This past spring saw record numbers of people getting out and about to enjoy parks, forests, trails and rivers across Pennsylvania. While shutdowns and stay-at-home orders offered more free time but left fewer activity options, fresh air and sunshine offered a respite from current events and being stuck indoors.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s COVID-19 Trail Report, published in June, quantified the dramatic increases in trail usage numbers. Trails around the state saw increases between 100 and 200% as compared with March of the previous two years. I can attest from experience that even off-the-beaten path areas were more populated than normal during those first couple months of the pandemic. While many of these users were already trail enthusiasts, it’s safe to say that there is a chunk of people who discovered or renewed an interest in outdoor recreation this year. This is great news, as more trail users only underscores the important role that local trails and green spaces play in our mental, physical and community health.
Spending time outdoors has many proven benefits, from elevating mood and lowering anxiety levels to warding off countless diseases and boosting the immune system. As Covid-19 cases continue to reach record levels and the daylight continues to wane and the temperatures drop, I’m sure plenty of people are dreading the dark winter ahead. But trails can offer an antidote. Cooler weather doesn’t have to signal an end to enjoying the outdoors and reaping these benefits.
Outdoor activities also provide a safer way to socialize with friends and family than indoor gatherings, as viruses spread less easily with ample air flow and keeping distance is easier in open spaces. To reduce transmission risk, go for a family hike instead of a traditional holiday gathering or try fat biking with your friends instead of hitting the bar. And for the same reasons, it’s never been a better time to skip the gym and head to the trails instead for your daily exercise routine.
The weather might not be as appealing now as it was during the milder spring and summer months, but with the appropriate clothing and an open mind, the outdoors can be just as enjoyable all year long.
Here are a few tips for getting out and about year-round:
Invest in a few key base and outer layers. Avoid wearing cotton when it’s cold and wet, especially next to the skin. Instead, go for wool or synthetic fabrics, and dress in layers so that you can remove some once you get moving and warmed up. Overdressing results in excessive sweating, which can make you colder in the long run. There’s a popular saying, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Dress appropriately for the weather and you’ll be comfortable no matter what the conditions.
Try something new. When there’s snow on the trails, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or fat biking can provide a fun novel activity. Some sporting goods stores and state parks rent skis and snowshoes, and many areas have dedicated cross-country ski trails (here’s a list). But, you don’t need special trails to try it out — snow-covered rail trails and large grassy parks work extremely well for cross-country skiing, especially for beginners.
“Fat” biking refers to bicycles with 4-5-inch tires that provide extra traction and “float” in snowy conditions. Where normal bicycle tires would sink into the snow, fat tires cruise though more easily and they are a great way to keep cycling even when there is several inches of snow on the ground. Many bike shops throughout the state offer rentals, so check for some near you.
Be aware of hunting seasons. Fall into winter is the prime hunting season in Pennsylvania. You can find a full list of all the hunting seasons from the Pennsylvania Game Commission here. While previously there was no hunting allowed on Sundays, this year there are three Sundays when it is permitted (Nov. 15, 22, and 29). Wear ample orange and check regulations for the area where you’re headed to make sure there are no usage restrictions during hunting season. Some areas, such as the Allegrippis Trails at Raystown Lake, close for the two weeks of rifle season after Thanksgiving.
Get out in the daylight if you can. If your work schedule allows, take an extended lunch and go for a midday walk to get sunlight and Vitamin D. Outside is always better than inside, but getting sunlight each day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, does wonders for both mental and physical health.
Just remember, the hardest part is getting out the door. Once you get your heart pumping, you’ll heat up and barely notice the cold. Take that first step and your mind and body will thank you later. You might even discover a new favorite winter activity that you end up looking forward to year after year.