Hiking groups in the age of COVID-19

Organized trail enthusiasts rethink how they promote their favorite outdoor activity.
graphic of people wearing masks and walking

While hiking can certainly be a solitary pleasure, it is often best enjoyed in a group setting. Hiking has a storied history in the Dairy State, which is home to groups of all shapes and sizes dedicated to a collective admiration and experience of the outdoors. Hiking-oriented organizations maintain trails, host events and provide maps and other resources for hikers. In the wake of COVID-19, hiking groups across the state have had to make adjustments to ensure the safety and well-being of participants.

Early spring is an important time for hiking groups. After a long Midwest winter, people are eager to get outside. However, these desires had to be contained during the statewide Safer at Home order, and people’s general desire to shelter in place impacted the start of the hiking season for organizations like the Dairyland Walkers, which promotes physical fitness by sponsoring noncompetitive walks.

“We had to cancel all events and meetings in April and May, which are when we usually attract a larger number of participants and new members,” says Dairyland Walkers Membership Coordinator Mary Liebig.

COVID-19 also affected trail maintenance. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail consists of more than 600 miles of off-road footpaths connected by another 600 miles of roadways across Wisconsin, and many segments are popular hiking routes. April and May are crucial months for trail layout and preparation, since plants have not fully bloomed and line of sight is easiest.

The Ice Age Trail Alliance, which is dedicated to promoting environmental awareness and exploration of the trail, relies heavily on volunteers to perform these tasks. Coordination of volunteer workdays on the trail ceased during the pandemic. But the halt on maintenance did not prevent people from flocking to the trail.

“Finding respite from COVID-19 brought many thousands of new people to the Ice Age Trail, which is great, but the millions of extra steps taken on the trail during a wet time of year caused damage that will need repair,” says Ice Age Trail Alliance Trailway Director Tim Malzhan.

The pandemic has unquestionably awakened people to the many benefits of getting out into nature. After months spent inside, exploring the depths of nature can provide a much-needed release. The Ice Age Trail Alliance has promoted activities like “forest bathing” — using the senses to disconnect from our phones and become recentered in nature.

“We have seen many national trends that support there being a stronger interest than ever in outdoor recreation during the COVID-19 outbreak, such as a huge increase in bike sales and parks being at capacity,” says Adam Remus, adviser to the Wisconsin Hoofers, a club at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that provides resources for students and community members who want to enjoy the outdoors.

“The pandemic has caused a lot of stress for people, and many are realizing that nature can be very therapeutic,” says Remus.

With restrictions eased, hiking groups are trying to build on this enthusiasm while also keeping their participants safe.

For the Dairyland Walkers, a return to a “new normal” did not take long. After canceling all April and May events, the organization resumed regular programming with modifications. Start and end times for traditional walks were staggered so people would not finish all at the same time, and volunteers manning tables were appropriately distanced from one another. The Walkers discontinued organizing dine-in restaurant lunches during popular Saturday Group Walk and Eats, instead encouraging participants to pack their own lunches.

Smaller hiking groups, like the Madison Area Outdoor Group, or MAOG, have had a more difficult time striking a balance between safety and functionality. With scheduling happening primarily via the online platform Meetup, it has been a challenge for organizers to ensure events are safely coordinated.

“Limiting the total RSVPs for events is hard,” says Regina Jennings, organizer of the MAOG. “Our events either tend to attract a few people or a large number where we cannot accommodate them all. The latter seems to be the case lately with indoor activities being limited.”

Like many other organizations, the Ice Age Trail Alliance has been forced to improvise during the pandemic. The alliance has used its website and social media platforms not only to promote the enjoyment of hiking but also to protect the trail itself. The organization regularly posts on its website information about how nature can be a therapeutic force and provides specific hiking tips on how to hike safely during the pandemic.

In a similar vein, Wisconsin Hoofers has offered virtual programming, including lessons, tutorials and resources.

“We actively promote local recreation, from neighborhood walks to hiking at state parks. Thankfully, Madison has a wide array of outdoor spaces, such as parks, lakes and rivers,” Remus says. “Additionally, we are preparing for modified programs and activities for when we can open.”

Read more about hikes here.