Social Distancing on the Hiking Trail: Staying Safe Outdoors During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Schools have been closed now for a few weeks due to the coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic. Our state—and many others—have stay at home orders in place. My family’s solution to our stay-at-home stir-craziness has been to get outdoors. So, every day, we head out to a local park to hike a mile or two. 

Fortunately, outdoor activity is currently considered an essential activity. Per the governor’s orders, engaging in outdoor activities—like going to public and state parks—is okay as long as people practice social distancing. Walking, biking, hiking, and running are all allowed. (Team sports and contact sports are not allowed, for the record. And playgrounds are closed.)

coronavirus hike
Here we are on one of our many coronavirus hikes.

It’s been awesome to be out in the fresh air every day, exploring nature together as a family. However, the more time I’ve spent at local parks and conservation areas lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that not everyone knows what to do—considering the coronavirus / COVID-19 outbreak—when meeting other hikers on the trails. 

Some people seem like they’re ready to breeze right by us, close enough to brush shoulders (yikes!). Others seem slightly panicked, like they’ve encountered zombies on the trail. Most people, however, just seem unsure and a little awkward. Like, how do we navigate this and still maintain our midwest nice?

To make this all a little easier on everyone, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you encounter other people on the trail or at the park. 

My core message? Maintain the space requirements of social distancing on the trail and at all times. Here’s how:

Move over (way over!) when passing.

hiking coronavirus
I’ve been noticing signs like this in many area parks and natural areas.

Many, many hiking trails are less than 6 feet wide. That means that when passing, one party must step off the trail to maintain the 6 foot distance that the CDC recommends. Since I’m usually hiking with two small kids, we step out of the way (off the trail) to let faster hikers pass.

We avoid trails that are very narrow or don’t have room to the side, especially when there are a lot of other hikers. 

Take turns in tight spaces.

Sometimes there are spots—docks, bridges, towers, stairs—that are necessary throughways or desired destinations. Be extra aware of others around you in these tight spaces. If someone is already on the dock or narrow bridge, it’s best to wait until they’re done in the space before you enter the area.

If you’re in a tight space and someone is headed your way (and you’re worried about ending up in close contact), simply give a friendly wave and call out that you’re practicing social distancing and ask them to wait until you’re out of the space. In my experience, hikers are pretty friendly folks and won’t mind waiting until you’re out of the way.

Parking Lot Protocol

When you arrive at the parking lot, don’t park right next to another car, unless you absolutely have to.

And make sure to give people space as they get in and out of their vehicle, especially if they have children with them (because we all know that getting kids in and out of cars is one of the worst parts of parenthood and the only thing that makes it worse is feeling rushed).

Don’t touch anything! Wash your hands!

closed due to coronavirus
Most bathrooms are closed, but even if they are open, I’d try to avoid them!

Most bathrooms are closed, but even if they’re open, I’d try to avoid using them. My family also does our best not to touch fences, signs, shelters, benches, etc. But just to be sure, bring hand sanitizer and wash your hands well when you return home. 

Nature is full of hope.

Nature hasn’t been cancelled. Getting outside into open, natural settings is something that seems to be generally low-risk with lots of benefits. In fact, it’s keeping me and my family sane during a challenging time.

Nature is full of hope. As we hike, we’re seeing things slowly start to turn green—a reminder that spring is close, proof that winter doesn’t last forever. When the sun’s out, it’s warm enough to dream about dipping our toes in the creek.

We notice many small things as we walk: tiny berries, red branches, the way water bubbles up through sand. Around us, there’s life. So much life. Birds are returning. Buds are full and soft on the trees. Cranes call to each other. Nature doesn’t seem to notice us much, but we soak it in. It’s big and precious.

We come home from our hikes in better moods than when we left. We bring with us stories and pinecones. Our boots are muddy. Our muscles are tired. And, most importantly, we carry home the calm that comes from a little normalcy amid a time that is scary, uncertain, and exhausting.

Amelia Cook Fontella is a writer, teacher, designer, and entrepreneur. She lives in a cozy little house on Madison’s east side with her husband Rob, kiddos Frankie and Luisa, and a puggle named Starla. Amelia has an MFA in creative writing and regularly teaches in the Madison area, including her own Get Inspired Workshop classes. Amelia and Rob own Green Table Media where they help small businesses and community organizations tell their stories. Amelia adores traveling the world, exploring things in her own backyard, going swimming, and just about anything to do with creativity, writing, and the arts. She’s good at finding other people’s lost things and makes a mean brandy slush.


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