It’s been a while since we’ve had to think about rain and mud here in California. Thanks to the drought, hiking in the Bay Area for the past few years has been all about dust and rattlesnakes. So yesterday, during a light drizzle, I went on a short hike at one of our local San Jose parks to enjoy the water that El Nino has brought us this year. The trails were muddy and slick, and the weather kept people away so that I had the park almost entirely to myself.
I actually prefer these kind of conditions over crowded and hot, but it takes some extra effort to prepare for the mud. There are also some additional rules of “Trail Etiquette” that apply.
Tip 1: Wear snug shoes that you don’t care about damaging
I like to dig out old hiking shoes that are nearing the end of their life when I hike muddy trails. Some shoes won’t survive a good mud-fest so don’t wear your favorite brand new $150 pair of hikers. Also, make sure they can be tightened down a bit more than you are comfortable with. That sticky, sucking mud can pull a shoe off easily. I found evidence of a few mishaps on the trail yesterday, like this ‘lost sole’ (sorry).
Furthermore, I’ve found that the mud on our trails builds up so quickly on a shoe sole that the tread doesn’t matter so much. The Solomons I wore yesterday have a fantastic tread for gripping a muddy trail, but that didn’t help me for very long.
Some people would only consider waterproof boots for muddy hikes, but I don’t mind getting a bit wet. Sometimes you have to embrace the mud and just know you’re going to get wet and muddy. Which brings me to Tip 2.
Tip 2: Bring clean and dry shoes, socks, and clothes for after your hike
Shoes and socks should be self explanatory. But other clothes can be nice to have as well. I kicked up so much mud on yesterday’s hike that my pants were coated from the knees down. Luckily, I never took a tumble but it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had fallen on a slick stretch of trail. My car isn’t the cleanest thing you’ve ever seen, but the mere thought of having to sit on my light tan interior seats with a wet muddy butt was horrifying.
Tip 3: Use Trekking poles
You probably aren’t going to be as confident on your feet as normal when descending a steep, muddy, slick-as-snot (to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law) trail. I’ve had my feet go out from under me a few times in terrain like that, so having trekking poles for stability is extra helpful when you just can’t quite trust that your foot will stay firmly planted where you place it.
Tip 4: Stick to the trail – even if it is really muddy
It’s tempting to step off the mud pit trail and walk through the wet (but not as muddy) grass instead. But muddy trails are fragile – erosion and damage will widen the trails unnecessarily and undo a lot of the engineering put in to building the trail to begin with. One alternate is to look for rocks to hop on. During yesterday’s hike, I avoided the channel of mud running down the trail by hopping from rock to rock.
I admit to walking off trail a few times in muddy conditions, but I only do this if absolutely necessary. Those situations have usually been in parks where grazing cows have torn up the trail so badly that I would sink to my shins in the mud and lose my shoes. I figure that if the park lets cows graze through the mud and cause significant damage, they can’t complain about me giving a trail a wider berth.
Tip 5: Recognize that hiking on muddy trails causes damage – and pick somewhere else to hike!
On yesterday’s hike I ended up changing my route to follow some of the wider flatter trails that used to be ranch roads. They were constructed with materials and engineering that tends to drain the water more efficiently. That means less mud and less damage I would leave behind. It gave me a chance to knock some of the caked up mud off of my shoes, too!
Some parks will even seasonally close the trails more susceptible to mud, so having a backup plan is always a good idea!
Don’t let the rain and mud stop you from having a good time! Be prepared, follow LNT, and enjoy having the trails all to your muddy self.