(even when our business depends on it)
Trust us, we get it. It certainly doesn’t benefit us (as avid backpackers AND as a small, family-run business that depends on our customers enjoying and having access to the great outdoors) to tell you to stay home. But that’s what we’re doing, and that’s what we’re hoping you do as well.
As “Stay At Home” orders went into effect across the nation and many Americans prepared to stay in, others prepared to go out. The idea of facing weeks or even months cooped up indoors sent droves of hikers to seek refuge in open, public spaces. Initially, the federal government waived entrance fees to national parks and public lands, but soon the parks became overwhelmingly crowded, with visitors pouring out of parking lots in Joshua Tree, standing shoulder to shoulder at shuttle stops in Zion, and filling up visitor centers at the Grand Canyon.
Quickly it became obvious that social distancing could not be properly maintained with this level of traffic, and the strain on park resources endangered not only hikers, but staff. In a memo from the National Park Service, the Epidemiology Branch Chief writes, “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.”
One by one, National Parks closed or limited access to visitors. The Pacific Crest Trail issued a strong statement urging thruhikers to stay off the trail. They have asked long-distance hikers to cancel or postpone trips, reminding them that the government mandates in California, Oregon, and Washington forbid non-essential travel, and out of town hikers traveling through multiple communities puts those local populations at risk.
Who is impacted when YOU go hiking?
Health Care Workers
Even if you are in perfect health, hiking and camping is inherently a little bit dangerous all the time. If you twist an ankle, lose your route and get lost, or fall into a freezing stream, now Search & Rescue or other first-responders have to assist you when they should be focused on servicing just essential medical emergencies. Emergency crews have already had to rescue a few hikers from various trails this year, straining the already-limited resources of those teams.
Communities in the towns along the trail and parks
From Trail Angels, grocery store clerks, and the gas station attendant you paid when you filled up your gas tank as you were headed into the hills, we interact with more than just nature when we go camping and backpacking.
Even trails that are open have limited staff and any rescue intervention puts strain on their already diminished resources. When you take the risk of going on that hike you are not only endangering yourself, but others as well.
In Moab, the local hospital sent a letter to the governor stating, “Although the desert around Moab is vast, our town is small. We are already concerned about how we will meet the needs of our community in an epidemic. As a 17-bed critical access hospital, we have no ICU and minimal capability to care for critical respiratory patients.”
It is not just about your health, and these beautiful trails and parks are not sustained on their own. Minimum wage park employees who continue to provide essential maintenance have expressed worry that, “it’s not a matter of if I get sick but when.” Another anonymous employee wrote in a letter to the Park Service, “Our employees are fearful of bringing this sickness into their homes and threatening the lives of the most high risk among us.” We depend on them to preserve our majestic open spaces and they depend on you to stay home.
What if YOU fall ill while hiking?
Know that the onset of symptoms can be rapid: one PCT Trail Angel with COVID-19 says, “I went from ‘I’m good’ to ‘I feel like I’m dying’ in 15 minutes. If you start a day feeling good, there’s no guarantee you won’t be caught off guard (as I was) when COVID hits you. Then what?”
What can you do instead?
Craving the campsite? Look no further than your backyard (or living room, for that matter).
Grab the s’mores, unroll your sleeping bag, and enjoy a stay-cation. Last week, Washington State Parks Foundation hosted The Great Washington Camp-In. Follow their lead and bust out the trail mix in your own personal campgrounds. You can even sit around a campfire with musicians and cowboys of Cody, Wyoming.
Need more inspiration? Check out this heart-warming story of a husband who set up a surprise at-home camping trip for his wife after they had to cancel their summer plans.
This is temporary, and a small sacrifice to keep park employees, rural towns, and healthcare workers safe. If you are yearning for more nature in your life, check out our list of suggestions for bringing the outdoors inside during quarantine.
In the meantime, if you are able, consider donating to your favorite national park, local community organization, or a national program to support these vital spaces in this difficult time.
Civic responsibility is a fundamental and meaningful principle of our community. By taking that responsibility seriously we show care and respect to our environment and each other.