The snow level is receding, the creeks are starting to bubble and roll and the days are getting longer. Many hikers look forward to the return of spring and have a new found hope for more glorious days of warmer weather hiking ahead. It can be a fantastic time of year for hiking, but it can also be a time that hosts more hazards and potential dangers than any other time of year.
I keep up my hiking activities throughout the year, snowshoeing in the winter, and hiking the rest of the 3 seasons. But, for those that prefer to hunker down for the winter months, the return of spring can bring about a return to exercise.You may be a little out of practice, so start out slow, and ease into serious hiking again. Yes, the weather is cool, but remember to hydrate (here's a great Hydration Pack, if you don't have one already). You'll be working a little harder if you took it easy during the winter. Keep this in mind for your first few hikes. Easy does it, and don't overdue it. Take your time, and make your first few outings shorter to give you time to acclimatize to strenuous effort. Stretch once you are warmed up a little, or at the end of your hike. Your joints, ligaments and tendons will be all the more limber the next time you're out.
As the snow thaws, trails get wet, and what is a perfectly passable trail in the summer, can be a muddy, mucky mess. Nows the time for waterproof, higher angled boots, with large traction lugs. Do your part for the environment, stay on the trail, even it if's muddy. If everyone side-stepped the muddy trail in the spring, many trails would be miles wide and look like one big mud bog the next year. As all good hikers do, minimize your impact on the land and leave as little trace as possible.
Also, your dog will likely be muddy and wet after a good spring hike. I have this Kurgo Bench Seat Cover to keep my vehicle's back seats dry and clean. And, of course, you'll want to bathe your dog when you get home, even if it's just a paw wash with the hose before they get in the house.
Ice and Snow
What may begin as a dry trail at the bottom, can turn to a muddy trail and then a snowy or icy trail in valley bottoms or higher up. Here's where traction aids like trekking poles or ice cleats shine through. They help you get your grip in slippery conditions. These Kahtoola MICROspikes are ideal when you're trying to keep from slipping and sliding.
Winter storms and those of early spring tend to wreak havoc in our forested areas. Soft soil, combined with the stronger winds can lead to blown down trees. Trail maintenance has not usually been performed during the winter months, and it can take a while for crews and volunteers to get out there. You will likely encounter more debris on obstacles across the trail. Again, try to stay on the trail as much as possible to minimize impact to the ecosystem.
The freeze/thaw cycle causes rocks with cracks in them to become a dangerous problem. The freezing and thawing works those rocks loose and they may begin to fall, sometimes causing landslides and covering trails. Even larger boulders can work loose, especially as the soil is more wet and a lot softer in the spring. Watch out! Be aware of what you grab and where you put your feet. If there a trails below you, shout out if you disrupt some rock or soil so that others can be prepared.
Streams and creeks are always more full in the spring. Snow melt and frequent rains often swell them to their largest proportions. Be prepared for stream crossings with good boots, poles and gaitors. Be wary of sudden water surges. Small streams can become large creeks in mere minutes if it's raining hard up top or as the afternoon progresses and warms up substancially. Keep an eye on weather conditions. Realize that what was a passable trickle on the way up could be a raging torrent on the way down. Water can also completely wash out trails and even roads. Be prepared in case you have to stay put until help arrives.
Spring is one of those times of year when the weather can change drastically and at a moments notice. Keep up to date with weather reports. Dress in layers and prepare for all extremese of weather, hot and dry to cold and wet. Spring can host all of the conditions we might encounter during the year. Don't take chances, be prepared and postpone your trip if the conditions look unfavourable.
The spring is a time of drastic weather changes affecting existing snow accumulations. It can be a dangerous time for avalanches. Snowpack information becomes more scarce and it is difficult to accurately predict the risk of avalanche in many areas. If you are hiking the backcountry, be vigilant and observe conditions around you that may result in an avalanche scenario. Learn about avalanche safety. If you are at risk, hike in groups, were transponders and avalanche packs and carry recovery gear. Know before you go... in Canada, you can now use the Mountain Information Network for crowdsources avalanche information and condition observations at https://www.avalanche.ca/mountain-information-network. In the US, refer to http://www.fsavalanche.org/ for up to date information.
What affects the trails, affects the roads too. Often springtime road conditions are the worse. In any one drive you may encounter mud, potholes, ice and snow. Keep your winter tires on as long as necessary if you hit the high country in the spring. Remember, four wheel drive and all wheel drive can help you gain traction on the way up, but won't do very much for you on the way down or when you have to turn and stop. Use your gears, slow down and drive for the conditions. Have the tools and the knowledge for self-recovery, or better yet, travel with another vehicle. At the very least, always carry a shovel (I carry the Hi-Lift Shovel and Multi Purpose Tool Kit) and appropriately rated tow rope or chain. Keep to the main roads and those that are maintained unless you have the gear and the ability to get yourself unstuck.
One of the joys of early spring hiking is the lack of bugs. Don't let this lack of flying insects fool you though. Spring is tick season. Ticks are most often found in tall grass and wooded areas. They wait for you or your dog to pass by and brush against some bush and then they climb on, looking to feed on you as part of their lifecycle. Here's a good article that talks about Tick Season from last year. This is a good time to restart you dog's anti-tick regime, if you stopped when winter set in. Remember to always check yourself and your children (furry or otherwise) for ticks whenever you return from a hike.
Springtime brings back the bears, and as they have been sleeping all winter, their are usually pretty hungry when they emerge from their long winter's nap. Take care, be aware, travel in groups, make lots of noise. There is no single approach to dealing with bears. Your strategy will depend on what the bear wants from you. Their motivation can be one of curiosity, defense or hunger. Each of these situations will require a different response. If a bear is curios, they will easily be deterred, and will likely wander off after curiosity has been satisfied. If a bear is defensive, as in a mother with cubs, don't threaten the cubs, keep your distance. If a bear is hungry and decides you are a source of food, you will need to use your bear deterrent effectively and you may be in for the fight of your life. Here's an article I wrote about how to Safety in Bear Country. I have had many encounters with bears, all of them concluded without incident. Bears are beautiful creatures but must be respected.
Cougars, wolves and coyotes
Most predators are coming out of the leanest time of the year. Winter is often the time when food srouces are more scarce for animals that rely on other animals for food. They are hungry and may take chances to get the sustenance they need. As in the winter, predators are still found lower in elevation as they follow their food sources. Encounters do tend to be more frequent in the early spring for this reason. For the most part, these predators are going to leave you alone. All predators measure the risk of an encounter. With wild dogs and cats, you have to make sure that the cost of the encounter will be too high for the animals involved. Pick up your children or your smaller dogs. Make yourself big and make lots of noise. Get your group to spread out, show the predator that you have the advantage. Intimidate the animal, if it does attack, fight back and mean it. I have encountered almost all of the cats and dogs of the wild kingdom, and I have never had an issue. Seeing some of these creatures in the wild is a reward in, and of, itself.
Spring is one of my favorite times of year. Waterfalls, the greening of the forest and the return of birds are things we look forward to in winter. The promise of new life and warmer days starts me thinking about those big hikes I want to accomplish. Be aware of the potential dangers, but most of all, enjoy the beauty and the warmer days of spring! Have fun and stay safe!