Before Your First Post-COVID Trip…

Photo: A.Benavides/Endesa

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is still far from under control, most countries in the northern hemisphere are opening or planning to do so shortly. This means that summer holiday plans are finally turning from wistful lockdown dreams to realistic goals. After weeks of confinement, most of us are also aching to hit the open spaces.

As even urban types cut loose and head outdoors, mountain rescue services expect an increase in the number of accidents. Perhaps some will develop symptoms of COVID during a trip or are not in shape after weeks at home, cake-baking and Netflix-marathoning. Mountain patrols and sport federations strongly recommend choosing modest goals before tacking the challenges that they might have in mind before the crisis.

Speaking of shape…

Even those who continued to train at home should consider that outdoor exercise uses different muscle groups, so injuries are more likely to occur.

Those who have been sick with COVID-19 must be especially cautious, even if they feel recovered. We still know little about the illness and its mid-term side effects. Some people initially reported a complete recovery only to suffered further symptoms weeks or months later, including shortness of breath, blood clots and migrains. Check with your doctor before venturing far from health facilities.

A good time to get rid of bad climbing habits. Photo: Eduardo Blanco/Chileclimbers.cl

From social to physical distancing

Outdoors, the term social distance means simply physical distance. Keeping a hockey-stick length away from others is rarely a problem, unless you’re on a popular trail or at a climbing belay. In these cases, a face mask is strongly recommended. Likewise, if you’ve developed the habit of holding the rope between your teeth right before passing it through a carabiner, look for a different method.

  • When hiking in group, the cameraderie may suffer but the safety improves if everyone abstains from sharing gear and supplies, such as that bag of nuts passing from hand to hand. And in dicey sections where we need to use our hands, from scrambles to via ferratta chains and cables, be aware that hands may become tainted with more than dirt, so keep them away from your face, as we’ve learned to do in the city.
  • Include spare masks, disinfectant and gloves in the first-aid kit, in case you have to help someone in trouble.

Natural rebound

Initially, we may be trekking through country that has been untouched by humans for weeks. Nature can reclaim itself very quickly; in our absence, shy species may have moved back. Differences may be undetectable in the big, wild regions of northern Canada or the Himalaya, but popular hiking trails around the globe, from the European Alps to the Inca Trail, the Appalachian Trail, New Zealand’s Milton Trail, etc. may offer an “enhanced” experience for the first visitors, including:

  • Insects and reptiles who have returned to spots that they would have previously avoided. Medical services in southern Europe report increasing cases of hikers bitten by spiders and ticks. The flat stone that is ideal to sit on for a short break may be equally attractive to a sunbathing viper. And vipers don’t usually like being squished by human bottoms.
  • Brown bears, recently re-introduced into the Pyrenees and northern Italy, and previously very scarce in Northern Spain, woke up from hibernation this year to find no one around. Very nice for them. It inspired them to spread into newer park areas, as they have also done in northern Italy. Wolves are also enlarging their territories, although age-old myths to the contrary, they pose no threat to people.
  • Fast-growing weeds and brush have overgrown parts of some trails. Trail markers painted on stones and tree trunks may be hidden.
Small boy, huge bear in the Italian Dolomites.

Logistics

  • Spaces for camper-vans may be closed or restricted. Check beforehand; you may need to make a reservation in places where you never previously had to. Mountain huts are slowly re-opening but with limited capacity, only to guests with reservations, with fewer services, etc.
  • Access to certain places may have changed as well, so lay in a plan B.  
  • Read the fine print on your insurance policy: Some will not cover in areas where travel is not recommended by the Department of State or some other branch of government.
  • Backcountry isolation is cool, but keep tabs on possible emergency measures that may occur without warning, especially when abroad.
  • Speaking of heading abroad, you need to find out whether you are even allowed to be there. Restrictions, immigration requirements, even quarantines may be reinforced. Moreover, government measures change constantly as the situation evolves. Visitors arriving at a border by plane or road will be duly informed, but those changing countries by crossing a mountain pass may be breaking some law without realizing it.
Flexibility is essential on trekking trips this summer. Photo: A.Benavides/Endesa

So what do we do?

  • The only solution is thorough advanced planning and even more flexibility than usual in the outdoors.
  • Search for sources of recent information — the first hit on Google is not always the most up-to-date — and recheck before and during the trip. If you are going to mountain areas, this new section on the UIAA website contains info, resources and links to local alpine federations, clubs and similar groups providing updates.
  • Again, 2020 may not be the year to tackle a one-in-a-lifetime challenge, unless uncertainty and added risk are part of the game. Otherwise, it may be a great moment for easier goals. Consider applying the seven pillars of mindfulness (non-judgment, patience, a beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go) to outdoor holidays. Expressed in a few words, enjoy the simple things in life.

Thanks to Alberto Ayora, head of the Committee for Safety at Spain’s Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, for his advice.

About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to "ExplorersWeb BC" in 2018 and. Feeling right at home since then!

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