Why you shouldn’t fear a little mud on your next hike

For avid hikers, spring is an underappreciated time to see nature come to life. But the season also brings its own hazards.

After a bone-chilling Maine winter, Eben Sypitkowski can’t wait to get out into Baxter State Park, never mind the snowmelt turning trails into muck.

For avid spring hikers like Sypitkowski, “mud season”—when excess snowmelt drains onto trails and dirt roads—is an overlooked opportunity to see the woods come out of winter’s hibernation. Warblers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers fill the hemlock forests with their songs. Foxes and ample-cheeked chipmunks emerge, often with a brood in tow. A winter’s worth of snowpack feeds thundering waterfalls. “It’s visual, it’s auditory, and it’s olfactory,” he says.

Mud season isn’t specific to Maine. It flows across the wider northeast and select regions of the American West, drawing die-hard fans tired of winter’s freeze.

This year could bring more spring hikers eager to get a jump on pandemic crowds. Before the arrival of COVID-19, hiking was already experiencing something of a revival in America. Trail usage steadily rose in the wake of movies like Wild and social media status symbols such as the “nature selfie.” Pandemic lockdowns supercharged interest. Last summer, many parks across the United States broke visitation records. One recent study by RunRepeat and AllTrails found that in 2020, the rate of hikes that AllTrails users logged rose by 171 percent, compared to 2019 metrics.

Hiking traffic can have sticky implications for trails, roads, wildlife, and in some cases, search-and-rescue crews. While there’s a special beauty in watching the winter landscape thaw into a navigable ecosystem again, the ground is literally shifting. That brings pitfalls hikers must be aware of before they get their feet wet. Here’s how to manage a muddy spring hike.

Road hazards

Snowmelt can cause trouble for hikers even before they reach a trailhead. Dirt roads that accumulate snow through winter often become soft and spongy, creating mud pits that can trap vehicles and contribute to erosion.

“The road might look really great and then all of a sudden, you’re buried up to your axles because there’s frost in the road, which has turned into moisture,” says Sypitkowski, who in addition to serving as Baxter State Park’s director, has logged years in the backcountry helping hikers, monitoring trails, and assisting with search-and-rescue missions.

The best way to avoid getting stuck is to limit treks to trails that are accessible by asphalt concrete roads. Park and land management websites post updates on access roads as they open during the season, but hikers should still drive carefully. Any road in a wintry area can develop frost heaves. Also known as “nature’s speed bumps,” these cracks and contusions are caused by shifting snow and ice under the pavement.

Trail erosion

It goes without saying that having a solid pair of waterproof boots is crucial for hiking in the mud. More importantly, they make it easier to stay on the trail, even through puddles. Sidestepping soggier sections can widen pathways and lead to erosion, especially when the soil is absorbing more moisture from snowmelt. Erosion can have an adverse effect on the soil’s fertility and its ability to support native plants. It also renders trails unstable—especially those that traverse hillsides. This can quickly lead to costly and labor-intensive repairs.

Matt Bowser, a trail builder and the stewardship director of the Montana Wilderness Association, has witnessed springtime erosion firsthand in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. “Even in this age of GORE-TEX-lined underwear and everything you can be wearing that’s waterproof, people still don’t want to get their feet wet,” says Bowser, who has led volunteer groups to repair damaged trails. “If they see a mud puddle on a trail and walk around it, the puddle gets bigger and it becomes a swamp, which is much harder for trail builders to fix.”

Overflowing streams

One of the most serious hazards of mud season hiking is overflowing water crossings. While spring brings stunning cascades, water levels from snowmelt can transform relatively shallow stepping-stone crossings into knee-deep fords. Anything deeper should be avoided.

Especially insidious is how quickly the water levels can change in a single day, for instance, after a rainstorm or from accelerated snowmelt over several hours of warming temperatures.

These conditions can lead to hikers becoming soaked and getting stuck in the backcountry, or both. One recent incident in the Adirondacks, near New York’s Mount Marcy, serves as a cautionary tale to the dangers of exposure. After becoming separated from his group, a young hiker crossed several high streams, full of melting ice and snow, and then got lost. Fortunately, rangers with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) found him before his condition grew worse.

Until the snowmelt is mostly gone—usually mid-to-late May—it’s best to stick to trails with bridges over water crossings.

Alpine zone considerations

Windswept mountaintops with panoramic vistas are an aspirational destination for many hikers. But during mud season, the alpine zone where boreal trees cease to grow is extremely delicate. The wildflowers and mosses in these high altitudes are exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, harsher temperature swings, and minimal soil for taking root.

Foot traffic in this environment can grind these fragile plants into nubbin, setting back their slow growth by decades. Alpine flora is especially vulnerable in the spring, when lingering snow on these higher-elevation trails can tempt hikers to venture off.

Traction devices such as microspikes (hiking shoes with spiked soles) can be treacherous in spring. “Snow is rotting, the ice is thicker and harder to grip,” says Ben Brosseau, the director of communications for the Adirondack Mountain Club and an avid spring hiker. “Even with snowshoes or spikes, you can push through rotten snow, the hole could be several feet deep. That’s a great opportunity for an ankle or lower leg injury.”

Temperature swings

As April segues to May, warmer base temperatures help dry out mud season, though there’s still plenty of rain. This time brings additional glimmers of rejuvenation, whether it’s the sound of a baby red squirrel emitting its first battle cries or just the glow of late afternoon sun at the edge of a musky beaver swamp. In the West, late March to early May is when grizzlies emerge from hibernation, making it important to pack bear spray (and to learn how to use it). 

(Here’s how to follow bear safety rules.)

But winter isn’t quite over. Sudden temperature plunges and snowstorms can still strike. Hikers should prepare for these environmental swings by keeping a close eye on forecasts, packing multi-seasonal clothing, and being ready to turn back if the weather turns ugly. That uncertainty is the gamble one takes to witness the raw beauty of mud season.

“It’s important to remember that getting wet increases your chances of getting colder,” Sypitkowski says of spring’s erratic weather conditions. “It might make the difference between a search-and-rescue event and just a good mud season hike.”

Miles Howard covers outdoor and urban recreation for National Geographic, The Boston Globe, VICE, NBC News, and Southwest: The Magazine. He is the author of Moon New England Hiking. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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