Don’t Forget the Masks: A COVID-Safer Road Trip

My partner and I wanted to see some of America’s greatest national parks, but we knew we’d have to factor COVID-19 into our travel plans. Here’s how we did it.

Sam Johnston
Mountains in a National park

December 2022: Whenever you test yourself for COVID at home - whether you’re positive or negative - you should report your result. The results are kept private and anonymous. Every test that gets reported helps public health teams better understand where outbreaks are happening, so they can get help to people who need it.

September 2022: This post has been updated to reflect changes to CDC guidelines.

My partner and I have always wanted to take a road trip to explore the American Southwest. So this past year, we flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and took off to visit the “Mighty Five” National Parks — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. We’re both up to date on our vaccines and fairly cautious about COVID-19 — but we also wanted to have a fun trip. Here’s how we prepared.

Check the COVID-19 risk where you’re going.

Before we left, we used the CDC’s COVID-19 County Check widget to check the COVID-19 Community Levels where we were going. Fortunately, we found that the COVID-19 risk in the places we were going was low. In fact, the COVID-19 levels in Arizona and Utah were actually lower than in Massachusetts, where we live. That research gave us some comfort that we weren’t traveling to a place where we were at high risk of being exposed.

Bring your anti-COVID gear.

We packed our bags with all of our hiking clothes, snacks, toiletries, ibuprofen, and other items that we always need on a big hiking trip. But this time, we included a few other items, too: plenty of KN95 masks, a few COVID-19 home test kits, and hand sanitizer.

Be cautious indoors.

We tried to limit ourselves to outdoor activities as much as possible, such as eating dinner outside, shopping in outdoor markets, and most importantly, spending the days hiking in our country’s spectacular national parks. But sometimes we had to go indoors: to check in at hotels, use the restroom, or buy supplies at local stores. That’s when we put on our KN95 masks since we knew that COVID-19 can linger in poorly ventilated indoor air. The only time we’d take our masks off indoors was for the buffet breakfasts at some of our hotels. In these instances, we’d wear the masks while loading our plates, and then find an isolated spot in the dining room to scarf it down.

Be prepared for illness — just in case.

Even if you’re very cautious, there’s a chance you may be exposed and infected. My partner and I decided that if either of us got sick, we’d drive back to Las Vegas, where good medical care was available should one of us need it. We also decided that we’d find an Airbnb to recover in, so we didn’t unintentionally expose other guests.

You can also purchase travel insurance that covers COVID-related problems, but be sure to check the fine print!

Make reservations and check for new rules.

A lot has changed since March 2020, even out on the open road. We found that some of the attractions we wanted to visit had reservation requirements that were more strict than they’d been in the past, plus some new COVID-based rules. For instance, theAntelope Canyon tour in Page, Arizona, required that we purchase tickets well in advance, and at the time, we had to wear our masks even while hiking through the canyon.

Moreover, we found that we weren’t the only Americans with the idea to go on a road trip — the parks and surrounding towns were packed. Fortunately, my partner had the foresight to make reservations for all our lodging, so we weren’t caught searching for a place to sleep at the last minute. We also made sure that we got into the national parks early in the morning so that we could get a parking spot. When we visited, Arches National Park was full by 9AM.

The CDC recommends that everyone traveling within the US consider getting tested no more than three days before they travel. The closer the test is to the time you leave, the better. In addition, anyone who spends time without a good mask in crowded places — especially indoors — should get tested when they come home from a trip.

Have fun!

In my opinion, hitting the road is perhaps one of the most quintessential American experiences. And even with COVID-19 around, it can be done safely with a little caution and planning.