The COVID 19 Guide
for Southern Illinois
Hikers & Outdoor Enthusiasts
I wanted to create this guide aimed at the hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of southern Illinois during the era of COVID-19 also known as the Novel Coronavirus. Currently in Illinois, a ‘Stay at home’ order has been issued by the state government. This order mandates that non-essential businesses close, only essential travel and activities occur and that social distancing and avoidance of group congregation be followed. A part of essential activities allowed includes hiking, running, walking and biking outdoors in open space recreational areas. This guide was created to help you achieve hiking and outdoor recreational activities during the COVID-19 crisis.
Is hiking, biking, running or walking outside a good idea?
Some people are concerned about others utilizing the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic in fear that the virus will be widely spread around areas where outdoor recreational activities are being conducted. It is totally understandable that people are worried and in fear. This COVID-19 virus has effectively shut down the world and people are seeing events take place that were simply unheard of before this crisis occurred. Fear, panic and overwhelming emotional distress will create negative thinking and paranoia in anyone. But it is important to understand the facts about utilizing the outdoors during this pandemic.
The fact is that COVID-19 is spread like the flu. Droplets from a cough or sneeze by an infected person transmits the virus to another person who is within a 6’ range of the infected person. It is believed that a person who is sick is likely the one who will infect other people the most versus someone who is not showing signs of infection. The CDC says that “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads”. A majority of people infected with this virus recover from it with little or no impacts to their health. The most highest- risk patients who encounter a severe or deadly reaction are usually over the age of 65 with underlying health conditions or may be younger but with underlying health conditions. This information was gained from the CDC, Illinois Department of Public Health and the World Health Organization.
As for hiking and outdoor recreation, the most significant reason who causes an infection with another person is by hiking in groups of people or hiking closely to another person. Social distancing and group congregation avoidance can completely prevent these concerns. Leaving a virus on a surface may be possible in the event that you use a public restroom for example or playground equipment. However, as of the creation of this article, all restrooms in the Shawnee National Forest have been closed until further notice and all Illinois State Parks and state-managed areas are also closed until further notice. There is no evidence to suggest that walking on a trail will leave behind the COVID-19 virus – that is a internet-generated myth created to scare people. As long as you practice social distancing and avoid group congregation, you should have no worries about getting other people sick.
Hiking, biking, running and walking are healthy activities proven to positively impact your immune system. The Governor of Illinois included these activities under the guidance of his advisers including those in the medical and public health sectors because they are healthy and provide ways for people to help balance stress and health lifestyles. By not exercising, we effectively increase our chances of getting sick due to overeating, limited moving, failure to burn calories and most of all, significant amounts of stress. By not taking care of ourselves, we risk a much higher rate of severe cases of this virus – facts that can be easily checked by proper authorities and medical personnel. If you can exercise at home, do so. It is advised only to visit open hiking and outdoor recreational areas that are close-by to where you reside. Not all people have the ability to exercise at home. Some people require exercising to maintain health due to underlying conditions that might require such activities. Always ensure that you are putting your safety above all else. This virus is NOT airborne and therefore it is very safe to hike, bike, run and walk outside as long as you strictly follow social distancing guidelines set forth by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the CDC.
Where can I hike, bike, run or walk in southern Illinois?
As of the creation of this article, all state parks and state-managed public land has been closed until further notice to protect the state employees and the public. This was likely done due to the fact that state-managed areas are usually smaller in size and attract a larger amount of people. This poses a significant concern of group congregation and lack thereof social distancing. Social distancing is so important that abiding by that guideline will effectively flatten the curve of COVID-19 and potentially save hundreds to even thousands (or more) of lives of our most vulnerable people in the world. While state-managed public lands are closed, it is highly recommended that you abide by the closures. Not following the closure is technically trespass and you can legally be fined or even arrested for entering such areas. Illinois state police and Illinois conservation police are watching these areas closely.
The Shawnee National Forest, as of the creation of this article, is still currently open to visitors. This includes all trails, wilderness areas and most recreational areas. However, as of March 24, 2020 – all restrooms and many campgrounds within the Shawnee National Forest have been closed until further notice to protect the public and Forest Service personnel from the threat of COVID-19. It would practically be impossible for the correct type of cleaning to be conducted at all restrooms located in the forest. The campgrounds encourage group congregation and it would be too difficult to control and police it as the Shawnee National Forest has limited Forest Service and Law Enforcement personnel. Other local, county and state agencies are now overwhelmed with their own priorities related to this virus. It is very understandable that the Forest Service had to make this decision. Public health and safety takes priority over all else.
While areas such as Garden of the Gods Observation Trail and Bell Smith Springs are open to visitors, it is urgently advised not to congregate in large groups at these locations and to continue to use social distancing to remain an ethical hiker and outdoor enthusiast. If areas have large groups congregating, it is highly advised that you avoid these areas. Illinois law enforcement has the legal ability to disperse these large groups and potentially fine and even arrest those who violate this condition of the State Governments Executive Order. It is critical to the protection of human life to socially distance yourself and NOT congregate into groups of more than 10 persons. If we do not follow these guidelines, a more strict and confining ‘Stay at home’ order may have to be issued in order to protect American lives as a whole. No one wants that sort of disruption to occur in our lives. I highly recommend hiking and utilizing the outdoors in areas that are often less traveled such as wilderness areas and such. I DO NOT recommend dispersed camping at this time.
Now is more important than ever to be safe outdoors!
Due to COVID-19, many first responder agencies have modified their policies to allow responders to have less contact with the public in order to help prevent the spread of this virus. Because of this, response times in emergency situations could be significantly delayed under normal emergency situations. If you are injured or incapacitated outdoors on a trail or in a rural area, it could take a significantly longer amount of time before emergency responders are able to reach you, especially medical personnel. It is critical that you avoid areas that are higher in risk of getting injured or requiring some form of rescue. You also need to take critical steps to ensure your safety while utilizing the outdoors. In an emergency, if you still need first responders, please call them. But if you can prevent the need for them – please do so for your safety and theirs.
I recommend that you consider these safety tips when utilizing the outdoors during COVID-19: 1) Plan your activity before you go. 2) Tell someone where you are going. 3) Try not to do the activity alone but ensure that you are utilizing a safe social distance from one and another. 4) Pack a first aid kit and enough food and water to sustain your needs. 5) Ensure that you know the weather conditions and dress appropriately for them. 6) Bring navigational gear such as a GPS, compass and/or map. 7) Take breaks when you require them and always watch your step. 8) Always stay on the trail at all times. Utilizing these common-sense safety tips while enjoying the outdoors should result in a positive experience for you.
If you are sick – DO NOT hike or conduct outdoor activities while you are sick. It doesn’t matter if you have COVID-19 or not, being sick will compromise your immune system and make it easier for you to contract further illness or viruses from other hosts. If you are sick, stay at home and seek medical attention if you seriously require it. Please understand that COVID-19 testing is being reserved for the most vulnerable. At this time, there are NOT enough tests to give them to everyone who wants one. If you are vulnerable or you have the underlying health conditions listed by public health experts, then you should request a COVID-19 test if you feel sick or believe you will test positive for the virus. If you are young or otherwise older but healthy, please consider not requesting the test as it could prevent someone with a higher risk to get it.
How to avoid getting and spreading COVID-19
The main recommendation for avoiding transmission of COVID-19 is through the act of social distancing. Social distancing is described as remaining at least 6 feet away from another person or at least a person’s length away from others and by avoiding the congregation of large groups. An example of good social distancing practice would be two or three friends hiking in a line about 6-8 feet apart from each other. An example of a bad social distance would be a group hike of more than 10 people in close proximity with each other. In this day and age, not using social distancing or by hiking in big groups is considered unethical and a danger to your fellow people. Technically, you can be charged with a crime for violating these guidelines set forth by the Illinois executive order. Please follow these guidelines for the sake of public health and safety. And be a role model to others and encourage them to do the same and then we all can beat this virus together.
You should also practice proper hygiene to help reduce germs and the chance of transmission of the virus. Using warm water and soap, you should vigorously rub your hands clean for at least 20 seconds. I also recommend cleaning other exposed skin while washing your hands such as arms, elbows and your face and neck. You should be washing your hands multiple times a day. Try not to touch your face as much as you can and ensure your hands are clean before doing so. Hand sanitizer is a good tool to have unless you are able to wash your hands at a sink. Soap and water is way more effective than hand sanitizer. Properly bath each day or night to keep germs and bacteria off your body. When you get home, you should immediately remove your clothing and wash it, bath properly and put on clean attire. These steps will effectively reduce your chance of transmission of COVID-19.
While outdoors, avoid using public restrooms as these utilities are not able to be cleaned as effectively as they should be in most cases. Do not share food out of the same packaging or hydration containers with others. Some people will have a different reaction when sick and in some cases, you could get the virus from another person who never appeared sick or showed any symptoms at the time of your interaction with them. You should also limit your contact with others and needs to stop (grocery shopping, gas stations and restaurant needs). Only stop at essential businesses if an essential need is required. The less direct contact you have with others, the less chance of transmission will occur.
We must treat the Shawnee National Forest as if it is our own backyard!
During this crisis, we must treat the Shawnee National Forest as if it is our own backyard. Please practice Leave No Trace while utilizing the forest. Whatever you pack in, please pack it back out. During the last government shutdown, significant amounts of litter occurred in the forest and public lands all across the country. Severe damage also occurred in these places. The amount of litter and damage to the forest can significantly impact when these areas could reopen after this virus crisis is contained. I will be visiting the forest and continuing to clean up trash as often as I can while attempting to also stay home more than I have before as well. I encourage you all to pick up trash but please wear gloves and proper safety equipment if you plan to do so. It is very unlikely that COVID-19 will transmit to you for picking up the trash of other people, according to public health experts.
If you see something, say something! This means that if you see illegal or even suspicious activity occurring in the Shawnee National Forest, please report it to Forest Service law enforcement or the county Sheriff’s department of the county you are visiting the forest in. Since the closure of restrooms and other areas of the forest and potential future closures, Forest Service personnel will likely be reduced. Therefore, it will be harder for the Forest Service to monitor all areas of the forest. Visitors of the forest and local residents of the area can help by reporting suspicious activity that they may see. NEVER approach those who you suspect are doing something they shouldn’t be doing – do not put yourself in the line of fire. Notify the proper authorities and remain a safe distance away from the subjects you are reporting.
A final note – consider those who are now out of work!
I work in an essential manufacturing facility that is critical to the needs of our customers. The plant I work at supplied critical utility products to New York City after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It is likely that I will continue to be able to work for the long haul. While I am working, I am earning a living and retaining my benefits. Not everyone can say the same! There are many people who are now not working due to being forced out by the executive order or an overall decision to close for safety related measures. Many of these out of work people are within the state and national public lands sector. Imagine not having a job at a time like this especially if you have a family and children to provide for or a lot of bills to pay. With the economic breakdown to boot and the threat of the virus, we can only imagine the anxiety that is occurring in a person’s mind.
I have seen some flack from people over the state managed land closures as well as the decision of the Forest Service to close restrooms and camping areas. All of these decisions were made to protect your safety during a crisis that NO ONE was prepared for. We are ALL at fault for not being prepared for this, including me, someone with two master degrees concentrating in emergency management and public health – while not an expert by any means, still someone who should had been knowingly prepared at least. There will be a lot of lessons to be learned from this crisis. But imagine these displaced workers seeing profanity and negative talk about them due to their decision to keep you safe. We owe it to them to treat them right. Don’t blame the service for what an administration has decided to do in an effort to protect human life. We can beat this virus and when we do, everyone will start to turn into the normal life that we thrive to see once again.
Thank you all for reading my article and please stay safe because I want to see each and every one of you on the trail! Please feel free to share this article with others, especially on your favorite social media websites. Follow me on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more content, articles, photos and videos. Thanks again for visiting and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail…while practicing proper social distancing.
Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.