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A Safe, Practical Guide to Getting Outside While Social Distancing

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Yes, you can go outside right now, just keep a safe distance away from others.

Photo by Oleg Podzorov/Shutterstock

Yes, you can go outside right now, just keep a safe distance away from others.

Yes, you can (and should!) leave your house to go for a walk right now. Here’s what you need to know.

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The night before San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I took a stroll alone down to Ocean Beach to watch the sunset. The beach can get crowded in the evenings when the weather is nice, but on chilly Mondays in March, it’s usually empty. That night, it was packed. Groups of two and three were parading up and down the shoreline one after the other, and more clusters of people spilled over the dunes. Normally, it would have been beautiful: everyone coming together in a moment of uncertainty to be with friends and families and enjoy nature. But with all the talk about “social distancing” and the impending “lockdown” (as many are calling it), this number of people in one place seemed to defeat the point. 

Don’t get me wrong—it’s more important than ever to go outside right now. The mental health benefits of nature can help alleviate the fear and anxiety spiked by a pandemic. And with many of us stuck inside for the foreseeable future, going out to hike, bike, or simply stroll will help us stay active and healthy, breathe fresh air, and soak up Vitamin D from the sun. 

But while a walk in the park might feel like a blissful escape from everything that’s going on, where and how we can recreate outside has changed in light of the crisis. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself and others safe while going outside during lockdown.

Is it OK to take a walk right now? 

Yes! Unless you’re sick or are being quarantined after contact with a sick person, you are absolutely allowed to go outside. Even cities in the United States such as San Francisco that have instituted shelter-in-place orders, which direct residents to stay at home unless they need essential services, such as food or medical care, or engage in essential businesses, make exemptions for outdoor activity. But whether or not you’re on lockdown, you should still continue to observe the principles of social distancing on your hike or walk. And it’s most effective if you avoid large groups of people and try to stay six feet away from others. 

Now is the time to enjoy some solitude in nature.

Can I hike with friends?

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It’s tempting to use your time outdoors to catch up with friends and neighbors, since social gatherings at houses, restaurants, and bars are no longer advisable. And kids in particular may be clamoring for playdates in the park. You can, of course, invite the people you live with to join you for a walk, but meeting up with people from outside your household could defeat the purpose of these strict containment measures. To stay socially distant, you should avoid close contact—according to the CDC, that means staying farther than six feet away from others. 

Even with the best intentions, I don’t think I could manage to stay six feet away from a friend on a hike. I can picture it: We’d have oddly loud conversation over the awkward distance and trip over ourselves trying to gauge proper separation on a narrow path. And then at the end of it all, we’d probably accidentally hug goodbye. And I can’t even imagine keeping an energetic toddler from bouncing off everyone in the vicinity.

Does that mean you have to cross the street whenever you see a person or only go outside if there’s no one else around? No, simply passing another human being is a low-risk situation, but things get tricky when you’re in a crowd, even if you’re with people you love and trust. For now, it’s best to not hike with others.

Where can I go for a walk while social distancing? 

Avoid favorite hiking trails and aim instead for quieter spots. In many places, popular outdoor areas (aside from Ocean Beach) were mobbed just two or three days into lockdown. But it quickly became evident that the more people there are in an area, the harder it is to maintain that required six feet of distance. In many places, state and local officials have even begun to restrict access to popular parks, playgrounds, and other gathering areas. So rather than head for a beloved overlook or waterfront, consider a long walk around your neighborhood.

If you live in a city and have a car, drive out of town to a harder-to-reach park. Just a few days after California enacted its shelter-in-place order, a friend posted a photo of his crowd-free walk in Año Nuevo State Park south of San Francisco, noting that it was “just us and the waterbirds.” That is social-distancing perfection.

AllTrails is a great resource for finding trails, paths, and urban walks near you. The app and website use your location to provide you with nearby hiking suggestions, with information about distance, difficulty, and popularity. You can use a map view of search results to find trails within walking distance from your house or filter by usual trail traffic. 

Self-isolation is hard. It takes a lot of effort, preparation, and energy to change your routines and lifestyle, and it can get lonely. But if you’re making all that effort, don’t erase all your hard work by putting yourself in a crowded place. Besides, aren’t the outdoors a little nicer when it feels like you have them all to yourself?

It will likely be hard to maintain a six-foot separation if you’re hiking with friends.

Will national and state parks be open?

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The short answer is that it depends on your location. In mid-March, many state and national parks across the country were offering free entry to visitors in an effort to aid public distancing during the COVID-19 crisis: On March 16, New York became one of the first states in the country to waive fees at all state, local, and county parks, encouraging residents to stay healthy and active. By Wednesday, March 18, officials in the Department of the Interior announced that admission at all national parks would be waived

But in the following days, many parks began to shut down to discourage overcrowding. On March 18, California State Parks closed all state park campgrounds to visitors. Two days later national parks, including Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Parks, began shuttering. Now, over 100 NPS parks are closed.

In smaller parks, closure can mean that visitor centers and facilities stop operating and special programming is canceled, but larger, more popular parks have taken stricter measures, closing roads, parking lots, and specific areas, or even barring access to the entire park.

In parks that are still operating for day use, park bathrooms will be open and trash services will be running. But if you’re visiting a closed park, you will not be able to rely on those same facilities or emergency services. 

Things are changing quickly, so check closures at any national park on the NPS website; check state park status on individual state park system websites. 

Much like a year ago, when we wrote about how to visit a national park during a government shutdown, the loss of funding to national parks when they are forced to close can be devastating. You may want to support these beautiful spaces by donating the equivalent of an entrance fee to your favorite spot. 

What else do I need to know?

Mixing up the time of day you go for a walk (or a run!) can also help you avoid crowds. Many folks love a sunset stroll, but sunrises tend to be lonelier. At lunchtime, jogging routes can get busy, but if you can pop out at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m., you’ll be less likely to fall into step with others.

Finally, staying healthy doesn’t just mean avoiding COVID-19. Bring a water bottle on your walk to make sure you’re staying hydrated. Don’t forget to wear a hat and sunscreen if you’re going to be outside in the sun and layer up if it’s chilly out. An early-spring sunburn or head cold is the last thing you need right now.  

This article originally appeared online on March 20, 2020; it was updated on April 2, 2020, to include current information.

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