Using Trails and Outdoor Spaces Safely in the Wake of COVID-19

Posted 03/24/20 by Amy Kapp in America's Trails, Trail Use

Four Mile Run in Arlington, VA | Photo by Joe LaCroix

Trails and outdoor spaces are seeing major spikes in usage across the country, as individuals and families look to these assets for daily physical activity and mental respite in the wake of COVID-19. As America’s business, social and cultural hubs shutter their doors to weather the coronavirus pandemic, many public health experts have discussed the importance of being active in the outdoors—as long as we maintain a safe social distance.

Dramatic increases in visitation are being recorded across the United States; an analysis of 31 trail counters for the week of March 16–22 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) found a nationwide trail usage increase of nearly 200% from that same week in 2019. This surge in trail use is forcing trail managers to take fast action to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among their constituents while encouraging careful and conscientious trail use.

To ensure that people are adhering to social distancing and being safe in the outdoors, some trails and parks are closing, while others are limiting their services. Some are limiting motorized access to entrances and trailheads to minimize crowds. Others are pushing significant public education efforts encouraging people to “keep your park open” by maintaining a safe social distance.

It’s vital that people find ways to engage in physical activity during this time; the benefits to our immune systems and our mental health are significant. But it is critical that we do so in ways that will keep us safe and minimize the spread of the pandemic. In response, communities are grappling with how best to create outdoor spaces for people to engage in physical activity while keeping 6 feet of distance from others.

While trails continue to serve as significant sources of health and wellness for Americans, RTC is urging everyone to practice safe and responsible trail use and self-care at all times.


“When you get out to a trailhead and it’s packed—don’t go on it. If you are out there, and you realize you are not able to maintain that safe social distance of 6 feet, turnaround. If you start to feel unsafe at any point, turn back.”

—Gabriel Avila-Mooney, King County Parks in Washington


Practicing Social Distancing—and Good Judgment—on Trails

Share the Trail graphic about COVID-19
Practice safe social distancing on the trail. Learn more about Share the Trail.

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In response to the crisis currently facing our nation, people are seeking out trails in extraordinary numbers. Demand for both trails and parks is surging, and the need for more green space close to home in every community is painstakingly clear.

But an overriding message from experts is to put safety first when out on the trail. First and foremost, maintaining a social distance of at least 6 feet—the length experts say is effective to stop the spread of COVID-19—is critical, as is self-care.

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission has noted a 471% uptick of bicycling over last year on the Kelly Drive Trail alone, an unprecedented jump, said the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia in a recent blog. The city is strongly encouraging people to remain indoors, except for when utilizing the trail for physical activity, with the caveat that residents maintain social distancing at all times, “and wash their hands for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer after every visit to an open outdoor facility.”

“Hikers should view social distancing as an essential practice, ‘similar to leave no trace,’” affirmed Kindra Ramos, spokesperson for the Washington Trails Association (WTA), which has observed spikes in usage on hiking thru-trails in the state. “[Recent events] have highlighted how integral the outdoors really are to people’s mental and physical wellbeing. But they’ve also highlighted that, as demand has gone up, [some] infrastructure can’t always handle it, particularly with the social distancing and other practices needed [to ensure the health and safety of everyone].”

To that end, she urges people to stay off popular trails, and hike only with individuals they cohabitate with or regularly see in person. Exercising independently or in very small numbers is being encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and by trail managers; in Virginia, Arlington County Parks & Recreation has closed its trails and gardens to groups, and the W&OD Trail has enforced restrictions on groups using the trails. 

And of course, at all times, common sense is critical.

“What we are encouraging people to do is use good judgment and maintain flexibility,” said Gabriel Avila-Mooney, a communications specialist for King County Parks in Washington, which manages about 300 miles of trails, and has noted huge increases in usage, from jammed parking lots to busy trailheads. Even on their regional trails, said Mooney, intersections and other stopping points can create unintentional group situations that should be avoided.

“When you get out to a trailhead and it’s packed—don’t go on it. If you are out there, and you realize you are not able to maintain that safe social distance of 6 feet, turnaround. If you start to feel unsafe at any point, turn back.”


“Stay close to home so you are not traveling outside of your communities or in places where, if something goes wrong, it may put a strain on emergency responders.”

—Kindra Ramos, Washington Trails Association


Close-to-Home Activity Essential for Safe Trail Use

W&OD Trail near Reston, Virginia | Photo by Amy Kapp
W&OD Trail near Reston, Virginia | Photo by Amy Kapp

Along with self-care and social distancing, preparedness and adhering to state and local regulations and laws are essential, particularly as COVID-19 safety measures include more closures of trail facilities like restrooms, water fountains and snack shops—and as shelter-in-place laws and limitations surrounding group activities are created to mitigate the spread of the illness.

In their list of recommendations, the WTA is strongly encouraging people only to use local trails and nearby walking and bicycling infrastructure, for their safety and for the safety of others. Finding local outdoor space for recreation and mental respite, and—again—using good common sense—is crucial, affirmed Ramos, as people continue to go to popular trails where the crowding makes it impossible to keep the necessary social distance, and where emergencies could put a strain on the medical resources of those local communities. 

“Get outside—but let’s do our part for social distancing first,” said Ramos. “Stay close to home so you are not traveling outside of your communities or in places where, if something goes wrong, it may put a strain on emergency responders … who don’t have the resources to respond to additional calls during this time.”


“We are surveying our list of over 7,000 trail managers to learn more about how they are managing trails during this unprecedented time. We will continue to monitor the situation and update the national trails community as new information comes in.”

— Liz Thorstensen, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy


What’s Ahead

"Every little thing gonna be alright" in chalk on trail
"Every little thing gonna be alright" in chalk on trail | Photo by Becky Dickerson

“We’re in regular touch with trail managers to understand the situation on the ground; they are responding and making changes, sometimes on a daily basis, to figure out how to keep their trails open while limiting crowding and groups,” said Liz Thorstensen, RTC’s vice president of trail development. “We are surveying our list of over 7,000 trail managers to learn more about how they are managing trails during this unprecedented time. We will continue to monitor the situation and update the national trail community as new information comes in.”

In the meantime, industry leaders note that trail managers, trail user groups, and local and state governments have an important responsibility to communicate accurate information about the latest guidance and to be coordinated in sending consistent messaging about best public health practices. “It’s vitally important for [people] to hear this message several times over from sources outside of, and including, government,” said Olivia Glenn, director of the Division of Parks & Forestry for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

While communities are working quickly to preserve outdoor spaces for people to be physically active, including a recent effort in Philadelphia to close MLK Drive to vehicles to allow more space for people to walk and bike, we’re seeing some need by trail managers to make difficult operational decisions. On a local level, trails such as the Katy Trail in Dallas and the High Line in New York City have encouraged people to stay off the trail, and have closed, respectively.

The WTA is keeping track of the temporary closure of state, federal and tribal lands and trails, and posting updates regularly, and the Partnership for the National Trails System is actively monitoring temporary closures of long-distance trails and programming within the National Trails System intended to keep people from crowding thru-trails and to promote social distancing.

But as the uncertainty continues, there is one certainty, said Ramos. After the pandemic has done its damage, trails will need support in their communities—in the form of advocacy and fundraising—to remain healthy and functioning in the future.

“It will be important for communities to step up. Just as trails are here for all of us, we’ll need to be there for them,” said Ramos.

Special acknowledgment to contributor Brandi Horton.


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Rails-to-Trails Conservancy urges everyone to be as safe as possible when out on the trails in their communities, and to follow CDC guidelines and state/local guidance and laws before visiting your local trail. Read the insights and information that RTC is compiling to help you stay active and to promote wellness during this time.
SEE COVID-19 RESOURCES

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