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Path to the lower observation point at Narada Falls, Nisqually River, Mount Rainier National Park // Photo: Joe Mabel, Creative Commons

Safe hiking and other outdoors activities could improve mental health in pandemic

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Outside seems to be the answer, in more ways than one.

Virologists tell us that, aside from isolation, we are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 if we go outdoors and stay away from crowds. Psychologists have known for decades that getting out in nature can improve our mental health, something that many of us need at this time.

Taking a hike can be a great cure for cabin fever. But to maintain safety in a pandemic, we must be careful not rush out to the most popular locations where crowds are on the rise, especially on weekends.

On Saturday, for example, people were waiting in their cars for up to an hour and half just to get into Mount Rainier National Park at the Nisqually Entrance. In Olympic National Park, the parking lot at the Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center was full by 10 a.m.

The answer to the dilemma is simple: If you want to visit popular locations, go on weekdays. And, wherever and whenever you go, have an alternate location in mind should you encounter crowded conditions with parking lots at or near capacity.

For this blog post, I thought I would provide some hiking tips compiled by experts for this unusual time in our history. Then I will mention some new studies about the economic value of outdoor recreation in Washington state, based on pre-COVID sales and jobs. Finally, I will offer some information about an evolving “Human Dimensions Protocol” — the integration of people into the ecosystem, from the enjoyment of nature to the very survival of plants and animals in our region.

How to remain safe on the trail

A coalition of outdoors experts in Washington state, called the Recreate Responsibly Coalition, came together with the help of Washington Trails Association to develop suggestions for enjoying the outdoors during a pandemic. They were able to boil down their ideas to six tips for safety, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health guidelines. Visit the webpage for details about these suggestions:

  1. Know before you go: Use WTA’s Hiking Guide to plan your outing. Pick a couple backup trails in case your first choice is crowded.
  2. Plan ahead: Go to less traveled trails, have alternates in mind, and make sure you have the right gear and supplies. (See the list for details.)
  3. Stay close to home: For now, stick to trails you can get to on a single tank of gas to protect residents of smaller communities from the virus. See “WTA Hike Finder Map.”
  4. Practice physical distancing: Try to maintain a six-foot distance by stepping off the trail if necessary. If not possible, cover your face with a mask. Communicate and be kind to fellow hikers.
  5. Play it safe: Avoid risky activities, so as not to increase the risk of disease for search-and-rescue teams.
  6. Leave no trace: Take home everything, including trash, leftover food and pet waste, because most places have no trash service.
  7. Build an inclusive outdoors: Help make the trails safe for people of all identities and abilities.

Again, WTA offers a nice Hiking Guide and Hike Finder Map with instructions to find a hike that suits you.

The latest information about traffic and crowded conditions, as well as general information during the pandemic, can often be found on the Twitter feeds of national and state parks:

Health benefits of nature

Hiking, biking, walking and other outdoors activities can often improve both physical and mental health, experts say.

Even before the pandemic, nearly one-fourth of adults reported having some form of depression, and nearly 63 percent of adults were considered overweight, according to a study by two University of Washington Researchers.

If anyone needed evidence that getting outdoors is a step toward better health, Sara Perrins and Gregory Bratman of the UW College of Forest Resources compiled information from existing studies under a grant from the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office.

“Research supports an abundance of benefits from biking including improved heart and lung fitness, fewer cardiovascular risk factors, fewer deaths, and less coronary heart disease, cancer risk, and obesity,” they wrote in their report titled “Health Benefits of Contact with Nature” (PDF 1.1 mb). “Walking and hiking require minimal special equipment and skills and offer numerous health benefits including improved cholesterol levels and protection against chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

“While biking and walking in particular may take place off trails (for example, cycling at the gym or walking around town), research suggests that additional benefits may occur when these activities are done in nature, adding support for the benefits of trail-based physical activity,” they say.

They go on to document benefits from nature among low-income people and children, in part because of improvements in their mental state.

The researchers also found that developing a “sense of place” has emotional benefits for all people and generally increases stewardship of the land and protections for wildlife. It’s a very readable report.

Benefits to the economy

The pandemic has upset Washington state’s economy, and the current economic condition of the outdoor industry is unknown. Still, it is worth reflecting on data from last year, knowing that people may seek even more escape to nature in the future.

Two recent reports describe the economic forces related to outdoor activities.

“Economic Analysis of Outdoor Recreation in Washington State” (PDF 10.3 mb) by Earth Economics documents a $26.5 billion industry in Washington state, the result of spending by residents and tourists on outdoor recreation trips to local parks, state parks, national forests and national parks along with spending for fishing, boating and outdoor-recreation gear.

In 2019, 264,000 jobs were involved in this outdoors industry in Washington, on par with the state’s aerospace industry (237,000 jobs in 2017). That’s 10 jobs for every $1 million spent on outdoor recreation

In this state’s diverse economy, 6 percent of all jobs are related to outdoor recreation, with an average income of $44,000 per worker. Including secondary (multiplier) effects, total spending rose to $40.3 billion, according to the report.

Another recent report, “Economic, Environmental and Social Benefits of Recreational Trails” (PDF 18.8 mb) by EcoNorthwest suggests that physical activity related to trail use results in $390 million per year in savings from potential health costs. See also RCO’s web page on the subject.

“In addition to recreational-use value, other social benefits considered in this report include increases in property values and quality of life attributable to trails,” the report states. “Quality of life improvements also attract business activity to the state that then results in additional economic activity.”

Human Dimensions Protocol

Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the recovery of the Puget Sound ecosystem, has long considered the essential role of humans in the ecosystem, as required by the Legislature upon formation of the agency in 2007. The people of Washington not only benefit in many ways from a healthy Puget Sound, they also represent the strongest political force in funding the recovery effort.

A new “Human Dimensions Protocol” (PDF 1.5 mb) has been developed to help teams of experts develop and carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which are individual plans for reaching the various ecosystem-recovery targets established by the Partnership. The document also can help people understand the complex interactions between humans and the natural environment.

“For the regional recovery community, including Implementation Strategy teams and other key partners, the protocol offers a concise, yet comprehensive resource to help address many social science and human dimensions questions or needs,” lead author David Trimbach of Oregon State University says in a blog post.

“This resource,” Trimbach continues, “reflects the wealth of human dimensions work, notably social science, within the region. This resource also exemplifies the Partnership’s continued push and innovative progress within ecosystem recovery.”

The protocol begins with simple questions, such as “What is social science?” and “Why does social science matter?” The document goes on to describe how human factors can be included in ecosystem-recovery planning with specific tips for working with community members who have special interests and expertise.

For example, technical workshops focused on human dimensions can inform the recovery process “by integrating interdisciplinary experts, whether they be community outreach specialists with practical expertise, tribal community health professionals, and/or social scientists with specializations … like governance, local foods, economic vitality or sense of place.”

See also “Social Science Research and Efforts” by the Puget Sound Partnership and Trimbach’s latest paper “Whose Puget Sound?: Examining Place Attachment, Residency, and Stewardship in the Puget Sound Region” published in Geographical Review.

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