With virtually the entire population forced to stay at home in the past two months, thousands have sought recreation and peace of mind by utilizing the many trailheads in western Montana.

Two UM researchers worked together with Missoula Parks and Recreation to chronicle the ways people are using the outdoor spaces in order to help officials manage recreation changes.

Parks and Tourism Recreation Management Program associate Professor Jennifer Thomsen and her colleagues asked specific questions in an online survey.

“Are people changing their behaviors in relation to recreating in these places, and are they also considering and abiding by the recommended behaviors as far as social distancing and other ways to maintain safe conditions when out in the public spaces,” said Thomsen.

Thomsen listed some of the other questions asked to those responding to the survey.

“We asked questions like are you recreating more or less with people you know?” she said. “With that over 65 percent of people said they were spending less time recreating with people they know, so people are using the spaces but not always with others or really becoming conscious of that.”

Thomsen said the respondents explained the reasons why they sought the nature trails on western Montana during the COVID shutdown.

“A lot of the motivation for using these places was around experiencing solitude, resting mentally, being close to nature and relaxing,” she said. “A lot of that related back to the coping mechanism when you’re dealing with a very anxious and high anxiety time period.”

Thomsen found that social distancing many times went by the wayside for the respondents, even though they believed they were maintaining the correct distancing.

“98 percent of the respondents said they were social distancing,” she said. “This is interesting, because when you actually talk with managers and people who are working in these capacities and on the trails, they tend to find that people aren’t really social distancing, or what they think is social distancing is not really in line with those behaviors.”

These surprising survey responses have helped Missoula Parks and Recreation to clarify their messaging to those using the trails and outdoor spaces to help encourage proper social distancing.