Protect Yourself in the Great Outdoors - My Family Travels

Vacations in nature top the escape list for many families, so it’s more important than ever to know how to protect yourself in the great outdoors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more Americans are spending time outside for their mental and physical well-being. While fresh air and nature provide health benefits, their popularity can bring its own problems.

Two hikers walk along bank of river in Baja California desert.
Social distancing is easy along a riverbank in the Baja California desert. Photo c. REI

As national and state parks, trails, forests and waterways reopen (and in some cases, reclose), there are more rules – even for experienced woodsmen — than the classic adage: take only pictures, leave only footprints.

Practice Coronavirus Safety Tips in the Wild

That’s where the Recreate Responsibly initiative comes in. This partnership has designed rules to limit new COVID-19 outbreaks and ensure outdoor spaces can remain open to the public by providing clear, consistent guidance for use.

Rick DeLappe of, a comprehensive resource for visitors to plan trips on federal land and water locations, says, “As locations begin to reopen and welcome visitors, we feel the Recreate Responsibly coalition is sending the right message at the right time to encourage everyone to safely enjoy our national treasures.”  

The following tips for families to protect themselves in the outdoors are based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, state and local public health guidelines and recreation experts.  

Poster of Recreate Responsibly rules in Spanish.
Posters of Recreate Responsibly rules in different languages are spreading the message. Photo c. REI.

1. Know Before You Go

Check the status of the place you want to visit. If it is closed, don’t go. If it’s crowded, have a plan B. 

“The idiom ‘be careful what you wish for’ is likely coming to roost for those of us who love to show off 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands,” explains Kathryn Sosbe, Office of Communication, USDA Forest Service. “We are learning that in a time when space is needed, you are finding solace and satisfaction in the great outdoors. Except, so is everyone else, which creates crowded trails and parking lots.”

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy team reminds visitors that COVID-19 safety measures include more closures of trail facilities like restrooms, water fountains and snack shops. Please look for status updates about trail facilities before planning your outdoors adventure on RTC’s TrailLink website, a free trail-finder resource with information on more than 36,000 miles of trails nationwide.

Small group of hikers at Bryce Canyon overlook.
This small group of hikers has made it to a Bryce Canyon overlook. Photo c. REI

2. Protect Yourself by Planning Ahead

Prepare for facilities to be closed, pack lunch and bring essentials like hand sanitizer and a face covering. That goes for booking camping facilities which are reporting record demand this year and having your own RV essentials and gear.

Have your masks handy whenever you see others approaching and be sure to wear them as you pass on the trails if you cannot maintain a safe social distance. These safety precautions and common courtesies protect local communities and recreation staff as well as temporary visitors.

“Our national forests and grasslands can be a critical resource for people in difficult times,” adds Chris French, deputy chief of the National Forest System. “Across our nearly 30,000 sites the Forest Service manages nationally, we want to ensure the safety of our communities, our employees, and visitors.”

Two standup paddleboarders on a scenic river.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has supported standup paddleboarding in many new regions. Photo c. REI.

3. Stay Close to Home

This is not the time to travel long distances to recreate. Most places are only open for day use.  

We have explored how coronavirus will affect your travel plans before, and whether or not hotels and shared rentals are safe to use. 2020 is the year of the staycation. Regardless of your plans, always refer to the latest public health and travel safety information at

4. Practice Physical Distancing

Adventure only with your immediate household. Be prepared to cover your nose and mouth and give others space. If you are sick, stay home.  

“Healthy outdoor recreation activities like boating provide one of the safest atmospheres for Americans and their families to spend time relaxing and playing together,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “Whether you’re boating, swimming or fishing on a lake, bay or ocean, it is up to everyone to recreate responsibly so we can enjoy our beloved pastimes.”

Two women haivng a pizza picnic on the grass.
Good outdoor gear works whether you’re having a picnic or trekking for several days in the wilderness. Photo c. REI

5. Play It Safe to Protect Yourself Outdoors

Slow down and choose lower-risk activities to reduce your risk of injury. Search and rescue operations and health care resources are both strained.  

Adds Tracy Perry, director of the Forest Service’s Law Enforcement and Investigations, “Our national forests and grasslands continue to be a safe place to visit and recreate.” However, he suggests avoiding high-risk activities because first responders are overwhelmed and may not have the resources to respond to remote areas.

Poster of Recreate Responsibly rules in English.
Recreate Responsibly rules. c. REI

6. Leave No Trace

Respect public lands and communities and take all your garbage with you. 

“Spending time outdoors has been important for many Americans during this public health crisis,” said Eric Artz, president and CEO of REI Co-op, leaders in outdoor recreation and sustainable travel since 1938.

“As our public lands and waters reopen, we’ll all benefit from clear, easy-to-follow guidance on how to recreate responsibly – whether you’re a seasoned outdoor enthusiast or a family heading to your local park,” Artz says. More of the coalition partners’ specific suggestions for different sports can be found online at

Now it’s time to get out there and have fun!

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