Sturbridge Trails — March is Mud Season!
By Tom Chamberland
Spring can be a difficult time for trails. Wet soils from spring rains as well and trapped frost in ground usually make for a “muddy mess” on trails. Well-designed sustainable trails will have minimum mud and puddle water, the science of good trail construction. As you travel area trails, take note how “dry” they are this time of year, if it is really wet, & muddy, to the extent you have to “go around” and actually widen the trail, then you are not on a well-designed trail. This widening of the trail is also not good for the trail or the environment, and the correct thing to do is get your shoes muddy and walk thru the mud or wait a week or so, allowing the trail to dry then go out and enjoy! Here are a few other tips for spring hikes.
Dressing for a Spring Hike: Set yourself up for a comfortable hike by dressing in light layers, as you’d do for a mild winter hike, and carrying an extra layer or two with you in case the weather takes a turn for the worse. I usually go for a light wool base layer, a light- to mid-weight insulating layer (depending on weather forecasts), and a weatherproof hard-shell layer. That layering system gives me lots of flexibility for adjusting my clothing to suit rapidly changing spring weather. Finally, an extra pair of warm, dry socks is always a good thing to have on-hand — especially in spring, when unexpected foot wettings are pretty much par for the course. The key rule for this, and every other aspect of spring hiking, is as follows: Check weather forecasts, and plan for the worst — that way you’ll be comfortable no matter what.
Wear Appropriate Footwear: As tempting as it might be to whip out your beloved summer hiking boots for a sunny spring outing, stick to more sensible footwear — sturdy shoes or boots – something you can get wet and dirty, unless you’re absolutely positive you’ll have a good trail surface for your entire hike.
Handling Snow and Mud: Post-holing, or stepping into deep mud, are least as bad as cold, bare toes, and getting mud or snow down your boots or up your pants legs isn’t much fun either. You can avoid all of those if you research trail conditions and pack accordingly. If you expect to do battle with spring snowfields or mud patches, wear gaiters. They bridge the gap between your boots and your pants legs and do a great job of keeping mud and snow out. Planning your way around snow deposits is the best way to avoid post-holing but, if you can’t do that — and you think the snow might be deep enough to make hiking difficult — consider carrying snowshoes. Carry ice grippers if you think there’s any chance you might encounter ice or extremely hard-packed snow. Ice grippers are small, light, and easy to carry. Buying them and toting them is much cheaper and easier than dealing with a broken bone from a fall. Hiking poles are some help for maintaining your balance, but don’t take the place of ice grippers.
Carry Plastic Bags: If you don’t have access to gaiters or waterproof boots, plastic grocery bags are a good makeshift solution to keep your feet warm and dry, even if you end up slogging through slush. Fill the bags up with water at home to make sure they don’t have any holes in them. If they pass the test dry them out, fold them up, and stow them in a zip-close plastic bag (in your pack). When you encounter deep slush in the trail, you can use the plastic bags as makeshift waterproof liners in your footwear.
Carry Hiking Poles: I’m not the biggest fan of hiking poles — I like having my hands free — but they sure do come in handy on spring hikes. You can use your hiking poles to probe the depth of a snow or mud deposit, to probe water depth (streams and rivers full of snowmelt may become more dangerous in spring), and for extra stability when navigating your way through any of the above. Get collapsible hiking poles if you can — that way when you don’t need them, you can collapse them and attach them to your backpack for hands-free hiking.
Trekking Sturbridge area trails in early spring is a great way to break the winter cabin fever. So, get out and enjoy!