For the millions of Americans who consider ourselves “outdoorsy,” many of us thought we were well prepared for social distancing. (In fact, we used to be considered social distancing experts.) All we need to stay happy is a water bottle, a backpack and miles of trail to explore.
However, COVID-19 has led to a reawakening among the American public about the tremendous benefits of the great outdoors. Millions of Americans are exploring trails, state parks, and public lands for the first time because it is one of the best ways to shake off cabin fever and get a break from the relentless stresses of everyday life.
It is also a relatively safe way to see other people and still keep your distance and reduce contact. As a result, trail counters in Utah have recorded 90% increases in trail use in some areas. Similarly, state parks are experiencing overcrowding and having to close off access by 10 a.m. on weekend days. We have even seen increased vandalism and trash on popular trails.
In order to effectively and safely return to our favorite parks and trails, we may need to do some things a little differently. The outdoor industry is a melting pot of people, companies, and organizations that specialize in problem-solving, innovation, and weathering storms. Because of that, I see many ways for the outdoor industry to adjust and innovate as we move into an adjusted norm for getting outside.
1. Stewardship – Now is the time to not only educate newcomers but be willing to pick up the slack a little bit. I know you don’t want to pick up after anyone else that leaves a mess. No one does. However, it is not the job of our land managers, rangers, or officers to do it either, but it still needs to get done. We must understand that not everyone is going to follow “leave no trace” ethics or “pack it in, pack it out” guidelines, but if we care about being able to retain access, we need to collectively do the right thing. Always leave a place better than you found it and don’t be afraid to kindly help others to do the same.
2. Innovation – As local hot spots get busier, and more people are learning the importance of visiting special places, we will see bigger crowds. I would love to see more state and national parks partner with innovators in tech and the outdoor industry to develop new solutions to solve these problems and help the public to be better informed and prepared for what to expect. Many people leave work on Friday afternoon to travel to a favorite campsite or national park expecting to be able to get away from it all only to find it packed and not what they were expecting. Technology could help to spread people out a bit more and improve the experience by helping people know when and where an area will have a little less pressure.
3. Safety – The more people you put in one area, the more dangerous it can become. We all rely heavily on Search and Rescue to be our back up plan. However, Search and Rescue is one of the most underfunded programs. With the increase in outdoor recreation, SAR programs will be pushed to the max. Just this past Memorial Day weekend, a local SAR team performed 3 different rescues for 3 different parties within 30 minutes of each other on the same trail. If you see an opportunity to financially support the search and rescue teams in your favorite outdoor playground. Please do.
4. Support local retailers and service providers – Have you ever wanted to take that special river trip or maybe check out a new area you are unfamiliar with? Now might be the best time in order to help stimulate rural economies by supporting local businesses. If you are able, it is especially important this year that you buy your gear from a local shop, get lunch at a nearby restaurant, or pay a guide or outfitter to help make the experience extra memorable.
No matter what your level of experience is in the outdoors, right now is the best time to support local outfitters, protect public lands, and invest in outdoor recreation infrastructure.
If there is one silver lining from the COVID-19 crisis, it is that the value of outdoor recreation has really been recognized. We need to help a new generation of adventures become good stewards of our lands and help them enjoy the great outdoors safely and responsibly because, at our most basic level, we are all “outdoorsy people.”
Pitt Grewe was named Utah’s Director of Outdoor Recreation in March, 2020.