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Leave No Trace: Be ready to get muddy

Be prepared for muddy boots and trail shoes during spring hikes.
(Image courtesy of LNT)

What effect does a footstep have? The answer is, it depends. A footstep means different things to a tree sapling and meadow grass, to leaf litter and cryptobiotic soil, to a gravely riverbank and muddy springtime trail.

Unfortunately, trampling causes vegetation damage and soil erosion in virtually every environment. Recovery that takes a year in the southern Appalachians might require 25 years or more in Glacier National Park, Montana.

Other impacts are also possible. Most pristine soils contain animals that live or feed on decaying plants. Trampling destroys habitat for these insects, earthworms, mollusks and snails, as well as the fungi that fertilize the soil and help make regrowth possible. Vegetation protects underlying soils. Once plant growth is destroyed, erosion can continue with or without further use.

As the weather warms and the days get longer, the urge to hit the trail grows stronger every day. While springtime is a great time for hiking and trail running, it can also be a very sensitive time for the trails we enjoy.

Cycles of snow and sun and freeze and thaw can make for wet and muddy trail conditions in many parts of the country. In order to do the least possible damage to the trail, and to Leave No Trace, please keep the following in mind:

  • Be prepared to hike or run down the middle of the trail even when wet or muddy. Stepping off the designated trail to avoid mud or standing water can quickly lead to the creation of undesignated trails, which can lead to even more erosion.
  • Wear water-resistant or waterproof footwear. Even if you don’t have waterproof footwear, remember that shoes dry overnight while erosion can take years to recover.
  • Consider wearing gaiters to help keep your feet dry. Gaiters, available at most any outdoor store, will help keep your feet dry when sticking to wet or muddy trails.
  • Hike or run in the early morning or late afternoon. Muddy areas are more likely to be harder (due to colder air temps) and less messy since harder soils are much less likely to erode.
  • When possible, stick to south-facing trails, which tend to be drier. The drier the trail, the less damage, if any.
  • Consider using small sheet metal screws in the bottom of your soles. This will increase traction on icy areas, allowing you to stick to the trail in all conditions.

By following these simple recommendations, you’ll be more comfortable and more likely to hike or run right through the puddles and mud thereby causing no damage to trailside vegetation or unnecessary trail widening.

Enjoy the springtime and Leave No Trace.

Ben Lawhon is the education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, one of the outdoor and environmental non-profit organizations that Trailspace supports.

Leave No Trace teaches people of all ages how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly, and is the most widely accepted outdoor ethics program used on public lands. As the leader in sustainable recreation practices, the center is training a nation of outdoor advocates to put Leave No Trace principles into action.


Do we practice Leave No Trace at Carbon County Environmental Education Center? What do you think? As we walked this day, I could hear little voices saying "No, stay in the middle!" whispered from the group behind me. By the time we got back, there were quiet chants of "Leave No Trace, Leave No Trace..." Proud.


Great picture, f_klock!

Something often left out of LNT discussions is the problem of invasive species. Before you leave the Trailhead in your car, you should clean your boots. Some places where I have run into this - here in California, we have a serious problem with SOD (Sudden Oak Death). This is a complex infestation that is transported from area to area, even within Northern California, in the dust and mud on boots, among other ways that humans transport the disease. It affects California Live Oaks (as the name implies), but also other species of oak, madrone, and even to some extent a number of conifers.

Another species that is a real pest is what is variously called Scotch Broom and French Broom (very similar species). This plant can quickly take over a meadow with plants 5 or 6 feet high, and even in the shade of trees.

Several molluscs are transported on watercraft from lake to lake/stream/reservoir, and even from kayaks used in the SFBay (coming from the large container ships that are carrying goods from Asia). The eggs are so tiny that they are not seen easily by eye, but will adhere to canoes and kayaks. 

On my return from expeditions and trips that had stops in Europe, Africa, Australia, and South America, I have had the Department of Agriculture people at the airports have me take my boots out of my luggage to prove they had been cleaned. The big question was if I had been on a farm (they didn't seem to be as concerned about deer droppings for some reason as cattle droppings).

Surprisingly, earthworms are not native to North America, but were apparently brought to the Atlantic coast in the dirt used as ballast in sailing ships that came from Europe intending to transport huge amounts of gold in their eastward journey. There was a discussion of this in a recent issue of National Geographic in an article about the English settlements in the 16th and 17th centuries.

I use to go 4 wheeling a lot, but have stop and used hiking as my main enjoyment.  I lived in Colorado for many years and I can see a trail on my families property that I drove over 32 years ago.  I was the last one to drive this path and it's still there, I thought it was cool back then but now I know it was wrong.  I feel hiking has open my eyes to the damage that is caused by offroading, but also I can see damage caused by hiking.  In Chula Vista I stay on the trails, I remove backpacks and clothes from the trails every time I hike in this area, but I do use rubber gloves.


In the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, theres a sign that says, "In the Desert plants grow by the inch, and die by the Foot". Underfoot they mean.

To help support this and stay somewhat dry a good pair of gators is a good spring time purchase, they usually go on sale around this time. While they may not keep one totally dry they will help prevent the grit, sand and little rocks that manage their way in around the top of our boot causing that hiking ending blister or small cut on your ankle. 

Promote staying on the trail with young kids I tell my 5 year old to stay out of the mud unless we are hiking on the trail, hence we do alot of hiking, what 5 year old does not enjoy a chance to walk through the mud!

I'll add one more point for muddy spring hiking:

Be prepared to hike a different trail (or not at all).

Occasionally a trail is just too muddy and would be ruined by use, and should be avoided. Some are even closed during mud season.

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