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By Lucy Higgins • April 18, 2023

It’s been a banner snow year for most of the country. Even so, all good things must melt and as they do, it’s easy to mentally jump into hiking season. But just because the grass is greening up in town, the same conditions don’t automatically apply when you venture into the mountain or into shaded woods to hike. As you gear up for the upcoming hiking season, here’s what to be prepared for to make the most out of your days outdoors—and to keep safe. 

Weather Variables

Spring is a fickle friend. The same bluebird day at a lower elevation can mean blistering sunburns higher up in the mountains, especially if there’s still snow around for the sun to reflect off. The same concept applies to colder, wetter temps: what feels manageable in your front yard can lead to miserable, if not dangerous, conditions over longer exposure. Check the forecast, then check it again for weather patterns that may shift or move in. Sun can quickly turn to sleet, then back again, and an extra layer and a planned out shorter route makes for a dryer, safer experience. 

Wake-Up Call

There’s nothing like an animal sighting while on the trail. Unless that animal is a bear waking up from hibernation. As you reemerge into the wilderness, so too are hibernating or migrating animals. Be sure to read up on your local wildlife to understand who you may come across, depending on the seasonality and the habitats you’ll be venturing into. The best animal sighting is one where you and the critter you’ve spotted aren’t caught off guard. Likewise, many species have nests and offspring tucked along trails this time of year. It’s always important to stay on the trail, but with hatching eggs and juvenile animals just getting their start, the stakes are higher than ever. 

Anastasia Petrova / Unsplash

Mitigating the Unknown

With trip planning, a little research goes a long way. And more research goes farther. Given the variation in conditions that can happen across a single trail in spring, it’s important to have a broader understanding of the region you’re heading into and the impact winter may have had on it. Meaning: If it was a relatively dry, low snowpack winter, it’s more likely that the trail you’re heading to will be clear of snow. Conversely, if your home range welcomed storm after storm all winter, it’s likely that sections, if not all, of your hiking route will have snow, slush, and mud on it. A big snow year also means more runoff, so any river or stream crossing will be full, fast, and carry more risk than in later months. 

In route planning, consider factors like how much of the trail will be at or above snowline, potential river crossings, and how much of the trail is in sun or shade. The impact of winter should be at the forefront of all your decision making. 

Plan before you go and be sure to check with your local trail group or organization to learn which trails are open and dry enough for travel. By sticking to trails that are ready for traffic, you’re not only making your own experience easier, you’re also saving trail organizations from having to reshape any trail that could potentially be damaged from muddy traffic. 

Danka Peter / Unsplash

Snow Tips

If you do end up needing to navigate snowy sections, there are a few things to look out for. Tree wells occur when the space directly under a tree has a lower snowpack than the surrounding area, and they can prove to be lethal should you fall into one. The snow surrounding trees tends to be looser, making it easier to collapse down into the base of a tree and suffocate. Luckily, by staying on trail and refraining from hugging trees, you can easily avoid falling victim to one. 

Snow bridges prove to be another potential risk: what looks like a stable crossing over a steep section of trail or river can actually be a thin or unstable conglomeration of snow, waiting to break underfoot. In navigating streams it’s safer to place your feet on exposed rocks or ground, or, even better, stick to the bridges and trail infrastructure already in place. 

If you come across sections of your route that are both downhill and snow-covered, resist the urge to slide down on your backside—glissading, as it’s called, seems fun on the surface but can quickly spiral out of control if you pick up too much speed or veer off course. Minimize injury and risk by carefully post-holing or side stepping through the snow. It may feel like it’s taking longer, but consider how much longer it would take to navigate the same terrain should you suffer a glissading accident or injury. When interacting with snow, use trekking poles, Yak Tracks, or crampons. 

Report Back

The early bird gets to report back to the community. Throughout your hike, take note of the condition of infrastructure: how did those bridges and steps look after a long winter? How about the trailhead? Sharing this information with your trail organizers can be a big leg up on planning out what trail work to focus on. Bringing up conditions and any potential safety hazards will help the next group have a better, safer experience.