Essential reporting in volatile times.

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When warmer weather and longer days arrive in an era of travel bans, stay-at-home orders and the closure of virtually all public buildings where recreation and exercise once took place, the urge to get outside and get moving can get powerful.

Hiking to connect with nature can be a great way to stay active while physically distancing yourself from others during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Active Southern West Virginia, the nonprofit that has had great success in promoting fitness in the New River Gorge area.

Gov. Jim Justice’s statewide essential travel laws still allow folks to make trips to nearby hiking trails, even in counties, like Kanawha, that have been designated coronavirus hot spots — just make sure your trail group includes no more than five people.

While state parks, forests and wildlife management areas, the National Park Service’s New River Gorge National River and the Monongahela National Forest have closed all visitor centers, campgrounds, lodges, cabins, restaurants and restrooms, trails remain open.

Open and closed status is more of a mixed bag for trails in county and city parks (Coonskin and other Kanawha County parks are closed, for instance), so check park websites and social media posts before setting out.

Active Southern West Virginia and the Leave No Trace organization are offering tips for helping to continue slowing the spread of the coronavirus while out of the house and on the trail. They include:

  • Planning hikes within your corner of the state, and pre-selecting backup choices if trailhead parking areas at first-choice trails are full.
  • Sampling lesser-known trails, at less-busy times of day, like early morning or late afternoon, to minimize contact with others.
  • Maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between those in your group.
  • When approaching other hikers, announce your presence. If possible, find open places off the trail to allow faster hikers to pass, to pass slower hikers, and to allow oncoming hikers to pass while maintaining a safe social distance.
  • Bring plastic bags to pack out food scraps and trash, including toilet paper.
  • Avoid remote wilderness trails, unmarked “unofficial” trails, and extended off-trail side trips, where accidents could tax the resources of, and possibly endanger, emergency responders.
  • Since park restrooms are closed, bring sanitizer to maintain hand hygiene before, after and during the hike.

Trail behavior is changing during the pandemic, according to a survey of more than 1,000 outdoor recreationists conducted last week by Leave No Trace and Penn State University. Participants were questioned about their outdoor activity between March 11, when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-10 a pandemic, and April 11.

Outdoor recreationists reported spending more time alone than with groups. Average group size fell from 5.6 people before the pandemic to 1.85 people by April 11. While only 10.8% of those surveyed traveled no more than two miles to participate in their activity of choice prior to March 11, by April 11, that percentage had risen to 49.9.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow

@rsteelhammer on Twitter.