Is It Safe To Climb Outside When It’s Smoky?

When the air at the crag smells like campfire, experts recommend waiting out the wildfires before you return. Your lungs will thank you.
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Half Dome enshrouded in wildfire smoke in Yosemite National Park, California.

Half Dome enshrouded in wildfire smoke in Yosemite National Park, California.

You’re perched on friction smears with only psychological holds to grab. You’re one move away from the Thank God jug that signifies the end of the scary slab. You take a deep breath to calm yourself—and cough. Then you’re sliding down the wall. But you couldn’t help it. The air is full of smoke. Maybe it’s best to return to your project after wildfire season.

As numerous wildfires burn across the country, mostly in the Western U.S., health experts recommend limiting your exposure outdoors altogether to protect yourself—and your belayer—against the harmful effects of smoke.

How to know whether or not it’s safe to climb outside

If it smells like campfire in your backyard or at the crag, it’s probably not in your best interest to climb. If you can’t see more than a few miles, exercise is not advised. Scott Landes, chief air quality meteorologist at the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, says to pick a landmark five miles away. “If you can’t see that landmark anymore, you know the smoke is at unhealthy levels,” he says.

When your local air quality monitor reports ozone spikes or heavy smoke concentrations, that means it’s unhealthy to breathe the air. You can also check the air quality in your area at the Environmental Protection Agency’s site airnow.gov.

Once the air is clearer and smells less musty, Landes says it’s safer to exercise outdoors. But even when it looks and smells better, pay attention to your senses. Use your eyes. Use your nose.

What does wildfire smoke do to your body?

Should you decide to recreate while it’s smoky, you could experience numerous unpleasant symptoms including, but not limited to, a burning and itchy throat, coughing and shortness of breath, stinging and watery eyes, and headaches. This is what Landes calls the hangover effect and it can last days or weeks, even once the air improves.

There’s a reason for that. Smoky air is made up of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 for short. Think of a hair for scale. A hair is 30 times thicker than a particulate of PM2.5, Landes says. “The real issue is you inhale it, but you can’t exhale it,” he says. “It gets into your respiratory system and eventually it will get into your bloodstream.”

The fine particles can penetrate your lungs even when you’re breathing normally outside. But it’s exponentially worse when you’re exercising because you breathe 10 to 20 times more air than when you’re resting, according to the 2019 Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials. You also tend to breathe through your mouth, bypassing your nose’s natural filtering ability, the report says.

This is a risk for people with and without smoke sensitivities, respiratory ailments, and heart issues. For those itching to get outside, Landes says, “You just have to be a bit patient.”

Ways to mitigate smoke

The masks you’re using to prevent the spread of COVID-19 won’t protect you from wildfire smoke, unless you have an N-95 respirator.

The best way to avoid smoke is by staying inside. Even then, you’re not fully removed. PM2.5 can seep into your house through cracks around windows and doors. Landes recommends investing in a portable air purifier with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. He says to designate one room as the “clean room” and escape there when the smoke is at its worst.

“The Western U.S. is under a long-term drought, and we worry about climate change,” Landes says. “This is not a problem that’s going to go away. We really need to be prepared for future events; get yourself smoke-ready.”

If you’re eager to climb when the smoke is bad: Put an air filter in the same room as your hangboard or home wall and wait for the air to clear.