As we move into mid-November, autumn is winding down. Shorter days are already here, Thanksgiving is fast approaching and winter is not far behind. For many Mainers, this upcoming winter will present unique challenges brought on by the pandemic, as restrictions on indoor gatherings will limit our opportunities to socialize and connect with friends and family outside our homes.

While this tough reality is difficult to accept, we are also lucky to live in a state that has so many year-round outdoor resources. The winter months are often associated with time spent huddling indoors – but this year more than ever, our statewide trail system will offer Mainers a respite from the indoor monotony by providing a safe outlet to stay active and maintain their physical and mental health.

From Kittery to Fort Kent, and Calais to Carrabassett Valley, Maine’s trail system weaves thousands of miles across the state, providing plenty of opportunities to explore. Activities like hiking, walking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing all lend themselves to social distancing easily, and gathering in outdoor spaces lowers the risk of COVID-19 transmission, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The physical health benefits of spending time outdoors are well documented. Even when it is cold outside, outdoor exercise like the activities mentioned above can naturally lower your blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Time in the winter sun can be an important source of Vitamin D, which has been shown to maintain strong bones and reduce the risks of various types of cancer. Spending time outdoors – even in winter –  also has been shown to boost immune system activity.

There are also numerous mental health benefits. A study several years ago by the National Institutes of Health found that the simple act of walking increased creativity in 81 percent of participants. Spending time outdoors can be a catalyst for better sleep, boosted energy and improved short-term memory. According to the American Institute of Stress, it can also reduce stress and anxiety, something that countless Mainers – and people across the country – have experienced during the pandemic as a result of lockdowns and other public health actions. In a year when we have not been able to gather with family and friends like we used to, our trail system has the ability to bring us together safely.

To help make that happen, the Maine Trails Coalition is currently working to maintain and create regional trails across the state. The organization is comprised of trail users, supporters and advocates dedicated to raising awareness about the range of benefits that regional trails provide – like making us healthier, supporting our local economies, improving public safety and helping the environment and our climate.

Among the coalition’s major initiatives is the Maine Rail-Trail plan, which would maintain unused railroad tracks in Maine’s inter-urban train corridor by creating a biking, walking and running rail-trail system. The plan envisions 13 individual projects throughout Maine over the next decade, and at least five additional projects over the following one. Each would utilize and expand upon existing multi-use trail infrastructure and collectively, the 18 projects would connect Maine communities through roughly 250 miles of inter-connected off-road trails.

The need for more trail maintenance and creation in Maine has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 as more people are seeking safe and socially distanced recreation opportunities outdoors. According to a poll commissioned last year by the Maine Trails Coalition, more than 60 percent of Mainers over the age of 18 had used trails in the state in the previous year – and half of those did so more than 10 times. Documented trail use has also risen in 2020, and trails will continue to serve as an essential resource for Mainers this winter.

So, on this National Take a Hike Day, make a plan to get outdoors and explore Maine trails safely and responsibly in these upcoming months. Take advantage of all they have to offer, not only for their physical and mental health benefits, but also for their ability to connect us with the outdoors and with each other.

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