This blog was was originally posted in April 2020--and was updated on July 1, 2020.
This spring, more than 260 million Americans were placed on orders to shelter-in-place or stay-at-home. The entire country continues to look for ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, and the search for safe ways to maintain wellness has led many people to seek safe outdoor places like parks and trails to be active. Resulting surges in trail use recorded across the country have put significant pressure on the nation’s trail system, forcing many local elected officials and trail managers to close parks and trails, and limit facilities and services, to enforce social distancing measures.
“We all need to follow the rules set by our local governments to keep ourselves and each other healthy and to keep our local trails open.”
—Brandi Horton, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Where trails are open—especially in areas where parks and other outdoor recreation facilities have closed—there has been an influx of new users and recognition that safe use and trail etiquette have never been so vital to the health of our nation.
“These activities make it clear that we’ve never needed our parks and public space as desperately as we do right now. But because it’s so hard to be social and practice social distancing at the same time, it’s going to take mindful behavior modification to adjust to the new reality,” wrote Inga Saffron in a March 23 Philadelphia Inquirer column.
So what does this mean right now?
“It’s about using good judgment on where and when we get our exercise outdoors, and how we engage—in a safe distance—with other trail users. We all need to follow the rules set by our local governments to keep ourselves and each other healthy and to keep our local trails open,” said Brandi Horton, spokesperson for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). “During these difficult and challenging times, the way we share the trail with each other, and keep our distance, will go hand in hand.”
Discovering Close-to-Home Trails for Safe Outdoor Activity
“It’s about finding places people may have walked past many times, but never explored before."
—Frederick Schaedtler, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
While many states and communities list outdoor exercise as an essential activity, they caution that people should find close to home opportunities to limit the spread of the virus, and to avoid the potential for issues that could put a strain on local emergency and medical resources. Many trails and recreation facilities have closed vehicle access to mitigate crowding and to discourage visitors from outside the community.
To that end, Frederick Schaedtler, RTC’s chief technology officer, encourages people to look no further than their own neighborhoods. “Many of us may have traveled through our neighborhoods a million times without realizing there’s a local trail or greenway within walking or biking distance.”
For those who are looking for places to be active outside and close to home, Schaedtler recommends TrailLink, RTC’s free trail-finder website and mobile app with information on more than 37,000 miles of multiuse trails across the country. “Since efforts to self-isolate began in earnest over the past few weeks, we’ve seen significant increases in visitors to TrailLink. People are seeking out their local trails right now.”
The website and mobile app include trail maps, walking and biking directions to local trails, contact information for local trail managers, and status updates on trail facilities. Schaedtler and RTC urge all trail users to check with local trail managers to confirm status of facilities prior to visiting, as well as with local government agencies for the most up-to-date public health guidance and laws.
Additionally, trail users can consult local government and trail-manager websites found in these descriptions as means to find other potential local pathways and nature trails.
“It’s about finding places people may have walked past many times, but never explored before. In this time of uncertainty and increasing stress for all of us, it’s a positive way forward for individuals and families,” said Schaedtler.
Share-the-Trail Rules and Safety Tips
As many rail-trails around the country have experienced diverse trail use for decades—from bicycling and horseback riding, to walking and wheelchair use—RTC has long urged everyone to learn and use good trail etiquette at all times to ensure safe experiences for all trail users. As new users flock to the trails, and as individuals and families continue to look to trails for outdoor activity, this mandate has become all the more critical.
RTC’s suite of resources includes extensive tips for safe social distancing, from staying 6 feet from others and avoiding groups, to washing and hand-sanitizing frequently, and leaving trails immediately if social distancing can’t be maintained.
Additionally, trail users are encouraged to learn the golden rules of safe trail use as people navigate pathways with more, and diverse, trail users, including the following:
- Use Safe Speeds.
- Keep Right, Pass Left.
- Standing Still? Stand Aside.
- Mind Your Pets.
- Be Alert.
- Know and Follow the Rules.
- Leave No Trace.
A collection of sharable information and resources, including videos, infographics and blogs are available on RTC’s Share the Trail website.
As states and local communities continue to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, guidelines about what activities are safest and where people should visit continue to evolve. Many are seeking opportunities for outdoor recreation, including visits to the nation’s public lands, waterways and public spaces like parks and trails.
Recently, the Recreate Responsibly Coalition released the latest update to its tips for safely recreating outdoors. The coalition first came together as a group of two dozen organizations in Washington State. Since then, it has grown into a diverse, nationwide community of more than 500 businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, outdoor media and influencers. The overall message is simple: We all have a role to play in keeping people, places and communities safe as we enjoy the outdoors this summer and beyond.
The latest #RecreateResponsibly guidelines are:
- Know Before You Go—Check the status of the place you want to visit. If it is closed, don’t go. If it’s crowded, have a backup plan.
- Plan Ahead—Prepare for facilities to be closed, pack your lunch, and bring essentials like hand sanitizer and a face covering.
- Explore Locally—Limit long-distance travel and make use of local parks, trails and public spaces. Be mindful of your impact on the communities you visit.
- Practice Physical Distancing—Keep your group size small. Be prepared to cover your nose and mouth and give others space. If you are sick, stay home.
- Play It Safe—Slow down and choose lower-risk activities to reduce your risk of injury. Search and rescue operations and health-care resources are both strained.
- Leave No Trace—Respect public lands and waters, as well as Native and local communities. Take all your garbage with you.
- Build an Inclusive Outdoors—Be an active part of making the outdoors safe and welcoming for all identities and abilities.
For more information on the latest guidelines, and to access a full toolkit, check out the coalition website.