Getting Outside During COVID-19: What’s Right and Wrong

by

Sarah Herron

Co-written by Sarah Herron and Morgan Tilton

**Editor’s note: Please use this guide with discretion as updates surrounding COVID-19 are changing daily. For the most up-to-date health protocol, check the CDC and your local government for closures and more information.


Sarah Herron spring camping in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah down Hole in the Rock Road

Sarah Herron spring camping in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah down Hole in the Rock Road

I’m deeply trying to find a new sense of ‘normal’ within what’s become an extraterrestrial experience. Wherever you live on the planet, I’m sure you can relate: Covid-19 blindsided me.  

Only two months ago, I took my first-ever solo-international trip and embraced a lifelong dream to summit Kilimanjaro. Among my expedition training, I skinned up Buttermilk mountain a few times a week. It didn’t matter if I was 6 feet away from friends on the uphill track. Simultaneously, we ushered in our new SheLift program destinations to Machu Picchu to Yellowstone. Then, Dylan and I road-tripped 800 miles from Carbondale to Taos and Santa Fe. In majestic New Mexico, we explored the potential of a home-to-be. 

Now, all plans are tabled for the foreseeable future. Celebrations of accomplishments feel self-centered or even trivial. The momentum and milestones of life—professional and personal—are anxiously caught in limbo. 

Yet, I recognize this situation is way, WAY bigger than me. Stay-at-home orders blanket 41 states, as well as tribal lands including Navajo Nation. At least 337,000 Covid-19 cases are confirmed countrywide. Domestic violence has spiked around the globe. And more than 10,500 people in the U.S. lost their lives—in five weeks. These new facts weigh heavily on me. 


Sarah Herron hiking in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah at the Cosmic Ashtray

Sarah Herron hiking in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah at the Cosmic Ashtray

Getting Outside During COVID-19

I’m healthy, fit, and in my thirties. As a Coloradan, I’m surrounded by healthy mountain gurus. It’s honestly hard to wrap my mind around my role in a global pandemic. Do my day-to-day choices impact the lives of those who are more vulnerable? Can I help improve the outcome of this large-scale health emergency? We’re still learning A LOT about this virus, but Yes and Yes. Studies show that Covid-19 primarily spreads person-to-person including those without symptoms (a.k.a. asymptomatic). I’m either the latter or, somehow, haven’t been exposed. Who actually knows?! Some days, I want to lean into a ‘shelter-in-place’ to hide from the anomalous spiral of it all. 

I also know that spending time outdoors is essential for my stress relief, well-being, and mental health. It’s equally important for my life partner. And, in turn, how we support each other. It’s vital for me to go where I don’t have a cell or WiFi connection and can cast a break from the continuum of tragic news. I believe we can all enjoy the privilege (because, it IS a privilege) of nature while helping to keep each other safe. 

Here’s my personal guide for how we can collectively, responsibly get outside during this big stretch of unknown. 


Stay home cozy socks at LaLuz Desert Retreat in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah - COVID-19

Stay home cozy socks at LaLuz Desert Retreat in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah – COVID-19

Health & Safety 101

We can all agree, coronavirus is rapidly evolving and unpredictable. For the most up-to-date health protocol, I check the CDC. Since Covid-19 jumps very easily between people, Dylan and I hunkered down at our family’s vacant Airbnb rental home in Escalante, Utah (population 800). We abide by social distancing guidelines with passersby (stay 6-feet or more apart), if we encounter any at all. We also came with our own groceries and supplies as not to take resources away from the people who live here. So, don’t let any virtual stories fool you. We’ve assumed the lives of travel-free hermits.

Our daily outdoor ritual is modified but delivers a refreshing dose of happiness and calm. On a normal spring day, you might find us pulling out the climbing gear. Planning a backpacking trip. Inflating the standup paddleboards for a river run. Or, pouring over maps for canyoneering routes. Instead, we’re opting for more conservative activities: day hikes and dog walks. Because, if the unimaginable happened, any injury or rescue scenario would put a terrible burden on the medical system. Pulling on my climbing harness can wait. 

To that end, here are our new home-to-backyard rules:

  • We only venture to regional areas for our hikes and doggie strolls

  • If a trailhead is busy—which was more often the case for me in Carbondale and L.A. than south-central Utah—we go to an alternative spot

  • Parking etiquette has a 180-degree makeover: Rather than pulling in side-by-side, park as far apart as possible

  • We always carry a dog leash. If Rio sprinted to a stranger, it’d be lousy to risk that person’s health to retrieve our pup 

  • Some people are adamant that they maintain a 6-foot distance while recreating together. For us, it’s simply less stressful to put plans on hold with anyone we don’t live with

  • General outdoor fundamentals are extra important: Pack enough food and water, so that we can avoid random stops at the grocery store or gas station

  • Overall, we limit public outings and pull on cloth face covers (or, at least a Buff or bandana)


Danner Boot collection in our adventure rig.

Danner Boot collection in our adventure rig.

Respect Travel Guidelines—And Then Some

To make matters confusing, travel guidelines vary state-by-state and county-to-county. Here, Governor Herbert discourages non-essential or discretionary travel. However, Utah’s public health order doesn’t require a shelter-in-place. (Rather, it’s “directives” ask locals to stay home as much as possible.) And, Garfield County is not actively marketing to visitors—but hasn’t explicitly asked travelers to postpone trips, either. 

What’s an adventurer to do? Ultimately, travel increases Covid-19 risk in rural and gateway communities, which have limited resources for catastrophic health events. As a tourist, if you needed emergency medical help, you’d strain that infrastructure even further. 

Furthermore, travel closures are bubbling-up in every direction. In Utah, many of of the state’s ski resorts, national parks, and visitor centers are closed. Some hotels, lodging and camp spots are closed to non-locals. And state parks are only open to the peripheral county residents. 

So—you’d pretty much be steering the wheel through an abandoned Wild West movie script. Even if it’s not illegal, I think it’s far more meaningful and fun to wait until the dust truly settles. One of the richest parts of travel is interacting with new people, even on your way to middle-of-nowhere. And, the thought of unknowingly passing Covid-19 to someone with a compromised immunity makes me want to cry. 

Nurture Compassion

I feel incredibly guilty to live in a place where the wilderness is our backyard. We are fortunate to be in a remote location where we can hike and literally not see a single person. It’s hard for me to accept that so many people are confined to their apartments in high-rises and cities across the world. 

My therapist says, I need to shift my feeling away from guilt, to awareness and an understanding that this is uncomfortable. To recognize such discomfort and practice to compassion for others. But it does not mean that I should harbor a heavy conscience—that’s not healthy, either.


Backpacking 50 Mile Davis Canyon in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah

Backpacking 50 Mile Davis Canyon in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah

Freeze ‘Outdoor’ Social Media  

If you DO have the ability to get outside (while following social distancing guidelines), don’t post about it on social media. If one person shares that they are out enjoying beers with friends (sitting 6 feet apart), or skiing popular backcountry areas then other people will think it’s OK if they follow suit. 

Change the Plan

If the time we spend outdoors does destigmatize the severe impact of congregation, like at parking lots or boat ramps, then I believe we should severely limit our recreation. But, if we respect travel and health guidelines, I think we should use the outdoors as daily medicine. 

Take time to find out your own backyard myriad of guidelines from the county and state to the federal level. Check often, as the situation is fluid. And be open to changing your plans. Now is the time to sideline adventure goals and delay travel dreams for greater humanity.

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