With trails opening, is it safe—or ethical—to go hiking this summer?

Summer is officially here, and that means millions of people nervous about flying in the age of coronavirus will likely hit the road in a car. As America’s national parks and forests start to reopen, many vacationers are looking to stretch their legs out on the trails, from Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

In ordinary times, a surge of hikers would be a boon for the picturesque gateway towns near these popular outdoor destinations. But during a pandemic, locals whose livelihoods are largely built on seasonal tourism are forced to reconsider the cost-benefit ratio of welcoming hordes of out-of-towners searching for that perfect waterfall picture or alpine vista.

That’s especially true in native lands, like Navajo Nation, situated near popular recreation areas like Grand Canyon National Park. With 5,250 cases to date, Navajo Nation has one of America’s highest coronavirus infection rates, making it particularly vulnerable to an influx of tourists.

Bracing for crowds—and coronavirus

North Conway, New Hampshire, is a prime example of a backcountry recreation village. It rests in the shadow of White Mountain National Forest, a half hour’s drive from popular trailheads. The central strip offers brewpubs, burger joints, and hotels with names like Eastern Slope Inn and the Swiss Chalets Village Inn. From a grassy rest stop on the north edge of town, you can gaze out at the pinnacle of Mount Washington.

It’s an ideal place to hang your hat—or trekking poles—after a lung-buster of a hike. As such, seasonal tourism is a pillar of North Conway’s economy. In some years, the year-round population of 2,000 swells with an additional 17,000 visitors flocking here from nearby Boston and New York City on weekends alone to put their feet up in the rental cottages and second homes nestled in the hills and hollows.

America’s search-and-rescue (SAR) providers have struggled to stay solvent as millions of new hikers have flocked to parks and public lands in recent years, straining the resources of the volunteer-dependent organization. The pandemic has added complications.

“This spring, we really had to scramble to get the proper [personal protective equipment (PPE)] that we needed,” says Drew Hildner, a Boulder, Colorado, resident and a medic with Rocky Mountain Rescue, one of the largest SAR providers in the U.S.

Unlike large ambulance companies or fire departments, SAR doesn’t have big accounts with medical suppliers because they don’t need them. “Normally, we’re not burning through our equipment and we’d make infrequent orders,” Hildner says. “We ended up crowdsourcing masks and other PPE items.”

Even with a new supply of PPE, including N95 masks, secured for now, Hildner notes that the occupational hazards of treating patients during a pandemic could nonetheless impact the scale of SAR operations.

“We’re currently on pace to have our third busiest rescue season in our 73-year history,” he says, alluding to the heavy usage the Boulder-area trails have already seen, since the pandemic began. “Because we’re trying to limit exposure, we are very quickly capping our SAR response teams, once we have the minimum number of people required for any given rescue. Most of these rescues require at least 10 to 15 people, and if we end up with a patient who tested positive for COVID-19, those 10 to 15 SAR volunteers would have to be in self-quarantine for the next two weeks. And if that happened twice in a row, then we’d be pretty hard-up for response.”