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 trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.
When longtime trail users hear a boisterous “On your left!”, they likely know to expect a bicyclist whizzing by their left side in the coming moments.
But for people who are new to trails—many of whom have emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic began—those words may mean little when they’re out trying to get exercise or a bit of fresh air. Trail newbies may even misinterpret the call from behind and shift to the left side of the path, putting themselves at risk of a collision.
Alternatively, those new to bicycling may not be aware of yielding rules for horses, or those on foot or wheelchair, or of mandated speed limits for safe trail riding.
It appears these newcomers are unaware of the golden rules of trail etiquette—actions like ‘keep right, pass left,’ ‘mind your pets’ and ‘use safe speeds.’ This frustrated people in northwest Michigan as stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders caused trail usage to surge this Spring, said Julie Clark, executive director of Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails (better known as TART Trails).
In March and April, the TART offices tended to a constant flow of calls from trail users, especially when the weather was nice. “They’d say ‘people aren't obeying the rules,’ ‘hey, it's too crowded,’ ‘the trailheads are packed’ ... people just [weren’t] behaving as we hoped they’d behave,’” Clark recalled.
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But she also saw this as an opportunity to utilize social media and local news outlets to educate people on how to use trails. To that end, TART also collaborated with local government partners to create cohesive messaging and increase signage along trails. New campaigns like “Bell for Every Bike” offered new trail users a more familiar sound when a cyclist needed their attention.
As the weather cools down in many parts of the country, trailheads are still crowded. But trail users seem to be “more aware of how they are interacting in those public spaces,” said Clark, noting that more people in the region are wearing masks when they’re unable to comfortably separate from others. “Even though we’re outside, I think people are aware that, ‘gosh, if I’m going to be close to people, I need to think differently.’”
As more folks continue to use the trails, Clark’s biggest piece of advice is simple. “If you follow normal, good trail etiquette, 99% of how you need to be acting in COVID is covered,” she said.
New Data Offers More Reasons for People to #RecreateResponsibly
On average, Clark says her local trails have seen about a 25% uptick in trail use in recent months. Across the country, some trails spiked to levels more than 200% higher than the same time last year, according to trail count data released by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) in July. Currently, trail use is still far exceeding previous usage; since the pandemic began, RTC’s trail count data shows that usage has been 60% higher [on average] than in 2019.
The data showed that people are valuing trails and open space “more than ever now,” said Torsha Bhattacharya, Ph.D., RTC’s research director. “We see a lot of people that have never been on a bike or have forgotten to take their bike out in years, but are now dusting them off.” With many indoor spaces either shut down or riskier to visit, adults and children of all ages and races are embracing the great outdoors.
According to a recent national poll that RTC conducted, 46% of people surveyed said that access to open spaces has reduced their stress levels during the pandemic, and 66% of people were getting outside about the same or more than they were before COVID-19. Since a lot of gyms have shuttered, it’s not surprising that more than half of people surveyed—52%—said they found value in exercising outside in their communities and on nearby trails.
Similar to Clark, Bhattacharya advises trail users to follow the rules—specifically, those in the #RecreateResponsibly campaign. Created by a coalition of more than 700 nonprofits, outdoor businesses and land managers, the campaign’s best practices include actions such as making sure the trail you want to visit is open before you go, keeping your group size small and distanced from other groups, and choosing low-risk activities to stay safe.
“Spending time outdoors has been important for many Americans during this public health crisis,” said Taldi Harrison, government affairs manager, REI Co-op. “The #RecreateResponsibly coalition is an inspiring example of what’s possible on a national scale when organizations come together with a shared passion and a clear goal. By simplifying and amplifying guidance on how to recreate reasonably, we are keeping ourselves healthy, supporting our land managers and working together to keep our public lands open.”
She continued, “It has become clear that natural spaces and the ability to enjoy them are not mere nice-to-haves. Whether you are hiking, paddling, riding or walking in your local park, access to nature is a key component to our nation’s health and well-being. Recreating responsibly helps us care for each other and, at the same time, take greater care of our outdoor spaces.”
Staying Mindful and Keeping Outdoor Space Accessible
Bhattacharya says that if trail users are mindful of the rules, it won’t lead to overcrowding in outdoor spaces, which could cause city officials to fear the spread of COVID-19 and shut down trails, parks and other facilities. This is exactly what happened after throngs of people visited parks in King County, Washington, this Spring, Gabriel Avila-Mooney, a communications specialist for King County Parks, told RTC in May.
Since then, many parks have reopened, but a few had to close again “mainly because they're just so overused,” said Avila-Mooney. “It's unfortunate, but … if people can’t use these parks and trails responsibly, we have to close them.”
Presently, King County isn’t at a place where organized sports games are permitted, but according to Avila-Mooney, people are showing up to play anyway. “They have referees and coaches, and they are having games—regardless of the mandate,” he stated. While Avila-Mooney said his agency can’t enforce the rules, he encourages his patrons to follow them, adding, “It's really important that people understand that we can only improve the situation and open up even more by following those guidelines.”
Another issue that began at the start of the pandemic is congested parking lots, an issue that has only gotten worse since parks have reopened. “Our parking lots have become completely full, up to the point where people are parking in unsafe places along the roadway,” Avila-Mooney affirmed.
He advises people to be flexible with their travels and decision-making, especially since they can now venture farther from home. “Maybe this is a good time to explore places you haven't been before—some of the lesser-used parks and trails,” he added.
Wherever they end up, he encourages people to have a mask—or many—in tow. “Everybody should always keep masks in their car, always have masks by the door. It should be as essential as our keys and wallet when we're leaving the house. “When you go hiking, you can even [take] an extra mask as part of your 10 essentials. That way, if you're out there and maybe you run into somebody that doesn't have one, you can give them one.”
Trail Users Can Help Fix a Longtime Problem
When trails are at their best, they bring people together from various parts of town. “They not only serve as ways to get in your exercise or go to a destination, they actually connect people to each other,” said Bhattacharya. Because trails don’t discriminate on whether you own or can drive a car, they’re seen as the “most equitable transportation infrastructure."
“We're all sharing the same spaces and going through experiences that nobody's had before in our recent history. So show that kindness and show that grace as we take this journey together.”
—Julie Clark, Executive Director, TART Trails
In Michigan, Clark saw the long-time issue of access to trails come to a head during the pandemic. One of the reasons TART trails were overcrowding is because “there's not enough safe and convenient access for people in our region to get onto these trails,” she said. While there’s a lot of open space, it’s not necessarily publicly available, or people don’t know about it.
Clark believes that the only way this infrastructure issue will change is if citizens speak up and hold their elected officials accountable. This could be as simple as making a phone call or sending an email. “You’d be surprised how meaningful that is and how small an effort it takes,” she said. Clark also encourages people to get engaged with local trail or advocacy groups.
Above all, Clark advises trail users to stay together—but not in the physical sense. “I mean, collectively, if we approach this thinking about each other first, we're gonna get through it in a much better way,” she said. “We're all sharing the same spaces and going through experiences that nobody's had before in our recent history. So show that kindness and show that grace as we take this journey together.”
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.