Here’s the Latest Expert Guidance on Outdoor Activity and COVID-19

Posted 04/18/20 by Amy Kapp in Trail Use, Health and Wellness

Trail runner | Photo by Aarni Heiskanen | CC by 2.0

This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and true trail voices around the country, and how trails have impacted the lives of Americans during COVID-19. Learn more at and #TrailMoments on social media.

This post was updated on May 13, 2020.

As Americans work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 across the United States, public health professionals continue to provide important safety guidance on engaging in outdoor physical activity—which experts maintain is important for individual health and wellness as long as people maintain 6 feet of distance between each other.  

In conjunction with shelter-in-place orders issued by states and localities across the country, experts are urging people to stay as close to home as possible when seeking places to be active in the outdoors, and to engage in physical activity on their own (or only with individuals they have already been cohabitating with). They are also suggesting face coverings as a voluntary public-health measure to avoid spreading the virus to others.  

New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the safe use of parks and outdoor recreation facilities reinforce these recommendations.  

Here’s the latest on how to safely be outdoors in the midst of COVID-19. 

Latest Recommendations for Parks, Trails and Recreation Facilities 

On April 10, the CDC published recommendations for protecting oneself when visiting parks, trails and open spaces, so you can “Know Before You Go.”  

This includes: staying 6 feet away from others at all times; washing hands and using hand sanitizer; not congregating with others outside your household; avoiding playgrounds, water parks, or any and all crowded parks and trails; and staying close to home (only visiting locations that are within a short walk or bike ride of home and avoiding going to open spaces that require longer travel). Organized activities are not recommended.  

Read the detailed list of recommendations on the CDC website.  

Additionally—the American Hiking Society has posted this great list of recommendations and tips for hiking responsibly in the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they update regularly as conditions change. 

Transmission and Running/Bicycling Slipstreams 

Washington, D.C., area trail | Photo courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days about how much distance is needed between people in the outdoors—particularly with regard to slipstreams (zones of pulled air behind people who are running or bicycling) and COVID-19 transmission. The jury is still out as public debate continues between researchers and health experts.  

The best advice ultimately continues to be: Use good judgment in each individual situation. 

In an April 14 CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta—when asked by a viewer if a runner should avoid being directly behind someone even if they are farther than 6 feet—said that ultimately, while the data suggests you can still run outdoors, it’s a matter of common sense: There is no magic number for which the virus will or won’t spread when in front of or behind someone; people should just seek to stay as far away from others as possible when they are running—and keep people out of eyesight if they can. 

Recommendations Related to Cloth Face Coverings  

Recent CDC guidance indicates, however, that masks, when worn outdoors and/or on the trail, could help limit the spread of droplets and keep other people safer. 

The CDC maintains that the “virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms. As such, the CDC recommends that people wear face coverings (which can be made from household items) as an additional voluntary health measure in public settings, including outside spaces, where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, and particularly in areas of significant community-based transmission.   

It’s important to note that this is advised to prevent people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.  

Here is a great tutorial by the CDC on how to create a cloth face covering out of cotton fabric, an old T-shirt or a bandana.  

Or, check out this instructional video for “How to Make Your Own Face Covering” by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. 

Recommendations for Pets and the Outdoors 

In late-April, the CDC published guidance about pets and COVID-19. They maintain that based on limited information to date, "the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low; however, it appears that the virus that causes COVID-19 can spread from people to animals in some situations." Their advice at this time: Treat pets as you would other human family members with regard to social distancing. 

In the outdoors, this includes walking dogs on a leash while maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals, and avoiding dog parks and other public places where a large number of people and dogs gather. It is recommended that cats are kept indoors. For more detailed information, go to the CDC "If You Have Pets" web page.

Share Your Trail Moment

Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.


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