science environment

Is It Safe To Go Hiking? Yes, With Caveats

By Jule Gilfillan (OPB)
March 18, 2020 1 p.m.

UPDATE (11:12 a.m. PT) - With so many Oregonians stuck at home or temporarily unable to work, people may be thinking about going for a hike.

But is it safe?


“Of course, but maintain a safe distance from others. There is no issue with going hiking with the people you live with,” says Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University.

Open spaces like the Oregon High Desert are good for your health.

Open spaces like the Oregon High Desert are good for your health.

Jule Gilfillan / OPB

If you go hiking with friends or in small groups Chi recommends driving in separate cars to maintain a six-foot distance and not going out with a big group. He also encourages people to avoid carpooling for the time being.

Getting outside is  just the ticket during these uncertain times, according to Ryan Reese, assistant professor of counseling at Oregon State University’s Cascades branch campus in Bend.

“There’s a strong relationship between getting out in nature and emotional wellness,” Reese said. “Research suggests that connecting with nature has a calming effect on the central nervous system and helps us tap into the para-sympathetic system."

Oregon Field Guide Producer Ed Jahn trekking on Mount Hood.

Oregon Field Guide Producer Ed Jahn trekking on Mount Hood.

Andy Maser / OPB

That’s the system that helps us “rest and digest,” a posture that reduces stress and is restorative to the psycho-physical body.  The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, stresses the body; it’s the system associated with the “fight, flight, freeze” threat response.


Reese thinks that pretty much anything that gets you moving your body and connecting with the natural world is beneficial.

Chi agrees, with an important caveat.

“It is safe and better to keep it to a very small number in your party, as well as practice extreme hand hygiene," he said. "Carry hand sanitizer, tissue papers and don’t touch any public place or building’s surface.”

If you need to use the public toilet, Chi recommends opening the door handle protected by a few sheets of tissue paper.

Just as you would on a busy weekend, pick areas that won’t be crowded. Last weekend Portlanders found urban popular spots like Mount Tabor and Tryon Creek crowded. Oregon’s many national forests and larger state parks might be better bets.

A close-in destination you can reach without having to stop for meals or an overnight motel stay will minimize the risk of virus exposure.

If you're close enough to the central coast, the Oregon Dunes is a great spot because the open dunes invite trailess wandering and offer greater distance from other visitors.

Oregon State Parks as well as Mt. Hood and other national forest areas are still open, though both agencies advise calling ahead or consulting their website for status updates. Due to the fluidity of the situation and staffing considerations, facilities that are normally maintained may be affected.

Sage Clegg hiking on Steens Mountain.

Sage Clegg hiking on Steens Mountain.

Courtesy of the Oregon Natural Desert Association

While health experts agree that being outdoors is good for physical and mental health, they also emphasize that keeping a safe distance is crucial because there are still many unknowns about COVID-19.

“Mainly, we have not done extreme testing yet, so we don’t really know,” Chi advised. “We know that the virus masks as the flu, except for a dry cough. So, if you have a dry cough, stay by yourself.”