Backpacking 2020: Pandemic Safety
As experienced backpack trip leaders, we thoroughly understand the risks we encounter in the wilderness and are experienced teaching our Girl Scouts to assess and manage personal and group safety. We can help our girls develop smart bear awareness in the Sierras, teach them stream crossing protocols to ensure they aren’t swept away in high water, and share snow traversing skills to prevent perilous slides. But not one of us is likely well-versed in pandemic safety; how do we begin to teach our girls how to stay safe this summer when we don’t entirely know the parameters ourselves?
Girl Scout camps in Southern California have cancelled their in-person summer programming and for Girl Scouts San Diego, the advanced backpacking trips are officially cancelled until end of June. Those of us leading these trips have not yet heard from our council on late-summer programs, but most of us down here seem to agree that leading a safe trip during a pandemic is at odds with itself.
I recently shared on our CAGS Backpackers Facebook page a well-researched article by Andrew Skurka, a professional backpacker and guide, who teased apart the implications of continuing his guiding services this summer. He has an interesting Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light system that takes most of the risks into account.
As thorough as his analysis is, his article does not address taking minors on guided backpacking trips. With councils making the broad decisions for us volunteers, it saves us the agony of trying to decide how we can possibly mitigate the risk of spreading the novel Coronavirus among our girls and keep them safe on this summer’s wilderness adventures.
But for those of us considering trips of our own, outside of Girl Scout purview, what information are we analyzing when making decisions about future backpacking plans?
Something no one in the world seems to be addressing is what exactly are the safety goals during a pandemic. With no cohesive national objectives, we are relying on an approach that is both cobbled together and unclear. Unlike bear safety, here we lack consistent aims. Decisions are regional, and for us as individuals, likely quite personal. How do we define success?
As backpackers, we must ask ourselves standard risk assessment questions. For example, to what degree are we attempting to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus with us being individual vectors? Is our goal, as backpackers, to simply try not to spread germs to the other backpackers on our trips? Consider the following:
Are we satisfied if no one gets sick on our trip, but develops illness outside the trip time frame?
Should we be concerned about potentially spreading germs to the communities we all return to?
Are we considering exposure to the various communities we may pass through to and from the trail in our risk analysis?
I surely can’t answer this for anyone else. Personally, I am aching to GET OUT, but terribly cognizant that I can unknowingly be a vector within my group and in the trailhead communities I drive through. I’m also not too keen about catching this bad-boy virus or bringing it home to my otherwise healthy, but over-65, husband.
As we backpackers consider heading out on our own, private, non-Girl Scout trips, we further the discussion on personal responsibility, expectations, risk, and safety - for ourselves and others. Can we operate on a “solo-group” premise? We could:
Arrive at the trailhead in our own car.
Filter water and cook for only ourselves.
Purify water to kill viruses using a Steri-pen.
Sleep alone in our 1-person tent.
Hike and set up camp at a respectable distance from others.
Wear masks when in proximity to others, including stopping for gas/bathrooms en route to the trailhead.
Pass on post-trip, public showers and just tidy up at the trailhead before driving home.
Avoid trailhead camping to minimize our exposure to public amenities like bear lockers and outhouses.
I can visualize a “solo-group” trip and have entertained the thought of using my wilderness permits for a small group. This, of course, providing that backcountry permits are being issued this summer. But there’s more to consider.
I have to ask myself, as a member of a small group, would we have a cohesive plan and agreement among ourselves -- something so essential to the success of all backcountry trips? I want to balance my desire to disappear into the wilderness with a need to be responsible, and I understand that my sensibilities will differ from others.
Do we have shared safety objectives?
What level of pre-trip self-quarantine can I expect/request from my backpacking buddies?
How do we intend to put social distancing into practice?
What does social distancing - and personal hygiene - look like five days and 35 miles into the wilderness?
The other hitch I can’t avoid considering is a backcountry emergency - whether it is COVID-19 or not. The entire party (and possibly a ranger or Search and Rescue crew) would be involved in the care and evacuation of the patient, and that is not going to be socially distanced.
In order to not feel reckless, should I limit the length or breadth of my trip?
How much risk mitigation can I undertake to avoid an emergency?
While I am deeply interested in hitting the trail this summer, I am not yet ready to decide if I can make it work so as not to put others at risk. Each of us will develop our own personal approach that balances our desire to disappear into the woods with our finely honed backpacker’s risk management skills, and considers our need to Leave No Trace, all of which is just much more challenging this summer.
My eyes and mind are wide open though, and I am curious to see how the summer unfolds and the concept of safety evolves among our tribe of backpackers.
Valerie is the founder of CAGS Backpackers and a Lead Backpacking Trainer for Girl Scouts San Diego. She has backpacked for over 40 years and spent the last 20 years guiding Girl Scouts on wilderness trips.