8 Tips for Exploring Outdoors Now

In the midst of the current pandemic and all other external stressors, the sanctuary of the great outdoors has become more of a necessity than ever.  Spending time outside has a multitude of mental and physical health benefits. We’ll dive into this more to uncover why exploring outdoors can be beneficial for you.  We’ll also cover the most important recommendations for how to stay safe (in general and in COVID-context) and be a responsible citizen while in nature

Exploring outdoors view of green tree covered mountains from a gray rocky cliff on a cloudy day.
Being in nature can have many restorative qualities.

Benefits of Exploring Outdoors:

The amount of people flocking to parks and trails since the pandemic began has increased dramatically.  Some are staying closer to home, while others are venturing out on road trips.  Either way, it is likely you will have company, and for good reason.  

Spending time outside can have several benefits, including: 

  • Increased Vitamin D, which is good for blood cells, bones, and the immune system.
  • Additional immunity boosts from sunlight, which helps engage infection-fighting T-cells, and plants, which release phytoncides (organic compounds known to elevate immunity).
  • Reduced stress and anxiety.
  • May lead to exercise and/or social activity – both of which also can also alleviate anxiety and stress.
  • Improved sleep and mental focus.

With all those benefits, getting some time outside is clearly a win-win.  So, how do we do so given the special considerations of the current era?

View of the town of Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.
Great trails may be close by. View of Harpers Ferry, WV from Loudon Heights Trail.

Exploring the Outdoors Responsibly:

The guidelines below are intended to correspond with the seven principles of Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics.  The goal of LNT principles is to provide easily understandable guidelines that can be applied to a wide variety of situations to help minimize our combined environmental impact. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is the most well-known source of information on this topic.  You can check out their website here – https://lnt.org/.

Fall of 2020 comes with its own special considerations when it comes to recreating responsibly.  Below are some ideas for balancing our desire to get outside with mitigating the potential risks.  These ideas are intended as initial guidance to correspond with your own research and preparation.  Please consult official government sources such as the CDC (link below) and the local authorities for where you plan to visit for updated details and regulations.

A kayaker exploring outdoors on a river off between rocky gray cliffs on the Billy Goat A Trail in Great Falls Park.
Billy Goat Trail (Section A) at Great Falls Park in Maryland – An example of a trail with directional guidance in place since the start of the pandemic.
  1. Do Your Research
  • Get familiar with local rules, special hours, trail closures, new regulations (such as one-way trail or vehicle traffic, etc).
  • Know where the nearest resources are such as cell service and a hospital.
  1. Be Responsible
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks – Search and Rescue Teams are already strained and have additional considerations due to COVID.  Don’t tax their resources unnecessarily.  
  • Ensure that you and your party know where you are going.  Have navigational tools and know how to use them.
  • Continue to follow general Leave No Trace principles (found here – https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/).
  1. Respect Each Other
  • The experiences that we have each encountered when appreciating the outdoors may vary greatly. Let’s each do our part to recognize this, respect each other, and learn from one another.
  • Maintain Social Distancing – If you have to move off trail to keep adequate distance, try to step on more durable surfaces such as rocks.
  • Have a mask easily accessible for when you are near others and use it accordingly.
  • Ensure that your mask doesn’t fall off or out of your pocket and become litter.
  1. Plan Ahead for Waste Disposal
  • Be prepared for trash and recycling bins to be full.
  • Carry trash bags so you can pack out your trash and take it out in your vehicle.  Pack hand sanitizer.  
  • Do research and have a plan in case bathrooms at the trailhead are closed. Follow Leave No Trace guidelines for disposing of human waste.
  1. Be Aware of Fire Danger
  • Know the fire risks for your area and keep an eye and ear out for signs.  If hiking and you hear thunder, consider turning back if that is your safest option.  Conditions can change quickly if a fire starts.
  • Do your part to prevent wildfires by checking rules before having a campfire, being aware of conditions such as wind, keeping them to designated areas, and extinguishing them fully.
  • Don’t park your car on dry grasses or litter cigarettes.  Both of these can cause fires.
  1. Maintain Flexibility
  • Consider local trails that you’ve never tried before or going at off peak times
    • Note: As an example, all photos in this post are for trailheads within an hour and a half drive of Washington D.C.  Stay tuned for an additional post on the best trails in the D.C. area.
  • Have a second option if where you would like to go is too crowded.  This applies to local trails as well as major destinations such as national parks, some of which have had record-breaking wait times for park entry.
  1. Look out for your party
  • Select a trail that matches the ability of everyone in your party.  If members of your party are at higher risk for COVID, consider factors to limit potential exposure, such as visiting less crowded trails or during less busy times.
    • Note: Minimizing the number of stops that need to be made along the way to/from your destination is another good way to reduce risk.
  1. Enjoy yourself
  • You’ve done the research and you’re out on the trail.  This is your time to decompress.  Yes, you’ll need to maintain a good general awareness but also remember to let yourself relax in whatever form that takes for you – listening to the birds or the rustling of the wind in the trees, letting the breeze blow through your hair, getting your muscles pumping.  Enjoy the restorative qualities of the world around you and this time you’ve created for yourself. 
  • This is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves in this time and ultimately, it also helps us better show up for others.
A tree with red leaves frames flat gray rocks with graffiti overlooking a river and tree covered mountains.
Take only memories, leave only footprints.

Exploring Outdoors Highlights

Getting There:

  • Staying local is the safest option to reduce the amount of stops along your route.
  • No matter where you are traveling, have an alternate option (or two) in mind in case the first location is too crowded.  Note that you may not have cell service to research this at your destination depending on where you are going.

Conservation Considerations:

  • With the increase of visitors to outdoor areas, it is critical that we all do our part to minimize our individual and collective impacts.  Follow posted rules and regulations. 
  • Respect the plants, animals, and people live who in and around the location you are visiting.
Plants frame an opening to a calm river flanked by green trees with blue sky above.
This is a part of my local trail that I hadn’t tried until this year.  It has become a place of refuge.

Expeditions with Evelyn Exclusive (EEE):

If you are visiting a location that has its own app or Twitter account, such as a national park, these can both be good resources for real time updates on traffic delays and statuses for entrance gates or parking lots.  Check the destination’s website for more details on available options.

Tell me about your experience:

What have your experience been exploring outdoors in 2020?  Have you stayed local or ventured farther out?  When did you go?  Do you have any lessons learned?  I’d love to hear more about your experiences in the comments.