As a search and rescue team crew leader, Outbound Dan Human delivers his best tips for hiking safely in all seasons.
Spring Hiking Safety
For hikers, spring is that time between snowshoe and sandal season. Our excitement builds as we dream of finding freshly budded trillium and trout lily sprouting along trails and sometimes we overlook the risk. In the anticipation of reuniting with a path neglected since autumn, we rush into the wild and promptly slip while attempting to hop onto a bobbing log in the mud.
From drowning in a raging river to digging a diseased tick out from under your skin, hikers should take precautions on spring trails. Follow these tips for managing the peril involved when venturing out on your vernal voyages.
Though hikers picture lush flowering green meadows and head out on the trail wearing a light fleece, spring weather is unpredictable. While backpacking in the Adirondacks on spring trips, I've had full blown winter conditions requiring snowshoes and as many layers as I could wear. Yes, hiking in shoulder season can be an adventure in extremes.
On a recent April hike with my family, the trailhead was sunny with blue sky and the the forecast was unremarkable. As we trudged up the gorge trails, a snowflake started to fall and then another. Soon the ground was blanketed in wet spring snow and a chilly wind blew in from the nearby lake. Luckily, we all had hiking boots with good traction and I had extra layers for everyone in my pack.
So if it gets cold or rains or sleets, what does it matter? Let's look at hypothermia. Did you know that hypothermia, a condition in which your body temperatures lowers to a deadly level, occurs in temperatures as high as 60 degrees? If you are wet, that damp clothing sucks your body heat away. The good news is, hypothermia is avoidable by wearing appropriate non-cotton hiking clothing. Wear synthetics or wool than retain their thermal ratings despite being wet and always have that sacred dry layer packed away in a dry bag.
Pay attention to the forecast but be prepared for the worst. The weatherman is usually right but mountain weather is hard to predict and differs greatly from the temperatures down in the valley. So does this mean I have to bring my gore-tex rain jacket even though it is sunny? Yes, yes it does. You should bring rain pants along and a couple of extra layers just in case too.
Wet clothing conducts heat away from the body twenty-five times greater than dry clothing. To avoid hypothermia, wear non-cotton clothing that dries quickly and retains its thermal properties when wet.
High Water Danger
When Julie Belanger of Montreal went backpacking in the Adirondack High Peaks in May 2015, no one expected that Feldspar Brook would be a rapids. Julie slipped and disappeared beneath the current before her companions could rescue her. Rangers recovered her body downstream the next day.
Though that creek might just be a trickle you can rock-hop across in summer, in spring it’ll make a whitewater kayaker think twice. One of the most dangerous conditions that a hiker can encounter are high water crossings. Between snow melt and torrential spring rains, creeks swell quickly to make an impassable barrier.
When I was backpacking the Appalachian Trail in Maine, ice had destroyed the bridge over the Carrabassett River. As it had been raining for seven days prior to my arrival at the river bank, I found a formidible obstacle in my way. Though it was whitewater, I still tried to cross and quickly found myself several hundred feet downstream clinging to a log. My hubris could have easily been a fatal mistake for me. Luckily though, that tree branch was there and I was able to get out. As a side note, this caused a considerable detour with lots of bushwhacking until I was able to safely cross.
So what should you do to cross creeks safely? The answer is that sometimes you don't cross them. Plan your spring routes so you aren't fording any creeks and plan on using reliable wilderness bridges instead. If you must cross, follow these steps:
- Rivers are often at their lowest point early in the morning so camp close by and cross before breakfast.
- Use trekking poles.
- Keep your boots on or wear stream crossing shoes with good tread and support.
- Unbuckle the belt on your backpack or plan on bring your pack across on an elevated pack line.
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Muddy Trail Conditions
Ask any preschooler and they'll tell you how fun mud can be. It's squishy, full of frogs and makes a funny noise when you jump in it. Mud, however, can be dangerous both to yourself and the environment.
As I traversed the herd path with a sheer rock face to my left and a dense spruce colony to my right, my only option was the muddy pit ahead of me. My hiking boots sank down through the muck, drifting down till the mud reached my shins. As I stepped forward, my right boot came loose and I pulled a muddy sock from the earth instead. I leaned back, balancing on one foot and my trekking poles to fish my lost boot out of the ooze.
Head out to any popular trail in spring and you'll find a trough of mud that starts at ankle deep. My feet are especially talented at finding the patches that are over my knees and ooze up into my shorts like a sentient blob from a horror movie. Of course, nobody wants to walk through that, right? They'll hop from rock to rock or bushwhack off the trail.
First, to the non-penguin rock hoppers out there, you are engaged in a feat of dexterity better suited to American Ninja Warrior. By jumping from one slippery surface to a slimy bobbing log, how long do you plan on being upright? Your hiking partners are waiting, cameras in hand, waiting for your misstep. Hopefully, they have first aid kits too in case you land on something harder or sharper than mud.
Now the other technique for avoiding mud is to skirt around it, heading off the trail. As the folks over at Leave No Trace will tell you: always walk in the center of the trail! If we all start edging around difficult patches, the forest will be all herd paths and no trees. Besides the obvious environmental reason, stepping off trail leads to more bug exposure and hazards that the trail builders wanted you to avoid. Plus there is that whole increased potential for getting lost.
So what about that great gooey mud? My suggestion, is to avoid hiking in certain areas during mud season. This is especially true in mountainous areas with steep trails dealing with snow melt and spring rains. Vermont actually closes many of their 4,000-footer trails during mud season. In my area of Western New York, our trails are especially vulnerable during the month of April. I tend to stay off of them until the trails have hardened to avoid causing more erosion.
If you can't find anywhere else to hike, then tighten up your boots and make sure your gaiters are snug. Use trekking poles to probe the bottoms of the mud pits and steady yourself on improvised bridges. Most of all, take it slow and remember to scrape the mud off your boots before dragging them in the tent.
“It is astonishing how much worse one mosquito can be than a swarm. A swarm can be prepared against, but one mosquito takes on a personality—a hatefulness, a sinister quality of the struggle to the death.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
Anyone who has been out in the woods after the black fly hatch or suffered through a sleepless night of biting mosquitoes knows the annoyance that insects present. However, as disease-carrying vectors, insects possess more danger than sheer annoyance. Of course, you may be driven into a mosquito swatting frenzy that makes you lose your balance and tumble off a cliff.
One of my biggest backcountry blunders was neglecting to pack my hammock mosquito net on a surprisingly sweltering early June backpacking trip. The mosquitoes were thick near my creek-side campsite as swarms attacked me after sunset. I retreated beneath the layers of my sleeping bag but the humid temps left me sweaty and gasping for air. Annoyed at their buzzing, I woke up at three in the morning to start a smudge fire.
Beyond annoyance, flying insects like mosquitoes carry debilitating diseases in the US like West Nile virus, Zika and dengue. Though where I live in the Northeast hasn't reported Zika or dengue, we have had our share of West Nile outbreaks. Severe reactions to that disease go beyond the rash and may cause paralysis or coma.
Then there is the one creature, I truly worry about in the woods - the tick. These creatures climb undetected to a tender spot on your body and enjoy a blood meal, usually without your knowledge. Once the temperatures hit forty degrees, ticks emerge from the leaf litter and threaten hikers with nasty things like Lyme disease and Powassan encephalitis. I'll deal with bears any day over these sesame-seed-sized suckers.
Bite prevention is the key to dealing with insects of all varieties while hiking. First, I treat all my clothing and boots with permethrin. The treatment lasts several washes, repels mosquitoes and kills ticks. Second, I use a DEET- or picaridin-based lotion on my skin. Third, I tick-check myself and my companions while and after hiking.
Carry the Essentials
Though spring hikers may be tempted to strip down their pack weight from their winter burden, they still need to carry the ten essentials. As I've illustrated above with unpredictable weather, high water and a slew of other hazards, you should do your best to be prepared to spend at least one night outside. Carry the right stuff in your pack and you'll reduce the chances of meeting your favorite search and rescue team out in the woods.
"You must be a Boy Scout" the hiker joked as I handed them a donut shaped piece of moleskin for the giant blister on their heel. I was a Boy Scout, an Eagle actually, and I've tried to live up to their motto of "be prepared" in all aspects of my life. Of course, you didn't have to wear a khaki uniform and attend weekly meetings to know that all hikers should carry a first aid kit with blister treatment.
So what are the ten essentials? No, they aren't the secret ingredients to the Big Mac special sauce, but a list of things that you should always carry - no matter the season. My current list combines the classic list with REI's "essential systems" list. Find what combination works for you and your safety needs.
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun and bug protection
- Extra clothing and rain gear
- Headlamp (with extra batteries)
- First aid kit
- Fire building kit
- Repair kit and tools (knife and duct tape)
- Food and water with purification method.
- Signaling kit (whistle, mirror)
- Emergency shelter
Of course, you could be carrying a three compasses, a GPS and a current map and still be lost if you don't have the skills to use them. The ability to properly utilize the gear you carry is the eleventh and perhaps the most important essential.
Join me on a spring backpacking trip on the Laurel Highlands Trail
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Dan Human
Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on January 22, 2019:
Interesting stories, and well-worth knowing. I never ran into mud as deep as the experience you talked about Dan. I hike on Long Island and the mud is never that deep here. I have hiked in 6 inches of snow however, and with 6 miles to go, that wasn’t easy.
Here on Long Island we have a big problem with ticks and I’m always looking for solutions. I didn’t know about Permethrin until I read your article. I’m going to try that when I get back into hiking this spring.
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on April 13, 2018:
This is super-mega-awesome article and has all the information for not only a beginner, but also for an expert hiker.
I hike mostly in late fall, winters and early spring when the insects are not out there, but in early spring I do encounter unpredictable weather, mud, and slippery rocks a lot. Thanks God I don't get those dangerous water crossings.
I have also written hubs on hiking with a dog in spring season and observing nature and on watching out for bears, but, admittedly, this hub from you is way better written and has much more information for hikers like me.
Suhail and my dog 'K2'