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Jason Luthy: Responsible outdoor recreation during a pandemic

By Jason Luthy For The Spokesman-Review

Turning around due to risk while pursuing an objective is difficult. The choice contrasts the perceived risk with an enticing reward. The difficult part is that the risks can be hard to identify and there is often no positive feedback for choosing the less-risky path.

We make choices to not ski a specific slope due to avalanche danger or to not climb a specific ridge due to the risk of a storm, but because the choices we make are intended to keep us safe, we rarely see the consequences of the things we choose not to do. We don’t often see the avalanche path in an area we chose not to ski or see ridge we chose not to climb get struck by lightning.

Many years ago, I led canoe expeditions on the coastal waters of South Carolina. One of the most difficult decisions I made was to not to make a big water crossing with a group of students during a storm. As a group of 10 people with a variety of abilities, we were in an exposed position in shallow water along a barrier island with a large incoming thunderstorm, with a half mile of open water between our position and a boat ramp with a waiting transport vehicle.

I chose to stay in place and wait out the storm. After the storm, the feedback that I got from the students was all negative. They didn’t see the risk of making the crossing, but they did experience the discomfort of the storm. More than 15 years later, I wonder if we could have made the crossing and limited our exposure in that storm or if that choice would have resulted in undesired consequences.

The art and science of decision-making in our outdoor pursuits involves a combination of identifying all of the risks, seeing the consequences of those risks, and then making a decision based on our overall risk exposure, individual skillset and risk tolerance.

The more we understand about the given risk, the better we can choose an acceptable level of risk.

With the current COVID-19 outbreak, we find ourselves in a time of decision-making about how to interact with the world. We are surrounded by a lot of poor information regarding the overall risk and many people have a ton of temptation due to increased free time.

I have seen photos of people out recreating on chair lifts and on trails using the tag #socialdistancing and have watched online conversations in which people are considering recreation-based road trips.

It’s time for each of us to assess the real risk of the current health emergency to ourselves, our communities and the rest of the world.

The risks

As an example: Longleaf Wilderness Medicine is based in Bonner County, population approximately 45,000. Our local hospital has 25 beds, which include four in the intensive care unit.

The Center for Disease Control estimates are that most of the U.S. population will contract COVID-19. Assuming the most conservative scenarios, that could mean 1,000 people needing Bonner County’s four ICU beds.

The statistics become more dire when noting that the estimated time in ICU is two weeks and half of ICU patients will need life support.

Bonner County is not in a unique situation.


Assume you are going to interact with the virus. Assume that you are probably not going to feel bad (for example, have symptoms) when you do.

The current “flatten the curve” mentality is about slowing the inevitable to limit the need of medical facilities at any given time. Current estimates are that each person who carries the virus will spread it to an average of 2.2 people. Every interaction you have increases the chance that you have picked up the virus, with every interaction you have after acquisition risking further spread. The equation is simple: More interaction equals more potential spread. The spread is further amplified by being in contact with other people who have high levels of contact.


Similar to risk assessment in the backcountry, our decision of how to recreate over the next weeks will provide little immediate feedback beyond the pros and cons of choosing to do any given activities.

Unfortunately, the true risk in activity can feel abstract and unrealistic. I detailed the risk of numbers of people and the implications of space in the hospital system, because we have to be aware of the all of the risks associated with our choices to make function decision about our actions.

I hope that we never see the full potential of this outbreak and that in a few years we look back and say we overreacted. If this is as bad as some predict, however, I don’t want to be looking back in 20 years wondering if I could have done more.

We know that recreation, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty, is important. But it’s up to us to work each day to adapt our nonessential actions in order to limit transmission. At LWM we are suggesting the following guidelines for recreating:

Keep it local – Explore the local places. Often our outdoor pursuits are destination based, but we can limit our contacts by reducing the distance we travel for recreation. Longer drives provide more opportunities to acquire or spread the virus.

Limiting physical contact – Choose activities that have limited personal contact. Meet at the trailhead and choose activities like skiing, hiking, running or biking.

Limit the number of adventure buddies – For those with a significant other, spouse or kids, recreate with those people. If your adventure buddy does not live in your home, talk with him about his health and how to minimize contact.

Assessing risk in the activities – The hospital systems are strained. Avoid unnecessary risk in outdoor pursuits and a potential visit to the emergency department,

Preventing spread during activities – Get creative. Find ways to limit contact with your partner and their gear.

Using climbing as an example, consider these measures: Each climber only uses one side of the rope; avoid putting the rope in your mouth when you climb; avoid sharing belay devices or other equipment; and maintain 6 feet of separation and skip the multipitch as hanging belays are too close.

Wash your hands – Bring a system that allows you to wash your hands with soap and water. A hydration bag can be hung and used as a water faucet or have someone pour water over your hands. Bring a small bar of soap or some liquid soap and aim to scrub for 20 seconds.

Reduction in virus transmission is our responsibility.

But being cooped up in our homes for the next several months will have a negative impact on our physical and mental health. We can, and should, adapt our behavior so we can feel the short-term rewards of physical activity while limiting the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Jason Luthy is the founder of Sandpoint-based Longleaf Wilderness Medicine. When he is not teaching or researching current wilderness medicine standards, he can be found climbing any and all available rocks. A version of this story first appeared on his blog at