According to the CDC, social distancing means staying more than six feet away from others, specifically those outside your household. It’s a previously unknown phrase that has recently entered our collective vernacular – simple to understand, but not always simple to practice in the real world. But as long as every hiker stays vigilant, it’s still one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to a virus and slowing its spread through the community.
It might be tempting to invite friends out for an afternoon hike, but you should first consider whether social distancing is possible. If you can take all the proper precautions (avoid carpools, keep your six feet, wear a mask if you can), then go out and have a blast! But for now, it’s recommended that you stick with your family or housemates – the people you share a home with – as your hiking buddies.
Many trails are busier than ever right now, so you’ll want to show up when most of the crowds are at home. This means getting an early start or going on an evening/twilight hike. You’re much less likely to encounter other hikers at these times of day, and you get the bonus of catching some spectacular sunrises, sunsets and starry skies along the way.
A perfect litmus test for how crowded a trail might be is by looking at the parking lot. Is it packed? Are all the spaces taken? Instead of waiting around, it might be time to move on. Mark Latti, communications director for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife says, “We always ask people to have plans A, B and C, so if you go to a trailhead and see too many cars there, you can go somewhere else.”
Out-and-back trails will have you retracing your steps back to the trailhead, so there will be a constant flow of hikers heading both ways – a bad position to be in for proper social distancing. Instead, look for loop trails that will circle back to the parking area. Most people will be headed in the same direction as you, making it much easier to maintain your distance.
It’s okay if you need to step off the trail to let someone pass. We know, we know – it’s breaking one of the cardinal rules of hiking, but current circumstances have caused experts and parks departments to recommend you forget about that for now. Here’s what to do if you need to clear the way: if it’s safe to do so, step carefully off the trail at a 90-degree angle, avoiding any plants if possible. Once you’re six feet off the trail, let people pass, then slowly retrace your steps back to the trail.
There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not a face covering should be required on the trail. In short, there’s minimal danger in hiking without one, but you should always have a mask, buff or bandana ready to go just in case you encounter people on the trail and can’t step aside to allow for social distancing. You’ll also want to make sure you cover up before navigating busy parking lots.
Chances are you’ll be miles from the closest sink on any hiking trip, especially with many park facilities currently closed. Although washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the best defense against getting sick, hand sanitizer will do in a pinch. Make sure to give your hands a squirt of sanitizer before eating snacks or lunch, after touching things like picnic tables or benches, and when you get back to your car. There are some great hand sanitizer holders out there that attach to your backpack for easy access, any time.
Some people come to the woods to take it slow and explore, and that’s totally part of the fun. It’s important, however, to be cognizant of the hikers around you. Try to keep moving if you can, and if you’re hiking with a group, stay in a single file so you don’t create a bottleneck or narrow the trail any further. If you do need to let other hikers pass, use our previous tip on how to safely step off the trail.
Still nervous? That’s natural. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, has some words of encouragment: "Physical distancing does not mean staying inside 24/7. The Maine CDC encourages people to get outside and take walks to breathe in fresh air, get some sun, and enjoy the state's beauty. But be smart and maintain a reasonable distance from others while doing so. Instead of hugging, find different, safe ways to show people that you care for them. Enjoy the great outdoors responsibly."