Mud Season Hiking: How to Stay Safe

As the weather begins to warm up, many hikers find it hard to resist the allure of the trail. But for those who want to get an early start on their hiking activities this year, it’s important to consider the outdoor safety concerns and environmental impact of hiking during mud season.
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Mud season is the time in late winter and early spring when melting snow and rain saturate the ground, creating massive amounts of mud. It’s common in areas where the ground freezes in the winter. As the weather improves and the surface soil thaws, the ground turns to mud. If you’re planning on doing some hiking during mud season this year, here are some things you should keep in mind:

Trail safety

Mud season can dramatically alter a hiking trail. Even if you are familiar with a trail in the summer, that trail during mud season may throw you for a loop:

  • Trails that appear dry at the trailhead can become increasingly muddy as you climb.
  • Streams will be swollen with runoff, muddy trails will be slippery, and at higher elevations snow and ice can stick around well into late spring.
  • Rockfalls are a hazard, caused by rocks that have become loose and unstable from water spilling into crevices and freezing, then thawing.

During this time of year, it’s best to stay on trails you know to be relatively flat. Lower-elevation areas are usually good choices, as are hardwood forest areas. Designated recreation paths in parks and forests are also great options for those wishing to get out of the house during mud season—these are usually well-maintained and rarely have the more dangerous pitfalls associated with mud season hiking.

While hiking, proceed carefully no matter what trail you choose. Exercise extra caution while climbing over rock scrambles, and avoid stopping beneath steep rock walls or on outcroppings. Should you come across a particularly muddy trail, ask yourself a few questions:

  • How steep will this trail get, and will it be unsafe to climb such a steep, slippery path?
  • Are there drop-offs or rises near the trail that could pose a threat of mudslides?
  • Is the mud going to slow down the hiking party so much that you might not make it to your destination in a reasonable amount of time?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you should probably choose a different path.

Environmental impact

Another important thing to keep in mind while hiking during mud season is soil erosion and the protection of native vegetation. Soil is particularly vulnerable to erosion during mud season, and too much traffic on certain trails can cause irreversible damage.

If you come across a spot on the trail that is too muddy to walk through, turn back. Going around the mud and trampling vegetation is a big no-no.

Also, the more traffic a muddy trail sees during early spring, the more maintenance will be required to keep that trail safe during the rest of the year. Some parks departments will spread wood mulch on popular trails in order to make them safer for hikers. Areas heavily populated with pine trees offer a natural mud deterrent, too; pine needles mix nicely with mud to produce nice walking beds.

Necessary gear

  • Like hiking during the late spring and summer, mud season requires you bring some essential gear, including:
  • Sturdy, comfortable hiking boots and thick socks. If you’re planning to hike at higher elevations, consider bringing trekking poles and traction devices such as crampons to get you past the slippery parts.
  • Long pants or jeans to protect your legs and provide warmth should the weather get ugly.
  • A waterproof jacket or poncho in case it rains.
  • Plenty of food and water.
  • Emergency supplies such as bandages, antibiotic ointment, an LED flashlight and a cell phone. It’s also good to keep a survival knife or multi-tool on hand.

You might be asking, “If trails may be closed or too muddy to take, why bother hiking during mud season at all?” Many people do it because they simply can’t wait to get back to the forest. There usually aren’t as many hikers on trails during mud season, either, so you have a little more privacy. You may see various wildlife or vegetation that isn’t so visible in the summer, and the weather will certainly be different than what you’re used to.

Just remember that mud season hiking requires extra planning, extra caution, and extra attention to the needs of the environment.

~Ben Nystrom, 2010

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