Outdoor spaces have begun to reopen while the coronavirus pandemic carries on, bringing up an important question for Oregonians eager to get back outside: Do you need to wear a face mask while hiking?
As hiking trails and other outdoor space reopen across Oregon, some researchers and medical experts, as well as state park officials, now recommend hikers carry face coverings with them, and to wear them whenever in close contact with people from outside their household.
Advice varies based on individual risk factors and the outdoor environment in question, but what the recommendations come down to is this: Hikers should cover their faces when passing others on the trail, while hiking with friends or family they don’t live with, or any time they encounter large groups of people.
While not always necessary, a face mask is now considered to be a smart precautionary item to bring with you on the outside. Hikers are already accustomed to carrying essentials like first aid kits and extra clothing – face coverings and hand sanitizer are common sense additions to any day pack.
Richard Corsi, a Portland State University dean, has studied the spread of COVID-19 through both large and tiny droplets in the air. Courses previously recommended people stay 20 feet away from each other when they’re outdoors, much farther than Oregon’s mandate for six feet of social distance.
Corsi said the risk of infection is determined by the concentration of viruses, multiplied by breathing rate and time of exposure. That risk is low when outdoors (especially when there’s wind) but it can be amplified by heavy breathing or loud talking while near others on a hiking trail, he said.
It’s easy to get lured into a false sense of security outdoors. Hiking is often an activity that takes us away from other people and puts us in places where researchers say viruses are hard-pressed to survive. But low risk doesn’t mean no risk at all.
A recent study of coronavirus cases from China showed that outdoor transmission is rare, but not impossible. Of the 7,234 cases of coronavirus studied by the University of Hong Kong, Southeast University and Tsinghua University, exactly one was determined to be spread outdoors, among two men talking together outside in a village.
“There are very few documented cases of people transmitting the virus outdoors,” Corsi said. “I don’t think this is a major risk while hiking, because your exposure time is so short.”
But Corsi said the low risk shouldn’t deter people from taking precautions. It’s easy enough to keep a face mask around your neck and pull it up when passing others, he said.
That jibes with advice offered by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which has released several public health recommendations as part of its phased reopening of park sites across the state.
“We advise people to wear a face covering any time they can’t maintain at least six feet of distance from people who are not already in their household,” parks spokesman Chris Havel said. “That means you ought to cover your nose and mouth when passing someone headed the opposite direction on a trail.”
That strategy is also recommended by Paul Nicolazzo, director of the Wilderness Medicine Training Center based in Winthrop, Wash. Nicolazzo said he carries a cloth face mask in his pocket when he hikes the remote trails near his home, and puts it on if he encounters other people.
“Does it make sense to wear a face mask with you or some other face covering? Absolutely, ”Nicolazzo said. “I have it on my person, then it’s very easy to pull it out.”
Simple face coverings like bandanas are another good solution, since they can be tied around the neck and pulled up over the nose and mouth when passing others on the trail. Still, more fitted face masks are best when walking along relatively flat trails through crowded park sites like Silver Falls, Tryon Creek or Smith Rock state parks.
The easiest way to stay healthy is to avoid outdoor spaces where a lot of people congregate, Nicolazzo said. But even if you’re expecting to find solitude, you may still be surprised by a sudden rush of other people, whose behavior you can’t control.
It’s not always easy to control our own behavior. When caught up in the beauty of a natural space, we can stand close to strangers at a viewpoint or start up conversations on the trail. It’s especially risky when hiking with friends or family who don’t live with us, an instance when wearing face masks becomes even more important as we gravitate toward social interaction, Corsi said.
Inhaling the breath of a passing hiker won’t likely transmit the coronavirus, but odds increase if that person coughs, sneezes, shouts or spits in your direction. Children could be a danger as well, he said, especially young ones who might not have a good grasp on physical boundaries.
Nicolazzo added that anyone who is willing to help injured or sick hikers on the trail should wear one face mask for themselves, and another for the injured person. Face masks should be used whenever administering first aid.
And while hiking might not carry a huge risk of infection, using restrooms at trailheads and day use areas certainly does.
Aside from all the commonly touched surfaces, viruses can be widely spread by a single toilet flush. Each flush can spread up to 500,000 particles into the air, Corsi said, including large and small droplets that can spread viruses to bathroom walls, stall doors and onto rolls of toilet paper.
Restrooms at many outdoor spaces in Oregon have remained closed, even as parks and trails have begun to reopen, as the risk of transmission in public restrooms remains high both for visitors and the rangers tasked with cleaning them on a regular basis.
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department asks people to bring their own hand sanitizer, soap and water, as well as toilet paper and trash bags in case restrooms are closed. People should also learn how to relieve themselves responsibly in nature, if need be, and be prepared to pack used toilet paper out with them.
State parks visitors should carry face masks too, the parks department said, because while the risk of catching or transmitting the coronavirus outdoors remains low, that doesn’t mean hikers should throw caution to the wind.
“I think people should invoke the precautionary principle and think, why should I take a chance?” Courses said. “The risk is going to be very low, but why should you take that risk?”
–Jamie Hale; email@example.com; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB
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