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Photo by Nora Logue, courtesy of Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Your Guide to Outdoor Recreating During Social Distancing

Everything you need to know about adventuring in a time of pandemic—for the time being, anyways.

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The bars and restaurants are closed, as are the gyms, theaters, and most other places we go to escape. And on March 25, Gov. Jared Polis instituted a stay-at-home order for all 5.7 million Colorado residents, urging everyone to only venture out for essential reasons. This period of extreme social distancing is all for good reason—but you’re not alone if you’re already feeling COVID-induced cabin fever. Lucky for Coloradans, we have some of nature’s finest playgrounds beckoning from just beyond our backyards. But is getting out and recreating still a smart idea? The answer is: yes, sort of.

While it’s certainly recommended during these times of isolation that you get outside, get fresh air, and get exercise, there are also some extra precautions to keep in mind so that we’re still protecting one another. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can do to tackle the inevitable restlessness, what you maybe shouldn’t do, and how to be smart about recreating in a time of pandemic.

Are the parks still open?

Yes, for the most part, except for visitor centers and other facilities. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell said via email that unless otherwise directed by health and public officials, CPW intends to keep parks open and minimize the effects of COVID-19 on Coloradans’ recreational experiences when they need them most. The National Park Service (NPS) also announced that they will temporarily eliminate park entrance fees to encourage people to get outside, but on March 20, Rocky Mountain National Park became the first Colorado park to close because of the coronavirus pandemic, at the request of Estes Park Mayor Todd Jirsa.

CPW announced late last week that all visitor centers, service centers, and offices will be temporarily closed to the public. On March 26, the organization announced it would also close its campsites. Mesa Verde National Park, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, and the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site all temporarily closed their visitor centers, as well. All CPW hunter education classes and boating classes have been canceled or postponed, but they are waiving any fees for changing or canceling reservations. Events and programs at Rocky Mountain National Park have also been canceled, including snowshoe walks, full moon walks, and Earth Day events. The U.S. Forest Service has also closed campgrounds, restrooms, “developed” trailheads, and other facilities, and is discouraging fishing, hunting, and trail use.

Both CPW and the National Park Service state that they are taking the proper operational measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and are encouraging park-goers to buy passes and book reservations online whenever possible to avoid any trips to their offices. For daily updates and more information on cancellations, closures, and changes in operation, visit the National Park Service’s website and CPW’s website.

What activities can I do?

Coloradans probably need very little inspiration for ways to get out and get active, as the the state abounds with options for outdoor recreation. But the stay-at-home order does have some restrictions. Gov. Polis recommends that people recreate within their neighborhood and region. And if you live in Denver, the city’s stay-home order states that you should not travel outside the county to recreate.

If you are able to hit the trails or a nearby park, remember the rules of social distancing—do not congregate (choose to go somewhere else if the park or trail appears crowded), stay 6 feet from others, and wash your hands immediately when you return home. In any case, it goes without saying that anything involving an edge of exercise will be especially beneficial during this time.

“While we’re paying so much attention to coronavirus, we also have to remember the basics about staying healthy,” says Lisa Miller, professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health and former state epidemiologist. “This is a stressful situation for everybody—our daily lives have been disrupted. Exercise and getting outside, changing your environment, is a great way to reduce some of that stress.”

(MORE: Why Now Is Not the Time to Take a Road Trip)

What should I avoid?

With social distancing as our best bet for preventing the spread of the coronavirus right now, this is not the time for group outings with folks who aren’t in your immediate family, or whom you haven’t been isolating with at home already. With that in mind, it’s also probably a good idea to hold off on sending your most technical climb, going solo backcountry skiing, trying something new, or traveling to the mountains.

“This is not the time to start a new physical activity or an extreme activity that might put you at risk of injury,” Miller says. “You don’t want to end up at the doctor’s office or the emergency room with an injury that could be avoidable. We want to save all those healthcare resources for the possibility that they’d be needed for the coronavirus.” (Plus, a hospital is probably the last place you want to be right now if you don’t want to be at risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19.)

Colorado Search and Rescue (CSAR) is also expecting an uptick in calls with more people getting outside in the coming weeks, and as they also brace for the possibility of COVID-19 spreading to members of their staff across the state, people might have to prepare for a delay in response times for several reasons, according to CSAR vice president Pat Caulfield. “Maybe put a little more thought into your objectives,” Caulfield says. “Because the first responder system is under stress, and we expect it to be under more stress here in the future. Anything you can do as people getting out there that can preclude us from having to come out and help you would be great.”

CSAR posted a handy list of suggestions for being as mindful as possible in planning your outdoor recreation, including checking weather and trailhead status before departing (Colorado’s spring weather is notoriously unpredictable), having back-up, non-electronic means of navigating, and avoiding avalanche terrain. And as with anything right now, be sure to practice social distancing tactics as suggested by the CDC (at least 6 feet apart from other adventuring groups).

What if the parks do close?

While it’s tough to speculate what might happen in the coming weeks and months, it’s important to remember there are plenty of other ways to stay active in case a trip to one of our breathtaking parks falls out of the question.

Miller suggests making use of your backyard if you’ve got one, and city and neighborhood parks are an ideal oasis, so long as they’re not teeming with other neighbors who have the same idea. “Maybe your local park is too crowded, but you can take a walk around your neighborhood, or you can find a different place to still get exercise, get outside, get the same benefit—but without the crowd and the closeness to other people,” Miller says. “If you’re out walking the dog or out running, there’s plenty of opportunity to [stay 6 feet apart] and plenty of room to really make sure you maintaining that social distance.”

If all else fails, we’ve got you covered with a list of at-home workouts we’ll be updating regularly—and if you’re a serious adrenaline junkie, there are still ways to get creative and, erm, get that fix. Needless to say, responsibility, consideration, and a little imagination will go a long way if we all want to come out of this time as safe, sane, and healthy as possible.

Editor’s note, 3/31/20: This article has been updated with new information. 

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