Hiking has been a saving grace for my family of five (six if you count the dog, which we do) during the pandemic. We have always enjoyed getting out in the fresh air, and all of our children were on the trails even as babies, nestled in baby backpacks or front-carrying contraptions. Admittedly, as our kids have gotten a little older, we have become increasingly distracted. Weekly ballet lessons, seasonal basketball, and annual summer camp displaced some of our hiking time together. Enter COVID-19, when time together as a family has been, let’s face it… relentless. We’ve been on more hikes in the last twelve months than perhaps our entire time together as a family. On occasion we ventured farther from home, for example meeting friends on the Appalachian Trail by the Dover Oak last October or to a shockingly busy Hammonasset walk last spring. Overwhelmingly, our time outside has been enjoyed in our own backyard—the ample sites in and around Middletown. (Top right, the author and her family pose for a ‘selfie’ at the Jablonski property in Middletown).
Why take a hike?
Hiking helps us cope with the normal stressors encountered in modern life, all of which are compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health, physical health, and social interaction can all be safely accomplished when hiking.
The Japanese word shinrin-yoku means “forest bathing”—the concept of immersing ourselves in natural habitats. Forest bathing allows you to unplug and quiet your mind. Studies of forest bathing have shown it decreases cortisol (our built-in alarm system), pulse rates, and blood pressure. Researchers have found that spending time in forests leads to an increase in positive feelings and a decrease in negative feelings—who can’t use a bit of that these days?
When we are home bound, working and schooling remotely, exercise can be harder to come by. Some of us are using the time spent not commuting to get fit, while the rest of us are putting on our own “Quarantine 19”—the colloquial term for the weight gain many have experienced during COVID. Hiking can get your body moving and help you remain active throughout the pandemic.
Hiking offers a chance to be social and safe. As a parent, finding ways to allow my kids to interact safely with other kids has been one of the most difficult COVID challenges. Kids need time together, and while we are lucky that technology can allow kids to stay close through video calls, chats, and text messages—connecting with a friend in person cannot be replaced. In honesty, the adults in our family need this just as badly. In addition to family hikes, the adults in our crew have been carving out time for masked-up walk and talks with friends. A walk or hike allows for the conversation and commiseration needed during difficult times.
When to go?
Hiking is an all-season activity. It is essential to check the local weather report and prepare accordingly, but hiking can be fun at any time. We typically aim for midday when the temperatures are cold, morning or late afternoon when it is hot. The most important things to remember are to dress according to conditions, bring water, stay on posted trails, and in tick season to use preventative measures to avoid exposure to Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Carry out what you carry in-- and don’t forget the snacks! Promising snacks at the midway point to our complaining children helps our family make it through most hikes.
Where to go?
We are so fortunate as a community to have dozens of options right in Middletown. The best way to learn about hiking in Middletown is via the Middletown Trail Guide, the brainchild of the city’s Commission on Conservation and Agriculture. The guide can be found on the city of Middletown’s home page or by clicking this link.
The trail guide has something for everyone, including meanders that can be accessed from downtown (The Downtown Walking Loop and River Walking Loop), sites accessible for those with limited mobility (McCutcheon Park, Middletown Nature Gardens), classics (Long Hill Estate and Wadsworth Falls State Park), and sites for intrepid explorers (Spiderweed Preserve, Guida Farm Conservation Area, Tynan Memorial Park, and the Wilcox Conservation Area, to name a few). The Strolls and Vistas section of the guide includes spots that don’t require a trek but allow for enjoying beautiful scenery.
As the weather warms up, grab the guide and enjoy more of Middletown. Quiet your mind, move your body, and spend time with a friend in a safe way.
By Katharine Owens, Member of Middletown's Commission on Conservation and Agriculture, and Professor, Department of Politics, Economics, and International Studies at the University of Hartford
Photos by Katherine Owens. From the top, Walking along the
railroad tracks off the Scoville Loop trail; A tree from the
Hubbard Conservation Area; Large boulders
for climbing at Spiderweed Preserve; Getting outside can help siblings cope with all that pandemic together time.