Early Summer Hiking Safety Tips
Weather is heating up and it's full-on summer in the lowlands of Washington. But conditions in the mountains can still be more like spring than summer.
In some places, snow is sticking around, even in lower elevations, making hiking more challenging and hazardous than usual. Streams are running high and fast, making crossings cold and dangerous. And while rangers have been working hard to get them open, some trailheads may not be open yet.
Even if you have been hiking for years, please read these tips and be prepared on your hike. And please don't let your destination blind you to unsafe conditions. You can always come back another time.
Many hikers will admit that they sometimes forget to pack an important item in their backpack, especially when they are a bit out of practice. Every hiking party should carry the Ten Essentials. These essentials are a topographic map, compass, extra food, water, extra clothing, firestarter and matches, sun protection, a pocket knife, first-aid kit, and flashlight.
Some of these are particularly important for hikers:
- 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 this year they are especially important as 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? This is the time to open it up and replenish its stores. You'll be happy you did when the first blister appears. Or if you slip and scrape up your knee.
- Food and water - Hiking makes you hungry and thirsty. Don't skimp on the food and water.
Choosing Your Destination
It may be hard to believe when lowland temperatures hit 70 and 80 degrees, but as you're planning your hike this summer, keep in mind that conditions in the high country still mean snow in many places. So how can you find the best snow-free trails?
Check User-Generated Trip Reports
WTA's 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 only 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.
WTA.org is full of hiking suggestions. Try a waterfall hike or check out some seasonal hiking suggestions. If you hear of a hike you're interested in, check out our Hiking Guide. We have more than 3,500 hikes so you can discover a new favorite trail.
Hazards of Hiking this Summer
Snow. Rain. Mud. Blowdowns. Nasty roads. Traditionally a problem for spring hikers, these hazards remain an issue on some trails. So what do we really need to know to stay safe and have fun hiking in all conditions?
Snow: evaluate the danger
Snow makes the mountains look pretty. But it is one of the major causes of hiker injuries.
So what are you to do if you encounter snow? It's a delicate calculus, which requires preparation, experience and common sense.
- In general, if snow is partly covering the trail, the pitch is not too steep and there is a well-worn boot path across it, hikers should be okay. It might be wise to bring along traction devices for your boots, but hiking boots do fine as well. Tennis shoes, five-finger shoes and flip-flops do not. Oftentimes, trails that start out partly obscured in snow only get worse as hikers ascend.
- As it becomes warmer the snow becomes less stable. Post-holing (where your leg plunges through the snow up to your waist) is a recipe for spraining or breaking an ankle. This is especially hazardous where snow covers water. You might think you're on the trail, but it is easy to go astray when the snow covers it.
- When you encounter steep slopes or avalanche chutes filled with lingering snow, hikers should consider what should happen if they slipped. If there are hazards below - rocks, water, trees - then they should be equipped with an ice axe and the knowledge of how to use it. Even then there are no guarantees. The best course of action may very well be to turn around, even if you can see dry ground on the other side or the destination is so close. The trail can always be hiked another time.
- Think twice about glissading (intentionally sliding down a snow chute). Sliding or glissading down the mountain after a long day’s climb may seem fun and an easy way down; but attempting this activity is not without inherent risks.
Water: crossing rivers safely and being prepared for rain
Stream crossings, always a challenge, will be dangerous well into the summer. Hikers report swollen creeks and rivers throughout the state. Logs and stones that most years help hikers cross stream are under water. Those that are visible may be wet or slippery.
Before plunging across a stream, hikers should determine if it is worth it. Ask yourself:
- How cold is the water? How deep is the water?
- How fast is it flowing?
- How far is it to the other side?
- How tired are you?
For the best way to ford a river or stream, park ranger Ralph Rafford wrote a practical, how-to piece on river crossing in Washington Trails' September-October 2009 magazine, but here are stream crossing basics:
- Unclip your backpack so that you can jettison it quickly if you fall.
- Bring along some tennis shoes if you do not want to get your boots wet (never cross bare-footed).
- Use a stick or hiking pole to maintain balance as you walk slightly against the current as you cross.
- The deeper and faster the water, the harder the crossing will be. Never attempt a cross that is above your thighs.
The other water hazard is rain. Conditions can change quickly any day of the year in the mountains. 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 out there.
Mud and blown-down trees
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 slippery spots with trekking poles. And when navigating a blowdown obstacle course, watch out for poking sticks.
It's also imperative to check road conditions before heading out on your hike. Many roads are gated in winter and may not have been opened yet or undergoing repairs. Others are a potholed mess, perhaps not suited for the family sedan. And 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.
Hiking through a burned forest
A forest that has been burned by a wildfire has several dangers, even years after the fire, but the largest danger to hikers is falling trees and branches (known as snags).
Falling trees are a danger in the short and long term after a fire. Stay alert in a burned area, be aware of your surroundings, and try to get out as quickly as possible if the wind picks up.
While summer brings unique conditions to the mountains, it can also be an incredible season to try new trails and enjoy the scenic landscapes Washington has to offer. Being prepared for variable conditions will help you enjoy your time on trail. Head into a hike knowing what you'll encounter and the experience should be an enjoyable one.