If you postponed a hiking trip in 2020, you’re not alone: According to a survey by research firm Longwoods International, nearly half of Americans say they’re putting off travel until they can get a Covid vaccine. And while older and immunocompromised people, as well as medical workers and first responders, may get the jab sooner, many of us may end up waiting until summer to travel again. The good news: You don’t need to spend the next few months binging Netflix. Instead, get out of the house and explore locally with one of these eight missions.
See a Meteor Shower
We can’t promise you a flying saucer, but seeing an extraterrestrial visitor isn’t as hard as you might think. Every year, between 18,000 and 84,000 meteorites larger than 10 grams hit the earth, with many more burning up in the atmosphere in spectacular flashes of light. While you can catch a meteor any day, your best bet is to head somewhere dark and clear during a period of increased activity. This year’s Northern Hemisphere highlights include the Perseids, peaking on August 12, and the Gemenids, peaking on December 14.
Have a ‘Big Year’
More than 900 species of birds call North America home, and no matter where you live, you can spot at least 300 and change in your state. Get to know your feathered neighbors with what birders call a ‘big year’: Spend 2021 seeing as many different wild bird species as you can. You’ll need a pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens, a notebook, and a keen ear for bird calls. Beginner tip: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology makes ID’ing your new feathered friends a lot simpler with its Merlin app. You put in color, size, location, and behavior, and it spits out a few possible species that fit the, ahem, bill.
Redline Your State or County
With borders closed and flights canceled, you’ve hiked every trail near your house. Or have you? “Redlining” your home county or state—that is, hiking every single trail within its borders—will clue you in to hidden treasures near you in a way that no website or guidebook can. Do it the old-school way: Pull paper maps for your local national forests, recreation areas, and parks and check the trails off one by one (the US Forest Service has maps of lands it administers available online, as does the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management; contact your state or local agencies for areas they manage.) There’s no prize waiting for you at the end, unless you count local hero status, but the trail time you score might just be its own reward.
Highpointers are a special breed, mixing the obsessive checklist-ticking of a collector with the physical determination necessary to get up some of the biggest mountains around. Join their ranks by ticking your nearby summits of note. The easiest targets are state highpoints, ranging from life-list summits like Denali in Alaska (20,310 feet above sea level) to barely-there bumps like Florida’s Britton Hill (345 feet). But there are plenty of other lists to tick. Staying close to home? Consider hiking nearby county high points. Looking for an adventure? National parks and national forests have high points too. Find both on the (frankly chaotic) County Highpointer’s Association site.
Forage a Meal
Get to know your local flora in a new way by prepping your dinner entirely without the help of a grocery store (or Grubhub). Grab two or three guidebooks to cross-check your plant IDs before starting out, making sure you know how to avoid any local poisonous species and are up to speed on local rules, then head for the hills. Weeds and invasive plants are both the best choice to harvest and the easiest to find--they grow almost anywhere, they grow quickly, and taking a few for your dinner does more good than harm for the environment. Find more tips and tricks for a wild meal with Backpacker's guide to foraging, or take a class to brush up on your plant ID.
Set an FKT
You don’t need to be a long trail legend to set a record and test your physical limits. Start by going for a personal best on your favorite local trail or summit. Feeling competitive? Explore fastestknowntime.org for an inventory and map of speed records around the world. If you don’t see trails in your area, you can submit any route that’s prominent, historic, or just plain beautiful. According to the site’s guidelines, a trail must be “notable and distinct enough so that others will be interested in repeating it” in order to warrant an FKT. To make it official, pick a well-known trail that’s at least 5 miles long or requires 500 or more feet of climbing. Set your goal, train up, and don’t forget to record a GPX track of your attempt. Official FKT not in your future? You can still challenge yourself and your friends by recording your hikes and runs on endurance apps like Strava.
Help Build a Trail
Bored with hiking the same local trails over and over? Help make the ones near you better—or even build some new ones—by working on a trail maintenance crew. You don’t need any experience or tools of your own for most trail days, just basic physical fitness (you’ll be moving rocks and logs and swinging a mattock or hoe) and a willingness to work hard. Look for volunteer opportunities through the National Park Service, American Hiking Society, or your local mountain club or trail conservancy. You’ll get to be outside all the while giving back to the trails and hiking community in your area. (Just don’t forget to mask up and follow social distancing rules while you’re out there.)
If you can backpack, you can do anything. For real. You have good gear, and you’re self reliant. You can navigate, fuel yourself well, deal with weather swings, tie essential knots, handle first aid issues, stay dry and comfortable...you get the idea. You also live for big treks and bigger Make this a year to branch out: Explore the alpine on a snowy summit like Mt. Hood or Mt. Rainier (roped backpacking on moderate-angled snow), kit out your bike for bikepacking (backpacking on a bike), add a pack raft to your kit and do a river trip or multi-sport route (backpacking in a boat). Or simply add an activity to a traditional trip. Pack a fly rod, and you can get to know nearby rivers and lakes in a new way (and perhaps catch dinner). Backpacking is the bedrock of an outdoor life—build on it.