In New York and other places, spring has sprung, and mud season has begun. The NYSDEC has just released its annual notice. Mud season for hikers means that the snow, ice, and frozen ground from wintertime are now thawing. Water is draining on the trails, freeze-thaw conditions occur, especially in late winter to mid-spring, and on the same day, rain, sleet, and snow may fall, adding to the mess.
The freeze-thaw cycle
The freeze-thaw cycle is when the ground thaws during warmer daytime hours and refreezes at night. The thaw super-hydrates the soil, and the overnight freeze expands the base of the trail tread. When the expended soil thaws again, it produces softened muddy paths. Late winter or spring days where the temperature does not rise above freezing, the thaw may happen due to the sun’s solar radiation, especially in early spring. These thaws leave the trail’s tread prone to damage and rutting from hikers. Temperatures above 30-degrees are prime for impacting pathways.
Stay on the trail
During mud season, our trails are in a state of flux and exposed to damage. We should stay on the path. Avoiding the mud on the trail or hiking into the woods destroys the sensitive plant life that thrives along these paths. As we sidestep the muddy spots at the edge of the trail, we also unwittingly widen the footpaths, sometimes up to ten feet!
Here are ten tips to help keep our paths and the environment safe during mud season.
- In the Adirondacks, stay below 2500 feet elevation, and give the high-elevation and fragile ecosystems a chance to stabilize.
- Pick your line of travel on the trail. Does the path have rocks or other aids to use as treads? Don’t stray from the path!
- Continue to carry snowshoes and other traction devices so you can stay on trails that will have significant snow and ice, maybe late into spring. Many routes will have monorails or snow spines that have been hard-packed from winter excursions by hikers. Use traction devices when needed rather than detouring off the path.
- Use gaiters to stay on the trail and walk through mud, not around it.
- Look for areas to hike in which the trails dry faster than others.
- Use hiking poles to help keep your balance on ice, snow, or mud.
- Use waterproof boots.
- Try wearing hiking pants even as the weather warms.
- Check official bulletins for trail conditions and move high only after trails dry.
- Check the weather and steer wide of hiking on rainy or snow/sleety days.
One last thing, mud season, could be when we stay off the trails that contain fragile environments altogether. Let’s give the crews doing trail work a break and not make their jobs harder and help the environment at the same time!
Mud season resources:
Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, kayaking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.