The COVID-19 crisis that sent the world into a tailspin of lock-downs and travel restrictions has taught us a lot about ourselves. We've learned how to stay put for weeks on end, we've learned how to binge-watch even the most boring of series on Netflix, and we've learned how much we really value our outdoor freedom. Because even in the most trying of times, or maybe in spite of them, the thing we all can use is some quality trail therapy via hiking and backpacking. But, can it be done safely during the COVID-19 crisis? We think so. With a little extra planning and a few additional items in your pack, you can leave the trailhead feeling safe no matter where or how far you're backpacking.
If you haven't read our Tips For Safe Hiking During the COVID-19 Crisis, give it a read now and then come back to this article for some additional tips! Your safety plan starts with addressing current "mask up" protocols, includes adding extra items in your first-aid kit that can help sanitize, preparing necessary information for health care providers, should they need it, and wraps up with options for medical treatment including high-staffed hospitals and smaller ERs and urgent care facilities in proximity to your planned trip. It might seem like it's not worth the effort, but we assure you, with these simple steps you'll be out on the trail in the safest way possible.
Wearing masks has become a hot-button issue in America, but in other parts of the globe we've seen, for decades, the use of medical face coverings to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria. Current data from the CDC shows that a properly fitted, medical-grade face mask can prevent the transmission of viruses that normally would spread through droplets in the air via coughs and sneezes. If you don't have access to a medical-grade mask, be mindful of what kind of mask you opt for—a recent study indicates that some cotton masks are about as effective as surgical masks, but wearing a polyester neck gaiter or bandana may be worse than no mask at all [1,2]. Bottom line: You've got to wear a mask when you're around other people that are not housemates.
We like to dedicate a specific pocket on the hip belt of our pack for our face mask, that way it's always readily available, and you know exactly where it is supposed to be. And, as always, make sure you're paying extra attention to not accidentally drop your mask on the trails. A feather-light object is easy to drop and leave in the woods for others to have to avoid, or worse, take the risk to remove. Always remember: Leave No Trace is our first policy when on the trails.
All trekkers, veteran or rookie, should have a first aid kit packed with them that can handle all of their anticipated needs for the duration of their trip. A pandemic won't change this, but there are some COVID-19 specifics you should add to your kit just to be safe.
Hand sanitizer. Keep your alcohol prep wipes in your kit for wound care should the need arise, but also add in a small bottle of FDA approved alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The label should indicate that it is over 80% alcohol to be effective against viruses. Having this in your kit will allow you to sanitize your hands if you do encounter another individual showing symptoms of the virus, or if you need to make a pitstop in town and want to clean up afterward. These hand sanitizers make quick work of cleaning up and are very leave no trace friendly since you're not rinsing with water or using any type of wipe that will need to be packed out after.
Thermometer. Mostly for peace of mind, you should be packing a small thermometer in your kit. Dealing with the temperature fluctuations in the wild along with a sweaty day on the trail followed by a cool night in a tent, it would be easy to think that night chill might be early signs of a fever. Don't let that thought ruin a good trip—a lightweight digital thermometer can set your mind at ease knowing that you're running a normal temp or inform you that you should seek medical attention if it's running high. The really practical use of a thermometer is to do daily checks at regular intervals and chart them so you can begin to see a pattern in your personal body temperature and fully understand if you are running a fever. Additionally, take the time to temp check your group at the trailhead. If someone in the group is already running a fever, turn around. Please don’t put yourself and first responders or Search & Rescue personnel at unnecessary risk on the trail.
Medical information card. If you're like me when you backpack you leave most of your worldly possessions at home, and maybe just pack a single form of ID wrapped in a 20 dollar bill just in case you need it. In the age of COVID and beyond it would be wise for most folks to add their medical insurance card to that bundle, plus a laminated, self-made card that includes emergency contact(s) and their phone numbers, a list of medications taken regularly, past conditions, and allergic reactions.
There are of course any number of things you can add to your medkit to make you more prepared in case you were to fall ill on the trail, but these items should be considered among the minimum and most important. Before you hit the trail next time also be sure to check expiration dates on your items as well as small items like your alcohol prep pads which tend to dry out even in sealed packages. A well functioning first-aid kit is something that you will hopefully never need to use, but be thankful that you have it and that you spent the time to put it together when you do need it.
Seeking Medical Attention
It doesn't happen often, but sometimes your first-aid kit won't be able to address all your issues and you may need to seek medical attention while backpacking. Pre-COVID this may have been as simple as googling which hospital will be closest to where you are hiking and jotting that number down. With the current pandemic crisis still looming, we are recommending a tiered approach to your medical facility research that will allow you to go to different facilities based on your need, which also considers the desire to avoid potentially over-crowded hospitals that may exist because of the pandemic.
Start by acting as you normally would: research the closest hospital to where you are hiking. Then, continue that research to confirm how large the hospital is if it has an ICU and how large of an area the hospital serves. If you are planning to be backpacking in an area with a high infection rate it might be worth finding out if they have a COVID specific wing that they are working out of, and if there are any special procedures or precautions they are taking because of the pandemic.
Once you identify the closest hospital and write down the pertinent information (address, contact number, etc.), look for the next largest hospital if the closest one is a small local hospital or for the next small local hospital if the one closest is a large regional or university hospital. Additionally, you'll want to take the time to locate a small clinic or urgent care that may be in the area. Once you are equipped with your list of medical facilities, you'll want to consider plans for various scenarios. If you are on the trail and experience COVID-19 symptoms call the emergency room of the most equipped hospital, while on the other hand if you suffer a bad sprain that requires medical attention you'll want to avoid COVID-19 hotspots like ERs and call the closest urgent care facility that is well equipped to handle this painful, but much less critical medical emergency.
For example: If I were planning a backpacking trip in the Adirondack High Peaks region I would first locate the Adirondack Medical Center, and since this is a smaller tertiary hospital I'd also research something larger. The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington is a few hours away and handles all major traumas in the area; that's my large option. Lastly, I will find one or two urgent care centers locally. Mountain Medical and Adirondack Mountain Care both appear to be good options and I record their information. Now I am equipped with a number of options, large and small, should I need to seek out major or minor medical attention. You should already have your local (to your backpacking trip) emergency contacts written down like ranger numbers, but it's smart to include these on your medical sheet as well so all of your important numbers are centrally located.
Stay Safe Out There
Planning these extra steps during this COVID-19 pandemic may seem like a lot of extra planning, but in the long run, you will be thankful that you put both time and effort into being prepared. In reality, packing a mask and knowing how to properly wear it, making sure your first-aid kit has ample supplies, and you are aware of the medical facilities in the area you are backing are all steps should feel very comfortable for those of you who already plan safe trips; and for those of you who are new to the world of backpacking and trip planning, this exercise will simply feel like an extension of all the research and planning for a safe trip that you are already learning about. Stay safe, hike strong, and go get some fresh air!