Coronavirus and the outdoors – an apology, and a way forward

Last weekend, I published a blog post that exploded in popularity and took on a life of its own. In it I encouraged the outdoor community to change its messaging on the coronavirus pandemic, to start urging people not to travel to the mountains in order to prevent the spread of the disease to vulnerable rural communities that might buckle under the pressure.

It was written with the very best of intentions, but I didn’t think about it enough before publishing and I failed to take the law of unintended consequences into account. Ever since the weekend I’ve been plagued by doubt and guilt.

This message seemed urgently needed at the time, but I’ve been horrified by how the tone of online discourse changed, and all in the space of about 24 hours. Hikers, cyclists and other outdoor lovers have been viciously condemned and trolled. For a while, anyone daring to post a mountain photo on social media was jumped upon and torn apart. This ‘coronavirus-shaming’, needless to say, went far beyond my recommendation to ‘please add something encouraging people not to travel to these places right now’ when sharing photos of mountains or wild places (although with hindsight I’m starting to wonder if even that was a good message to spread, as it has a ring of moralising about it rather than the earnest wish to help save lives that motivated me).

Did my blog post play a part in this rapid change of attitude? Probably. I never intended to help stir up a frenzied mob, but that’s what happened, and I should have thought a bit more carefully before posting – should have considered how to temper the message to make it absolutely clear that the fault lies with the government here for their vague and inconsistent advice, not the people who were understandably taking advantage of their last glimpse of freedom by heading to the hills.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have published it at all.

As I mentioned several times during the Twitter conversation that followed, if I’d had a car I would probably have headed to the hills myself. People aren’t to blame for interpreting vague government advice in widely varying ways. People certainly aren’t to blame for feeling a desperate need for solitude and open spaces on a weekend of glorious weather. We all knew that lockdown was imminent. From my original post:

There isn’t anything morally wrong with jumping in your car, travelling half an hour on quiet roads to a hill you know well, and enjoying some summit sunshine. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a solitary wild camp far from anyone else.

I fear that this message got lost in the tl;dr, which was my plea for the outdoor community to stop spreading the message that the hills were open. Unfortunately, and with more irony than I can stomach at the moment, I feel that the nuances of my own message (whatever the right or wrong of it) were lost in the Twitter-friendly headline. Maybe that’s the nature of the medium, but it’s something I should have anticipated and tried to work with.

I’m not even sure if the core message was needed. This is something I remain conflicted about. As I say, it felt urgent and necessary at the time, but things change on an hourly basis now. In addition to some justified criticism, I should mention that I’ve had a huge amount of support. After posting about my doubts on another social network, here’s a message I received from an outdoor instructor I respect a great deal (redacted to preserve anonymity):

I saw that you are regretting your piece on social isolation and the outdoors. Please don’t! It was an excellent measured bit of writing that helped provide clarity for me and hundreds of others. I’m really glad you wrote it. For me it appeared in the context of widespread anger in my community at visitors coming to [a Scottish island]. The vitriol and “othering” of tourists did not come from you, but from the fear that aging remote communities are feeling right now. Our local FB pages have been ugly, but these feelings have grown up independently of anything you wrote. Your piece gave direction to those of us that were wondering how to respond in a world where nobody wants what we do.

I needed to read that, but I’m still filled with doubts. Of course, the rapid change of tone against people enjoying the outdoors was a macro trend that emerged from many factors, and it certainly wasn’t all (or even mostly) my doing. I accept my share of the blame, though, and I still can’t decide whether my message had a net positive or negative effect. Maybe it was irrelevant and I’ve been torturing myself for nothing.

These are complex times, and we’re all flying blind into a scary future, trying to make difficult choices, sometimes making the wrong ones even if we think we’re doing the right thing. My emotions about the future – and about the future of my own career – have been up and down and all over the place.

The lesson for me here is that writing is powerful, as if I didn’t already know that, and that writers have a duty to be careful and thorough. Words written in haste can grow into rampaging dragons. This certainly isn’t the first mistake I’ve made with my words, and I doubt it’ll be my last, especially during the current tribulations.

A way forward

The subject of my post from 21 March hasn’t been rendered completely irrelevant by the fast flow of subsequent events. We are under lockdown, but current government guidelines stipulate that we are entitled to one form of outdoor exercise per day.

The definition of this is loose. Does it mean running a marathon, or a short walk no more than thirty minutes? Do you have to walk from your doorstep or can you take a short drive there? If driving is ok, how far is too far? The very term ‘social distancing’ is extremely vague. Even now, these questions remain. We are now starting to see developments such as the police using drones to coronavirus-shame walkers on the Peak District. There is a message that the public is to blame, perhaps to divert blame or attention from elsewhere. While I think that we should support the government where possible in trying to do a very difficult job, governments should never be beyond scrutiny.

Last weekend, in the absence of clear and simple guidance from on high, and with confused messages coming from everywhere else, I’m not surprised that thousands of people thought it would be perfectly fine to drive to the Peak District or the Lakes to enjoy a mountain walk. And it’s perhaps no wonder that frightened people in these rural villages reacted as they did, metaphorically barring the gates against the beast outside. We can all agree that, as I’ve repeatedly stated, there is nothing morally wrong with going for a quiet walk in the countryside by yourself. Exercise is vital for physical and mental health, after all.

Mountain Rescue have issued a joint statement advising against climbing or hillwalking, and asking walkers to stay local, but even this is open to some interpretation. Where is the line between low-level walking and hillwalking? Of course, this is about minimising the pressure on rescue services, both on the hill and on the road to the hill. Risk can never be completely eliminated but I think asking people not to venture onto consequential mountain terrain, at least during the lockdown, is the right call.

The real question is what happens when lockdown restrictions begin to be eased. There will not be an immediate transition back to the world we had before. It will be a gradual process, and even then the world will be permanently changed in countless ways.

Here are just a few of the questions about coronavirus and the outdoors that will need to be answered eventually:

  • When lockdown rules are eased, will people be allowed to drive for their exercise?
  • What kind of outdoor recreation is acceptable?
  • If the message is still that hillwalking is not ok, when will it be ok?
  • How will ‘social distancing’ be put into practice at popular mountain areas such as Snowdon and Scafell Pike?
  • At what point do we decide that the full spectrum of risk we’re used to taking on in the outdoors is acceptable once again? Will it ever be acceptable again?
  • What will be the long-term implications for access and our outdoors culture?

Right now, what we can do is try to change this new and unsettling culture of coronavirus-shaming. Having acknowledged the part I played in bringing it into being, at least in an outdoors context, I want to help to break it up. We all know that staying inside is needed now, but we also know that exercise in the outdoors is both necessary and allowed, despite all the question marks. Some people are lucky enough to have hills on their doorsteps. An online culture where nobody feels safe posting a photo of a mountain is not an online culture worth having, in my view.

Do I still believe that those mountain photos might encourage people to flout lockdown rules and spread the virus in small rural communities, as I worried in my original post? I honestly don’t know. It might, but now I’m more worried about the long-term damage. And we will need the hope embodied in those pictures from Before.

So let’s celebrate photos and stories from the mountains. Tag them with #StayInside if you must, but I feel that this message has already reached everyone we can reach, whether or not it was or is needed. Don’t participate in coronavirus-shaming online. Be kind to each other, be forgiving, be willing to change and grow, remember that digital avatars have human beings behind them who err and dream and suffer, and don’t stop thinking about the world we want to create once this is all over. We aren’t each other’s enemies here.

I’d also like to highlight this great initiative from Lincolnshire-based outdoor brand Valley and Peak, who are running a garden camping fundraiser. They’re encouraging outdoor lovers to ‘wild’ camp in their garden, share a photo, and donate the equivalent to a night’s campsite fees to a charity (they will add a £2 donation for each photo tweeted).

4 Comments

Alex, I feel that this post is very thoughtful and balanced as was the earlier one. Its a fast moving situation and difficult to keep up with. I work for a conservation organisation and it feels that whatever advice you give the situation can change an hour later. While I’m lucky to live in a rural area near the hills many people are not. Our cities (England in particular) are not that well blessed with open space and for years now a planning policy of urban concentration has ensured that many spaces have been lost. Couple that with Council’s depleted budgets and the provision where the majority of people live does not look good. This was already an issue of concern last year. While we all must stick as best we can to the restrictions people should also spare a thought to others who are stuck in flats without gardens with no easy access to any open space. This must be looked at once this is all over.

Health workers are risking their lives. The least we can do is refrain from hill walking. The hills will be there next year. Sadly many people will not.

Non – essential travel is exactly that, non – essential. The message is clear – physical exercise should start from home.

Well said Alex. In these troubling times, it is so distressful seeing common sense being thrown out of the window. I was aghast at peoples behaviors last weekend when they flocked to the countryside on something regarding a holiday jaunt.
I have been equally aghast at the public reaction to the backlash – people who feel the need to show off their virtue on social media by slamming someone who dares to post a picture.
The Government instructions are reasonable, just badly defined. We all need to self isolate and get through this together – but can we please do so with out the hysteria? We are going to be in the situation for a long while. Can we not celebrate that the public have largely followed the advice and traffic has been drastically reduced?

Also – regarding the drones – are you allowed to fly drones over the Peak District? Given that you need to be in line of sight of a drone at all times – surly it easier to monitor the car parks by simply driving past?

Stop beating yourself up, Alex! This is the time for open, thoughtful, calm and grown-up debate. The line between do and don’t, right and wrong, stay or go, has never been more blurred and problematic. One day I was tweeting from the Peak District National Park that we were open for business, subject to sensible precautions, then less than a week later the message was ‘stay away’. With a foot in several camps, I can say that the feeling among my small PD community is the same as everyone else’s – fear and anxiety. But then it gets more complicated as underlying and unwelcome anti-visitor sentiment from a minority starts to bubble to the surface. Two thoughts to leave you with: once the restrictions are relaxed, rural businesses will need all our support – from pubs and publishers to guides and local gear shops. And, longer term, places like national parks will be crucial in restoring the health of the nation and spearheading a more enlightened, forward-thinking approach across society that puts the environment and sustainability centre-stage. I’ll be writing about this soon, as the post-coronavirus landscape will be different for all of us, and we must start shaping it now.

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