Dear fellow outdoor lovers,
If you’re anything like me, as you process the turmoil of this unprecedented pandemic, you might be feeling a bit anxious, adrift, or OK SERIOUSLY WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON RIGHT NOW?!
Don’t worry, it’s normal. (Deep breath…)
Most of us have never experienced anything like this, and our brains are working overtime trying to make sense of it all. Whether it’s training goals, travel plans, races, careers, finances, relationships, or – most tragically – health and even life – this mess is upending the most cherished parts of our existence.
So what now? As we hunker down indoors in an effort to save lives around the world, can we still feed the parts of ourselves that thrive on movement, sunshine, and wide open spaces? How do we stay motivated if our hiking plans, training plans, races, trips, gyms, ski seasons, and climbing seasons have all been canceled or closed?
For many of us, these activities are a key part of how we manage our mental health. Now they’re largely off limits. At a time when mental health is more important than ever, where should we turn instead?
I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about this in the past week. In this post I’ll share the best ideas I’ve found for coping with quarantine as an outdoor lover, and for preserving our strength and stoke for the day when life can finally return to normal.
In the meantime, let’s take the mental strength we’ve developed in the great outdoors and apply it to this new challenge. The outdoors will be there for us when we’re able to return in full force, and it may even be better off for the break we’re giving it. In the meantime, here are some ways to make the most of this strange new reality.
Follow Regulations and Use Good Judgment
First thing first: let’s be thoughtful and responsible.
Much of the globe is in some form of isolation or quarantine right now, but there’s no single set of rules and some are far more restrictive than others. Each country, and even each state in the US, is handling this differently. To understand what’s allowed in your location, look for guidance from your local government. In many cases, going for walks or bike rides close to your home is ok, potentially with time and distance restrictions.
Before visiting your local park, check local resources (like the park department’s website) to see if any closures have been announced. Even if they’re open, avoid places you know will be crowded. This is an excellent time to stick close to home and avoid long drives to places that may disappointingly be closed or too crowded when you arrive.
With people cooped up at home, parks here in California have been so crowded lately that busier ones are starting to close. Some are closed completely, others are just closed to vehicle access, or key facilities like parking lots and visitor centers are off limits. I absolutely love that more people are turning to outdoor recreation to cope with their challenges right now, but we need to first solve the pandemic before we can welcome a new wave of outdoor enthusiasm.
Whatever your local regulations, be sure to take them seriously, and ALWAYS keep at least 6 feet of space between you and anyone you don’t live with. Complying with these orders – and using our own best judgment to take even stronger precautions in some cases – will absolutely save lives.
This is an excellent time to appreciate nature closer to home and be thoughtful about why we love the outdoors so much. It’s a horrible time to make a mistake that will add load to an already overburdened medical system and put additional people at risk.
Here is a nice article discussing how to go outside responsibly during this time. Check it out for more detail.
Get Strong, Fit, and Flexible
There is a silver lining to being stuck inside: all that pent-up energy can be redirected into new kinds of exercise that our bodies will thank us for.
Those of us who prefer the great outdoors to the gym can get stuck in a rut, biomechanically speaking. I used to be queen of this mistake, and it’s taken me years to fix it. Doing the same repetitive motions over and over, as in hiking, cycling, and running, leads to muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances, or situations where certain muscles are too tight or weak to work as they are supposed to, will eventually lead to pain and injury. Pain and injury make it much less fun to hike, bike, and run.
Being forced indoors gives us the opportunity to do the types of workouts and maintenance routines that we should do all the time, but don’t, because we’d rather play outside. The key elements of a home fitness program for outdoor athletes should be:
- Strength, especially in the glutes and core, which are essential for happy knees.
- Flexibility. I find yoga is excellent for developing a very functional type of flexibility that includes the strength and coordination to control your movements, not just the passive flexibility of a human pretzel.
During the pandemic, many fitness programs have started offering free online workout videos to help us all stay fit from our homes. I highly recommend taking advantage of these. I’ve been exploring the following for the past week and already my body is thanking me for the new variety of movement:
- Peloton fitness videos, especially the strength classes
- Orange Theory fitness videos, good for those without much home fitness equipment
- Core Power Yoga
- Do Yoga With Me: thanks to their “yin yoga” videos, my tight hamstrings and hips feel better than they have in years!
You don’t need any special equipment to get started. However, if you’re serious about making the most of home workouts, here is some inexpensive workout gear to consider adding to your home collection.
Let the #QuaranTraining begin!
Embrace QuaranTraining Humor and Creativity
Road and trail runners are adapting as well, showcasing some very creative techniques for training and even racing at home:
Whatever your sport of choice, now is an excellent time to draw inspiration from fellow athletes and event organizers who are sharing positive content online. If they can adapt with humor and creativity, we certainly can too.
Connect With Online Communities
This may be the only time you’ll ever hear me recommend spending MORE time online (don’t we usually do enough of that?). But these are unusual times.
If you’re not already plugged into some supportive interest-based groups, you may find that it helps with the disappointment, uncertainty, grief, and that general unsettled feeling that comes from not knowing when or how this is all going to end.
Whatever your outdoor sport of choice, there are online communities of enthusiasts trying to figure out their new reality. For example, the Reddit pages for the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail are currently full of thru-hikers coping with the disappointment of having to cancel their attempts. Some of them sold their houses, quit their jobs, and spent many months planning for their hike, only to have it cut short by the pandemic. If they can cope, so can we.
Facebook groups are another good place to connect with people based on activity and location. You can also look to popular hashtags like #QuaranTraining on your social media platform of choice for a steady stream of motivation and humor.
Join a Virtual Race or Hike
Virtual Running Races
The running community is collectively pulling their hair out over the cancellation of pretty much every race. To ease the disappointment, “virtual races” are popping up all around the world/internet.
Joining a virtual race is a great way to preserve some motivation to train, feel connected to a community, and in some cases support a charity or struggling race organization. Some are more formal with shirts and medals and specific dates; others are just “sign up and go run at some point.”
You don’t have be a marathon runner; many events have distances as short as 5K. In fact, if you’re not already a runner, now could be the perfect time to start. It’s an efficient way of getting in some quality exercise and sunshine even when you can’t venture far from home.
A few virtual races to check out:
- Social Distancing Run
- Fight the COVID-19 Virtual Run
- SF Marathon Virtual Race Series (distances starting at 5k)
- More on this list from Runner’s World
Though it’s already over, the Quarantine Backyard Ultra should be enough to inspire anyone. Over 2000 runners from around the world ran a 4.1667 mile lap once an hour until there was only one runner left standing… two and a half DAYS later!
Virtual Hiking Challenges
A group of hikers and trail runners recently decided to climb the same amount of vertical as the Everest Basecamp Trek… on their stairs at home. Check out their progress at #VirtualEBC on Twitter, or choose your own virtual mountain challenge and get busy climbing those stairs.
Even when playing outside is an option, who doesn’t enjoy a good beer and outdoor movie or book from the comfort of the couch now and then? When outdoor options are limited, a vicarious adventure can be just what we need to nurture flagging motivation.
The options are nearly endless, but here are some of my favorite outdoor film classics across a range of sport genres:
- Meru: gorgeous and gripping mountaineering film
- Finding Traction: elite trail runner Nikki Kimball takes on the speed record on Vermont’s difficult Long Trail
- The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young: award-winning documentary about one of the quirkiest and most difficult endurance events in the world.
- Ride the Divide: classic documentary about a bicycle race along the continental divide. Responsible for getting quite a few people interested in the fringe sport of ultra-distance bikepack racing.
- Free Solo: If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold free-soloing El Cap, it’s time.
- The Dawn Wall: Another excellent climbing documentary, perhaps even more interesting than Free Solo if you’re actually into climbing.
For those who love to combine outdoor adventure and travel, check out this fascinating list of Netflix travel shows and documentaries.
Free Outdoor Videos
Keep an eye on the current indie outdoor film scene. Some film makers, like this one on bikepacking.com, are converting their scheduled in-person film screenings to online watch parties.
Various outdoor publications are also publishing lists of free online videos to keep people from going crazy during quarantine:
- List of free bikepacking videos
- List of free thru-hiking videos
- List of free MTB videos
- Trail Runner Mag videos
- Free ski videos
- Full length trail running film “Unbreakable” (now free)
Outdoor Adventure Books
The outdoor adventure book genre is really taking off these days as more and more people decide to share their own epic stories with the world. Here are a few of my favorites across a range of outdoor sports:
- The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert: A young woman and her husband undertake a rugged 4000+ mile expedition through Alaska
- Hikertrash: Life on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Erin Miller: Fun journal entries tell the story of a couple’s PCT hike in straightforward, realistic detail.
- Desert Snow by Helen Lloyd: Gutsy account of a lady who rode her bicycle solo through Africa. It’s the story that first got me hooked on the idea of bicycle travel, and made me second guess the social expectation that safety issues prevent women from taking on expeditions like this.
- Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis: The eventual holder of the fastest known time on the Appalachian Trail details her first AT thru-hike as a young college graduate.
- Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales: A bit morbid, but smart reading for outdoor adventurers. Learn about things that can go very, very wrong in the outdoors and what factors can make the difference between life and death.
If you’re into walking absurdly long distances (or just reading about other people doing it), check out this excellent list of books about long-distance walking adventures.
And for a wider range of topics including mountaineering, cycling, travel, and survival, check out this list of epic outdoor adventure books.
I think that’s enough books to keep you busy for a few months!
Festivals, Presentations, and Courses
I have a feeling this category will be growing, and I’ll be sure to add to it as more come up. For now, take a look at this online presentation series put on by Sierra Mountain Center, the guide company I worked with to summit five of California’s hardest 14ers.
The Trail Running Film Festival is going virtual with an online event on May 1.
Get Geeky With Gear
We all love our outdoor gear. Fortunately there are still ways to spend some quality time with it (that don’t involve camping on your living room floor – unless you want to, in which case that is totally a valid option).
Repair and Maintain Your Gear
If you’re in a productive mood, now could be the perfect time to care for some of your trusty gear. Ideas to get you started:
- Re-seal the seams on your tent
- Clean your sleeping bag
- Wax your zippers
- Clean out your hydration bladders, hoses, and bite valves (yuck… when was the last time you did this??)
- Learn or practice DIY bicycle maintenance
- Sew or patch any holes in your tent, backpack, rain gear, etc.
- Review your first aid kit and replace anything old or depleted
- Many more ideas right here!
Organize Your Gear
Have you considered organizing all your gear? That’ll keep you busy for an afternoon at least. I recommend separating into categories (sleep, water, kitchen, general tools and first aid, etc) and using separate boxes to keep it all organized. These 18 quart plastic bins work great for keeping all the small stuff organized and visible.
Experiment With Making DIY Gear
You may have heard of ultralight hikers making their own alcohol stove from a soda can. Why not give it a try?
For those who like sewing, there is a whole community of hikers out there sewing their own rain gear, shelters, and more. Check out some of the Make Your Own Gear forums and websites for inspiration.
Or get creative with these other DIY projects for backpackers.
Research Potential Gear Upgrades
I’m the first to say you don’t need the latest or greatest gear to enjoy the outdoors. If your budget doesn’t allow for it right now, just skip this section.
But if you’ve been considering making a few strategic upgrades to your gear collection, now could be a good time to do the research. It takes time to make a smart decision; you have to compare specs like size and weight, read reviews, and shop for deals.
You might want to check out this guide to lighter weight hiking, in which I share my own process for evaluating gear and choosing upgrades with the best “bang for your buck.”
Go After a New Ambitious Goal
If your race, thru-hike, international vacation, or training plans were shattered to bits, redirect some of that ambitious energy to something else beneficial. Before you know it, you might even be more obsessed with your new goal than your old one.
Some ideas to inspire you (but don’t stop at these):
- Hundred pushups challenge
- Learn to pistol squat (only if you have some strength training background already please)
- Splits challenge (we hikers and endurance athletes aren’t exactly known for our flexibility)
- Handstand challenge
- 30 day meditation challenge (our bodies aren’t the only thing that could use a workout or some relaxation)
Research Your Adventure Wishlist
If you’re like me, you have a wishlist a mile long filled with ideas for outdoor adventures: thru hikes, bikepacking routes, beautiful lakeside campsites perfect for a relaxing weekend. If you like international travel, the gravel roads of Patagonia or the geothermal wonders of Iceland might be calling your name.
But how much do you really know about these adventure ideas? If it doesn’t drive you too crazy, consider taking this time to research some of these currently off-limits ideas and fine tune your adventure wishlist. How long would each adventure take? What’s the best season to go? Are there any important drawbacks that get glossed over but that might actually factor into your choice?
For the ones that seem viable, you can even start looking into logistics. What does the food resupply situation look like? How many days would that hike take? What kind of bicycle tires are best for that gravel bikepacking route?
By paring down your list a bit, you’ll be ready with your top priorities whenever all this is over and we can return to travel and outdoor adventure once again.
Learn New Outdoor Skills
All those outdoor skills and survival tricks you plan to learn “someday” – now is the time. Some possibilities:
- Start a fire with sticks
- Tie essential knots
- Read and navigate with a topo map
- Properly bear hang your food
- Administer basic wilderness first aid
Look for online classes – some online course providers are offering free trials to support people during the quarantine – or articles and YouTube videos. Aim Adventure U, an online outdoor course program offered by Backpacker Magazine, is well regarded (but not free).
No matter how much experience we have outdoors, there’s always something new to learn.
Try Something Different
If the outdoors is your passion, it’s easy to forget that there are other types of movement that can be fun and therapeutic. When was the last time you tried learning a new type of movement? Maybe some ballet or some breakdancing (both free trials during the pandemic)? Have you ever considered capoeira, or poi spinning (maybe start without the fire)?
As much as I love outdoor endurance sports, I’m always surprised by how fun and engaging more artistic and skill-oriented movement practices can be. They occupy the brain in a different way, and make a great complement to the more repetitive and endurance-based sports I love so much.
Care For Your Mental Health
Whatever else you choose to do, look after your own mental health. There will be hard days and easier days. Be understanding and try to give your body and mind what they need.
If the change of pace fills you with motivation to get creative with your training and outdoor passions, by all means, run with that energy (or, you know, train indoors with it or whatever).
If all of this saps your outdoor motivation for a little while, that’s ok too. There are so many good and enjoyable things to do in life, and we can’t do them all at once. Maybe now is the time to focus on something else for a bit. What other passions, interests, and skills are hiding inside you, waiting for a new burst of energy to bring them out into the open? Here are some ideas.
Regardless of how you manage your enthusiasm for the outdoors during home quarantine, make sure you care for your basic physical and mental health. Get plenty of sleep, eat nutritious meals, connect with friends and family if you want to, and most of all, be kind to yourself.
Get Your Head in the Right Place
Before we wrap up, a pep talk.
I know, it sucks. It sucks for everyone, some more than others. It sucks for thru-hikers losing their chance to hike the PCT after months or years of preparation and planning. It sucks for professional trail runners who can now barely train and have lost all the races they planned to compete in. It sucks for Olympic athletes whose career-defining competition has been postponed.
But amidst all that, let’s not forget: it sucks for healthcare workers taking personal risk to cope with an overwhelmed health system, and for small business owners whose entire income stream disappeared overnight, and for the tens of thousands of people around the world who have lost their lives, and for their friends and family dealing with the loss.
Honestly, if we are stuck in our homes worried about how we can get outside more, we are probably doing better than many others during this crisis. So let’s work toward ending our personal pity parties.
It’s ok to grieve for the loss of your training routine, your big summer plans, your sense of well-being and optimism, and whatever else has been blown to bits. Those are real losses, and it’s ok to feel them. But, as we can learn from considering the stages of grief, the sooner we can accept it as our new reality, the sooner we can start moving forward productively.
Ask yourself: What would it look like to take this experience and use it to become better, stronger, MORE mentally and physically healthy instead of less?
What have I been needing more of in my life that I haven’t made time for, but that I could more easily make time for now?
What could I do now that, when I look back on this time with better perspective, would make me say: “The silver lining to the whole pandemic mess was that I ended up doing ______, and I’m really glad I did.”
Now, go do that.
More Outdoor Resources
If you’re looking for more outdoor goodness to get you through this tough time, here are some ideas to mull over in preparation for your next big adventure, whenever it comes (and it will come).
- Practical tips for cutting pounds from your backpacking gear
- Hiking in trail running shoes: is it for you?
- How to banish knee pain on the trail
Excited about backpacking but need help getting started?
The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.
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