It’s been over a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, and hiking trails and parks are starting to get busier.
The Pacific Northwest is renowned for its outdoor experiences and combination of coast and mountains. The students at Western Washington University revel in this opportunity, and after a year of being inside, the community is opening back up to encourage everyone to get outside and enjoy it.
The Associated Students Outdoor Center is opening back up and offering equipment rentals this spring quarter and through summer.
The AS Outdoor Center currently offers weekend rentals only. They are also requiring pick-up and drop-off appointments to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines. However, they set it up so anyone checking out equipment on Friday pays for one day but gets three days with the equipment before returning it on Monday.
Kailey Hickey, the equipment shop coordinator, said she’s optimistic about opening the Outdoor Center everyday for rentals.
“We’re hoping to be open all summer and have rentals available everyday if infection rates go down and vaccination rates continue to go up,” Hickey said.
The AS Outdoor Center isn’t the only place offering great deals during the opening hiking season. The Bellingham Public Library is proud to be a part of the Check Out Washington initiative.
Although the program has been offered in other libraries, this will be the first year the Bellingham Public Library will be offering the opportunity.
Check Out Washington is a program in collaboration with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Department that allows anyone with a library card to check out a hiking backpack with a complimentary Discover Pass, park maps, field guides and a pair of binoculars.
“This initiative is all about accessibility and giving people access to new outdoor experiences they thought were out of reach,” said Suzanne Carlson-Prandini, a librarian at Bellingham Public Library.
Currently there are long wait times for the backpacks because of their popularity, but anyone with a library card can check them out and it’s free to sign up for one.
Many Western hiking enthusiasts have continued hiking throughout the cold seasons, but Phoebe Yost noted a frosty change in the friendliness level while trekking the trails during COVID-19.
“With [COVID-19], I’ve unfortunately noticed a lot of the friendliness on the trail has diminished. I feel like I was more likely to get into a short conversation while hiking before the pandemic — even ‘hello’s seem less frequent now,” Yost said.
Being outdoors provides a vast amount of both mental and physical benefits. Being outside improves attention-span, benefits immune systems and acts as a natural mood booster, said AS Outdoor Center Excursions Coordinators Ben Crandall and Tanner Randall-Gosselin.
“Since winters in Bellingham can be really difficult, getting out on those days where there is sun can be really helpful to your mental health and well-being,” Randall-Gosselin said.
Hiking is a very popular outdoor activity among Western students, but getting outdoors doesn’t always need to be climbing a mountain or backpacking. Going to a park, taking a walk or playing frisbee in the yard are all great alternatives, says Crandall.
“Don’t make it a policy for yourself, just go outside with some friends and make it fun,” Randall-Gosselin said. “Changing your mentality from thinking how you have to go outside to how you have the opportunity to go outside can also help during these times.”
Some students are feeling burnt out by the excessive amount of screen time during the pandemic. Taran Rogers loves hiking because it’s one of the only things still accessible while everything else is shut down.
“I'm horribly burnt out on all the necessary online time, so the need to get outside is really intense and hiking is solace,” Rogers said. “I will say hiking is one of the more freeing activities. There aren't a lot of rules about hiking. You go where you choose and you set your own pace. The exploration that can be done is beyond exhilarating.”