Spring Hiking Basics

Snowed in trail in Big Cottonwood

My sister on a snowed in trail in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Winter is over and you’re anxious to break out the hiking boots. Hang on a minute. Spring hiking brings a few considerations you should plan for before hitting the trail.

Planning Ahead

Check your gear – Go through your daypack and make sure you still have all of the 10-basic hiking essentials packed and in working order. Spring is also a good time to look through your first aid kit and refresh and disposable items.

Waterproof your boots – Spring hiking usually means mud and snow so a good waterproofing is in order to start the season. Best to do this a few days before your hike.

Research trail and road conditions – Local ranger stations, outfitters, avalanche centers and trail clubs are good sources of information on trail and road conditions.

Assess your route finding skills – Snowed over trails can be disorienting. Make sure you pack and KNOW HOW TO USE a map and compass.

A Few Extras to Pack

Clothing – Dress in layers and pack extra. It’s said that spring is when it’s winter in the shade and summer in the sun. It may feel warm when you set out, but conditions can change quickly. Pack spare warm layers and rain gear.

Hiking Poles – I know there’s a lot of debate about hiking poles and I won’t get into that foray. All I can tell it that spring hikes mean stream crossings and snowy treks, both of which are easier with poles. I suggest them. Yes, I’ve tried both ways.

Traction Devices – Again a matter of preference. Products like Yaktrax can help you keep your footing on slick refrozen snow. You may find these especially handy especially on cooler mornings. Granted, I usually go without, but I also fall a lot.

Stream crossing 15 or 16...

Stream crossing 15 or 16 on our hike. I’m starting to get the hang of it! I opted to wear shoes that would dry fast with good socks for this short hike rather than full boots. It would have been hard to keep anything dry.

Be ready for…

Stream Crossings – Snow melt, especially if combined with rain swells small streams and even creates some where there aren’t any the rest of the year. Be prepared for crossing them by reviewing techniques, using poles, proper footwear and maybe even gaiters. Warm afternoons and rain can raise water levels during your hikes making a stream that was passable on the way in impassible later so keep a watchful eye on the weather.

Snow – Snow cover not only makes trekking tougher but also obscures the trail and landmarks. As I mentioned before, make sure to pack a good map and a compass. Other hazards accompany snow hiking, which I’m only becoming versed in myself, so I’ll refer you to this article by the Washington Trail Association, Spring Skills: Tips for Hiking on Snow. Just remember, there’s no shame in turning around as soon as conditions exceed your comfort level. I’ve done it several times already.

Mud – Naturally, snowmelt creates mud. Wear good boots of course but also take it easy on the environment. If every spring hiker skirted the muddy spots, soon the trails would be 20-feet wide. Suck it up and stay on the trail as much as possible. Even if it means working your way around winter debris and blow downs (as long as it’s safe).

Blow Downs – It takes time for crews (often volunteers) to clear the limbs and trees off trails after winter. This means that early hikes will likely require working your way around some obstacles. Just like the mud, try to stay on trail as much as possible to minimize impact on the fragile plant growth trying to recover from winter.

Loose Rocks – The freeze and thaw process during spring loosens rocks and often-large boulders from their resting places. I encountered this first hand on a recent hike when a 3-foot boulder rolled down onto my shin. I could write a whole post on why I have trouble wearing miniskirts…. At least I’m having fun, right? My point, be very careful what your grab onto or step on.

Personally, I love the changing landscape of spring. The rivers, waterfalls, snow, first peeks of greenery… it’s all so invigorating. As strange as it may sound, I also enjoy the challenge of dealing with the stream crossings and snow as well. All of it makes for an even more interesting and rewarding hike. The key is to be prepared and don’t underestimate Mother Nature, she will win.

Happy trails!

Comments 6

  1. Nice post! Keep your eye on Little Cottonwood Canyon… the Mountain Goats will soon be crawling all over near the parking lot at the mouth. Bring binocs!

  2. Good tips! I am very ready for Spring. Just need to figure out where I want to go hiking. Ouch about that boulder! That must have hurt a little. Thankfully, I have not had to deal with that.

    One other thing to mention – the bears are waking up and are hungry. So beware! 🙂

  3. I usually like to take my shoes and socks off when fording, but that can be quite a pain if you have to cross 15 streams. It is actually problematic if even crossing 2-3 streams as it breaks up your rhythm. I like to keep my feet dry though. I guess it depends on the depth of the stream. In the spring in the Smokies the fords are quite deep, sometimes waste deep.

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