How responsible hiking can be good for your health.
Update March 24: Parks Canada has now suspended motor access to all National Parks in Canada until further notice. Please respect the rules!
The threat of a COVID-19 infection is no longer a vague threat to us here in North America. It is coming to a neighbourhood near you, and taking appropriate precautions cannot be overstated.
The right thing is to do our part, isolate ourselves, protect those most at risk and adopt best practises for stopping the spread of infection.
But there’s an unfortunate side effect that comes with quarantining ourselves in our homes:
Staying indoors is driving us crazy.
We’ve already got cabin fever and no doubt you’re feeling the same way because it’s actually a proven side effect of quarantine.
The negative effects of quarantine on mental health
Yes, a deterioration in mental health is actually a proven, nay expected, result of self isolation.
A 2004 study showed that around 30% of quarantined Canadian SARS patients reported signs of psychological distress, depression or PTSD (see full list of references at the end of the blog post). That’s an extremely high number, considering the scale of self isolation that’s going on at this moment.
It’s clear that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy’ and that with limited social interaction or stimulation, we’re all getting a little antsy.
In fact, there’s even been a spike in divorces in China attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak and couples spending too much time quarantined with each other!
Assuming things don’t get worse and we’re not legally required to stay indoors (an actual possibility), we’ve come up with a solution:
Going for a hike (or a walk around your neighbourhood)!
Is it ok to go hiking during the Coronavirus outbreak?
Well, yes and no. Hiking is supposedly one of the few “approved” activities during the COVID-19 outbreak, so long as you follow the recommended social distancing advice.
In fact, a few days out in nature will realistically get you as far as possible from any sources of contamination and is a natural way to quarantine yourself away from others.
A basic rule of thumb is that as long as you can distance yourself from and avoid contact with other people, it’s ok to do that activity.
Tips for hiking during the Coronavirus self isolation period
There are several important tips for maintaining social distancing during hikes, and we’ve done our best to scour the internet for best practices. Here goes:
- Only travel with people you share a household with (your partner/family/housemates)
- Don’t share your water or snacks
- Pack food from home to limit contact with grocery stores, fast food restaurants etc.
- Avoid bringing bags of loose food like trail mix that people have to reach into with their hands.
- If you must buy supplies, avoid using small town grocery stores. These stores may have limited supplies for local residents who may not be able to shop elsewhere.
- Pack out everything you pack in (leave no trace principles). Canadian National Parks are now officially closed, which could potentially mean that bins might potentially go un-emptied and could overflow with use. This is a huge risk for wildlife.
- Consider your route and don’t take unnecessary risks (particularly with winter conditions). Injuries take up valuable medical resources that could be better utilised elsewhere. Also, there’s no guarantee that search and rescue will be available if this continues on much longer.
- Keep a minimum distance of 6ft or 2m between you and anyone else you hike with.
- Don’t pet other people’s pets if you pass them on the trail or allow others to pet yours.
- Avoid busy/popular hikes and destinations. Crowded trails are a no no.
- Don’t go out if you’re already showing signs of sickness (obviously)
- Consider only hiking loop trails so you’re not passing any traffic coming in the opposite direction.
To be clear, we’re only saying that hiking with your household, alone and away from other people is ok, so long as from the time you leave home to the time you return again, you avoid any human contact whatsoever.
Follow these tips and you’ll get all the benefits of the outdoors while reducing your risks of disease transmission!
What isn’t ok?
I’ve seen a great deal of backlash in cities where people are embracing the advice to get fresh air but are still headed out to the busiest hotspots. Taking a walk along a busy boardwalk or heading to the beach where you’re still rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other people is not what is meant by social distancing.
Going for a stroll in a mall, or walking around the downtown core of your city is also a high risk activity.
It also doesn’t mean leave your house, grab a quick bite from the Mcdonald’s drive through, use the toilets, stop at the grocery store for supplies along the way etc. etc.
Remember, your primary goal in all cases is to isolate yourself completely from human contact. If you can’t hike without making various supply runs, then perhaps you should not be going.
In all cases, you should first ask yourself if you are likely to come into contact with other people. If the answer is yes, then you should avoid that activity even if that activity is on the approved list.
Be sure to follow your local laws and guidelines
It’s also not ok to go hiking if your local area is on lockdown and you’ve been told in no uncertain terms that it’s time to return home and stay indoors.
In Canada, for example, all National Parks have now been closed because everyone has beelined straight for the same busy hikes, creating an obvious public safety risk.
We’re advocating responsible hiking while it’s still safe and our health services aren’t yet fully burdened. If things get significantly worse and there’s a government announcement banning outdoor activities, our advice to go hiking no longer stands.
There are some places where actually going outside right now is considered a criminal offence, particularly if you’ve recently returned from abroad or if you’ve already been diagnosed with the illness. Take the law seriously and weigh the real risks in your area before blindly deciding to go hiking. What might apply to one mountain area may not apply to another.
One final note on avoiding busy trails and social media
As I’ve already mentioned, everybody now seems to have the same idea and is happily heading to the mountains for isolation.
IF you pick the busiest, most popular routes, it will become virtually impossible to avoid people, people will get angry about the crowds and it’s almost inevitable that the trails will get shut down (as has now happened in Canada).
Please only go somewhere you can reasonably visit as a day trip as well. It’s no secret that the national parks in the US are free now, and that crowds are swarming various towns like Moab to escape the cities. There are lines of cars, hundreds of tourists and these tiny towns are being put at risk.
My advice is to only hike in areas near you that really aren’t considered popular or bucketlist worthy. We’re advocating for people to get out and stretch their legs, not to start crossing things off their bucketlists.
Finally, consider the impact that posting about your social isolation adventures or you favourite hikes on social media might have. You may encourage 5 of your friends to get out and do the same, who have 5 more friends, who have 5 more friends etc etc. Pretty soon, that trail is overrun. Be conscientious about your actions.
How can hiking (or going) outdoors keep you healthy during the Coronavirus pandemic?
(I’ve tweaked this post slightly now that there are so many restrictions. Most of these benefits below will also come from simply getting some fresh air and sunlight in your neighbourhood!)
Ok now that we’ve gone through safe hiking practices, we can finally get to the health benefits of hiking (or getting outside) during the Coronavirus outbreak!
I haven’t had an opportunity to write about science in a long time, so I’ve really geeked out here. I hope it’s interesting and useful.
First though, a disclaimer:
I’m not an expert in immunobiology, but I did study it a little at university, both during my Biology degree and at Medical School. I have a lot more experience in the subject than most, but it’s a complex and ever changing discipline that I haven’t studied in a few years. Having said that, I feel that I can confidently say I know how to read a scientific journal and spot good science from junk science!
You can find the references to the scientific papers I’ve used in the reference section at the end of the post. If you’re more qualified than me to speak on this subject or if I’ve made errors, please get in touch!
Mountain Air is actually good for your immune system.
Believe it or not, there is actual scientific evidence to show that breathing forest air is specifically good for your immune system and can actively help your body fight against viruses. Pine trees in particular are known to emit secondary metabolites called phytoncides.
Phytoncides, when inhaled, trigger an immune response in our body that causes us to build up more white Natural Killer blood cells. These are cells that our bodies use to target tumor and virus infected cells.
In short, breathing in pine forest air can literally help your body fight viruses and tumors.
A short trip to the forest has actually been shown to have a significant impact on the prevalence of these cells, which can last up to 30 days .
If that doesn’t sound like the best argument for a trip to the mountains right now, I don’t know what is.
Escape the media madness and help your immune system
Media tends to follow the “if it bleeds, it reads” philosophy, meaning that only the craziest, scariest stories get coverage.
Constantly reading about how the world is ending is undoubtedly having an overwhelmingly negative impact on our collective moods and anxiety levels.
There’s even actual evidence to show that watching disaster media coverage on tv causes increased post traumatic stress and anxiety.
This is not good, considering our current situation.
Anxiety and the immune system
And what’s more, increased stress and anxiety also has a negative impact on our immune system!
It’s therefore possible that the more stressed you are about catching COVID-19, the more at risk you could be to actually fall ill from it!
That’s why taking a break in the mountains and forgetting about the news might just about be the healthiest thing you’ve done all week!
If nothing else, try to limit your exposure to the news as much as you can if it’s something that’s causing you to worry.
Nature reduces anxiety
Aside from escaping the media frenzy, nature is proven to have curative, restorative powers, particularly when it comes to stress related illnesses.
Several studies have shown the positive effects of nature and ‘proximity to green space’ on anxiety, stress levels and rehabilitation from stress related illnesses. Therefore getting out into the mountains, the woods, a local park or even your garden can be incredibly beneficial.
Not only that, but feelings of “awe” in nature are able to significantly improve your feelings of well being (yes, there have actually been studies on this). Visiting a breathtaking view can have a direct, positive impact on your mental health!
The message is clear then: time spent in the outdoors will reduce our stress levels and is therefore a good way to keep our immune system strong and help stave off COVID-19 infections.
Sunlight is an amazing source of vitamin D (which fights infections)
Vitamin D is a non-essential* nutrient that is absolutely vital for a number of bodily functions such as development, function, and maintenance of healthy bones. Most importantly though, it also plays a key part in our immune function.
(*Non-essential vitamins and minerals are vitamins that your body can actually manufacture itself, essential vitamins and minerals must be obtained from food. Non-essential vitamins are still absolutely essential in terms of bodily function – confusing right?)
The important thing to know about Vitamin D is that we make it in our skin when we come into contact with direct sunlight (UVB radiation). It’s also important to know that UVB radiation is completely blocked by windows, meaning you literally cannot make enough vitamin D by remaining indoors.
Some side effects of vitamin D deficiency
It’s common for people with a lack of direct sunlight exposure (including those that work indoors by windows) to develop seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a seasonal depression caused by a lack of vitamin D. (Yet another reason why you’re getting depressed by staying indoors!)
Even long before this COVID-19 outbreak, it was estimated that around 75% of North Americans were deficient in Vitamin D.
Which is crazy, because studies have now also shown that Vitamin D is important in helping us fight off common colds, Upper Respiratory Tract infections and influenza. Relevant? Ya I think so!
This suggests that the vast majority of North Americans are at an increased risk of developing sicknesses like the flu, simply because they don’t get enough sunlight!
What’s the solution?
Get outdoors and get some sun (or better yet, go for a hike!)
How long do you need to spend outside to make enough vitamin D?
Unfortunately, this varies drastically depending on your skin tone. People with lighter skin, although far more prone to skin cancer, can produce vitamin D at a far faster rate (an estimate of between 10-30 minutes to get your recommended daily amount).
People with darker skin have more melanin in their skin, which is highly beneficial because it protects from sun damage by actually absorbing UVB radiation.
Unfortunately though, the ability to absorb UVB means that darker skin needs significantly more time to produce enough vitamin D. People with darker skin may need anywhere between 30 minutes and 3 hours each day to produce a healthy amount of Vitamin D.
This is why people with darker skin have a far higher prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in North America.
Getting direct, outdoor sunlight is a necessary requirement for staying healthy during this protracted season of isolation.
Even if it’s only for a few minutes each day, it could still be enough of an immune system boost to keep you from getting sick. Spending an entire day out in the mountains and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine is even better!
Exercise is important for keeping healthy
This bullet almost needs no introduction. We all know that exercise is important for good cardiovascular strength and heart function, but it does also have an effect on your immune system.
Unfortunately though, this is a very complex topic. In fact, it seems to be the case that exercise actually improves some parts of your immune system and weakens others. (great…), but the general consensus is that being fit is better than not being fit.
Really?!? What the hell do I do with that information then?!?
Don’t worry, it’s generally understood that the best way to keep your immune system strong is a moderate, regulated amount of exercise. Hiking is perfect for raising your heart-rate but avoiding excessive anaerobic exercise.
Here is the generally accepted theory of exercise vs. immune function
As suggested above, there’s strong evidence to suggest that over-exercise can actually weaken your immune system, so don’t overdo it. Don’t go out and pick the biggest mountain, just get outside and stretch your legs a bit!
Finally, there’s evidence to show that taking on carbohydrates while you’re exercising provides your immune cells with important fuel that keeps them working properly. Consider eating carbohydrates (like trail mix or a granola bar) while you’re on the move to keep strong.
Other benefits of heading to the mountains during the COVID-19 outbreak
The mountains are extremely quiet right now
Densely populated cities are diseases centres. This is where people are in closest contact and are at greatest risk of disease transmission.
The mountains and hiking trails, on the other hand, are virtually deserted. I feel like I can confidently say that you’re more likely to catch the bug in a grocery store than on a hike.
In Banff, Canada, there are normally over 4 million visitors per year; sometimes you can barely walk along a trail without dodging crowds. It is a ghost town right now, especially in light of the new US-Canada border closures. Unfortunately, Banff is now closed as it’s in a National Park in Canada!
Hiking is virtually free!
We’re all hunkering down right now and many of us have either been sent home from work or have had our sources of income affected. We’re bored, but we can’t afford to break the bank right now.
Heading into the mountains, forest or your local park is a great way to get hours of amazing entertainment at virtually zero cost (obviously aside from the cost of gas)!
There’s only so much Netflix I can personally cope with, so you can guarantee that as long as I’m allowed to do so, I’ll be out there exploring the wilderness and avoiding people!
Hopefully, it’s clear that heading out for some exercise in the great outdoors can, if done properly, be a very safe and healthy thing to do right now.
If you live near green space, mountains, forests etc, and you’re still allowed out, then I would encourage you to explore those options.
Finally, I know that not everybody has access to the great outdoors right now and that hiking isn’t an option for everyone.
If you can’t physically get to a green space, then I would encourage you to explore other alternatives to keep yourself happy and healthy; connect with friends and family (online), do a fitness video in your living room, read a book or even learn a new language!
Hopefully this post doesn’t sound too negative, but my real goal here is to send out a positive message that it isn’t all doom and gloom!
For now, the best we can do is focus on keeping it together and hope for a quick resolution.
Sending love and best wishes to you and your families during this awful time.
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