New Hampshire residents could be forgiven for being slightly confused about whether they’re allowed to go for a hike or not.
“We cannot stress this enough, you should stay at your house unless absolutely necessary,” explained Governor Chris Sununu when announcing his stay-at-home executive order, “Of course we’ll not prevent you from leaving your home to go on a walk, or when heading to the story, or if you need groceries or simply going to work, but beyond essential necessities, you should not be leaving your home.”
As more businesses have closed over the past two weeks, and people are finding themselves with fewer options of how to keep themselves occupied, trailheads and mountaintops are seeing a surge of users.
Large crowds of skiers led to the Forest Service to close Tuckerman Ravine this week, and trail managers up and down the East Coast have formally asked the federal government to close the Appalachian Trail.
So how should you get out and feel the sun on your face during a pandemic?
Recently DeLainey LaHood tried to hike Mount Monadnock, “Just straight away we were like, uh… woops, this was a mistake bad idea.” She says the parking lot was overflowing. “There were just tons of families tons of groups… just getting ready to hike and there are a couple outhouses there, and there was just a continuous stream of people going in and out of the outhouses, where we just like mmmm. Okay.”
LaHood and her hiking partner found somewhere else to walk.
But Mount Monadnock isn’t the only place seeing crowds. One neighbor counted 111 cars parked outside Pawtuckaway State Park last weekend. Mount Major had as many hikers as you might see on 4th of July weekend. Even smaller trail systems that are typically deserted are seeing more use have more folks out using them.
It’s stories like these that have led to even stricter closures in other states. For instance Washington closed all maintained trail systems last week.
But Tim Lahey, an infectious disease doctor and an ethicist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, suggests that might not work.
“In HIV prevention work, we realized early on that waggling your finger at people and blaming them for engaging in any risk behavior is counterproductive,” he said.
In other words, when it comes to a desirable activity, people might do it no matter what you say. So public health officials learned long ago, the best bet is to try to encourage people to reduce their risk, by suggesting alternatives
Take, say, hiking Monadnock for instance.
“That’s a great example of something that seems on a surface level to be fine, hey I’m just going for a hike! But really, that feels to me, you're in a crowd!”
So, when it comes to getting outside during a pandemic, it’s pretty simple. Stay away from people, and surfaces people touch. “Really what we know is Stay six feet away, and wash your hands,” Lahey summarizes.
Which means, when you go outside the safest thing is to avoid anywhere that might have a crowd. Popular trailheads, busy parks, well-known recreation paths. If you make a plan and hit the road, be prepared for crowds, and if you run into them, be prepared to change that plan.
And now’s probably not the time to head for super remote, inaccessible trails in the White Mountains. Even very competent hikers can fall and hurt themselves... putting rescuers at greater risk of exposure and stretching scarce medical resources even thinner,.
So if you can get outside without getting into a car at all, the safest thing for you and your loved ones is probably to just go for a walk, a run or a bike ride, right out your back door.