In the rapidly developing COVID-19 situation it's hard to keep track of the official advice - not helped by the fact that much of it to date has been wooly. Climbing walls are closing and mass gatherings and events are being cancelled. But thus far attention seems to have centred on indoor spaces and urban areas. In light of yesterday's hardening of the Government position, finally bringing the UK closer in line with the rest of the developed world, now seems a good time to ask - what's the situation regarding climbing and walking in the great outdoors?
Guidance on social distancing for everyone in the UK and protecting older people and vulnerable adults
published 16 March 2020
Getting outdoors and active has mental and physical health benefits, and we all still need exercise.
"Following Government advice, apart from people who are in households with symptoms or who have pre-existing health conditions that put them at increased risk, going for a walk independently can continue and is an excellent way to maintain health and wellbeing" say the Ramblers.
To encourage the nation to enjoy open space, if appropriate, during the pandemic, the National Trust has today (17 March) announced that it will keep open as many of its gardens and parks as possible, for free, alongside coast and countryside, but plans to close its houses, cafes and shops.
No one has yet said we can't go outdoors, but it clearly cannot be done at the expense of spreading the virus. So what are the implications of contagion when it comes to handling rock and mingling with others in the open air?
What counts as non-essential travel, and non-essential contact?
Congregating in groups has to be off the agenda; so what about solo walking, bouldering alone, or (careful) cragging with just one partner?
Definitive answers to questions like these are hard to come by, and until official measures tighten further - as seems likely - some calls will still boil down to personal judgement.
However, it seems a good idea to ask an expert, so here's Dr Jonathan Read, Senior Lecturer in Biostatistics at Lancaster University:
"It remains to be seen if climbing, as an activity, is specifically advised against, as it apparently has been in Spain. It is not clear from the current public health advice.
"From a gritstone-loving epidemiologist's perspective, I suggest that if people have to go climbing, the least impact (in terms of transmission) would probably be going climbing with a single person that you already live with, walking or in a private car to a local deserted crag, and only top-roping (after thoroughly checking anchors, etc)."
"The more people outside your household that you encounter, whether on the way to or at the climbing venue, the more chance there is for transmission to jump to new areas of the UK's social network. To complicate matters, you don't need to meet them as such: 'fomite transmission' means you just have to pass through the same space within a short period of time, to enable transmission (just think about how you could pick up the virus from door handles).
"The further away from home you travel, the greater the risk (again) for the virus to migrate between disparate parts of the social network.
"As pointed out by others, the greater the risk posed by the activity (or indeed the driving), the greater the chances of depriving the NHS from capacity it can't afford to divert from treatment of Covid-19 patients. Never has the phrase "we are all in it together" been so relevant. This time, we really are! It is up to everyone to decide whether their actions contribute to community health or potentially adversely affect it. This is going to be a deeply unpleasant year for humanity, and we really all do need to do our bit."
Here are some more general thoughts on the situation, from Levi Yant, M.Sc. (Virology), PhD (Genetics) Associate Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Nottingham's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, the author of yesterday's piece on Coronavirus and climbing walls:
"I expect that this is definitely going to get worse before it gets better and will likely cycle between bad and worse, with little blips where lots of people get sick of it all and think it's okay to be cavalier, only to be disappointed. Month in and month out.
"I'd note: the data from China suggest - contrary to many common coronavirus outbreaks - there seems not to be a big decrease in incidence of disease in summer-like conditions, so I fear a sustained curve, hopefully continuously flatted, i.e. not a spike in winters, like the 1918 flu, and the model which Johnson's advisors were (in my opinion) inappropriately applying. Until yesterday.
"So in other words, as has been the case continuously re Covid-19, all organisations and many governments are still a few steps in their thinking behind the grim reality of this thing and the only way out is sustained, strict isolation and surveillance, which the UK is finally moving toward. Long term end games are less clear too, as China's situation is still serious, even with amazingly good controls and heroic public cohesion and restraint..."
Does avoiding unnecessary travel imply that we shouldn't be contemplating hill or climbing trips? Travelling on public transport just to get your outdoor fix might no longer be acceptable, but what if I get in my car, drive to the hills, walk all day and return without having come into close contact with anyone? Couldn't that be considered a form of self-isolation with added fresh air and sunshine?
On the other hand, doesn't driving in a private vehicle still lead to some exposure at petrol pumps and service stations?
"Follow the most current NHS advice regarding health and distancing" advise the BMC in a statement released 17 March.
"Consider your means of travel and distance – close to home is best, and despite the environmental impact, it's better to be in personal cars than public transport."
Mountain rescue and avoidable risk
For the sake of personal outdoor time, should we risk the remote possibility of taking up a bed space or other health care resources, at a time when the NHS is facing its most serious crisis?
"Reduce your risk" advise the BMC.
"Be very aware that medical and rescue services and facilities are going to be extremely stretched and overwhelmed. It would be socially irresponsible to be taking risks at this time that could place an additional burden on medical and emergency services."
"Do not assume that Mountain Rescue will be available. There is a real possibility of reduced or even no cover for rescue in some areas as this develops - including along the coast that depends on lifeboat and volunteer coastguards."
All outdoor activity involves some risk of injury, but there are clearly degrees of hazard. In the current situation the needs of others arguably ought to be factored into the balance that each of us is prepared to strike in this regard.
On Monday 16th March, Scottish Mountain Rescue released this statement:
"Scottish Mountain Rescue teams are continually reviewing their action plans to ensure they can provide a continuous service within Search & Rescue to safeguard both teams and the service to the general public.
"Being in the outdoors has many benefits and we are usually very happy to encourage individuals to get outdoors and enjoy the beauty of Scotland, however during this ongoing situation we ask you not to take any unnecessary risk when enjoying the outdoors. Perhaps go on adventures you are familiar and safe with and while doing so, keep social distancing in mind.
"If you require assistance but you suspect you have Covid-19 or have been in contact with someone who has it then please tell the Police this information as soon as you can so our teams can prepare for this. If you need assistance in the outdoors then please dial 999, ask for Police, then Mountain Rescue.
"We encourage everyone to maintain good personal, hand and respiratory hygiene and follow the NHS guidelines and Government information.
"Our team members are all volunteers and we don't want them sent home with anything worse than wet clothes and muddy boots.
"Together, we can do our bit in all this."
Club meets and huts
The BMC and Mountaineering Scotland have issued this joint statement on Monday 16 March, compiled by Dr David Hillebrandt, Hon Medical Advisor to the BMC after discussion with BMC and MS officers and advice from members of the British Mountain Medicine society:
"This statement represents the views of the BMC and Mountaineering Scotland regarding club meets and the use of club huts after taking advice from their medical and legal advisers, studying the advice of Public Health England and watching the policy in alpine regions with similar accommodation. It is current at the time of posting but is likely to change as the pandemic spreads further. We accept that being physically active in the hills has great health benefits both physically and psychologically, but that there is a difference in making a personal decision to travel to the hills with friends or family to enjoy the outdoors, and travelling as group to share mountain hut accommodation.
"As the national bodies for mountaineering in Great Britain we can only advise individual mountaineers and clubs on risks involved.
"COVID-19 is spread from person-to-person predominantly by cough droplets, but is also likely to be spread indirectly, via contact with surfaces that have been contaminated with cough droplets. Most club huts are made up of dormitory accommodation, sometimes in compact alpine bunks, with shared kitchens, toilets and washing facilities. Thus, club huts have the potential to be easy places for COVID-19 to spread. A dream home for a virulent virus. Furthermore, huts may well attract simultaneous groups from different regions of the country, enhancing the potential for virus spread. Many bunkhouses are privately owned, most B&Bs and hotels are privately owned and BMC and Mountaineering Scotland members also use campsites. We are aware of the economic implications of our advice in rural areas and to those clubs that own and operate huts. We will issue additional suggestions on economic considerations in the near future.
"The majority of BMC and Mountaineering Scotland members have to travel to the hills to enjoy their sport. This is in itself a risk factor and they must make personal decisions about using public transport or sharing cars or minibuses. Obviously the longer a person is in close contact with a person who may be carrying the virus the higher the chance of transmission. It goes without saying that anybody with symptoms should self-isolate at home, and that anybody developing symptoms whilst away should head for home as soon as possible, making every effort to minimise interpersonal contact.
"Camping wild in the hills is obviously fairly safe but attention must be paid to personal hygiene. Camping on sites in small groups with distance between tents is also relatively safe but attention must be paid to personal and group hygiene and in cleaning surfaces and facilities in any communal facilities. Living in your own self-contained campervan should be fairly effective as a form of isolation.
"If a group is using a private bunkhouse it is for that group to make their own risk assessment but it would be sensible to know exactly what steps the owner has taken for thorough cleaning between group bookings. The same would apply to using B&B accommodation. There should be no embarrassment in asking about cleaning prior to arrival and provision of cleaning materials for the stay.
"Advice for Club huts is in many ways much harder. Clubs obviously have a duty of care to their members, and to external groups that use the hut. Decisions should be based on discussion within the club, taking into account the health of all their members and also the design of the hut and any owned surrounding land. These discussions are equally important within clubs and other groups that use huts that belong to other clubs.
"It is possible that some members may choose to camp outside releasing more space inside for family room accommodation. Choices will still have to be made about shared facilities and ways to organize this. Clubs can expect their expenses on cleaning fluids, paper towels and other hygiene products to increase dramatically, and to need to re-stock supplies more frequently. These products do not work if they are not used during and at the end of every visit.
"Ultimately club members must make their own personal decisions which will be based on the limited known science but also their own personal medical history and social attitudes.
"We reiterate that the situation is changing rapidly, and advice and both club and personal decisions may need to be revised accordingly."
Events and courses
Today (Tuesday 17 March) sportscotland's National Outdoor Training Centre Glenmore Lodge announced a temporary closure, from Saturday 21st March until Saturday 13th June. This affects all their courses, onsite facilities and events.
"At the moment, we're closely monitoring the situation, are following government advice and as this is a fast-moving situation" said the BMC on 17 March.
"[I]f we do postpone or cancel events then we'll be in touch via email or text. Our Manchester office is open as normal, so do get in touch if any questions.
"As the BMC is a community organisation, we have taken the decision to support the health of the outdoor and wider community by withdrawing from several events."
Which BMC events are cancelled or postponed due to Coronavirus? See here
We also have this from Mountaineering Scotland:
"In light of Government advice on 16.3.20, Mountaineering Scotland is reviewing all our events and training courses up to the end of April. We will review activities weekly, on a case by case basis, but it is likely that many, if not all, will be cancelled, especially where there is a residential element.
"At the moment bookings remain open for all courses. Any cancellations by us will be notified directly to those who have booked places, and full refunds will be given in these cases.
"We want to emphasise that whilst members follow the government advice on self-isolation and social distancing there is also a recognition that exercising outdoors is an important way to keep fit and healthy. We encourage members to consider any plans carefully and particularly those risks relating to transport and residential accommodation."
For the official advice on Coronavirus from the UK Government, see:
For more COVID-19 info relating to the outdoors, see: