How to Stay Safe While Spending Time Outdoors

We know time outside is good for us. Nature can help reduce anxiety, promote creativity, and contribute to heart health. But during the current global health crisis, mandates to stay at home are in effect in at least 23 states and parks are restricting access to reinforce social distancing, which means that nature fix can feel more elusive than ever.

With at least 196 million U.S. residents under orders to stay home to help slow the spread of coronavirus, some of us are asking if spending time outside is responsible. Mandatory stay-at-home orders often allow exceptions for engaging in activities outdoors, generally close to home, like walking your dog, riding a bike or going on a run. Here’s how to get your outside fix responsibly.

It doesn’t have to be an epic

Sometimes I feel like an hour-long jog around the neighborhood isn’t enough to earn my endorphins. But studies have shown that enjoying the outdoors doesn’t have to mean an epic six hour mountain run or backcountry ski tour. In fact, there are plenty of benefits to recreation close to home—and the rewards begin at 120 minutes a week, according to a 2019 study. That’s just two hours every week, with benefits appearing to max out between 200 and 300 minutes.

The study found it didn’t matter how people spent the 120 minutes—the quota could be met in a single session outdoors or during several shorter ones. Moreover, it didn’t even matter whether you live in a city or in an urban area, outside time had a positive impact on the 19,000 healthy British adults who participated in the study regardless of where they got their fix.

Study participants were encouraged to get the 120 minutes however they liked. Some took daily 20-minute walks or went to the park. Others spent the better part of a Saturday hiking. Across the board, all of these participants reported improved well-being overall.

Stay local

I live in Nederland, Colo., a small mountain town with less than 2,000 residents and with an older population. Nederland happens to be at the base of the Indian Peaks Wilderness area, and is famous for its mountain access, ski touring, mountain biking, and trail running routes. Naturally, under the current circumstances, my community has seen an uptick in recreationalists hailing from Denver and Boulder. While this would usually mean business for our small community, this uptick in runners, skiers, and mountain bikers have left my community paralyzed with fear. In a virtual town hall meeting I attended on Tuesday, older members of the community asked the younger generation of Nederland community members to use social media to discourage those residing in neighboring communities to stay away, and to recreate in their own community. Consider yourself discouraged!

With that in mind, consider exploring open spaces in your community to get your outdoor fix. Traveling to recreational spots often means stopping for gas, groceries or bathroom breaks along the way, potentially putting you and others in those communities at risk. Even touching trees or falling in the snow can spread COVID-19.

The American Alpine Club asks climbers to limit recreation-based travel beyond their community. “While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities,” the club said on its website.

Avoid popular parks that typically attract a lot of people, or that you know don’t have enough open space to allow for proper social distancing. Crowded parking lots, beach access points or trailheads make it much harder to stay six feet apart from others.

Don’t be a dirtbag

While the ultra-running community tends to pride themselves on a dirtbag lifestyle, now is not the time to skimp on good hygiene. Before, during, and after spending time outdoors, follow CDC guidelines to protect yourself from COVID-19, including washing your hands often and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Avoid touching surfaces and touching your face while out.
Do not touch park benches, pull-up bars, park bathroom sinks and buttons for crosswalks with your hands (or wear gloves and wash your hands). Carry hand sanitizer with you in case you accidentally do touch something that hasn’t been disinfected.