The rights and wrongs of social distancing in the backcountry

JACKSON, Wyo. — If you’ve been up on the pass or at Snow King recently, it’s apparent that a higher number of recreationists are using these locations to get out of the house. They are great ways to stay active while social distancing, but at what point does it become a problem?

The Teton Backcountry Alliance  (TBA) has noticed that backcountry areas in San Juan County, CO have been closed due to crowded areas which may be defeating the purpose of isolating. Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks have already closed their gates to recreationists for this reason.

In lieu of ending up like San Juan County, the Alliance has made recommendations on their Facebook page for finding the balance between safely recreating while not adding to the crisis.

First and foremost, just because you are in nature doesn’t mean it’s okay to congregate in groups amidst a global pandemic. Large groups of people have been spotted on the pass, at Snow King, and in the parking lot at Taggart Lake Trailhead. It’s always a good idea to use the buddy system in the backcountry, but in ways that do not compromise social distancing.

“Aggregations of people at the base of Snow King and on Teton Pass have been observed and reported as a concern,” Teton Backcountry Alliance stated. “Please give people a minimum of 6 feet of space when they approach on a skin track or at the trailhead. Spread out both within and between groups when on the trail. What may be a comfortable distance for you can be uncomfortable for others. Consider wearing your buff over your mouth and nose when passing by others.”

Another way to keep safe distances while recreating is to avoid popular destinations. The Alliance says to, “avoid popular routes and destinations and seek out lesser-traveled areas.”

Teton Pass has seen a high volume of backcountry users recently. The image above shows the parking lot on Tuesday afternoon. Photo: WYDOT

We live in an area with untold amounts of protected land to recreate in. The pass and Snow King may be easily accessible, but driving an extra 30-45 minutes up to Togwotee Pass, or down towards the Snake River Range can help loosen the strain on overcrowded areas.

If you decide to hit the pass, do not carpool. The Alliance explains that “this is not the time to be hitching up the Pass or picking people up. Protect yourself and others.”

Along with managing your distance, you should be aware that although dogs do not contract the disease, they can still spread it by coming into contact with other dogs or people.

If you bring your dog with you, the Alliance recommends to “use leashes and poop bags, and if your dog is not obedient to your commands, leave him/her at home. Avoid touching other people’s dogs!”

This is also the time for conservative decision making. This will help avoid unnecessary trips to the hospital while healthcare workers are already overwhelmed.

“This is neither the time to be pushing the envelope with risky ski lines nor the best time to be building and practicing jumps,” TBA said. “Calling on the services of Teton Search and Rescue or going to the ER with a torn ACL will be an added burden for healthcare providers, and very embarrassing. Hospital beds are needed for sick patients, not preventable accidents.”

Last but not least, the Alliance recommends Jacksonites to dissuade visitation from friends and family.

“This is not a good time to host friends from out of town who would like to come recreate in the Teton backcountry. Encourage them to stay in their home communities. We are VERY fortunate to have access to such incredible open space, fresh air, and room to explore during this stressful time. Let’s do what we can to practice social distancing and not create an additional burden to an already stressed system.”

Using nature to stay physically and mentally sound is a great coping mechanism during trying times, but it is important to remember that maintaining social distance is what the experts say is the quickest solution to bring us back to how it was before.

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