When the pandemic hit last spring, Timothy Chan and his husband Ryan Sanders felt trapped in the city.
The couple live near the Don River in downtown Toronto, where they used to take their dog, a cockapoo named Jackson, for hikes. But since COVID-19 hit and the lockdowns began, the Don River trail has become busy and crowded. “I think when the pandemic arrived, everyone was starving for outdoor space and nature,” Mr. Chan recalls.
By October 2020, the couple purchased a car. While they use the vehicle for errands like click-and-collect grocery pickups, it’s been a great way for them to get out into nature.
Their first out-of-town hike was in the Greenwood Conservation Area, about 40 minutes east of Toronto in Ajax. “The colours in the fall were absolutely breathtaking,” says Mr. Chan.
From there, the couple and their dog ventured out nearly every weekend to visit trails, park systems and conservation areas nearby. They’ve gone on more than 20 hikes to date and hope to venture further north this summer as time and pandemic restrictions allow.
Mr. Chan and Mr. Sanders are just like many Canadians who have embraced hiking to alleviate pandemic stresses. “It was just so freeing,” Mr. Chan recalls from his first hike. “It was like a big sigh of relief, like we could finally be more relaxed and not feel confined and trapped.”
In 2020, Ontario Parks reported a record-breaking year of 11-million visits, which includes both camping and hiking stays – an increase of 100,000 visits compared to 2019. Just west of Toronto, Conservation Halton, which encompasses seven parks and conservation areas open to hikers, reported that visits increased 45 per cent from 2019 to 2020 compared to an increase of 3 per cent from 2018 to 2019.
Stephen Hui is a Vancouver-based author of two Southwestern British Columbia hiking trail guides: 105 Hikes and Destination Hikes. Mr. Hui has noticed an uptick of interest in hiking since the start of the pandemic. “There are hiking trails in North Vancouver where previously I’ve managed to go two hours without seeing anybody,” says Mr. Hui. “Now I’ll see seven groups of hikers on the trail.”
For those new to hiking, Mr. Hui suggests starting with a regional or provincial park. “They’re more likely to be well-signed and have decent trail conditions and maintenance,” he explains.
Research paths and trails ahead of time and choose a route with a shorter distance and a smaller elevation gain. “Be less ambitious in the beginning,” he advises. “Pick something that’s more accessible.”
Hiking is a great way for families to get outdoors. Mr. Hui has a nine-year-old son and recommends that families set reasonable expectations. “Go at the kids’ pace,” he says.
And don’t feel pressured to reach your destination at a certain time. “You also have to remember that kids need to take more breaks,” says Mr. Hui. “And bring lots of snacks.” Mr. Hui has a ritual of getting ice cream with his son at the end of a hike. “That’s a huge motivator for him to finish the hike.”
For safety, solo hikers who are new to the activity should partner up with a friend. It’s also a great way to safely socialize outdoors if your local health region permits it. You should also inform a friend or family member of your hiking plans. “Tell them where you’re going to start from, where you’re planning to go and when they should expect to hear from you,” Mr. Hui advises.
Cellphone coverage is spotty in rural areas, so don’t rely on using mobile data to help you get around. Instead, apps like AllTrails can be downloaded ahead of time. They use GPS instead of the internet to help you navigate. “If you’re taking photos or whatnot, be mindful of the battery because you might need to get to cell service and make a call in an emergency,” says Mr. Hui.
Apps can also be a great way to discover worthwhile hiking spots in your area. Mr. Chan is also a fan of AllTrails for his research. “You can filter out by location, how physically demanding and how long you want the trail to be,” he explains. “We also just go on Google Maps, do a search and look at some of the ratings.”
Facebook groups are another good resource for discovering hikes nearby. Mr. Hui has joined more than 20 local online hiking groups for different towns and regions near Vancouver.
Mr. Chan has used the Facebook group Ontario Hiking for his research. “On top of discovering new hikes and conservation areas, there’s also a really strong community component to it,” he says. The group hosts challenges, like going on five hikes in a month, and encourages members to post photos of their journeys. “While we’re all mandated to stay at home, it’s a nice way to build community,” Mr. Chan says.
What to pack
While the Ten Essentials is a concept that originates from mountaineering and backcountry camping, this packing list is still good for beginner hikers to ready for anything:
Navigation: This could be a physical map, a guidebook or a GPS device or app used on your phone.
Headlamp: Keep extra batteries in case you don’t make it back to your vehicle before nightfall.
Sun protection: This includes sunglasses, sunscreen, protective clothing and a hat.
First aid: Ticks are on the rise this year, so don’t forget insect repellent and a pair of tweezers in case you need to remove a tick.
A repair kit, including a knife: While it’s useful for any quick fixes on the go, you might even find the knife handy for things like cutting a piece of fruit for a snack.
Waterproof matches or a lighter: In case you need to start a fire.
Emergency shelter: This could be an emergency blanket or a bivy sack, which is like a thin sleeping bag.
Extra food: Pack dried snacks like nuts, seeds and granola bars.
Extra water: Bring one or two litres more than you think you’ll need.
Extra clothes: Additional layers can get you through changing weather conditions. Extra socks can be helpful if you get wet unexpectedly.
Hiking during COVID-19 pandemic
Do your research: Some parks may have limited hours or other restrictions due to COVID-19. Check the park’s website to confirm before departing.
Advanced booking: To avoid crowding, some conservation areas request visitors to book online in advance. Some parks may ask that you limit your time on the trails to a few hours.
To mask or not to mask: While masks aren’t required on most trails, keep one on-hand for areas that may be more crowded, like in parking lots or while you’re waiting to use the washroom.
Keep your distance: It’s always good etiquette to give other hikers some space on the trail, but it’s especially important during COVID-19. Be mindful of time spent on bridges and viewpoints so that others around you can enjoy the scenery.