like we did during the government shutdown. Also, keep in mind that visitors come to our National Parks from around the globe, there’s often crowds, and free entry won’t protect you from viruses. 

Expect closures

Some National Parks and NPS managed sites have closed or have shut down facilities such as Visitor Centers, hotels, and shuttles. I’m reading anecdotes about campground closures, but having not seen any official reports on that, I’m assuming those are normal seasonal closures, not closures due to COVID-19. The NPS is making changes to their daily operations to align with the latest guidance from the CDC, so your experience may be different from the last time you paid a National Park a visit.

National Park services may be limited
Grand Canyon National Park is open, but many services are closed. Pay stations are closed at some entrances, no shuttles are running, and there are no ranger programs at this time.

Plan ahead as best as you can before visiting any National Park sites. I recommend checking out the website for any park you plan to visit, but you can also check out the NPS site for Active Alerts, which will list of dangerous conditions and closures. The Department of Interior has granted authority to Park Superintendents to manage their parks’ response to Coronavirus, so the situation in individual parks will differ.

UPDATE: It’s probably best to avoid National Parks for the time being. Many are closing, so rethink your plans.

If you plan to explore any state parks or local attractions, I recommend calling ahead. Different localities are facing the situation in different ways. For example, all California State Parks have closed all campgrounds, but trails and beaches remain open for the time being. The situation is evolving daily, and even if a park was open yesterday, it may not be tomorrow. You can still enjoy outdoor recreation during the Coronavirus pandemic, you just need to prepare ahead of time.

UPDATE: All Illinois State Parks are officially closed. Same for Florida and Oregon. Anticipate more closures in the near future, and don’t expect access to any state park campgrounds anytime soon. Always call ahead.

Avoid crowds

Plenty of people have been laid off, encouraged or forced to work from home, or have taken time off. That means a lot of people may want to get outside and stretch their legs. That’s not a bad thing — remember, outdoor recreation absolutely will improve your health and wellness. But with lots of people not at work, popular trailheads and destinations may see lots of traffic, the exact thing you want to avoid right now.

National parks draw crowds
Our National Parks are known to draw crowds. The exact thing that we want to avoid right now.

I suggest avoiding some of the more obvious, popular, and Instagram-famous spots. Look for local trails that probably don’t see as much foot traffic. Spend some time looking at Forest Service maps (many are available for free on the Avenza Maps app), and see if you can find some trailheads a little further from town. Plenty of people won’t drive an extra ten or fifteen miles.

Don’t be a jerk

You’ll probably still encounter people on the trail or at the trailhead. Be cool. Give everyone space. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Be patient.

In short? Don’t be a shit. It’s pretty easy to just be considerate of others.

Even on the trail and in the wilderness, follow the CDC’s guidelines for protecting yourself, protecting others, and limiting the spread of the virus. Enjoying outdoor recreation during the Coronavirus pandemic can help us stay healthy, as long as we continue to practice social distancing and other precautions.

Delay your plans

As much as it sucks, it may be wise to think about postponing and big trips or long-term adventures. NOLS has canceled upcoming field-based programs through May 11, and is currently working to extract any students and groups that are currently out in the field. They have growing concerns about their ability to provide routine or emergency evacuation in the near future, and have thus decide to bring everyone home.

thru hikers may have to change plans during the coronavirus pandemic
Thru hikers and backpackers may need to change their plans during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Likewise, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has requested that hikers — including thru hikers — to postpone their departure dates. Sandra Marra, president of the ATC, wrote in an online letter to the trail community:

“We do not make this request lightly. We manage and protect the AT because it is meant to be hiked. However, the practices necessary to support a section or thru-hike may make AT hikers vectors to spread COVID-19, whether congregating at shelters or around picnic tables, traveling to trailheads in shuttle vans, or lodging at the various hostels up and down the trail.”

For hikers that do choose to begin their treks, the ATC urges them to self-quarantine if necessary, and to consider starting somewhere other than the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia. The shelters and campsites near this area see TONS of people from around the globe over the course of a few short weeks, and you already know why that’s dangerous.

Appalachian trail marker
For many hiking the AT is a lifelong dream, which makes the current situation very difficult.

Additionally, hikers should know that much of the infrastructure — official and unofficial — that supports thru hiking may not be accessible. Many stores, hostels, and other businesses have temporarily closed, or may close in the near future. Many shuttles may not run as expected, fewer trail angels will be available, and stores that have been available for resupply in the past may be experiencing shortages.

UPDATE 3/23: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is asking ALL hikers (thru, section, or day) to stay off the AT completely. Apparently the trail and several trailheads have been more crowded than in normal seasons. Dangerously so. Please consider avoiding the AT if you’ve been thinking about hiking.

UPDATE 3/28: “Effective immediately, the National Park Service is closing all overnight shelters (56 total) and privies (75 total) on land administered by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Park Office in the states of VA (11 shelters, 12 privies), MD (1 shelter, 2 privies), PA (8 shelters, 6 privies), NJ (1 shelter, 1 privy), NY (5 shelters, 5 privies), CT (7 shelters, 16 privies), MA (1 shelter, 4 privies), and ME (22 shelters, 29 privies).”  Trailheads in a number of parks and National Forests are closed. Sorry friends, if you’re still on the AT, now is the time to get off. For all intents and purposes, consider the Appalachian Trail closed. 

UPDATE 3/29: There are a number of closures on the Pacific Crest Trail. I recommend considering the PCT closed for the time being. Right now 4 out of 5 states on the Continental Divide Trail are under stay-home orders, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition is urging hikers to stay home

While not as strongly worded as the ATC’s messaging, both the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition have issued statements urging caution, and suggesting postponement of trips. It’s a hard call to make, but for those planning a thru hike, please take the time to consider all of your options and prepare as best as you can. Remember, help may not be as readily available as it has been in the past. Always have a bail out plan.

Outdoor recreation during the Coronavirus pandemic

If you’re into playing outside, you’re probably not the kind of person who wants to stay at home all the time. I get it. Lots of us are already dealing with bouts of cabin fever. If you decide to enjoy some time in the great outdoors, just remember to be smart about it. Health care providers may already be overtaxed in some areas, and a pick up from Search and Rescue is probably not how anyone wants to spend their day.

Wash your hands
Wash your dang hands.

Plan ahead, avoid crowds, and be a thoughtful member of the adventure community. These are chaotic times we’re going through, but the best thing we can do is keep our heads clear, our hearts open, and our hands clean. Be smart about your adventure plans, look out for one another, and stay safe out there.

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