This post was written by Matt Heller, GMC’s Media Intern. Matt is a senior in the media studies program at St. Michael’s College, minoring in environmental studies. All photos in this post are his.
If you have been on the trails this year, you may have noticed an increase in people engaging in outdoor activities during the pandemic. According to caretaker counts, trail use has been up about 30% this year. Even on weekdays, Vermont trailhead parking lots have been near or at capacity as people flock to hiking trails.
While Vermont is lucky to have numerous outdoor spaces with a relatively low state population density, overcrowding of trails can still pose a risk for hikers in the environment.
“Generally outside we don’t have people hiking with a mask on, but there are parts of the Long Trail that are super narrow, so that’s when we ask [people] to put the mask on, just because there aren’t places to distance especially with trailside vegetation,” said Lead Mansfield Caretaker Tyler Foldie. According to GMC’s 2020 use statistics, between May and October Mansfield’s summit saw an average of 294 daily users, up 15% from last year. Camel’s Hump summit saw a 24% increase.
This year, GMC caretakers have been tasked with educating trail users on balancing social distancing and protecting trailside vegetation. This is especially true on Mount Mansfield, which hosts fragile alpine vegetation hardy to the weather but susceptible to damage from trail users. Only 110 acres of alpine vegetation exists in the state, including 103 acres on Mansfield and 6 on Camel’s Hump. You can learn more about Vermont’s alpine plant communities here.
Tyler recommends looking for a durable surface like bare rock or boardwalk to step on when you need to create distance. He also recommends taking the initiative to give others space, as fellow hikers may not be aware of the damage to trailside vegetation they could cause when stepping off-trail. This aligns with the “be considerate of other visitors” principle of Leave No Trace.
“Everyone’s trying to share this wilderness. All the different types of hikers and visitors that come up here, [we’re] trying to get them to understand that everyone has their own thing that they want to get out of … being out on these hiking trails, and trying to make other people realize that we’re all trying to do this together to share the environment,” Tyler said.
Despite these challenges, hiking continues to be a safe way to recreate during the pandemic. According to the Mayo Clinic, outdoor activities that allow for ample spacing pose a low risk for spreading the virus. Outside airflow disperses droplets that may contain COVID faster than indoor ventilation. The CDC still recommends carrying a mask, tissues, and hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol. Be sure to pack all these items out and take caution when handling trash found on the trail.
On Monday, September 28th, Camel’s Hump welcomed a variety of hikers from near and far. Here are some of their stories:
It seems like whether people have the same political view as me or not, people are usually in a pretty good mood…things are pretty light and friendly.
Torrey Kelty of Waterbury, who would usually be mountain biking, spent the day hiking Camel’s Hump recovering from a broken collarbone. While he has noticed a trail-use increase – especially from out-of-state visitors – he doesn’t see it as too much, enjoying the light & friendly mood on the trails.
It’s psychologically very good for you; you take energy from nature, and it’s good to train yourself and get stronger.
Andy Alling of North Hero and Allena Farrell of South Burlington would be out hiking anyways but said the pandemic has made them get outside even more. Farrell, who grew up in Belarus and spent time adventuring in Russia’s Caucasus, used a Green Mountain Club map she purchased years ago to plan the trip.
We’ve been working our way through going to all of the Wisconsin State Parks, so that’s been our weekend activity instead of whatever we’d be doing a year ago at this time.
Kim Kroeger and Matt Coogam, taking a break from their Wisconsin State park goal, drove to Vermont for the week. Kroeger, who used to live in Burlington, wanted to bring her boyfriend to the site of her first Vermont hike.
We try to go at different hours so that we’re not out with everybody.
Joanne and Brian Besaw of Milton took a few days off from work to enjoy the nice September weather. So far, they have been able to distance themselves from other hikers while out on the trail.
Walking around here and the trail we did the other day, it’s been super nice, and I think people are respecting the trails, the nature, and each other’s space.
Merima and Marc Babie of Philadelphia vacationed in Vermont, exploring Camel’s Hump, Mount Mansfield, and Mount Abe. They both expressed that Vermont is doing a good job managing the increased trail use, comparing the state to their recent experiences in the city and around the Delaware Gap, which they noted was much more crowded.
As COVID-19 cases increase across the country, it is important to continue practicing social distancing on trails, using a mask when close contact cannot be avoided. Since caretakers have finished their season of staffing summits to educate on proper trail use, it is up to the hikers to be stewards of the land and protect our natural surroundings.