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.

The reason to hike in these conditions - I'm the only one here!

The reason to hike in these conditions – look at that empty parking lot. I’m the only one here!

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).

Lost Sole

Lost Sole

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.

Muddy shoes, muddy pants, muddy everything.

Muddy shoes, muddy pants, muddy everything.

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.

Good Luck getting a good grip with that layer of mud

Good Luck getting a good grip with that layer of mud

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.

Muddy trail and Rocks

Muddy trail and Rocks

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!

A glorious non-muddy stretch of trail

A glorious non-muddy stretch of trail

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.

Categories: How-To

Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd

Mountain sports addict. Dog Mom. Craft beer drinker. Tech nerd. The best days are those spent above 10k ft. Meet me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google +


Chris · January 18, 2016 at 6:08 pm

I would add to bring a large plastic bag so you can just put your muddy footwear, soggy clothing etc in to it.

    Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd · January 18, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Good one! My Outback has a rubber mat in the back so I just take it out and hose it off when needed, so I didn’t even think of that.

PetesthousandPeaks · January 19, 2016 at 3:35 pm

Being that I’ve hiked local Northern CA trails for near 45 years, I’ve found most hiking trails are meant for drier conditions. So, during winters of wet years, I’ve managed to find exercise ops that aren’t so muddy. Paved bike trails have been good. I was lucky to have the American River Parkway, with over 30 miles of pavement suited for walkers as well as cyclists. Used to be, I’d head out there near daily or as I had restless energy. There was my 6 mile standard walk from home, so I never needed a car. I plan for walking exercise for daily jaunts as I find a residence. Assisted by mass transit, rather than take a car to hike, I can get daily walks without any mud. It also used to be, on my website I’d apprise anyone interested of trail conditions, with photos of how much mud there was that day. But, as peak baggers that we were, a desert trip could well be in order. Shame, though, by me, every time I go, there’s four seats in my car that go to waste.

Knobbyknees · January 21, 2016 at 3:10 am

Thank you for posting the advice to not widen trails by going off the side and walking on the vegetation. I think if you need to get out of a muddy section of trail your rock idea is great, or just leave the trail entirely and go cross-country rather than walking on the margins of a trail. That distributes your prints so far from the trail that you will likely be the only walker there and the plants won’t be impacted by repeated stomping and compacting of the soil. Of course that only applies if the park or open space allows off-trail exploration.

Also, grasslands in general tend to be greasy with a lot of clay that adheres to your shoes. Hunt for trails that stick to forests, or where you know the underlying soil is coarse sandstone. Winter is a good time to be more observant of soil types and geology.

Petesthousandpeaks · January 25, 2016 at 8:11 pm

It also used to be that our Club chapter had a really active ski touring section. Only about 80-100 miles to drive for us, we’d head on up to the snow. I figure that I skied about 300 day tours, overall, even through drought years. It was a grand outdoor weekend, one day on top of a backcountry snowy peak, back to town to view a movie, then the next day, hiking trails along the Coast. Most of those people hated it, though, as I liked gain and workouts, which they didn’t. All long past times, which most likely won’t ever happen again. Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, when gas was much cheaper!

Scott Nelson · February 5, 2016 at 11:47 pm

I moved from mostly dry Southern California this summer to tropical Oahu. If you will not walk thru mud you better take up bowling. I noticed some experienced hikers used micro spikes, especially on slick downhills and have started using them once in a while. Here the mud is sometimes just at the right angle and consistency to be super slick. In So Cal, I would have called it wet Adobe. It is common here to find a frayed polypropylene hanging down a section like this- with about 5 strands remaining!

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