When the Connecticut Trail Census began in 2017, it relied on a group of electronic sentinels. They were tiny boxes, housing infrared counters, which logged trail visits across the state. The intent was to provide local and state officials a clearer picture about how trails were being used and could be improved.
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But during the COVID-19 pandemic, those infrared workhorses have continued to steadily tick away, and they are providing a quantifiable glimpse into something many outdoor enthusiasts have observed anecdotally: A lot more people appear to be recreating outside. .
“In the month of March, we saw an increase of 100 to 150 percent. Sometimes a 170 percent increase on the trails that we were tracking,” said Charles Tracy, coordinator for the Connecticut Trail Census, based out of UConn Extension. “In April and May it slowed down a little bit, but still about 50 percent more than we saw last year.”
Tracy’s team has trail counters on more than a dozen of the major multiuse trails around Connecticut. These are shared trails that can be used for walking or biking.
“We download the data quarterly, although these days we’re downloading it monthly to really look at the impacts of COVID-19 on trail use,” Tracy said.
Data from the latest report show the biggest user jumps at the Hop River Trail in Bolton, Norwalk River Valley Trail in Wilton, the Air Line Trail in East Hampton and the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail in Hamden.
Tracy said “it’s no surprise” that the data show weekend afternoons are the busiest times.
“If you can stay outside those times, you're much more likely to have an easier time doing social distancing,” Tracy said.
And while Tracy’s analysis doesn’t yet consider if possible changes in use could be due to other factors such as weather, he said his team continues to observe other trail use fluctuations, which appear to be rooted in behavior changes brought about by COVID-19.
“Some of our trails … have a higher commuter use,” Tracy said. “During the pandemic, those didn’t have as large an increase … people weren’t using them as much to go to work.”
“The most commuter-oriented trail of all participating trails, the CTfastrak in New Britain, was down (-23%) in April, but almost even in May (+1%), which may reflect changes in work patterns from the phased re-openings,” the report’s authors write.
But the Connecticut Trail Census is just one glimpse into a boost in outdoor recreation.
Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said there’s been a large visitor spike at many of the more than 140 state parks and forests her agency operates. The DEEP is also responsible for over 2,000 miles of trails and has funded some of the Connecticut Trail Census’ work.
“Since the spring, we’ve seen a really dramatic increase in the amount of visitors to many of our state parks, particularly on our trails,” Dykes said.
In response, the DEEP enacted parking restrictions at some state-owned land in an effort to limit visitors and maintain social distancing.
“It’s mostly something that we’ve used at shoreline parks, which tend to be really popular, especially on those hot weather days,” Dykes said. “If you come to a park and it’s closed, it will reopen the following day.”
Dykes said if a park is closed, visitors should not park outside and then try to walk in, which she said “compromises our ability to maintain those visitor levels.”
The DEEP is maintaining a list of temporary park closures online.
Dykes said getting outside on a trail is “one of the safest things you can do to get some exercise,” but she noted visitors still need to be prepared for situations when keeping 6 feet of social distance might be difficult: like encounters in a parking lot or at a restroom.
“Bring some water with you. Bring some bug repellent. And bring your mask,” Dykes said.
“It’s the new piece of gear that we want everyone to continue bringing with them when they’re out on a hike.”