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Are you ready, boots? Hiking do’s and don’ts in the age of COVID-19

With more newbies enjoying the outdoors, and concerns about social distancing, it’s time to take a fresh look at trail etiquette

There are new rules for hiking during COVID-19.Diane Bair for The Boston Globe

They’re called “trail carnations,” but nobody wants to pick them — the wads of toilet paper or tissue left behind on hiking trails. In a word: gross. And there’s a new item showing up trailside: discarded face masks. “I’ve noticed a lot more trash. With more hikers comes more of everything,” says Mike Cherim, owner of Redline Guiding (www.redlineguiding.com), an adventure outfitter based in North Conway, N.H. “Because of COVID-19, and concerns about contamination, this trash takes on a new, disgusting twist.”

There’s an obvious solution: Bring a bag to carry out everything you carry in that needs to be disposed, like empty water bottles, and especially those tissues. “It’s common sense, but there’s a disconnect,” says Cherim, who has hiked all 1,500 miles of trails in the AMC “White Mountain Guide” and has climbed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 footers. “People say, ‘Oh, it is so beautiful and pristine here!’ and then they leave their trash behind. It boggles the mind!”


Don’t get us wrong: Hiking is a wonderful thing. It’s great exercise and it’s good for the psyche. But with more newbies hitting the trail, and concerns about social distancing, it’s time to take a fresh look at trail etiquette. We spoke with Cherim about how to stay safe — and serene — while hiking.

Do: Be strategic about parking

Many people aren’t riding together anymore due to COVID, so if four friends go hiking, they each drive a car. “This, along with more people seeking outdoor recreation, has resulted in a parking problem at the trailheads,” Cherim says. We’ve heard stories of 2-mile backups at popular trails, and trailside parking lots full by 7 a.m. or earlier. What can you do? “Go wicked early,” he suggests. Bonus: You’ll get to see a nice sunrise. That’s better than arriving late and taking a chance on hiking out of the woods in the dark. And always have a Plan B: If the parking lot is full, go to another location. Weekends are obviously busiest, but midweek crowds have been substantial during the pandemic, Cherim notes.


Save your chatty gatherings for places where you can spread out.Diane Bair for The Boston Globe

Don’t: Expect everyone to maintain social distance

In a perfect world, we would all respect each other’s personal space. That doesn’t always happen on the trail. “Some people are trying to keep their distance on the trail, some hold their breath, and some don’t care — and don’t care that you care,” Cherim says. Typically, a group of hikers should yield to an individual on a trail, and the person who’s ascending has the right of way (meaning, descending hikers should make way for them). Newbies may not realize this, and you may have to get off the trail to avoid other hikers. But going off the trail can harm the environment. What to do? “Aim for rocks and roots and open drainages,” Cherim says. “Don’t walk on mosses and alpine vegetation. Walking on roots doesn’t hurt trees, but walking on the soil around trees causes damage.”

With regard to other hikers, be accommodating. “Be the person who forgoes your right of way and move aside.” You might have to backtrack a bit, just to avoid people. Walk single file on the trails, and save your chatty gatherings for places where you can spread out, like at the top of the mountain. It’s breezier up there, so aerosols will be more dispersed, Cherim notes.


Do: Choose your trail wisely

If you’re a first-time hiker, consider easier, wider trails to allow for more manageable social distancing. On these trails, though, expect to encounter children and, in some places, mountain bikers (who may or may not be wearing masks). Want to conquer a mountain summit? Choose a “starter peak,” a mountain with lower elevation, Cherim advises. Consider hiring a guide to help build your skills. Redline Guiding currently offers private hikes only, to places you probably wouldn’t discover on your own. “You can say, ‘Take me to an amazing view,’ and I’ll take you to a wonderful viewpoint where you won’t see other people,” he says, drawing on local knowledge.

If you’re an experienced hiker who wants to avoid crowds at a popular destination — say, one of New Hampshire’s 4,000 footers — look on the trail map for the shortest line (route). That’s where most people go, Cherim says. So skip those trails and choose a longer hike. There’s plenty to choose from in New England, including some 1,500 miles in the White Mountain National Forest alone.

Try to choose a trail less traveled. Courtesy of White Mountains Attractions

Don’t: Skimp on packing

We know our readers aren’t ditzy types who wear flip-flops to hike a mountain. That said, you do need to throw a few things into a backpack. The 10 essentials include water, a map and compass, sun protection, a flashlight, a whistle, a small knife (you’ll probably just use this for cutting food), a small first aid kit, food, and extra clothing, including a rain poncho. On a mountain, it might be T-shirt weather at the base and puffy-coat weather at the summit, so don’t skip the fleece. Hiking is generally a low-risk activity, Cherim says, and “The saying goes, ‘The mountain spares most fools.’ ” But you don’t want to be the chump who needs rescuing due to your own ignorance.


Do: Turn off and tune in

In the wake of illness, uncertainty, and economic chaos, let Mother Nature work her magic on you. For maximum effect, skip the headphones and tune into the sound of the woods. As Cherim puts it, “Turn off the music, turn off the phone, and embrace the mountain.”

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com