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Your guide to enjoying outdoor spaces responsibly during social isolation

It’s on all of us.

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Over the weekend, scores of people discovered the joy of being outside in nature, all at the same time. While I am glad that folks are learning to enjoy nature, I came out here to get away from people, and here they were jamming parking lots and choking my beloved trails.

I wasn’t proud of that reaction, so I called Josh Katzman, a veteran ultrarunner and race director for the Trail Animals Running Club. Katzman had just made the decision to cancel To Hale and Back, one of our beloved races. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, calling it off was an easy decision, but that didn’t make it any less emotionally painful.

TARC is New England’s longest running trail series, and we pride ourselves in running through whatever life throws our way, from blizzards to heat waves. In need of some solo miles to clear his head, Katzman had a similar experience to mine.

“My first reaction was like, ‘What are these people doing on my trails?’ That’s what I have to get over,” Katzman told me over the phone. “What are people doing in a time of panic and stress and confusion? They’re connecting with the outdoors. That’s a good thing. That’s an awesome thing. I don’t have any more right to do this than anyone else.”

At a time when being outdoors is one of the only safe spaces we have left, we all have a responsibility to protect what we have. Outdoor enthusiasts especially have an opportunity to lead in this moment of crisis and share our knowledge and wisdom so everyone can continue to use these spaces safely and responsibly.

There’s a lot of work to do if we are to ensure these precious spaces remain clean and accessible for everyone. Here are some thoughts from Katzman.

Be kind and considerate.

Everything flows from the golden rule, and it’s one of the cornerstones of TARC’s approach. Calling out your presence well ahead of time while voluntarily stepping lightly off trail to allow others to pass safely is a chance to set a good example and help build community.

“When you see other people, just hold up your hand and give a wave,” Katzman says. “Something friendly. It’s OK to make eye contact with someone.”

Carry out what you carry into the woods.

All those snack wrappers and plastic water bottles and to-go coffee cups can put a serious strain on the ecosystem. Now would be a great time to use that water bottle that’s been sitting around your house or get a refillable thermos. If I’m going to be out for any length of time, I carry a small Ziploc for gel wrappers and any other refuse.

Seriously, don’t litter. Please.

Make yourself sustainable with plenty of water and food.

Trail users are minimalists by nature, but it’s always better to be prepared. I carry a 12-ounce handheld water bottle on all runs up to two hours. Even if I don’t need that much hydration, it’s a comfort knowing it’s there if I run into any issues. Also the pouch makes a great carrying case for keys and a gel.

For longer outings, I use either a larger capacity handheld or a hydration vest — a lightweight backpack with space for bottles or a bladder. Conditions can change quickly in the outdoors so I typically stash a lightweight jacket in my pack, along with a dry top and hat. On runs lasting four to six hours, I carry a small first-aid pack with bandaids, a whistle, bacitracin for cuts, and an emergency Clif bar.

“Understand, shit happens,” Katzman says. “You can get hurt. Especially if you’re new to trails, maybe stick to the fire roads. Be honest with yourself about where you’re comfortable.”

Bring a trail map.

It’s surprisingly easy to get lost where I run, so I often stash a trail map in my pack even on familiar runs. However, many visitor centers are closed so don’t rely on being able to pick one up when you get to a trail. If you do have a map, save it for later use.

Fortunately, we can make technology work for us, by downloading a PDF to our phones or taking a screenshot of a map. AllTrails is an excellent resource.

“You also need to understand how to follow the map,” Katzman says. “You don’t want to have to call your local police because you get lost.”

If you have to go, do it responsibly.

For urination, move six feet off the trail and away from water sources. If you have to poop, and we’ve all been there, bury your solids under six inches in the dirt. Bring your own toilet paper and put it in a Ziploc like you would for your dog. Remember, many visitor centers are closed so don’t rely on having bathroom facilities.

If that sounds gross or icky, get over yourself. If you do step off trail to handle your business, check for ticks. They are small, evil, and bad news. Check yourself and your kids, and if you find one, remove it immediately.

“The ticks are freaking insane,” Katzman says. “I wear compression sleeves all the time now. I don’t know if they serve any physiological function, I just wear them for ticks. Check yourself when you get back. With all this going on, it would really suck to get a tick disease.”

Be aware of your surroundings.

I don’t wear headphones when I run, but I use them occasionally when hiking. My favorites are called AfterShoks, which fit just under your ear and use bone-conducting technology. They take some getting used to, but they allow me to hear what’s coming and are great for working out.

Some people use one earbud instead of two and some totally tune in and zone out. If you do wear headphones, please be aware that people may be trying to pass you. Also be aware that mountain bikes are big and fast. The rule of thumb is people going uphill have the right of way.

The Japanese have a wonderful phrase — shinrin yoku — or forest bathing. The idea, after all, is to get away from all this trouble for a little while. You’d be amazed at what you can hear when you really listen.

“Especially if you’re new to the trails, it’s pretty cool when you hear something off in the woods and it’s a giant buck,” Katzman says. “I would encourage people to try it without any music just to immerse yourself.”

Remember you are in an animal’s habitat.

Take a minute to familiarize yourself with animals in your region, and have a plan in case you do come upon an animal in the wild. Give them plenty of space and remember, the safest animal encounter is to not have one.

Speaking of animals, know the park regulations for your dogs.

Where I live people either don’t know about leash regulations or simply don’t care. Over the years I’ve been chased, surrounded, and jumped on by plenty of dogs. (Another good reason to leave the headphones at home.) Fortunately I’ve never been bitten, but Katzman has several times, and it’s not fun.

“I run with my dog off leash all the time,” Katzman says. “As someone who has a dog who loves running off leash, it’s one of the coolest things in the world to see your dog running free in the woods. That’s what animals are supposed to do. But, when most people are at a higher level of anxiety, I don’t want to add any stress. If I saw any little kids ahead I would clip him, period.

“The default is you should have your dog on leash, and this is coming from a person who has their dog off leash,” Katzman continues. “You have to assume your dog is going to run up and sniff someone regardless of how well trained they are, and you have to assume that person is not going to be comfortable with dogs.”

And that brings us back to the golden rule. Be kind and considerate. We’re all in this together and our outdoor spaces may be the last safe thing we have left. Let’s take care of them, and each other.