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Spring Hiking Tips

Tips for hiking in Washington during the spring. How to be prepared for all conditions. How to choose your destinations. What hazards to be wary of. And a reminder about the fun of it all!

Hiking through water
Water is everywhere! Be prepared to splash through puddles and streams on your spring hike. Photo by thebrink.

Spring hiking evokes images of delicate woodland trillium, gushing waterfalls and hikers trying to locate the most compelling destination that isn't socked in with snow. It's a time of giddy anticipation as we eagerly make plans to visit our favorite trails.

And for many folks who have huddled inside all winter, it's also a time to get their "trail brain" on again. It's easy to forget some of the basic items you need in your pack as you plan your first trip into the mountains. Or to push too far or stay too long for the conditions.

That's why WTA has put together these tips for spring hiking. Whether it is your first time hiking or your 1,000th, it's always wise to refresh your memory about these important safety issues before heading out.

Thinking of doing a little spring snowshoeing? Check out our late winter and avalanche safety tips before heading out.

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Be Prepared

Many hikers will admit that they sometimes forget to pack an important item in their backpack, especially in the spring when they are a bit out of practice. Every backpacking party should carry the Ten Essentials. These essentials are a topographic map, compass, extra food, extra clothing, firestarter, matches, sun protection, a pocket knife, first-aid kit, and flashlight.

Some of these are particularly important for spring hiking:

  • Adequate extra clothing - It may seem warm when you begin your hike, but the temperature can drop precipitously on your journey and winds can be mighty cold atop ridges or at lakes. Bring clothing layers made of materials that wick sweat and moisture away from your body, such as wool or polypropolene. Don't leave your rain gear behind no matter how cloudless the sky. Pack extra socks, should yours get wet. And consider investing in gaiters to keep your legs dry when crossing streams and brushing up against wet plants.
  • Map and compass - Hikers should always carry these items, but in the spring they are especially important when hazards like snow and blowdown can obscure an otherwise obvious trail.
  • First Aid kit - When was the last time you looked at your first aid kit? Spring is the time to open it up and replenish its stores. You'll be happy you did when the first blister appears.
  • Food and water - Hiking makes you hungry and thirsty. Don't skimp on the food and water.

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Choosing Your Destination

The perennial spring hiking question is: where's the snow? Or rather, where is there not snow? In particularly snowy and wet years, this refrain can be heard well into July.

>> User-Generated Trip Reports

Fortunately, WTA can help you. Our user-generated Trip Reports are the best guide to what conditions are like on a specific trail right now. Check these reports for inspiration about where to hike and to find out what you may encounter on your hike. And when you have returned, please contribute a Trip Report of your own. This system is as good as you make it.

>> Contact Ranger Stations

The closest ranger station is another go-to resource. Check the latest conditions on the Forest Service and Park Service websites, or better yet, call ahead and talk to someone on-the-ground. WTA has links to all of the major land management agencies here.

>> Check Weather and Snow Conditions

There are many excellent weather resources available to hikers. Our favorite is the National Weather Service's mountains forecast page that provides a detailed forecast for hiking destinations (not just towns and cities) throughout Western Washington.

The other must-read website is produced by the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. It provides avalanche forecasts, as well as an hour-by-hour look at temperature, wind, precipitation and snow that goes back 10 days. The latter can be hard to find on the website, so use this link for Snoqualmie Pass. (There are other locations as well).

>> Suggested Hikes

WTA.org is full of suggestions for spring hiking. Try a waterfall hike. Or a desert hike in Central Washington. We have lots of suggestions for spring hiking. If you hear of a hike you're interested in, check out our Hiking Guide. We have over 900 hikes from Mountaineers Books' Day Hiking series, and whole lot more.

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Hazards of Spring Hiking

Snow. Rain. Mud. Blowdowns. Nasty roads. All are hazards of spring. But the good news is that each week, these conditions get better. Snow melts. Rainy skies give way to sunny ones. Trail crews remove downed trees and fix muddy spots on the trail (join a WTA trail crew to be part of the solution). And if we're lucky, roads get fixed. So what do we really need to know to stay safe and have fun hiking in the spring?

Hiking on snow
Snow is the #1 hazard of spring hiking. Traction devices for your boots and trekking poles can help you keep your balance. But know when to turn back too. Photo by thebrink.

>> Snow

Snow makes the mountains look pretty. But it is slick (especially in the morning when cold nighttime temperatures have turned it to ice), it can obscure an otherwise prominent trail, and changing conditions can trigger an avalanche or collapse a snow cornice.

Hikers who want to push on through snow should come prepared with traction devices for their boots or snowshoes and good route-finding skills. All hikers should use common sense. As tempting as it may be to push on to your destination, know when to turn back.

>> Water

Conditions can change quickly any day of the year in the mountains, but particularly in the spring. Every hiker should carry rain gear and several layers of clothing, and anticipate changing the layers often to combat rain, wind, sweat and mists from waterfalls. It's easy to get chilled.

Stream crossings also deserve a mention. As the weather warms up and snow begins to melt these become more challenging and potentially dangerous. Washington Trails' September-October 2009 issue details the best way to ford a river or stream. Read the article for more info. In addition, be wary of wet logs and rocks that could be slippery.

>> Mud and Blowdowns

Mud and blowdowns are byproducts of our northwestern winters, and are the two most common trail issues that WTA's trail maintenance team of volunteers combat each year. What happens, however, when you hit the trail before a trail crew can get out and fix it?

If you possibly can, stick it out and slog right through that mud or under that downed tree. When hiker after hiker tries to skirt a problem spot, fragile meadows are liable to be damaged. Keep your balance in these and other slick spots with trekking poles. And when navigating a blowdown obstacle course, watch out for poking sticks.

>> Nasty Roads

It's also imperative to check road conditions before heading out on your hike. Many are gated in winter and may not have been opened yet. Others are potholed or still covered in a layer of snow, not suited for the family sedan. Still others are closed due to flood damage or road conditions. Ranger station websites are the best resource for road conditions. You can access the one you need from here.

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Fun of Spring Hiking

Trillium.jpg Tiger Mountain Trail: South South Tiger Traverse
Trillium pair. Photo by Quantum Guru

Now that we're done telling you about the hazards of spring, let us remind you of a few of the many joys:

  • Unfurling fern fronds emerging from the duff.
  • Raindrops sparkling on the trees as the sun pokes out from the clouds.
  • The sweet pungent scent of black cottonwood.
  • Waterfalls swollen with snowmelt.
  • Trillium, balsamroot and skunk cabbage brightening the way.
  • Hiking without bugs.
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