Even on trails, hiking the right way is sometimes counterintuitive.
Especially this time of year.
Take, for example, a familiar and notorious fall hiking obstacle: the mud puddle.
What is the best way to pass?
Toss a big branch over the puddle to create a makeshift bridge to keep your boots from getting muddy? Skirt the edge of the puddle? Walk through the puddle as if it wasn’t there?
“That’s one of the biggest things we tell people when it comes to hiking in the rain,” said Kindra Ramos, spokeswoman for the Washington Trails Association. “Just walk right through. You actually do more damage walking around.
“It creates wide spots in the trail. It can damage delicate flora.”
Similarly, tossing branches or rocks over the puddle can change the way water flows on the trail and damage the path. It could also leave a hazard on which others might slip or trip.
The Northwest’s seemingly endless summer has finally given way to wet fall conditions, making trails more susceptible to damage.
Hiking in the rain can be just as pleasurable as hitting the trail on a sunny day “with just a few more steps of preparation,” Ramos said.
In addition to carrying the 10 Essentials, make sure you’re wearing clothes that will keep you warm even when you’re wet, Ramos said. And if you really want to pamper yourself, maybe carry a warm drink and an extra pair of socks.
Be extra mindful of your surroundings and the early arrival of nightfall. Trekking poles can help you stay upright while navigating slippery ground. And, Ramos said, make sure you’re looking down for slippery rocks and other obstacles.
“It’s easy to get distracted by the beauty out there and forget to look down.” Ramos said.
Taking care of yourself is important, but so too is taking care of the trail.
Here are three tips that will help keep the trails in good shape:
Washington trails saw more hikers than usual this summer, but Ramos can’t say definitively if that extra traffic has meant extra damage to trails. “But I can say the trails have seen a lot of boots and that doesn’t mean less maintenance,” she said.
“It’s a good way to see the power of water and the power of people,” Ramos said.
While most volunteers sign on for summer projects, Ramos says working in wet conditions can give workers instant feedback about trouble spots on trails.
“You can see the way the water is flowing over the trail and you can correct it in real time,” Ramos said.
There are plenty of opportunities to work on trails this falls. The association has work parties scheduled for Nov. 21 and Dec. 12 on the hiking trails at Swan Creek Park. The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance has trail work parties scheduled each weekend day through Nov. 22.
On Monday, Metro Parks Tacoma issued a call for volunteers at Titlow Park. According to a statement, the department is looking to form a “Friends of Titlow Park” group that would help maintain trails, patrol and offer other help in the 75-acre park.
“Local parks are an undiscovered joy for so many people,” Ramos said. “They are wild opportunities that are easier to get to.”
STAY ON THE TRAIL
Hiking on a wet day can expose the impact of another trail faux pas: cutting switchbacks.
This is the act of taking short cuts between sections of trail. Not only is this unlikely to save you more than a few seconds, but it can damage plants and redirect water flow in a manner that could damage the trail.
Like walking around puddles, Ramos believes this bad habit doesn’t come from a place of malice. Many trail users simply don’t know better.
The trail grade isn’t designed only to create the easiest route for hikers. They’re also designed to minimize erosion.
“Stay on the trail,” Ramos said.
LEAVE IT BETTER
Staying on the trail and leaving the trail the way you found it are the easiest ways for hikers to limit their impact.
But leaving the trail in better shape is, well, better.
Picking up trash and removing obstacles from the middle of the trail might make the trail more enjoyable for the group behind you.
“Don’t let the rain stop you from getting out there,” Ramos said. “Sometimes trails are even more beautiful in the rain.”