Last Updated: September 23, 2020
With not much else to do this summer, it seems that camping has again become our national past time. Traveling far is mostly not an option, so people are doing a lot of hiking, camping, and road trips. Summer and fall in the Pacific Northwest is a great time to get outside. But it’s also the most crowded I have ever seen any spot we’ve been to this summer – camping, hiking, daytrips, and even local water play! Check out the following tips for how to maintain social distancing camping and hiking during COVID.
17 Tips for Social Distancing Hiking or Camping:
Here are my tips for getting outside safely this summer, during the time of COVID, whether you’re camping or hiking. Remember to check with your local area for travel restrictions and safety guidelines. I’m based in Portland, Oregon and we don’t have travel restrictions as of early August. But we were asked to stay in our region/Multnomah county until we entered Phase I in mid-June. However, some counties in Oregon, like Deschutes county, the City of Bend, have requested tourists stay away until at least Labor Day. On to the tips…
#1. Keep it close-ish to home. Our family is trying to stick to a 1-3 hour drive from home right now. There are a few Oregon counties that have requested tourists to stay away still. Obviously if campgrounds are open and it’s not enforced, then you technically can. But I’m looking at it more of a trying to be nice and do the right thing. This also limits your stops for using the bathroom, getting gas or food etc so no extra exposure to yourself or others. We pretty much stayed in our county in Oregon until we entered Phase I in mid-June.
While it’s possible to do multi-state roadtrips, my thought is that right now is the time to let others use their own state/region’s nature! This might be a little controversial to some, but that’s my two cents, and ultimately you have to decide for your own family until larger quarantine guidelines are put in place at more state levels. COVID isn’t going to last forever! Recently, Oregon State Parks has put a 30% surcharge to non-residents starting August 10.
#2. “Pack it in, Pack it Out!” AKA Leave no trace! – The outdoors and public lands are getting hammered right now with use. As someone who was already “outdoorsy” you might have some feelings of resentment or anger at seeing things trashed or people disrespecting nature. Some of the increase in foot traffic is that people literally don’t have other entertainment or travel options. We also need to rethink our “ownership” of the outdoors and being “outdoorsy”. If you were already able to have the outdoors as a big part of your life, then you have the resources – time, money, exposure and know-how, and safety – that some others haven’t had. Try to go easy on others and help people recreate responsibly.
That said, it sucks to see trash that people have left – masks, water bottles, toilet paper, dirty clothes. Seeing some of this while hiking makes me both sad and angry. But do what you can to help pick it up and thank park workers, and try to educate those that you know, but don’t shame. It’s also frustrating because over-use can mean that parks have to shut down access again. Insert: “This is why we can’t have nice things!”
I talked to a ranger at Scout Lake here in Oregon, and she said it’s pretty frustrating right now. We were the only people at the lake that Monday morning, but the previous day had been super crowded. So her truck was full of garbage bags as she was cleaning not only the trailhead bathrooms but picking up stuff left by lake-goers. People are leaving totally fine items but the rangers don’t have the resources to keep, store or sell these items. So beach chairs have to be broken down and put in the garbage, inner tubes have to slashed with a box cutter and rolled up into garbage bag. So next time you think you’re leaving something for someone else to use somewhere, you’re not! Pack it in. Pack it out!
#3. “Do your research first. Gone are the days of jumping in the car at noon on a Sunday and heading for a carefree hike in the Gorge at whatever waterfall exit you fancy. Check your local trail and hiking websites for routes, crowd info, and if trails are open. I use OregonHikers and AllTrails. For hiking, I also check on Instagram “Places” search feature to see what pictures people have posted most recently to see how crowded things looked.
#4. Choose weekdays, go early, and check for busy times – For hiking, if you can go on a weekday, you have a lot better chance of physical distancing on the trail. Some popular hikes you will have a hard time even getting a parking spot on the weekend if you don’t go super early. I also use the Google Maps “Busy” feature to see what times are the busiest at trailheads etc. For camping, the same off-peak timing applies. If possible, even if you can overlap one weekend day and not a traditional Friday-Sunday weekend, you’ll have more space and less crowds. We found Sunday/Monday and even Saturday/Monday to be less busy for camping and more availability if you aren’t booking camping trips months in advance.
#5. Have a plan if you get sick or injured. One of the considerations of travel during COVID is that smaller communities don’t have the healthcare resources to extend to all the visitors and their own community. For example, if you feel like you are getting sick, what’s your plan? Are you going to drive home and deal with it there? What if you or a family member is injured while camping or doing a sporting activity? Will local rescue crews need to put themselves at risk to help you?
Will you be potentially taking an ER spot or hospital bed that someone in that community may need as well? Who will take care of your children while you are in the hospital etc. If you can’t be moved back to your home city, will a family member be returning home with your kids and leaving you at the local hospital? Or renting a hotel room? I know it sounds kind of crazy to ask these questions, but it’s a quick thought exercise to think through if 1. You should even be traveling. 2. What your plan could be in case of emergency.
#6. Keep a mask and hand-sanitizer in your pocket. You will see the whole spectrum of mask/no mask while hiking. I personally only wear one when around people. I try to leave it on around 20′ before and after passing someone. Obviously, sometimes that means you’re not taking it off. It’s not perfect, but seems reasonable to me. Unless the path is more like a road-width and then I just physically distance instead. But it’s still nice to have one in your pocket.
While you’re outside hiking or camping, sometimes there’s no one around and suddenly to get back to the trailhead or your campsite it’s like a sea of people came out of nowhere. We experienced this a few times on a lake walking trail, like uh ok there was no one out here! It felt much better to be able to put our masks on and continue on, while trying to make space for people as they walked by.
#7. Don’t be afraid to tell people what you’re doing. I know sometimes we’re all a little on edge when it comes to strangers and COVID. What a weird time to be a human. I’ve found that informing people of what I’m doing helps to do what you need to be safe and not have misunderstandings. So a little over-communicating feels a little bit funny, but as long as you say it with a smile or a laugh people are usually good with it.
For example, when I was kayaking I had put in on an empty dock on the lake. When I came back most of the dock was full of people fishing. I’m guessing we were all thinking the same thing. Them thinking, hey we were here first, and don’t get too close. And me thinking, Hey, I was here first, don’t get too close and I need to get out. lol So I said, “hey, I’m going to pull up over on the side to take out, but I’m just going up the ramp. Thanks!” And they stopped eyeing me suspiciously and were like oh yeah, no problem and one of them even scooted a little further away. So we all had plenty of room and no one’s feelings got hurt. Phew!
#8. Plan ahead to find a campsite with less foot traffic and better spacing. Try to book a site on the edge of a campground or on the outside of a loop. Looking at a campground map, locate the bathroom and make sure you’re not right next to it. This will cut down on being surrounded by people or a lot of foot traffic past your site. I also get a view of the campsite via Google Maps, searching online reviews etc. Muddy Camper has some for PNW, The Dyrt, and Campendium, (which has reviews from a camper/RV perspective, but still had pics and reviews that would be helpful to tent campers). Want to be really away? Book a private campsite on hipcamp. Just make sure you pick a listing that has a total of 1 campsites, if your reason for booking is to be away from people!
#9. Pre-register and print your confirmation/parking pass info. If you’re hiking, make sure you have your parking pass info figured out so you don’t have to deal with it at the trailhead. For example, I didn’t buy an annual NW Forest Pass this year, but I have went online a few times and bought and printed a $5 day pass so I didn’t need to do anything at the trailhead. For camping, if you’ve pre-registered before arriving, this usually means you won’t have to fill out any paperwork and can just put your parking pass in the car. You might still need to drop off your paper work later that evening, but can then take your time and not be in the rush of people waiting to checkin at exactly 4pm etc.
#10. Bring everything you’ll need with you. Do all your grocery shopping at home. For day hikes, make sure you bring plenty of snacks, water, food, and emergency supplies. For camping, plan out your camping meals and snacks ahead of time. While we usually do this anyway, I tried to be extra mindful of what we’d need while going through my camping checklist. In a normal year, we might run to a local store for an item we forgot or ice cream etc. This summer, if we forget something, it’s time to be flexible and do without. Whether or not, the local community you are camping in has more or less COVID cases, it’s best to leave the resources to that town.
There’s some consideration as well, of like ok so you’re using the local area but not contributing to their economy at all, other than your campground fee? And maybe someone has a good answer to that. I think getting takeout food, if done the right way, can be fine. For example, Sugar Pine Drive-in in Troutdale seems to have figured out a great way to do this. You order/pay online and they give you a pickup time to come to the pickup window. All restaurants should be doing this!
#11. Limit your camping group size. While camping outside is certainly safer than inviting people into your home, it’s not risk free. If you are planning to camp with anyone outside of your immediate family, try to limit your group size to one other person or family. The more people from different households, the harder it is to distance – both from a psychological perspective and basic math of area of campsite and # of people you need to distance from. You’re going to have a more enjoyable time if you can relax and not be like “oop too close to them, and now too close to them!”
Additionally, COVID exposure is both a viral load and time and space thing. So hanging out in someone’s yard for a distanced happy hour for a couple hours once a week, is not going to be as concentrated as being in a 50×20 campsite for 48 hours. And it’s exponentially harder to distance and not share food etc when you’re with people you love! And add in alcohol or adorable kids and it’s just haaaard! We had to skip out on a group camping trip for this reason, this summer. Not a judgement on those that went, but for our family it wasn’t the right choice to hang out with five households, some with roommates, or recent family visits from out-of-state etc. So we didn’t go and guess what, we had a great weekend anyway. FOMO or maybe FOCO.
#12. Bathrooms – Ah bathrooms. This one will probably be TMI! The one time you might actually have to go inside a building. Bring your masks, hand sanitizer and TP if you feel like you’ll need it. Some of the trailheads we’ve been to have bathrooms open still and some haven’t. I have used a trailhead bathroom a couple times, with a mask on. It was quick and I felt it was a reasonable risk, it’s less time than even being in a grocery store. I’ve also used the woods a few times.
At most of the campsites we’ve been to so far, our site has been tucked back toward the woods, so for those that can, peeing in the woods was fine. (Remember ladies: don’t leave your TP out there, bring it back and put it in the garbage or firepit.) Note: at some campgrounds this would be not ok! And if every camper was out peeing in the woods it would be stinky. So gauge how much space there is and decide. If unsure, just use the bathrooms. So really, the bathroom is just needed for pooping like once or twice.
Since some campgrounds have loops that are mostly RVs, that’s actually a great spot to find an empty or rarely used bathroom since most RVs have bathrooms. We accidentally booked an RV spot for tent camping, so found that out randomly. I was the only one in the bathroom! And for young kids, if they’re still ok with using a travel potty, take one.
Apparently commodes are also having a resurgence for camping. At our last campsite, our neighbors had a commode in some kind of tall changing room tent lol. Super weird, but whatever works for you I guess. At least we didn’t smell or hear them. Hmm. We could also see the restroom building from our last campsite and so I went right after it had been cleaned. Also, prop the door open if you can after you use the bathroom. Most people will leave it as was, so you can help start a good trend of getting air ventilation in the bathrooms.
#13. Bring a tablecloth for your campsite picnic table and blanket for the bench. If you have kids who touch all the things and set food down on the table instead of their plate, bring a table cloth! I don’t have a wipe-down type camping tablecloth. A simple cotton one from home worked just fine and I washed it after we got back. We also used one of our park blankets folded up for the bench side where our toddler would sit. I’m not normally super paranoid about outdoor surfaces. Our toddler is usually busy rolling in the dirt and collecting sticks, but since the table is where we’re eating, after washing hands, it’s seems like a good idea to have a tablecloth for camping during COVID.
#14. Bring a Tubtrug or plastic type bucket with handles. In normal summers, these are great for washing dishes and carrying water from the spigot. Extra nice now, so you can wash further away, if it’s crowded. We also used it for washing our toddlers hands instead of just hand sanitizer before meals. And ended up using it as a tub for him one night too since he got so filthy that day.
#15. Bring cash for fire wood. The guidelines still apply of not bringing firewood from far away which can spread invasive insects and disease. So bring cash. Some campgrounds are doing an honor system firewood selling where you leave $5 in the cash box and take a bundle. We also saw quite a few honor system firewood stands on the way to the campground. So take cash to drop off for no-contact.
#16. Deescalate, don’t shame. We’re all a little on edge already. You will come across people who are not physically distancing or have a huge group. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe. But try to not engage if people are not practicing distancing. We all have different levels of risk assessment and preferred safety. So think about who has more to lose if you engage with someone trying to tell them what to do… Instead, have a plan for when an unmasked person is unrelentingly heading your way with no qualms or you feel cornered etc. I have heard laughs or gotten an eyeroll as I donned my mask on a trail. Laugh all you want and you’re welcome. No really I just smile under my mask and keep going.
#17. Be flexible – Have a plan to bail if things are too crowded – whether you’re on a hiking daytrip or camping. Have a Plan B in mind. For example, we arrived at Fort Stevens Campground on a Sunday afternoon. The lake area was super crowded. We drove through the parking lot and nope, we kept driving. The ocean parking area was less crowded, and we were able to go back to the lake that evening when it was almost completely empty. Take a moment. Be bummed or just like “what the hell are all these people doing out here? Oh same thing as us, ok.” And then regroup and do something else. Expectations = keep ’em low, friends.
So those are my tips for hiking and camping during COVID in 2020. Covid Camping! Such a ring to it. And remember, the point of going camping is to get outside and destress. So if it’s too stressful, skip it! Or ease yourself into it by doing some hikes and day trip scouting missions first.
Do you have any COVID hiking or camping tips to add?