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This Utah author talks tips for staying safe outside during COVID-19

Jason Stevenson is a former editor at Backpacker and Outside magazines and the author of ‘Outdoor Adventure Guides: Backpacking & Hiking’

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Jason Stevenson goes backpacking with his sons, Calvin, 9, and Mitchell, 4. Stevenson is the author of “Outdoor Adventure Guides: Backpacking & Hiking.”

Jason Stevenson

SALT LAKE CITY — When Jason Stevenson turned in the final chapters of his book in November 2019, he couldn’t have foreseen the ways the world would change by the time it was published in June 2020.

But with more peopletrying to get outside this summer in order to social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stevenson believes his new how-to book — “Outdoor Adventure Guides: Backpacking & Hiking” — will be helpful for both experienced adventurers as well as beginners who are trying out hiking or camping for the first time.

“When I go up to the trails these days, I definitely see a lot more people than I’ve been used to seeing,” Stevenson, who lives in Salt Lake City and is a former staff editor at Backpacker and Outside magazines, told the Deseret News in an interview.

Stevenson has been an avid outdoorsman since he was a child, and now he enjoys taking his young sons on backpacking trips (he and his family were packing for a trip to the Uinta Mountains on the day he spoke with the Deseret News). From his perspective, getting outside has not only become more popular for Utahns during the pandemic but also more necessary.

“It’s become an escape for self-quarantine and for people who are trying to, you know, do the right thing and not interact as much as they used to,” Stevenson said. “Heading to Utah’s front range and deeper mountains and trails and lakes is very healthy both mentally and physically.”

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“Outdoor Adventure Guides: Backpacking & Hiking” is a new how-to book of outdoor recreation from Salt Lake City author Jason Stevenson.

Jason Stevenson

Stevenson talked to the Deseret News about his new book and shared some of his tips for everything from beginner backpacking to hiking with small children as well as ways to stay safe outside during the coronavirus pandemic.

Staying safe outdoors during a pandemic

Many people are trying to get outdoors this summer. And that’s a good thing, according to Stevenson.

“It is actually recommended to go outside,” Stevenson pointed out. “If you look at the CDC recommendations for outdoor recreation, they say, ‘Yes, this is really good for your mental health, for your physical health.’”

But there are ways to reap those health benefits while still keeping yourself and others safe from COVID-19.

To avoid crowds, Stevenson advises being careful in deciding both when and where to travel. For example, weekends are often the busiest time for hiking trails and campgrounds. Stevenson suggests instead to book a campsite on a Sunday night, or to go hiking on a weekday evening after work.

“Just shifting a day or two from the weekend can really open up even popular areas for outdoor recreation,” Stevenson said.

When choosing where to travel this summer, Stevenson has one simple suggestion: avoid national parks.

National parks this year are “limiting the number of people or cars, and they are going to be more crowded than other recreation areas,” he said.

Instead of a national park, Stevenson suggests visiting a national forest or a state park, which will likely be less crowded.

Stevenson’s final suggestion is simple but effective: good hygiene. Bringing along hand sanitizer — and using it frequently — and stepping off the hiking trail to allow people to pass at a safe distance are two easy ways to keep both yourself and those around you safe from COVID-19.

Hiking with kids

For those who are trying to get the whole family outdoors this summer, Stevenson has some tips hiking and backpacking with young children.

Stevenson frequently takes his two older sons — Calvin, 9, and Mitchell, 4 — on backpacking trips, noting that he’s learned through “trial and error” what works to make the trips enjoyable for the whole family.

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Author Jason Stevenson’s wife, Jackie Rohrer, hikes through the Narrows at Zion National Park.

Jason Stevenson

Though very small children can be held in a child carrier, a hike with older toddlers often “becomes a very slow nature walk,” Stevenson observed. Once children turn about 4 or 5 is when Stevenson says they can bring along their school backpacks and help to carry gear.

Stevenson talks about the “encouragement factor” to help keep children engaged and interested. Getting children gear of their own, like a headlamp or a hydration bladder, can get them excited — though he advises against buying them special hiking clothes or shoes, since children grow quickly. Instead, get “a good durable item that you can invest in and allow them to keep,” Stevenson said.

Another way to keep kids interested is to ask them to carry at least one piece of group gear in their backpack.

“The one item that I always find the kids are excited about is anything to do with fire,” said Stevenson. “So like a fire starter or a stove kit or something, or anything to do with water, like a water filter for backpacking. So I have my kids carry those types of group gear, and it’s usually light enough that it’s OK to put into their little school backpacks.”

Food is another good motivator for kids. Stevenson suggests letting children pick what goes into their trail mix bag, since trail mix usually includes kid-friendly items like M&Ms and dried fruit and can be a way to get kids excited.

“My 4-year-old has to constantly eat so I’m always having food for him — a trail bar or trail mix ready,” Stevenson said. “I realized that if I see him slowing down, all I’ve got to do is fuel him back up” to keep him going.

The outdoors for any skill level

One of the purposes for Stevenson in writing his book was to help readers reach new goals or activity levels.

“It’s designed for many levels of hiking,” Stevenson explained. “From beginners all the way to people who want to transition from car camping to backpacking, and then people who want to go from backpacking to what I would just call light mountaineering.”

“It gives people the tools and advice about how to make that step,” he said.

Beginners who want to start getting outdoors should start small, like with a day hike, Stevenson suggests. He also says it’s a good idea to go on a first backpacking or camping trip with friends or a group that are more experienced, because they can share tips and advice or even loan out extra gear.

For those who don’t yet have experience with hiking or camping, it’s never too late to start.

“What I think is interesting about hiking and backpacking and being outside is that you can enter it at different phases in your life,” Stevenson said. “You can really rediscover the outdoors at any point in your life. You don’t have to say that you can’t do it anymore, because there’s always a way.”