When pandemic panic buying started back in March, it was toilet paper and hand sanitizer that flew off the shelves. Then it was flour, yeast, and other baking staples as we turned to homemade breads and cookies for comfort. As the days grew longer and warmer, entirely different products started selling out: tents, dehydrated meals, and fuel for camping and backpacking stoves.
It’s hardly surprising that Americans are flocking to parks, lakes, and trails in droves after months of indoor quarantine time. Many of us may be experiencing a “nature deficit” as we ceased commuting and saw the shutdown of local parks and trails earlier this year. Many researchers believe that humans have an innate desire to connect with nature, so it’s no wonder that even folks who had never camped or backpacked before have felt the urge to spend more time outside.
As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff says, "When 'civilization' oppresses, wilderness is the best therapy."
This renewed interest in outdoor recreation has wider impacts beyond brisk sales at REI - it came just in time to boost a crucial opportunity to protect our national parks and other wild places.
Earlier this month, President Trump signed the massive Great American Outdoors Act into law, which authorizes $1.9 billion per year for national parks and also permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year.
This sweeping bill passed with rare bipartisan support that may not have existed if Americans had not just spent the spring and early summer trapped inside their homes. Linda Bilmes, co-author of “Valuing U.S. National Parks and Programs: America’s Best Investment” and expert on the budgets and funding of our national parks, believes that many Americans have “rediscovered the outdoors” in the midst of the pandemic.
“The national parks not only provide economic benefits but also health and enjoyment... The public is now appreciating the outdoors as never before and calling on its elected representatives to provide adequate financial support.” - Linda Bilmes
Here at Dialogue, many of us have been appreciating the mental and physical health benefits of hiking since well before the pandemic.
This summer I was very fortunate to receive a coveted permit to hike the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile loop that pummels the quads and knees with over 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss as it circumnavigates Mount Rainier in Washington state.
The Wonderland Trail crosses raging glacial rivers, high mountain ridgelines, and stunning alpine meadows. The trail is generally well maintained but is very physically demanding because you are almost always climbing or descending - flat stretches are few and far between. I was lucky to be there at the perfect time, when most of the snow had melted and the wildflowers were near their peak.
If you decide to join me in hitting the trails this summer, you will likely see a few differences compared to prior years:
- Crowds might be larger or smaller than usual. On the Wonderland Trail, where permits are required and regularly checked, fewer thru hikers were on the trail, most likely because some permit holders were no shows and walk-up permits were not offered. On the other hand, if you are in an area where permits are not required or are easier to come by, you may see more hikers than usual.
- Permit processes may have changed. Some trails that usually offer walk-up permits - including the Wonderland - have changed the rules this year. Check online or call the appropriate ranger station or parks department to confirm before you head out.
- Social distancing and masks are still important in the backcountry. Even though being outdoors is safer than being inside, hikers should be diligent about leaving six feet of distance between you and others on the trail, and about covering your nose and mouth when narrow trails make distancing impossible. No, you don’t need to hike with your mask on the whole time, but having a face covering handy (ideally more than a single layer neck gaiter) is the best way to take care of the other hikers on the trail.
A nice long forest bath might be just what you need to boost your mood and help keep you healthy in these times. Whether you picnic in a nearby public park or a take on a challenging thru-hike, getting outside (in a safe and responsible manner) is the hot new trend we can all get behind.