To hike or not to hike? A question facing outdoor enthusiasts during the pandemic.

My 28th birthday is coming up on Sunday, which was supposed to be the culmination of months of planning for a three-night backpacking trip on the Lost Coast of northern California.

Reserve permits? Check.

Hire shuttle service? Check.

Book flights to SFO? Check.

Inventory gear? Calculate tide-sensitive hiking windows? Test water filtration tools? Check. Check. Check.

It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be able to go on the trip until about three weeks ago as the dangers of coronavirus became known.

What started off as a tough decision became rather easy to make when our shuttle service canceled on us. Getting on a plane and hiking in a group of 10 people was not the responsible action to take. It would have been selfish and hypocritical.

I’d feel like an idiot if I went ahead with the trip only to bring the virus back to San Diego myself, or worse bring the virus on the trip and then spread it to friends would would then return to four different counties across California.

The trip was called off, but my burning desire to get out on the trails and into the wilderness hasn’t disappeared, which leaves me in a conflicted position: Should I really be hiking?

Are we allowed to hike?

Last week the Governor of California ordered all citizens to stay inside, except for ‘essential needs.’

I noticed people on social media had their own varying opinions and conclusions of how to interpret the order, but I sifted through the fine print particularly to see what the restrictions are on outdoor exercise, like surfing, running, and hiking.

Here is the relevant part for hikers from the state of California’s website:

Can I still exercise? Take my kids to the park for fresh air? Take a walk around the block? Walk my dog?

Yes. So long as you are maintaining a safe social distance of six feet from people who aren’t part of your household, it is ok to go outside for exercise, a walk or fresh air. Gyms are closed.

Does this order affect hiking? State Parks?

No, you may still go outside so long as you practice social distancing of six feet. California State Parks have closed indoor facilities and campgrounds, but trails and outdoor spaces are still open. Spending time outdoors can lead to a number of overall health and wellness benefits like lessening anxiety, boosting creativity and getting your vitamin D. If you decide to make a trip, remember to keep social distance.

Great! According to Governor Newsom, hiking is allowed, right?

That depends on where you live and where you hike. Hiking urban trails in Southern California can be a wildly different experience than remote mountain or desert areas, for example.

Where can we hike?

In order to overcome this virus, humanity needs to work together, and common sense needs to be at an all-time high. It only takes one careless person to spread the virus to thousands more.

When there is a mandate that allows hiking, and you’re feeling due for some good ol’ trail time, your thought process should not immediately jump to the most popular, crowded hikes where maintaining a six-foot distance is impossible.

For example, as far as my local hikes in San Diego go, I immediately would rule out Torrey Pines, Cowles Mountain, Iron Mountain, Mount Woodson, etc.


Apparently most people did not use common sense and flooded these common recreation zones over the weekend (March 21-22), causing the San Diego Mayor (and others around the state) to close all city owned parks, beaches, and trails.

I was just as eager as everyone else to get outside this weekend and opted for Viejas Mountain on Friday and Anza Borrego on Sunday. On both hikes I came across a grand total of about 10 people, all of whom were notably aware of the importance of social distancing, stepping off trail when crossing paths.

It was all cordial, safe, and responsible.

However, as it often goes, a few bad apples ruin the bunch. Those that did not use their common sense and went hiking in places where social distancing is impossible only exacerbated the virus problem.

Nonetheless, as someone that went hiking, and plans to do more hiking, I can’t help but feel like I am contributing to the problem as well.

A crowded hiking trail on Cowles Mountain of San Diego.
A typical weekend morning on San Diego’s Cowles Mountain does not resemble anything related to social distancing (photo from 2019).
A picturesque view of the ocean at Torrey Pines.
Torrey Pines in San Diego could be one of the trails closed as per Mayor Faulconer’s orders.

Conflicted feelings

The logic of ‘only hike in uncrowded areas’ only goes so far. If everyone went hiking in areas where social distancing is more plausible, wouldn’t the uncrowded areas soon become crowded, and the typically crowded hiking areas uncrowded?

For that reason I feel conflicted.

I can tout that I have been hiking remote areas and ‘shame’ those that hike the packed areas, but what do I tell them? To go crowd the remote areas?

It’s a bit of a moral dilemma. I love the outdoors and the calming, mind-opening qualities that it provides to those who hike responsibly. The trails don’t belong to me any more than they do to anyone else, so who am I to say where is responsible to hike and determine who is responsible and who is not?

We can trust ourselves all we want, but if we don’t trust others to follow the rules as well, that won’t do us any good.

Hiking in the desert of San Diego County.
In Anza Borrego, social distance is often measured in miles, not feet.

Something we should all consider

I think this post will age poorly in the sense that, if the exponential spread of the virus continues, we will find ourselves in a similar situation as the citizens of Wuhan, Spain, and Italy: In total lockdown.

Once that happens, the question of if we can go hiking will be silly and inconsequential. We will all be sitting on our asses at home, no exceptions.

If you have been following the global spread, particularly in the US, you’ll understand that this likely is a question of when, not if.

If (when) we reach that point, will the hiking that I did last week matter? Will it have negatively contributed to the pandemic?

It’s possible that by hiking and getting outdoors, it encourages others to do the same, people that don’t have the experience to know where the ‘safe’ hiking areas are.

If one person that saw that I went hiking were encouraged to go hike and unknowingly spread the virus to others on the trail, I would indirectly be a part of the problem, which I don’t want to be.

It’s safe to say there is no black and white solution to this problem.

It’s possible that the virus will pass without major incident in California and we will look back on these hikes, happy that we were able to get outdoors.

It’s also possible that the virus spread will get significantly worse and we will solemnly place our face in our palms when thinking about those that didn’t care about social distancing on our trails.

I can’t say either way is right or wrong, but I think it’s a dilemma everyone should at least consider before they lace up their boots for the next trail.

2 thoughts on “To hike or not to hike? A question facing outdoor enthusiasts during the pandemic.

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