How to Plan a Backcountry Trip During a Pandemic

My most recent trip into the High Sierra was one for the books. For three nights, I slept under the summer stars after days filled with granite peaks, alpine lakes, and stunning meadows. Escaping into the backcountry was an absolute treat, but it can’t be done without acknowledging the current state of our country. COVID-19 doesn’t take weekends off. We’re all trying to navigate in what is our “new normal,” and backcountry trips are not immune to a few extra safety steps. Taking the extra time to plan my trip with COVID at the forefront of my mind did not at all impact the quality of my experience, and I already can’t wait to plan the next one. With careful preparation and extra consideration for our fellow hikers, we can all stay safe together and ensure that our beloved trails stay open.

Where is it Safe to Travel?

Google is our best friend for this question. We are living in a time when a campground or national park being open can be taken for granted. Many places have a limited amount of capacity, or are allocated permits via a lottery system. Though it may be a pain, following those processes ensures the crowding in your chosen spot is regulated. It boils down to this: do your research before hitting the road. The National Parks Service and the US Forest Service are both phenomenal resources.

Another important guideline is to plan a trip well within your comfort zone. Perhaps a trail you’ve hiked before, or an area with ample information about the trail and terrain. Unnecessary search and rescue calls will take valuable resources away from an already strapped healthcare system. If the clouds start to roll in or the scrambling gets away from you, drop a pin and come back at a later time. I camped at the base of a 13,150-foot peak. I was so tempted to send it, but class 3 and 4 scrambling without other partners is an unnecessary risk that could put myself and others at harm. I’ll come back for you, Mount Wallace.

Choose Your Partners Wisely

Mount Wallace from one of my campsites.

It’s like an STD; without a recent negative test, you want to know who your partners have had contact with. The key to a safe “quarantine bubble” is having a closed loop of contact. This means every person you are seeing can tell you everyone down their chain of connection. It’s so tempting to plan a trip with a friend you may not have seen since March, but unless they’ve been strictly socially distancing, now is not the time. Hike with someone you have been seeing regularly, or plan a solo trip.

If You Feel Sick, Skip It

The week before you leave, screen yourself daily for the CDC-defined symptoms of COVID-19. Yes, tightness in your chest can be caused by too much caffeine, but is it worth the risk? Denying symptoms and heading into the backcountry anyway is not brave, it’s dangerous and selfish. Outdoors transmission is less likely, but there is still a possibility that two hikers passing each other without masks can share the disease (more on that later). Also, if you are sick and experience a downturn while in the wilderness, you are again strapping the resources of local municipalities that may not be well-equipped to handle an outbreak.

If you can, get tested before hitting the road. I was planning to schedule a test a week before my trip, but unfortunately, in San Diego it is now impossible to get a test without having symptoms. To that point, I am screened daily at my job for potential symptoms and exposure so I felt extremely confident that I was not carrying COVID with me. This website is a great resource for finding a test near you, if possible.

How to Travel Safely

Who can name the iconic peak? (Hint, it’s in the Eastern Sierra and a short detour from the PCT.)

I’ll be honest, I miss those mid-road trip local coffee and beer stops. But even if you don’t feel sick, it’s not worth putting yourself, or a barista, in danger of exposure. Plan your gas and food stops wisely, trying to avoid smaller communities with limited medical resources. Also, bring enough food and supplies to tide you over until you return home, as opposed to immediately rushing to the closest grocery store after getting off trail. Sitting down and writing a list of your days on the road and in the backcountry is a pain, but it ultimately saves a lot of stress.

From San Diego to Bishop, I planned one midway gas stop in a busy area. Though this may seem counterintuitive, this protects our beloved mountain towns. I also made sure there were bear boxes at my trailhead to store the extra food I had brought with me for the drive back. I was definitely disappointed to skip Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, but it will still be there.

If possible, avoid public transportation and hitchhiking. It’s impossible to have a closed chain of connection when you are in close contact with strangers. If this is the only way to get to your trail, bring a mask and use it. Masks with KN95 filters will do a good job of protecting both yourself and those around you, while cloth masks are best for protecting only the others around you. This article does a wonderful job of outlining the different types of masks needed in different situations.

How to Minimize Contact on the Trail

My sweet spot of paradise.

Once I got myself to the trail, it felt like smooth sailing. My food was stored, buff around my neck, and feet finally on some dirt. As always, it’s best practice to give uphill hikers the right of way and move to the side. Now it’s crucial to give other hikes their space. Even if someone is practicing poor trail etiquette and charging down a hill, move over and give some space. That’s not a worthy battle to fight right now. Also, don’t ask a stranger to take a picture of you. That’s an uncomfortable position to put someone else in, and exposes you both.

I brought with me both a buff and a thicker cloth mask for use on the trail. I wore the buff around my neck while hiking, and pulled it over my nose and mouth when other hikers passed on the trail. The cloth mask was intended for use in case I wanted to have any longer conversations with fellow backpackers, but I ended up keeping mostly to myself. It’s well worth the weight to have a thicker mask. As a general rule, whenever I am within 10 feet or so of someone and chatting, I put my cloth mask on. Yes, even when I’m outside. It really is not worth it to fight that battle.

I also chose my campsites carefully. I stayed well within earshot of other folks, yet allowed other campers roughly 100 feet of space. This was a sweet spot for me, where I felt like if something went wrong I could get someone’s attention while both groups still had plenty of space to explore and spread out, mask free.

Responsibly Sharing on Social Media

As always, be conscientious of your impact on the internet. Gorgeous photos of alpine lakes and granite peaks are always welcomed on my feed, but consider pairing those with a caption about the steps you took to reduce the spread of COVID while hiking or backpacking. Also, tagging exact locations can lead to overcrowding. Be mindful of where you choose to tag. It’s always a good time to brush up on LNT’s Social Media Guidelines.

For more resources regarding safe travel during COVID-19, check out these other articles.

New Rules for Hiking 

FAQ For Hiking During Covid



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