Backpacking season at Mount Rainier is still on.

Image: Nate Brown

Pop quiz: You’re hiking a Western Washington forest trail, cradled by Douglas fir branches above while sword ferns tickle your ankles. Elusive Cascadian sunlight paints a dappled pattern on the soft dirt while a persistent gray jay—a bird so kleptomaniacal that it’s nicknamed the camp robber—circles above. Another group of hikers appears around the next bend. What’s the real hidden hazard in this placid nature scene?

It’s not an angry bear or a stalking cougar—in the Northwest, the vast majority are as harmless as the bird. Stranger danger? Nah. Few madmen roam the woods, outside horror flicks. Nascent coronavirus research suggests that short of a mid-trail make out session, virus transmission is unlikely. Your most probable injury: Tripping while gawking at all that enchanted nature.

Coming off a spring that turned weighing risk into a national pastime, we’re all taking a second look at what’s truly dangerous. Hiking is pretty—maybe even very—safe, and its hazards aren’t what we think. It might be what gets us through the summer of 2020.

In 2014, Teton Gravity Research (a media outfit, not a scientific lab) reported that the chance of dying while hiking was 1 in 15,700 annually. Two people end up in the emergency room from skateboarding for every hiking injury, according to the CDC. Compared with playing football, well, it’s practically harmless. Locally, King County Search and Rescue Association responded to 198 calls in 2019, but those include not just hiking injuries but lost Alzheimer’s patients and evidence searches.

Middle Fork Road over a branch of the Snoqualmie River.

“Fear of wild animal encounters is really one of the bigger ones for hikers,” says Kindra Ramos, communications and outreach director for the Washington Trails Association. “Animals feel like a scary thing.” But animal attacks are so unusual in Western Washington as to be almost unheard of (especially compared to, say, dog bites in the city of Seattle, which number in the hundreds every year).

As Jennifer Brenes, president of the KCSARA, notes, “It’s the people who are going up Rattlesnake who are getting a twisted ankle, or Mailbox Peak or Mount Si” who account for rescues performed by its more than 600 volunteers, free of charge.

Sure, KCSARA has seen outdoor incidents trend higher for the last decade, but between Seattle’s population growth and increased trail access, it doesn’t surprise Brenes. Near North Bend, the paving of the Middle Fork Road alone opened up 110,000 new acres of verdant forest around a broad finger of the Snoqualmie River in 2017.

Washington is pretty good at this outdoorsy thing. The WTA, launched 54 years ago as a route-condition newsletter between friends, is now a multipronged nonprofit that offers a free online database of trails that logs distances, elevation gain, parking directions, and up-to-date reports on snow levels or bug swarms. “It’s kind of a rare entity,” says Ramos. “A combination of starting early and being an early adopter of the internet” gave Washington a leg up on building the dynamic resource.

Which is key, given that lack of preparedness—no headlamp, no jacket—is the most common risk outdoors, says Brenes. With information at our fingertips and a crackerjack search and rescue team, the Pacific Northwest is about as safe as it can get.

 

And then came coronavirus. When the pandemic first reached Washington, businesses shuttered and locals rushed into the
barely-sprung spring weather. “A lot of people were unencumbered with their time,” says search and rescue’s Brenes. In mid-March, the organization fielded six rescues on a single trail in the span of five hours.

Though the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order led to closures of state parks and national public lands, hiking trails were one of the first things to reopen, before barber shops or barre class. The floodgates released.

Like all things Covid, there was no hard proof that outdoor sports were safe from virus transmission, but early reports suggested it was better than bar hopping or choir practice. In its virus-specific messaging, the CDC calls outdoor physical activity “one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy.” The WTA partnered with REI and more than 50 other organizations to isolate six Recreate Responsibly guidelines for playing in the wilderness during the pandemic.

Rattlesnake Lake.

Some were anytime rules: Be prepared, have the right gear, minimize your environmental impact. Others angled to minimize sharing germs between hikers, recommending less-used trails, masks, and a wide berth while passing. A key component was staying close to home.

Though hiking is as close to Covid-proof as it may get, our alfresco summer won’t come without caveats. For one, trail maintenance delays mean more fallen logs and slick bridges. With increased PPE guidelines and their own social distancing needs, search and rescue teams can’t respond as quickly as they usually do. And given that only certain communities boast a bevy of local forest routes, the rush outdoors is yet another window into social inequality.

But as the gloom of Juneuary lifted on a changed Pacific Northwest, the region’s natural treasures never seemed so enticing. “Being outdoors is so powerful and so refreshing when there’s so much anxiety in the world,” says WTA’s Ramos. “In addition to being something you can do with social distancing, there’s such an energizing and grounding aspect to it.”

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