It's Mud Season. Here's How You Can Protect Vermont's Hiking Trails

Apr 19, 2017

Vermonters may be looking for a chance to explore the great outdoors now that it's springtime, but venturing out on a hike during the mud season could actually cause damage to trails.

Kristin McLane, the membership and communications coordinator for the Green Mountain Club, spoke to Vermont Edition Tuesday about the impact on trails at this time of year.

Mud season is a familiar concept to Vermonters, but McLane breaks down why exactly it happens – it occurs due to a combination of melting snow, spring rain and thawing ground.

"The combination of all of that moisture and precipitation, the ground can't handle it. So it becomes oversaturated," McLane says. "It just can't absorb any water, so mud puddles just appear everywhere."

Trying to hike during these conditions can create a series of issues.

"When people hike on oversaturated trails, they cause soil compaction, and that degrades the quality of the trail because it reduces its ability to absorb water," McLane says. "And when it can't absorb water, that increases the flooding later, and it makes it harder for vegetation to grow. And then, when vegetation can't grow and hold the soil in, erosion starts to carry the soil away. And that leaves rocks and roots exposed."

"When people hike on oversaturated trails, they cause soil compaction, and that degrades the quality of the trail because it reduces its ability to absorb water." — Kristin McLane, Green Mountain Club

But it's not as simple as avoiding puddles when you come across them.

"When you walk around the muddy area, it tramples the vegetation," McLane says. "It widens the trail and it causes more damage to the trail and the environment."

McLane says that while this damage is reversible, it does require attention from people who would otherwise be focusing on different trail maintenance work.

"It can take hours for a volunteer or trail crew to fix what takes just minutes to damage by hiking on these muddy trails," McLane explains. "So each footstep kind of makes extra work for those people who we already have other major projects planned for them this year. So when they have to clean up after mud season, that kind of takes time away from the other projects." 

In addition to trail health, McLane also mentions a safety concern for hikers to consider.

"Just because it's warm and dry at the trailhead, that doesn't necessarily mean that's what it's going to be like farther up the trail," McLane says. "You could still be walking into winter if you somehow made it past the mud without damaging the trail."

"It can take hours for a volunteer or trail crew to fix what takes just minutes to damage by hiking on these muddy trails."

If you do want to enjoy the outdoors this time of year, McLane suggests activities like biking or paddling, or hiking on a recreation path or back road. Another option that McLane offers is to hike up the auto roads at Vermont peaks like Mount Ascutney and Mount Philo.

"If you really, you know, can't resist the call of the trail, you need to get out there, we ask that people stick to lower elevations and south-facing slopes. Those tend to dry out a little bit earlier in the season," McLane says.

"But we still really need people to just be flexible. So like I said, if you show up at the trailhead, it may look a certain way. Once you get a little ways into your hike, it might start to look different. So we just ask people to be willing to turn around if the trail becomes muddy. Just one of the "Leave No Trace" principles for outdoor ethics is to only travel on durable surfaces, and mud is not durable. So we just really ask people to be ready to turn around."

For information throughout mud season, McLane says calling the Green Mountain Club Visitor Center or visiting the Vermont State Parks website are two ways to find out what trails are open.

Some trails are just closed until Memorial Day, reminds McLane, including Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump.

Listen to the full conversation from Vermont Edition above.