Quarantine and social distancing has forced us to sacrifice no small number of things—happy hour, spontaneous wine or beer runs, and long-planned trips abroad—but what are the rules when it comes to hiking nearby? Is hitting your favorite local trails completely off-limits, or are there precautions you can take that make this outdoor pastime OK even amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
We asked two medical doctors that very question, and both agree that hiking right now isn’t just OK, but that it might serve you well.
“Currently, there is no reason to say it is not safe to go hiking. In fact, it will help both your mental and physical well-being as engaging in some level of outdoor activity is generally recommended,” argues Dr. Kartik Patel, a primary care physician for UCHealth. “Getting out in the sunshine and exercising helps in many ways. For one, you experience an overall health benefit from being outdoors in the fresh air, and more sunlight exposure helps improve vitamin D levels in the body. Additionally, exercise helps maintain cardiac and respiratory health in individuals.”
Not only that, but Dr. Patel says that spending time outdoors helps prevent feelings of anxiousness or depression that can occur from being in the same place for days on end. This overall improvement in mental health may help reduce feelings of stress and promote inner calmness, which is essential anytime but especially helpful now.
Some Hiking Ground Rules
If you’re lucky enough to be somewhere with beautiful weather and accessible trails, there are some general ground rules to follow when hiking:
Hike Alone or With Quarantine Partners
"For healthy individuals who do want to hike, it's recommended to either hike alone or with others whom you have been quarantined with," says Dr. Abe Malkin, founder and director of Los Angeles' Concierge MD LA.
This ensures you're not making contact with people who haven't been exposed to you and vice versa. If you somehow end up hiking with someone who you haven't been spending time with—or encounter strangers on the trail—the general rule is to stay six feet apart at all times. Dr. Patel says, "This ensures that you are a safe distance from others who [could potentially] have some level of illness."
If you're hiking alone, we recommend texting several others when you leave and giving an estimated time frame of your return. In case you don't return within that time frame, they can reach out to ensure your safety.
This advice is relevant no matter when you go hiking, says Dr. Patel. However, he notes that hydration is especially crucial to our immunity and overall health since “it helps promote proper functioning of organs in our body.”
Don’t Touch Surfaces
"Hikers should refrain from touching surfaces that others might have touched—such as rocks or trees—and carry hand-held disinfectant gel to avoid possible disease transmission," says Dr. Malkin. If you're worried about touching surfaces out of habit, wearing a pair of gloves and washing them after your hike is recommended.
Avoid Trails with Scrambling
Given that you shouldn’t be touching surfaces while hiking, it’s crucial to avoid trails that require any amount of scrambling—AKA sitting down or using your hands to maneuver over specific spots.
“Depending on who was on the trail before you and the period between them in that area and you in that area, there could still be live virus particles on those surfaces,” says Dr. Patel. “If you do touch these surfaces, make sure you wash your hands and use hand sanitizer regularly, especially before eating. This holds true even if we were not having in an infectious pandemic.”
Don’t Hike If You’re Experiencing Symptoms
It needs to be said that if you’re currently feeling ill, hiking should be the last thing on your mind, warns Dr. Malkin. He says that individuals actively experiencing symptoms of coronavirus—such as fever, coughing, or respiratory issues—or other infectious illnesses should not partake. Instead, consult your general practitioner, local hospital, or urgent care about your symptoms and move forward accordingly. This precaution protects not just you, but all others.