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Pandemic-Era Hiking: How to adventure responsibly and respectfully

While there's great news about some of our beautiful trails reopening, there are crucial rules we must all keep in mind before lacing up our boots.

Kindra Ramos, the Washington Trails Association (WTA) communications and outreach director, admits staying on top of closings and openings has been a bit of a "moving target," since it's an "ever-changing landscape." However, at the time of our chat, the majority of state lands were open, most national parks still closed and the national forests a broad mix.

WTA, a statewide nonprofit, has around 5,000 volunteers who take care of sites from city parks to national forests, and everything in between. The team's love, passion and physical labor translate to some 160,000 hours of volunteer trail work per year. The overall mission? "Washington Trails Association mobilizes hikers and everyone who loves the outdoors to explore, steward and champion trails and public lands."

Ramos admits that recently, to keep the WTA website as up-to-date as possible, the small team has been working incredibly hard and talking to land managers regularly. She shares that many productive conversations have emerged from this strange time — uniting outdoor adventure enthusiasts from all genres, like hiking and rock climbing to kayaking and horseback riding. All these groups have come together to discuss what it means to recreate responsibly.

"We want this as much as everyone else," Ramos said, referencing all the organizers leading the charge.

So what has been determined so far? To start, anyone can pledge to #recreateresponsibly before heading into the great outdoors (50+ organizations agreed on this pandemic-inspired practical advice to protect Washingtonians). Ramos suggests also accessing WTA’s Hiking in the Time of Coronavirus page; hikers can find alerts posted at the top of each specific trail's page, too.

"First and foremost, do your research before you get there," said Ramos. Before embarking on your own adventure, learn about closures or whether sites are day-use only. Also, always have a Plan B; if the parking lot appears more than half-full near a trailhead, have another nearby option in mind.

Planning means making sure you’ve packed the 10 essentials, as well as timely additions like hand sanitizer and a mask or face covering. Be aware that facilities won't be open, so you'll need to bring your own toilet paper and pack everything out.

"It's important to know that because of land closures, many trails haven't been maintained," she said. Traditionally, volunteers work on the trails almost daily; this year, that had to come to a halt in early March. Spring trails may appear rougher than we're accustomed to, with trees down or other trail damage not yet attended to.

Another timely reminder when it comes to hiking prep? "It's still winter in the mountains."

Ramos reiterates that, since we're still adhering to stay-at-home orders here in Washington, it's wise to remain close to home. Stick to options like half-day trips where you can travel there and back on a tank of gas. Along those lines, be sure to bring your own water and food so you won't need to make stops along the way.

Hikers should continue to retain physical distance, adventure with members of their immediate household and stay six feet apart from others whenever possible. Since many trails become narrower than that distance in certain places, be sure to have your mask or bandana handy to cover your mouth and nose as you pass fellow hikers.

"It's the new common courtesy," Ramos said.

Also, Ramos said this isn't really the time to go have the biggest adventure of your life. It's a good season to enjoy a walk in the woods or other low-key excursions, keeping the risk level minimal. The ultimate goal is not to take away resources from our healthcare facilities and workers, so that should be taken into consideration at all times.

"It's been wonderful to watch the community support and celebrate each other," Ramos said. She's been delighted by how many have sought advice on responsible hiking. "It's been powerful to see that translate to everyone from donors to regular hikers simply wanting to do the right thing."

And if there's one major takeaway from this odd moment in time, Ramos appreciates how we've all been reminded of nature's power and benefits. As we look farther ahead, she hopes we continue to focus on preserving our precious natural resources, so that "everyone can enjoy trails forever."

How you can help: Donations to WTA are much appreciated, and Ramos also requests that if you get on the trails, write a trip report upon your return. Sharing details about your adventure not only helps to prepare those following in your footsteps, but it also assists the WTA team in staying on top of trail conditions. Happy—and safe—distanced hiking!

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