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Outdoor recreation during COVID-19

ARCHIVE: Sarah Hunt, a University of Utah student ski tours in the Wasatch mountains on Nov 16, 2018. Mental and physical health are main drivers for the increase in outdoor recreation since the start of the pandemic. (Madison Ostergren)

Pandemic safety protocols, growing interest, environmental concerns and crowding are changing outdoor recreation.

“The fact is, through a global pandemic, many more people realized the health and wellness benefits of fresh air, getting outside, getting into open spaces, and whatnot,” said Patrick “Pitt” Grewe, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation.

What does pandemic recreation look like?

One of the biggest shifts in outdoor recreation during the pandemic is the increased need for planning.

Ski resorts such as Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton are requiring advance reservations for some services such as lift tickets, equipment rentals, lessons and parking. Even the popular Ikon Pass, which gives skiers and snowboarders access to resorts around the country, is requiring reservations for use in some places.

“It’s kind of part of the whole new outdoor recreation trend,” said Grewe, who is skiing at Brighton this season. “You’ve just got to plan ahead a little more than typically in the past.”

Grewe emphasizes this need for planning and preparing for recreation, saying it can often be what makes the outdoor experience positive or negative. He said it’s not only important for new recreators, but also for more seasoned recreators to adjust.

“Some of [people’s] spots that they thought always were kind of their quiet or secret spots were seeing more and more traffic,” Grewe said. “My habits as an individual recreator shifted […] I found myself looking at areas that maybe were less popular or unheard of and may require a longer drive or hike to get back to.”

Morgan Nicholson, a junior outdoor education and leadership major at Westminster College, said her regular spots are becoming more crowded.

Nicholson, although not necessarily changing recreational locations, said her choice of activities is different than before the pandemic. Now, she finds herself often choosing cycling or hiking over group trips.

New outdoor recreation interest

On the other hand, Mikey O’Hearn, a first-year communication major and outdoor education and leadership minor, is new to outdoor recreation..

O’Hearn said his increased interest in the outdoors increased during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the ability to more easily social distance.

 “To adventure and hang out with friends while being inside together is difficult,” he said.

Since the start of the pandemic, a variety of recreational activities have increased in popularity. According to The NPD Group, a consumer data firm, the top five growing activities are cycling, paddle sports, golf, camping and natural sightseeing.

Wynter Mindnich, a senior computer science major at Westminster, said in her personal experience, the biggest changes she’s seen are “overcrowding and lack of [Leave No Trace] and outdoor etiquette.”

Nicholson, O’Hearn, and Mindich all expressed concern for new recreators’ safety, listing risks such as falls, broken bones and hypothermia.

Leave no trace

The seven LNT principles:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impact
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Nicholson and Mindnich also said that environmental protection is important, and new recreators do not always know how to respect nature. This is a growing concern in the overall outdoor community.

Leave No Trace (LNT) principles are guidelines for protecting the environment while spending time in nature. These principles are viewed by the outdoor community as a form of outdoor etiquette.

Mindnich said new recreators are not following the guidelines, emphasizing that campfire impact minimization “doesn’t exist.”

“In San Raphael Swell, every five feet there was a campfire,” Mindnich said. “We were there for one night and took care of three campfires just around our campsite area.”

Nicholson said proper waste disposal is also poor in popular areas.  

Traveling and camping on durable surfaces “feels successful when there are many established trails to follow, less successful in areas with fewer established trails,”Nicholson said. 

Etiquette between recreators is also changing. Recreators are encouraged by the American Hiking Society to let others know in advance when they are approaching. Masks are brought on trails, but usually not worn throughout the hike. 

On trails, six feet between the passing parties is expected. There’s debate within the outdoor community about narrow trails and social distancing. Some say creating distance  between parties justifies stepping off the trail, whereas others say it is more important to stay on the established trail and preserve the land.

“I think it is cool that more people are discovering an enthusiasm for the outdoors,” Nicholson said. “However, I am worried that new people might not have the same level of respect for the environment, and I am worried that more harm will come to the environment as new people learn LNT things.”

Outdoor recreation benefits during COVID-19

Mental and physical health are main drivers for the increase in outdoor recreation since the start of the pandemic.

“In times of crisis or disaster, outdoor recreation […] provides an important means of coping,” a study published by the Journal of Urban Ecology and conducted by University of Montana, University of Pennsylvania, and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics found.

“Outdoor recreation provides important recreational ecosystem services (stress relief, socialization, nature appreciation, etc.) through interaction with the natural world,” the study reported.

For regular recreators, they said they’re excited to share this euphoria with newcomers.

“There’s many of us who’ve known the benefits of outdoor recreation for years […] We realized, ‘This is what makes me happy and healthy and clears my mind,’” Grewe said. “Everybody has the right to experience that, it’s for the health and wellness of humankind.”

Although some are concerned for the environment with increased traffic, others hope that the more people get outside, the more they will want to protect natural spaces.

“It’s good for the outdoor economy and could lead to good things for environmental policy,” Mindnich said.

Grewe mentioned the benefit to the Utah economy specifically, using tourism as an example. NPD, after collecting outdoor consumer data, reported the economic growth opportunities are skyrocketing.   

Grewe also said colleges and universities across the state are opening up and expanding their outdoor recreation programs, and the new growth is helping promote the importance of outdoor education.

Advice to new recreators

For those looking to get outside, seasoned recreators emphasize the importance of leaving nature better than how they found it. 

“If you’re just starting to get outside, what we recommend is learning some of the standard etiquette, because this will make the experience not only better for you, but the other people you come across,” Grewe said. “Leave No Trace principles is a great starting point for that[…] Planning ahead is important.”

Others recommend getting to know the lay of the land before stepping out into the world. 

“Find peers, take classes, read, find views from all types of people,” Mindnich said.

“Find someone who has more experience than you and ask them to go on trips with you,” Nicholson added. “Also, make sure you do your research. The internet is amazing and full of resources. If you don’t know what LNT is, no worries, just watch a 5-minute YouTube video.”

Overall, outdoor enthusiasts emphasize appreciating nature. 

“Full send, let free and live,” O’Hearn said. “Some of my best and favorite memories, moments and laughs took place in the outdoors, adventuring life.”


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Riley Hayes is a senior majoring in both communication and outdoor education and leadership (OEL). She aims to combine her communication and OEL knowledge to improve accessibility in outdoor recreation. In between her time spent camping, hiking, rock climbing and traveling, Riley experiments with creative media.

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