What You Need to Know About Mud Season
You’re familiar with spring, summer, fall, and winter. But do you know about mud season?
Mud season is the shoulder season at winter’s end (late March in our region) and mid-spring (May) when trails are vulnerable to erosion and displacement due to an influx of water from snowmelt and fluctuating temperatures. This is a sensitive time for trails, soil, and vegetation, especially at higher elevations in the Catskill region. As responsible hikers and bikers, we should make sure to follow best practices to protect the land we love.
When should I visit the trails?
Remember to “walk or ride the freeze” and “skip the thaw.” That means you should aim to explore trails on colder days when the trail tread is frozen and skip the warmer days when the ground is thawing.
Why is this so important? The freeze-thaw cycle. On warmer spring days, snow melts and creates puddles. At night when the temperature drops, that saturated ground freezes. The water in the soil expands when it freezes, expanding the compacted tread soil. The sun warms up this expanded soil and creates mud. Muddy trails are vulnerable to deep ruts, which can damage the durable trail surface. Be particularly mindful of your potential impact when temperatures are between roughly 30-40 degrees this time of year.
Understanding the freeze-thaw cycle and planning your trip accordingly is the easiest way to do your part in protecting trails during mud season. If you do want to venture outdoors when it’s warmer—and muddier—the best choice is a trail with a hard-surface tread, like a carriage road or rail trail. Luckily, there are plenty of those throughout our region!
- Ashokan Rail Trail in the Catskills in Ulster County, N.Y.
- Blue Mountain Lake and Hemlock Pond in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Sussex County, N.J.
- Castle Point Carriage Road in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, Ulster County, N.Y.
- Columbia Rail Trail in Morris County, N.J.
- Lenape Trail in Essex County, N.J.
- Old Croton Aqueduct in Westchester County, N.Y.
How should I prepare?
We can best be prepared with two things: gear and know-how. Plan ahead, pick a trail based on the conditions and prepare with gear to make it easier to adventure during mud season. You’ll be more comfortable while also being mindful of our impact during this sensitive time of year.
If you come across mud on the trail, remember to stay on the trail and test out those waterproof boots! A good pair of waterproof boots will keep your feet dry and ready for whatever conditions the trail throws your way. Wear microspikes or crampons when trails are icy.
Gaiters are a fantastic Leave No Trace tool that keep the elements out of walkers’, hikers’, and runners’ footwear in any season. Available in either ankle, calf, or knee height, gaiters serve as a protective cover to keep debris and water out of your boots.
Trekking Poles (optional)
As an optional piece of gear, trekking poles allow hikers to keep their balance through particularly sticky stretches of muddy trail.
Picking Your Line of Travel: Stick to the trail + utilize trail features
Sometimes our instinct is to avoid the mud and travel either off the trail or on the edge of the trail. The muddy trail tread will recover better than the fragile vegetation stepped on off-trail, so be sure to travel through the middle of the trail. That vegetation serves as a vital ground cover: preventing erosion and providing food and habitat sources for wildlife.
Walking on the edge of the trail can also encourage trail widening, which over years can cause trails to be 15+ feet wide! Utilize trail features such as stepping stones and boards/puncheon. A little rock-hopping, anyone?
Remember to Play, Clean, Go!
Protect the land you love from invasive species by cleaning your boots, mountain bike, gear, and boats before you go out and after enjoying the outdoors.
Invasive plants can spread through seed dispersal. Seeds can hitchhike in boot treads, laces, and on your gear, especially if the trails are wet. Seeds can hang on your hike for up to 3 miles and from trail to trail. Clean the mud, dirt, and seeds off your footwear and gear before and after your adventures to protect native ecosystems and help stop the spread of invasive species. Boot brushes are the perfect tool for the job!
Trail building is both science and art. Trail Conference trail builder Erik Mickelson documents both on his website, Trailism. Visit trailism.com for more information on frost-thaw cycles and to learn about frost heave (as well as lots of other interesting info on trails).
To learn about needle ice, an interesting phenomenon that can be witnessed during mud season, visit my.ilstu.edu/~jrcarter/ice/needle/.