Considerations for Backcountry Trips During COVID-19

Backcountry trips—whether they involve hiking, whitewater rafting, or just camping out in the wild—provide an incredible opportunity to deepen and expand the experience of camp. When run safely, they can help campers develop confidence and new skills, and to see the world around them in entirely new ways. They also, of course, come with inherent risks and complications. And those risks and complications may be exacerbated by the current pandemic.

Below are some things to consider when planning your backcountry trips:

Basic Hygiene

NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) have been proven to be effective in reducing the risk of infection. Those interventions may look different, however, when you don’t have running water, or when you are taking part in adventure sports that may normally involve close contact. Below are a few reminders:

  • Wash hands regularly and bring disinfecting wipes if soap and water will not be available
  • Wear a mask if you are around people outside of your pod
  • Practice social distancing
Hygiene isn’t the only challenge. Because public health measures vary greatly, closures and/or reduced capacity at certain facilities may disrupt plans that have previously been made. This can not only be inconvenient, it can also put you in unfamiliar situations where you need to adapt protocols to keep campers and staff safe. Below are some ways that you can prepare for these logistic changes:
  • Research current state, local and recreation area guidelines for COVID exposures, trail closures, and availability of resources such as water sources and emergency response teams
  • In the event that some public facilities may be closed, plan your water, food, shelter, and bathroom access accordingly
Limit Outside Exposure
On-site camp is often a small world of its own. Any time you’re leaving site, however, you’re also relinquishing some control over who campers or staff may come into contact with. That means, we have to be extra careful about outside contact:
  • Run trips exclusively with the pods already established at camp and don’t introduce new people into the group
  • Avoid routes that introduce new people to your bubble, such as a shared campsite or shelter
  • Limit all unnecessary community exposure, such as stopping for ice cream or a snack on your way to the trip
  • If you do interact with people outside of your group during a trip, exchange names and contact information so you can contact each other if someone tests positive in the next 14 days
Managing Risk
Of course, COVID-19 is just one risk among many. Even as you work to prevent exposure to the virus, you will also have to manage all of the usual risks associated with backcountry trips—and you’ll have to do so in changed circumstances:
  • EMTs and search and rescue teams are already strained. Keep your goals conservative and manage your risk
  • Vet New Trips
    • If you are doing new or different trips this year, vet them in the same way you would any other year. Some things to make sure are updated are:
      • Detailed itinerary
      • Copies of health forms for each participant and staff
      • Pre-trip/post-trip health checks for all participants and staff
      • Detailed emergency action plan
      • Evacuation routers
      • Nearest medical facilities
      • Water fill up locations
      • Foor resupply locations
Emergency Action Plan (EAP)
It goes without saying that you’ll need an up-to-date and tested EAP for all trips. In order to be up-to-date, that EAP will have to take into account pandemic-related circumstances or changes:
  • Consider the length and difficulty of evacuations when planning routes
  • Check to make sure all of the resources listed in your EAP will be running and open to your camp during the time you are in the backcountry
  • Stock first aid kits with non-rebreather CPR masks, extra gloves and masks
  • Ensure you have a way to contact basecamp (radio, satellite phone, etc) and contact them daily to give an update. This will confirm communication is working and ready if needed
  • Communicate the full EAP to the whole team that will be in the backcountry and serving as basecamp
  • Even during an evacuation, make sure that there are still no one-on-one interactions between staff and campers
  • Emergency Action Plan (EAP)—If someone is showing symptoms of COVID
    • Bring an isolation tent for someone who shows symptoms, but cannot be evacuated until the next day
    • Have basecamp hike in to get the camper showing symptoms, if possible have your basecamp composed of people who have been vaccinated.
      • Hike out with social distance
      • Where a mask in the vehicle
      • Have the windows down in the vehicle to get as much air flow as possible
Ultimately, if we can run camp safely, then we should be able to run backcountry trips safely too. But just like on-site camp, doing so will look different than it has in past years. We hope the above guidance will serve as a useful starting point, but please do not hesitate to reach out if you need help in implementation.