Spring is in the air. The days are getting longer, the snow is starting to melt, and you know what that means: mud. Lots of mud. Ben Lawhon, Education Director of the Boulder-based Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, says being mindful of spring trail conditions can help prevent long-term damage to our favorite outdoor spaces. Here’s what he keeps in mind before heading out on early-season hikes.

1. Plan your route.

Before piling into the car, take a moment to search trail conditions online. Lots of forums, including Facebook and local land manager websites, post updated reports on what shape the trails are in. If your destination is muddy, find an alternative—your favorite trail will still be there in a few weeks.

2. Be prepared.

Just because it’s 50 degrees and sunny in town doesn’t mean the weather is as nice in the mountains. Be prepared for mixed conditions including mud, snow, and ice by wearing waterproof footwear and packing foot traction like microspikes. No waterproof boots? No problem. Tie grocery bags over your socks and slide your feet into your shoes. It might look silly, but you’ll be glad your feet are warm and dry. Use trekking poles with rubber tips to maintain balance without poking sensitive surfaces.

3. Walk through the mud.

As tempting as it might seem to step off the trail to avoid mud, this tramples trailside vegetation in the early stages of growth. Over time with hundreds or thousands of users skirting muddy sections of trail, not only are the plants robbed of their opportunity to grow, but also the trail widens. Restoring trails and building new infrastructure like boardwalks, stepping stones, and turnpikes requires money and labor that many land management agencies just don’t have right now.

If you’re horseback riding or mountain biking, be mindful of how the added weight will impact soggy areas, and if you’re running, move through muddy areas with caution.

4. Choose south-facing trails with minimal tree cover.

These trails get more sun, so they’re more likely to be dry, and dry ground is more resistant to impact.  Not sure which way is south? Look at a map online before heading out, or use the compass on your phone.

5. Observe trail closures.

Many land management agencies request voluntary compliance with staying off muddy trails, but some like Boulder County Open Space periodically close a trail entirely until the mud dries. Observing these closures and guidelines will get you back on the trails faster and mitigate costly trail repair work.

Lawhon says Leave No Trace in mud season is really just common sense paired with a desire to preserve the outdoor spaces we enjoy. Keep these tips in mind the next time you head out for a spring adventure.

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