Marin wilderness emergencies spike as pandemic boosts outdoors recreation

A hiker walks on the edge of a cliff in the Marin Headlands Sunday, Jan.

On Marin’s trails, beaches and lookouts, almost every Saturday during the coronavirus pandemic has looked like a holiday weekend.

Parking lots overflowing with cars, hills teeming with hikers and shores checkered with sunbathers have been regular sights around the county.

Weekdays have changed too, with crowds looking more like they do on weekends during a normal year, said Don Wick, chief ranger for the Marin Municipal Water District.

“People want to get outside,” Wick said.

The influx of visitors at Marin’s parks and open spaces has resulted in a jump in emergency service calls. In some cases, that’s put a strain on emergency response crews.

The water district’s rangers have responded to more medical emergencies during each month of the pandemic than in any month before it, Wick said.

He attributes the pattern in part to the increase in overall visitors to the district’s 150 miles of trails. But it’s also the result of more inexperienced hikers taking to the outdoors, he said.

Since the outset of the pandemic, health officials have urged people to avoid indoor gatherings. Outdoor recreation has been widely promoted as a safer alternative because the risk of coronavirus transmission is lower outside.

“Being outside and recreating in nature was seen as a good, safe, health activity to do during COVID,” said Michael St. John, team leader of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Unit.

While the rescue unit hasn’t seen a major jump in calls for missing hikers, it has taken on more trail rescues for medical emergencies and injuries than usual.

Many Marin trail users have streamed into the county from elsewhere in the Bay Area during the pandemic, St. John said.

“When people were no longer able to go travel long distances, they started looking into their backyards and their adjacent counties’ backyards,” he said. “Particularly when it’s hot, people gravitate to Marin because we’re near the coast. And it’s beautiful here.”

The Marin County Fire Department, which also responds to medical calls in Marin’s open spaces, has been extra busy during the pandemic, said Bret McTigue, a department battalion chief.

“It’s often drawing down our ambulances to the point where we only have one available,” McTigue said. “Normally, even at the peak of summer, we should have a minimum of three ambulances available.”

McTigue said the pandemic economy has been another driver of the increase in outdoor recreation in Marin. With higher unemployment rates, there are more people without jobs who have had extra time to go hiking or visit beaches. At the same time, McTigue has seen people working remotely during the pandemic using the outdoors as their offices, with laptops flipped open on beaches and at trailheads. Others have taken advantage of more flexible work schedules to go hiking during lunch breaks, he said.

“Any day we had good weather we had an increase in call volumes,” McTigue said. “Normally, weekends are our busy time. But this past year we were busy all day every day.”