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WHY I CHOOSE TO CONTINUE HILLWALKING IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

Updated: May 6, 2020



‘F*** off back to Trumpland or work on your mum-tum at home like a good little girl.’


According to a message I received from a stranger online, those are my options. While I sympathise wholeheartedly with whatever happened in this individual’s past to make him angry enough to write this, personally, I believe that if someone of that ilk disagrees with me, it’s a solid indicator I am on the right path… pun intended.


Later that same day, someone else emailed my employer to get me fired from my job. I found this particularly ironic, considering how important it is that those of us who can continue to work and pay taxes into a system, which is now responsible for bailing out the many businesses and individuals impacted by this lockdown, continue to do so.


My offense? …Taking a hike.


Because of who I am as a person, I have imagined many times, what I would be like during the apocalypse. In my mind, I was donning a Mad Max style leather number and shooting zombies with a crossbow from my horse’s back, or driving a tank around the desert with my shaved head like Lori Petty …not getting cyberbullied for sharing photos of a hike.


But then, even if you agree with nothing else I say, I am sure we can all agree on one point - things don’t always pan out the way we anticipate.


Guidance is not law – it’s advice

There is no denying that the BMC and Mountain Rescue teams have advised against hillwalking during the lockdown, and I genuinely understand why.


It would make sense to be concerned that, with all this newfound time on our hands, many might decide to take up hillwalking as a new hobby/form of exercise during the lockdown (we’ve all seen the rookie, lycra-donning cyclists on the roads of late).


Obviously, a stream of novice hikers heading up Ben Nevis in trainers would result in additional strain on public services and increase the risk of spreading the virus. I get that. In societies, we do tend to take things down to the lowest common denominator for those of us that didn’t get the chance to play with shapes as children.


But a competent hiker, who grew up on the mountains in Alaska and continues to hillwalk on a regular basis? Someone that understands how to mitigate unnecessary risk and the limits of their own capabilities? Statistically, it is incredibly unlikely this individual will be putting additional strain on public services or exposing anyone to coronavirus by continuing to hike during lockdown – which I highlight in more detail below.


All that aside, this is guidance …and guidance is not legally binding. As it stands, there is no legislation expressly forbidding hiking, nor any other form of exercise, and exercise is clearly one of the acceptable reasons to leave the home.


Which raises the question, when did taking advice become mandatory? Everyone has received advice they’ve overruled at some point in their lives, for better or worse. That’s the beauty of advice – solicited or no – you can choose to take it or leave it. If taking advice is now mandatory, can someone please pop me into The DeLorean and take me back to my 18-year-old self as she is gearing up to marry a Russian? That would have saved me a lot of bother… but that’s a story for another day.


History is replete with the stories of people who resisted the current status quo and we’re not exactly worse off for having them around. #FoodForthought


Saving lives isn’t just about Covid-19

One of the most ironic things I have witnessed is the amount of people hurling blatant abuse at each other for ‘putting lives at risk’ for hiking, without considering that, in launching vicious attacks at strangers, they are themselves, putting lives at risk.


In 2017 there were approximately 5,821 registered deaths by suicide in the United Kingdom, equating to an average of 16 suicides per day in the country. Cyber bullying is directly linked to self-harm and suicidal behaviour – which also puts additional strain on the NHS and social services that the ‘quarantine-shamers’ seem to feel so righteous in defending.


Combine this with the current cocktail of economic collapse, overall tension and the general fear and uncertainty we all face, and this is the perfect storm for pushing those who may already be on the edge, right over.


You know what helps with anxiety and depression? Hiking.


The mission is to slow the spread of the virus – we are not on house arrest

There's a new phenomenon - known as "quarantine shaming" - to try to keep people indoors. But here’s the thing, we are not on house arrest, we are trying to slow the spread of a virus.


With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to take up activities that make ‘social distancing’ far easier to maintain. Hiking is certainly much safer than a trip to your local supermarket right now, where thanks to a lack of ventilation and high numbers of people congregating and flouting the 2 metre rule, it’s really easy to pass or contract the virus, …yet nobody is getting any stick for making that Tesco run.


In stark contrast, when spending time outside, there is far more space to spread out and maintain a safe distance from one another. COVID-19 survives up to 24 hours on cardboard and 72 hours on plastic. Compared with being inside, there are fewer man-made surfaces for the virus to survive on outside. Further, the virus quickly dissipates in open air.


Some people shout louder than others

One of the biggest problems of all this quarantine-shaming, is the amount of people who are keeping silent out of fear. For every offensive note I receive, there are far more from supportive followers who appreciate the content and message I am sharing. But unfortunately, their silence leads the ‘stay-at-home vigilantes’ to believe they are in the majority, even if my inbox suggests otherwise.


When I confronted the individual who attempted to get me fired from my job and explained my position, he confirmed he had a change of heart and wished me well, ending his correspondence with the suggestion that I ‘just don’t share it online’ in future.

My response? ‘Alternatively, you could just keep scrolling if you disagree? Or better yet, perhaps even consider the possibility that safely getting out in nature during a global pandemic has it merits?’


He did not reply.


As tempting as it is to silently do my thing offline until this all blows over, I will not. I will not stay quiet, because mental health matters. Civil rights matter. Freedom matters.

Reticence is the reason we had a Holocaust. So, to the many others who agree with this message: find your voice. ‘Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction,’ in the wise words of some poignant Faithless lyrics.


Why can’t you stay local?

Simply put, most of the time I do. I am still working full-time while simultaneously trying to home-school my daughter and keep up with the exercise needs of my 8-month-old wolfdog, 100% solo because, you know, social distancing. I just don’t have the time to be out in the hills daily, so most of our exercise is simple walks around the neighbourhood, and here’s the problem with that…


When I am walking through my neighbourhood, I come into direct contact with an average of 10-20 people on a 20-minute stroll. Of these, I average violating the 2 metre rule anywhere between 2-6 times per walk, either because I am in an alleyway that simply doesn’t allow me to give another person that much distance, or because I realise there’s a person 1-foot from me on the other side of the fence I did not see was there until I am on top of them.


Another thing that happens is, a stranger’s dog will approach mine to play, requiring us to separate them and breach the 2 metre rule, or my daughter will see a school friend playing in their garden and run up to say hello, because for some strange reason, 7-year-olds don’t seem to understand social distancing.


On a hill, I run into an average of .002 people. In the few instances that I have crossed paths with other like-minded hillwalkers during this pandemic (yes there are more of us out there), it’s been incredibly easy to give them more than 2-metres of space – making it much simpler to prevent potentially spreading the virus.


I live in a city, so in order to get out to these more remote areas requires driving.


The thing about driving…

Just being alive carries risk. The risk of dying from heart disease far outweighs the risk of being involved in a motor accident, which accounts for 0.5% of all deaths. Some of the main causes of which, including a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight, can be corrected with regular exercise …such as hiking.


In addition, more than half of road traffic accidents happen within a mile of your house, not on a long-distance road trip. So, you are statistically more likely to have an incident en-route to your local pharmacy, than on a 30-mile drive to the base of a hill.


That said, there is certainly an argument for being more cautious while driving, ensuring that your car is in good running order, you have a jumper battery and spare tire on hand and you are fuelling up locally. …tick, tick, tick.


Reducing strain on the NHS and Mountain Rescue

Since this lockdown began, I have seen numerous posts of people hiking up and down their stairs, pretending they are on a hill, taking ‘local’ bike rides out in the country, or just quipping about getting drunk at home alone. None of which I personally take issue with. These are crazy times and anything we can do to manage our stress levels is important.


But as mentioned earlier, everything you do carries an element of risk. More than 1,000 people die every year from falling down their stairs. In 2018, 99 pedal cyclists were killed, 4,106 seriously injured and 13,345 slightly injured in Great Britain. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), you are far more likely to be injured playing sports like cricket (?!) than hillwalking.


Alcohol causes 7,551 deaths annually, 400 of which are home accidents - and those are just the fatality statistics, outwith the number of people who end up in A&E from alcohol-related injuries. Also, increased drinking can make people even more vulnerable to respiratory diseases like COVID-19. More vulnerable = increased chance of viral transmission.


Currently, 8.6 million UK adults are drinking more frequently yet, instead of being under similar social scrutiny for this, it appears to be a perfectly acceptable, née humorous, way pass the time in lockdown …despite the affect this will no certainly be having on the NHS and other social services.


Unlike alcohol, hiking has numerous documented physical and mental health benefits that effectively reduce additional strain on the NHS (both now and in the long run), when undertaken carefully and responsibly.


Closing perspective

Sometimes people agree with you, sometimes they don’t. Ultimately, the only thing we can control is ourselves and how we react to the situations we are dealt. Whatever we can do to stay safe, productive, sane and grounded during such confusing and uncertain times is ‘essential’ and ‘necessary.’


Am I suggesting everyone should go bouncing up mountains? No. Am I saying only seasoned mountaineers should be hiking right now? No. I am simply suggesting that, as individuals, we are the best judge of our own abilities and limits and can make our own calculated decisions about how we choose to stay healthy and sane during this pandemic, based on our own personal knowledge and skillsets.


It’s all about perspective …which is pretty easy to find at the top of a mountain.


So, if you prefer to stay at home and bake, stay at home and bake. If you’re a skilled surfer and need to catch some waves to ground yourself, go out and catch some gnarly waves. If group chats online with your friends improves your mood, do that. If you love gardening, tend to your garden.


Personally, painting, playing the piano and being alone on a hill bring me joy, so I am going to keep doing those things.

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