It’s April, which for me usually means the start of camping season. But, instead of trekking outdoors to see the plants pushing out of the wet earth and buds forming on trees, I’m locked in my home and practicing social distancing.
I should point out that it’s a very small home: Just 540 square feet of space for FOUR of us, one of which is a very active toddler. We do make daily ventures into the concrete lot behind our apartment building. I explore the crevices in the wall for spiders and snails. We saw a centipede yesterday and watched it for a full 10 minutes before it disappeared in a crack in the brick wall enclosing us.
This is what passes as “nature” for us these days.
Instead of being trapped in their homes during the pandemic, a lot of people have decided to go camping or backpacking. Yes, nature is good for mental and physical health during this turmoil. But I urge you to reconsider a camping trip until COVID-19 is over. Here’s why.
National Parks Are Crowded because of the Pandemic
On the surface, camping seems like it would be safe during the pandemic. After all, there aren’t many people in nature…
But too many people – including all of those who suddenly found themselves without school and work – had the same idea. National and State parks around the world are flooded with visitors. In California, for example, the parks system received over 97,000 camping reservations from February 1st to March 11th, which is approximately an 80% increase! The state has since shut all state campgrounds. (Source)
Even the The Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a warning on March 23rd:
“The Appalachian Trail, given its ever-increasing popularity over the past weeks, is no longer a viable space to practice social distancing.”
Crowds Are Damaging Fragile Ecosystems
Crowded natural spaces isn’t just putting visitors at risk of COVID-19. It’s also wreaking havoc on the parks themselves.
Remember what happened to the USA’s National Parks during the 2018 government shutdown? Since bathrooms weren’t open, people just sh*t wherever they felt like. Since trashcans weren’t being emptied, refuse littered the parks.
This same thing is happening now that people are flocking to National Parks in the midst of coronavirus.
Gateway Communities Aren’t Well Equipped to Handle COVID-19 Outbreaks
To be clear, nowhere is adequately equipped to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, but the rural areas en route to popular nature areas (aka gateway communities) are especially under-equipped.
And outdoor enthusiasts are reliant upon these rural communities and often come in contact.
- Thru-hikers going into town to resupply
- Stopping to go to the bathroom while driving to camp
- Getting something to eat at a roadside diner
- Having a vehicle breakdown and have to call a tow truck or local mechanic…
Social distancing when out and about is difficult, if not impossible in some situations. When you come in contact with people while en route to your camping destination, it puts local residents at risk and simply isn’t fair to them.
You Are Stretching Resources When You Go Out
I know no one thinks it can happen to them, but bad things can happen when outdoors. People get lost, injured, come across unexpected bad weather… And people need rescuing.
This is why mountain Search and Rescue teams have been pleading with nature-lovers to limit risk.
Canada Parks Mountain Safety asked on their Facebook page that
“All backcountry travelers to keep their personal risk to an absolute minimum. Now is not the time to have a backcountry accident, which will stress the capacity of our teams and the medical system.”
Scottish Mountain Rescue urged outdoor enthusiasts to stick to “familiar and safe” areas. They further said that “Our team members are all volunteers and we don’t want them sent home with anything worse than wet clothes and muddy boots!”
After having to send out a rescue to team for a man who had fallen, a Montana rescue captain sent out a message:
“Be healthy, take care of yourselves, but pick the more conservative outing for now. And that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to come get you if things go bad. But we want you to recognize when we do we are putting our volunteers who have lives and professions of their own at risk, at increased risk, during this time when we’re combating the COVID epidemic.”
Still want to go camping during COVID-19? Here’s how to do it responsibly.
As much as I hate it, I personally am staying at home until the pandemic crisis is over. Yes, that might mean missing all of camping season depending on how long this lasts.
If you are going to plan an outdoor trip during the pandemic, please do it responsibly by following these tips.
1. Only Go Somewhere Close By
The reason for this is so you can get there and back without having to stop. Not even for a bathroom break (unless you are prepared to do it on the side of the road and not leave a trace). Not even for gas. Like I said, you don’t want to put rural communities at risk.
*You don’t have travel far distances to enjoy nature. You can get as much joy from nature in your local woods as you would in one of the impressive National Parks. Hell, pitch a tent in your backyard if you are lucky enough to have one!
2. Stick to Familiar Territory
You are less likely to get injured or lost in places you are familiar with. And thus you’re less likely to need rescuing or assistance from the local community. Please don’t think you are immune to having bad sh*t happen to you while outdoors!
3. Be prepared to take care of ALL of your needs.
People who are used to campground camping will need to make major adjustments if they want to responsibly during COVID-19. The normal amenities simply won’t be available or using them will put people at risk through contact.
Even if you are used to “roughing it”, you’ve got to remember that the normal luxuries of civilization are off-limits. For example, I usually will get dinner at a restaurant after hiking down from a multi-day backpacking trip. Not now! I’d need to pack an extra meal to sustain me for the trip home.
- Supplying your own map. Visitor centers are closed.
- Digging a cathole for going to the bathroom (don’t expect public restrooms to be open)
- Having enough food and supplies so you don’t need to visit local stores or restaurants
- Treating first aid needs. You don’t want to make a trip to the pharmacy because you got diarrhea. Here’s what to pack in your first aid kit.
- Sourcing and treating water. You might not have access to faucets or other potable water sources. See this post for the best camping water filters.
- Hanging food bags. If you normally rely on campground lockers for storing food, you’ll have to get a bear canister or hang a food bag instead.
- Bagging up and carrying out all trash.
- Having somewhere to sit, cook, and eat meals. Picnic table areas are closed in many places. If you don’t like to sit on the ground, you may be out of luck.
4. Choose Locations Which Are Truly Isolated
Now’s probably not the time to visit those majestic National or State parks. Consider wild camping on public land in your local area instead.
5. Have an Exit Plan
This is something you should have for every wild camping or backpacking trip, not just for COVID-19. Bad things do happen (no matter how much you want to believe they won’t happen to you).
Make sure you can quickly and easily get out, back to your vehicle, and back home or to a hospital. This is not the time to be calling mountain rescue services!
6. Practice Leave No Trace
I reiterate, the normal amenities like trash cans, bathrooms, and dishwashing stations won’t be available. Re-familiarize yourself with the principles of Leave No Trace and make sure you:
- Have a shovel for digging a cathole for waste
- Use biodegradable soap for washing dishes
- Plan how you will carry out trash
- Know how to keep food away from wild animals
- Don’t damage plants when setting up camp
7. Bring Extra Supplies
Now is NOT the time to go ultralight. Now is NOT the time to take risks. Bring adequate gear to meet all of your needs during the trip. You won’t be able to pop into a local store to get supplies you forgot!
8. Do Your Research
Some State and National Parks are still open. Others are completely or partially closed. Certain roads or parking lots may also be closed. Be sure you do your research and check again on the day you leave. Closures can happen suddenly without warning!