In March, I wrote a post titled 15 Outdoor Spaces for Social Distancing in Connecticut. Since then, more towns have been forced to close parks and beaches due to irresponsible behavior (i.e., people refusing to seek out less crowded spaces where they can keep physically distant from one another.) Governor Lamont has issued a new executive order allowing the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEEP) to limit the number of visitors to state parks and forests. And still, some people don’t understand what we all need to do to keep ourselves and others safe. (For current information, see ct.gov/coronavirus.)
In light of these ever-changing rules, and amidst all this seeming confusion, I wanted to write another post. This one is not about specific destinations, but general tips on how to identify which spaces are currently appropriate for outdoor recreation and how to stay safe once you get there. These are the tips I use to ensure that I encounter as few people as possible on my near-daily walk, and when I do pass someone, I’m able to stay at least six feet away.
Think locally. What you do depends a lot on where you live. If you’re in a densely populated place, you might have fewer options, or might have to get more creative, than if you live in a rural area. In some city neighborhoods, your block might be full of others also out for a walk, while your nearest state forest might be totally empty; conversely, in a spread-out suburb, your town beach or nearby state park might be crowded – or even closed – while the sidewalks of your neighborhood feel deserted. Remember that the point of the “Stay Safe, Stay Home” order is not literally to stay indoors 24/7 (unless, of course, you are or believe you may be sick) but to limit your excursions outside the house and to maintain physical distance from other people. Think about where the people will be in your area, and if you’re going to an area you know less well, research it first. And continue to monitor your town or city government’s announcements, as well as state guidelines.
Think boring. Most people, when they head out into nature, look for one of two things: natural beauty or adventure. (Or both.) This often means seeking out the most stunning destination – which is often the most popular destination as well – or a spot that provides a physical challenge. In these upside-down times, do the opposite: look for the most boring outdoor space you can find. You’ve probably never been there before, or perhaps you have, but found it wasn’t that fun. This place might not have a steep hike, or a waterfall, or glowing Yelp reviews. But it will still offer a place to breathe in the fresh air, to hear the birds singing, and to observe the signs of spring. It’s good enough for now.
Use the Internet and maps. When I’m writing a blog post or travel story, I’m all about the research. But when I’m just trying to go for a walk, I usually fall back on my old habits and go to the nearby spots I know well. These days, I’m using those research skills more and more for everyday life, to ensure that I find new and safe places to be outdoors. Some days I look at my map app and identify green spaces near where I live, then I do a search for them to find out more about what they offer. Other days, I look at a town website to see whether the local parks and recreation department has a list of the spaces they manage. I might simply Google “[Town Name] + trails” or “[Town Name] + land trust” and see what comes up. This might sound quite time-consuming, but it’s really not, once you get the hang of it – plus, it helps you make sure your outdoor experience will be safe as well as enjoyable.
Go to the official source for info. The situation in Connecticut and the world is changing rapidly. Whatever I or anyone else tells you about hours or openings or closures or rules might become outdated tomorrow or next week. Whenever you’re planning on going to any park, trail, or other outdoor space, take a minute to check the website or social media accounts of the town or organization that manages that space for updated information.
Consider the day and time. The amount of people visiting any park, beach, or trail can vary dramatically depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon, or evening; whether it’s a weekday, weekend, or holiday; and whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or winter. This is true all the time, of course, but it’s even more true now that so many people are newly discovering outdoor recreation. DEEP itself recommends avoiding popular parks like Hammonasset Beach; I think the advice to find a lesser-known park is very good, especially if that lesser-known park is closer to where you live, but I also think it depends on whether it’s a chilly Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. or a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon. Use your common sense when deciding where to go, even if it requires doing the opposite of what you’d usually do. Think off-season and off-peak timing.
Embrace bad weather. Spring weather is notoriously all over the place, so we might as well use it to our advantage now. One way I’ve been avoiding crowds is by going out when most others would choose not to: when it’s colder, cloudy, damp, or otherwise less pleasant than it will be in a few hours or days. I’m not suggesting anyone go out running in a rainstorm. But instead of waiting for that sunny 60 degree afternoon, go out walking in the morning when it’s overcast and 35 degrees. If wind or mud or the threat of rain usually keeps you inside, try the opposite behavior: put on proper clothing and go out for a few minutes anyway, while everyone else is waiting for the forecast to improve.
Look at the parking lot. Ideally, what you want to see is a totally empty lot, or – more realistically – one with just a handful of cars. Again, this is more likely to happen at off-peak times and on weekdays. Another ideal parking situation can be found at the many trails and other natural areas that don’t even have parking lots, just spaces for one or two vehicles by the side of the road. The significance of a populated parking lot also changes depending on how large the beach or park is. At a very large beach or park, even if there are a hundred cars, there can theoretically be room for everyone – that is, if everyone respects the concept of social/physical distancing. But at a smaller park, anything more than a handful of vehicles would indicate to me that I need to go somewhere else. It’s up to you to take precautions based on your situation, but I’m always on the “abundance of caution” side. For example, the other day I went to my local beach, which covers 50 acres and has a half-mile boardwalk. I spotted 15-20 cars in the lot, which was too many for me, so I found another, less popular, place to walk.
Think wide open spaces. Unless the destination is over-crowded (you’ll know from the parking lot, as mentioned above) a wide open area where you can wander freely is a safer bet than, say, a narrow trail where you have no option but to stay in line. That doesn’t mean all trails, greenways, or boardwalks are off limits, because many other factors also apply. But when I’m feeling especially wary, I go to a place that’s not only likely to be deserted, but vast and open. Think wide beach or large meadow, as opposed to trail with a narrow bridge over a river, and you’ll get a good idea of what this looks like.
Beware of confined spaces. This is essentially another way to think of the idea just above. I love linear trails, and I do recommend some in my previous post. Just choose your trail wisely. If a particular trail, or segment of a trail, is very well-known, look for a less popular one. Seek out walking paths in more remote areas, and again, go during the colder and quieter times of day. Some of my favorite places to walk are boardwalks, but I’m avoiding many of them for now. The exception – depending on the day, time, and weather conditions, of course – would be a very wide boardwalk, a boardwalk in a very remote area, or the type of setup where you can step directly from the boardwalk onto the beach or grass to avoid another oncoming walker.
Don’t go by place names alone. If you’re looking for green splotches on your map app, or Googling “parks near me,” remember that a park can mean many different things. Within a few minutes drive from my house, I can find several parks that consist of children’s playgrounds (now off-limits); several state parks with beaches that can be packed or deserted, depending on the weather and time of day; a number of city and town parks that range from postage-stamp sized patches of grass to vast open fields; two local beaches, one that attracts dozens of walkers a day and one that’s usually nearly empty; and many more options. The same goes for “trail,” “forest,” and so on. You might have to do a little extra research to find a place that works for you and for social distancing guidelines.
Be aware of your surroundings. If you tend to walk while daydreaming, listening to music, or otherwise tuning out the noise of the world, pay a little more attention to who is around you and where you’re going. For example, yesterday I took a walk in an empty park. Suddenly, someone walking a dog appeared. Even though they were quite far off, I made note of two things: which direction they appeared to be going (so I could go the other way if necessary), and whether there were any narrow paths between us that I needed to stay away from to avoid having to pass them at close range. It’s a different way of being in open spaces, and it’s notably different from the usual precautions about personal safety, so it takes some getting used to.
Be “rude.” This one also takes some practice, and it’s hard for me; I’ve been conditioned all my life to be polite to strangers. But now, if I’m out walking and I see someone coming, I abruptly cross the street. If I’m on a beach or in a field or woods, I simply veer away and walk in the other direction. Another change many people will find hard to make, relevant to the situation I mentioned above: avoid other people’s dogs. It’s tempting to engage with pets that wander close to you, but that often brings their human closer to you too. So for now, back away from the fluffy puppy.
Look for the “undiscovered” places. Can you find a nearby land trust property or local trail you’ve never heard of before? Good. If you Google it, can you find little to no published information about it? Great. If you type it into Instagram, does it seem that nobody has geotagged its location yet? Awesome.
Look for less developed areas. A few weeks ago, we considered them amenities, but now playgrounds, picnic areas, and bathrooms are dangerous collections of surfaces where deadly viruses can live for days. Stay away from these by seeking out less developed outdoor areas. Forests, nature preserves, and land trusts are usually good bets, as are some – though certainly not all – beaches. Of course, if you have to touch anything (railings and walk buttons have been my downfall; good thing it’s still so cold out I need to wear gloves!) sanitize your hands and properly wash them ASAP. But it’s often easier to avoid being around things you can touch in the first place. I’m also avoiding traveling too far from home for this reason. The longer you’re out of the house, the more likely you are to end up in a public restroom, convenience store, or other place where you’re more likely to encounter people and have to touch surfaces.
Be extra cautious. Remember that right now, we’re not just trying to avoid catching or spreading Covid-19. We also need to avoid burdening the medical system with what would otherwise be a minor complaint. So pretend there’s no hospital or walk-in clinic within hundreds of miles, and don’t do any hike or trek that puts you at unnecessary risk for a broken arm or poison ivy. This is also another reason to avoid long drives, if possible; it’s safe inside your own car, but even a minor accident or breakdown can bring you into contact with first responders, whose resources may be strained.
This situation is frightening, uncertain, and difficult. And many of us, including me, feel like there’s nothing we can do to help. But the one thing we all absolutely can do is to help flatten the curve, or slow the spread of infection, which really just means keeping our distance from other people as much as possible. Luckily, in Connecticut, if we all act responsibly, there are many places where it’s still possible to do this while enjoying time outdoors.
(Photos taken at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, CT.)