What do you need to know about trail conditions before going backpacking?

Before you set off on a backpacking trip, you need to know a few things about trail conditions. This includes the factors that affect trail conditions, how seasonal changes and the weather affect conditions, how terrain type impacts trail difficulty, and how to find information on trail conditions.

What factors affect backpacking trail conditions?

The following list summarizes the main factors that impact backpacking trail conditions.

  • Recent and current weather conditions
  • Traffic (causes erosion and degradation)
  • Flooding
  • Treefall
  • Landslides
  • Water levels (if the hike is tidal or involves river crossings)
  • Bridges being out

How does human activity affect trail conditions?

Hiking, biking, and horse riding all have a detrimental effect on trail conditions by contributing to erosion and degradation. On trails nearer urban areas, trail users may also have to deal with pollution. Heavily trafficked trails are often smoother and less vegetated, but this is often to the detriment of native plant life.

Can local vegetation and wildlife affect trail conditions?

The presence of thick undergrowth or poisonous flora can impact trail conditions negatively, making entire trails or sections of trail trickier to negotiate. Some obvious examples include cacti, poison oak, poison sumac, and poison ivy. Wildlife does not impact trail conditions, but the presence of bears, wildcats, or moose may mean you have to take a detour. 

What effects do natural disasters have on trail conditions?

The following list summarizes how natural disasters may affect trail conditions.

  • Avalanche. May make sections of trail impassable or too dangerous to pass.
  • Earthquakes. Can cause landslides, damaging or obliterating large sections of a trail.
  • Rockslides/Landslides. Can obliterate sections of trail and make passing near the site of the slide risky due to instability. 
  • Flash floods. Can make sections of waterlogged or impassable because of debris. 
  • Wildfires. Can render huge sections of trails impassable. In most cases, wildfires will cause long-term closure of the trail.

How can local weather affect backpacking trail conditions?

The list below outlines the ways in which local weather can affect backpacking trail conditions.

  • Heavy rain. Expect muddy trails, meaning you’ll have to be more careful with your footing and your pace will likely be slower. Any river crossings are also likely to be more perilous due to higher water levels.
  • Strong winds. Expect a tough time on ridges or exposed sections of the trail. In woodland, fallen trees or branches may make sections of the trail impassable.
  • Sub-zero temperatures. Conditions may be slippery underfoot, requiring the use of microspikes.
  • Snowfall. Lighter snowfall may make the trail slippery while heavier snowfall may sucre trail signage and slow your progress.
  • High humidity. Bugs galore!

How does the level of maintenance impact trail conditions?

Well-maintained trails are invariably easier and safer for backpackers. The following list outlines how some of the main maintenance features impact trail conditions for backpackers.

  • Drainage channels. Prevent flooding and erosion.
  • Retaining features (rocks, locks, wood beams). Keep hikers on the trail and help to prevent erosion, landslips, and flooding, and keep hikers on the established trail, which helps to prevent damage to plant life.
  • Turnpikes. Elevate the trail above wet ground, especially in marshes or bogs.
  • Styles. Aid in passing over walls or fences.
  • Stone or log steps. Assist on inclines/declines that might otherwise be slippery.
  • Branch and brush removal. Makes progress easier.
  • Cleaning water bars. Moves water off the trail.

Where to find real-time trail conditions for local trails?

The best way to find real-time trail conditions is via resources like Flowfeed or Trailforks, by calling the ranger station nearest to the area where you’ll be backpacking, or by checking the updates on the park website.

How do you backpack safely based on current trail conditions?

The following list summarizes how to backpack safely with different trail conditions.

  • In a drought. Carry plenty of water and be prepared for sore feet from hiking on hard ground (blister pads and well-cushioned shoes are recommended)
  • In snow and ice. Use crampons or microspikes and carry an ice axe. Use a map and compass – trail markings may be obscured or hidden.
  • After heavy rainfall. Wear high-cut boots and gaiters, and use trekking poles.
  • After landslides or rockfall. If the trail isn’t closed, seek and use a safe diversion that will steer you well clear of the affected area.
  • Keep an eye on the time. Keep track of your time and distance so you can make it back to camp for the evening in good time.

Under what circumstances should you cancel going backpacking?

The following list outlines the circumstances under which you should cancel a planned backpacking trip.

  • Excessively strong winds
  • Flash flooding
  • Heavy snowfall in avalanche-prone areas
  • Temperature extremes
  • In the event of a nearby forest fire
  • If the route involves dangerous river crossings after heavy rain

When is weather too severe to safely go backpacking?

If there is heavy enough snow cover to pose an avalanche risk, winds over 35mph, or heavy rainfall that may cause flash flooding or landslides, it’s in your best interests to take a rain check. We also wouldn’t recommend setting off in temperatures north of 90 degrees (F) or in a thunderstorm.

How do seasonal changes affect trail conditions for backpacking?

In summer, you can expect mostly dried-out (and, thus, hard) conditions underfoot if there are spells without significant rainfall. 

In spring, remnant snow at higher elevations can make sections of trail impassable while melting snow at lower elevations could make things boggy or very muddy.

In winter, snow and ice can make certain trails tricky or even treacherous, and specialized equipment like crampons and an ice axe might be required.

Fall is generally considered to be the best season for backpacking as it is rarely subject to weather extremes and trails benefit from vegetation and overgrowth having been reduced by trail traffic in spring and summer.  

Is summertime best for backpacking?

While summertime might seem like the best time for backpacking, it is not without hazards – high temperatures can lead to dehydration, sunburn, sunstroke, heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and other heat-related illnesses or injuries. You can also expect more traffic on trails, bugs, and afternoon thunderstorms in some alpine zones.

What hazards are associated with summer backpacking?

The main hazards associated with summer backpacking are dehydration, sunburn, sunstroke, heatstroke, heat exhaustion, bug bites, and afternoon thunderstorms.

What gear should you take backpacking in summer?

In addition to the Ten Essentials, summer hikers should have lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, a sunhat, plenty of sunscreen, and water purification tablets or a filter. It’s also a good idea to carry a first-aid kit stocked with supplies to treat heat-related illnesses and injuries, blisters, and chafing.

What should you wear backpacking in summer?

When backpacking in summer, your two main goals are sun protection and staying cool. To this end, we recommend wearing the items on the list below.

  • Light-colored, loose-fitting shorts/pants and t-shirt/shirt
  • Hiking shoes or sandals
  • Breathable, quick-drying underwear (not cotton)
  • A sun hat
  • Sunglasses
  • High-factor sunscreen
  • A neck gaiter

What hazards are associated with winter backpacking?

The main hazards associated with winter backpacking are avalanches, whiteouts, blizzards, frostbite, hypothermia, injuries from slipping on ice, less daylight, difficult trail conditions, fatigue from carrying heavy winter gear, freezing nighttime temperatures, and hidden trail markers/blazes.

What gear should you take winter backpacking?

When backpacking in winter, you should pack the items on the following list.

  • Four-season tent
  • Four-season sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad with a minimum R-value of 5
  • Microspikes
  • Down jacket
  • Gaiters
  • Insulated gloves
  • 3- or 4-season boots
  • Thick, warm socks
  • Insulating midlayers
  • Thermal baselayers
  • Rain gear
  • Ample stove fuel

What to wear backpacking in winter?

The following is a list of what to wear when backpacking in winter. 

  • Breathable baselayer (pants and top if needed)
  • Wool or synthetic midlayer
  • Windbreaker jacket or hoodie, or insulating jacket (synthetic or down puffy)
  • Rain pants and jacket in wet conditions
  • Gaiters (if there’s deep snow on the trail)
  • Gloves
  • Beanie
  • Thick socks
  • Neck gaiter (Buff)
  • Sunglasses

How to stay warm backpacking in winter?

To stay warm on a cold-weather backpacking trip, follow these tips.

  • Use the layering system.
  • Tweak the layering system by adding thicker layers than you’d wear in spring or fall.
  • Make sure all layers are made with breathable fabric.
  • Carry spare socks and gloves.
  • Wear a warm hat.
  • Limit rest stops to 5 minutes to avoid cooling down excessively.
  • Use pit zips, leg zips, and pocket zips to cool off instead of shedding a layer.
  • Use four-season gear.
  • Choose a smaller tent to boost thermal efficiency.

Why backpack in spring?

The main benefits of backpacking in spring are the abundance of beautiful wildflowers, pleasant temperatures, and the chance to see waterfalls in spate.

What hazards are associated with backpacking in spring?

The main hazards specific to hiking in spring are summarized below.

  • Snowbound passes or sections of trails
  • Wildlife emerging from hibernation
  • Ticks and bugs
  • Avalanche risk
  • Rivers and streams in spate
  • Icy trails
  • Fewer daylight hours (compared to summer)
  • Significant temperature variations

Why backpack in fall?

Fall is generally considered to be the best season for backpacking. The reasons why are listed below.

  • The beauty of fall foliage
  • Idea hiking temperatures
  • Less risk of weather extremes
  • Better trail conditions
  • Fewer bugs (especially mosquitos)
  • Quieter trails
  • Higher chance of wildlife sightings

What hazards are associated with backpacking in fall?

The main hazards specific to hiking in fall are summarized below.

  • Temperature variations
  • Shorter days
  • Cool nights
  • Slippery leaves
  • Hidden hazards (leaves can obscure roots, rocks, and holes)
  • Hidden trail signage (those leaves again!)

How does the weather affect backpacking trail conditions?

The main weather events that impact trail conditions are rain, snow, and sub-zero temperatures, which can lead to iced-over terrain. While rain can cause flooding, muddy conditions underfoot, and difficult stream crossings, ice can make trails slippery and snow will make your progress slower and may even pose an avalanche risk.

How does rain impact backpacking trail conditions?

Rain can impact trail conditions by making conditions underfoot loose or boggy, and may make stream or river crossings unsafe.

What gear is needed for backpacking in the rain?

When backpacking in the rain, we recommend wearing waterproof hiking boots, rain pants, a rain jacket, and gaiters and a rain hat if need be. All of these must be breathable as well as waterproof. We also recommend using a waterproof cover for your backpack.

What precautions to take for cold-weather backpacking?

The following list summarizes the extra precautions you might need to take when backpacking in cold weather.

  • Carry extra layers of clothing
  • Bring microspikes
  • Bring a warmer sleeping bag
  • Bring a sleeping pad with a higher R-value
  • Check avalanche forecasts in the event of snowfall
  • Bring extra fuel to cook meals and melt snow for water
  • Learn how to avoid frostbite and hypothermia

What gear should you pack for backpacking in 30- to 40-degree weather?

In 30 to 40-degree weather, you should ideally wear a long-sleeved, breathable base layer and a thin midlayer plus a thicker midlayer. You’ll also need a sleeping bag rated to at least 25 degrees, a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5, and a 3- or four-season tent. Gloves, a hat, and microspikes for iced-over trails are also essential. 

How do you safely backpack in the snow?

The following list offers our top tips for backpacking in snow.

  • Wear warm hiking boots with good tread.
  • Wear microspikes or crampons.
  • Wear gaiters.
  • Tweak the layering system, using thicker layers.
  • Carry spare socks, gloves, and a hat.
  • Learn crampon techniques and how to walk with an ice axe.
  • Hike with a friend.
  • Check weather and avalanche forecasts before setting off.
  • Carry the Ten Essentials.
  • Check the trail is open before you leave.
  • Consider adding a groundsheet to your tent setup.

What skills are required for backpacking in snow?

For backpacking in snow, it’s important to learn suitable crampon techniques, how to walk with an ice axe, how to self-arrest with an ice axe, how to stay warm in a tent, and avalanche safety.

How do you keep cool when hot-weather backpacking?

Below you’ll find our top tips for staying cool when backpacking in hot weather.

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. 
  • Hydrate.
  • Avoid hiking at the warmest times of the day.
  • Dip your shirt or hat in cool water if you pass a stream or river.
  • Take regular breaks in the shade.
  • Collapse your tent during the daytime if spending more than one night in the same location.
  • Choose a well-ventilated tent and ditch the rainfly in dry conditions.

What hazards are associated with hot-weather backpacking?

The main hazards associated with hot-weather backpacking are dehydration, sunburn, sunstroke, heatstroke, heat exhaustion, bug bites, and afternoon thunderstorms.

How windy is too windy for backpacking?

At 25 miles per hour, most backpackers will struggle to maintain balance. Wind speeds above 40 mph will most likely make conditions unviable for all but the most experienced backpackers and you run the risk of your tent collapsing if the poles snap.

How do you maintain balance when backpacking in windy conditions?

When backpacking in windy conditions, try to keep your center of gravity low, use trekking poles for balance, avoid ridges or exposed ground, don’t attach anything to the outside of your pack, and consolidate your pack’s load with your compression straps.

How does terrain type impact trail difficulty?

The type of terrain can significantly affect how easy or challenging your backpacking trip will be. The following list outlines types of terrain you might encounter and their difficulty.

  • Forest. Varies depending on level of maintenance. Generally easier if undergrowth is minimal.
  • Scree and Talus. You’ll have to move much more slowly to avoid injury, particularly on talus.
  • Marsh or Bog. Unless there’s a boardwalk, expect to go at a slower pace.
  • Beach/Coastal/Dune. You’ll move far more slowly in sand and tidal sections may be either very slippery or temporarily impassable due to high tides. 
  • Alpine. Scree, talus, and late-season snow are the main challenges. 
  • Desert. Expect to move at a slower pace and have difficulty trail-finding 
  • Canyon. The narrowness of trails, exposure, and the presence of sand underfoot is likely to slow you down. Some canyons also involve sections of wading through water.

What hazards are associated with high-altitude backpacking?

The main hazards associated with high-altitude backpacking are hypoxia and pulmonary and cerebral edema, both of which can be fatal. Other hazards include frostnip, frostbite, hypothermia, and increased exposure to UV radiation.

How to acclimatize for high-altitude backpacking?

The best way to acclimatize for high-altitude hiking is to gradually increase altitude over a series of days, building gradually up to a high point. 

What gear is recommended for beach backpacking?

The following list includes some gear that will come in handy if your backpacking route involves hiking or sleeping on a beach.

  • Lightweight gaiters to keep sand out of your shoes
  • UV-protective clothing
  • Sunglasses
  • High-factor sunscreen
  • Sandals
  • Quick-drying shorts in case you take a dip
  • Trekking poles
  • Assorted dry bags

What specific considerations are there for beach backpacking?

The main considerations for beach backpacking are tide times and dealing with sand or rocky terrain.

What specific skills are required for alpine backpacking?

Because alpine backpacking may involve hiking on snow, even in summer months, you should learn suitable crampon techniques, how to walk with an ice axe, and how to self-arrest with an ice axe, and be able to navigate with no visible trail.

What gear is recommended for alpine backpacking?

Below is a list of gear you’re likely to need for for alpine backpacking.

  • High-factor sunscreen.
  • Crampons and ice axe (if above the snowline).
  • Gaiters.
  • A climbing helmet.
  • Rain gear.
  • Extra layers.
  • Gloves and a hat.
  • Three or four-season boots, depending on the time of year.
  • A short rope to assist inexperienced hikers. 
  • A sturdy tent to deal with strong winds.

What hazards are associated with backpacking in canyons?

The main hazard when hiking in canyons is flash flooding. Flash floods can strike even when rainfall is occurring miles away from your location. Navigation in canyons is also tricky as there are fewer significant landmarks to navigate by. In canyons with steep walls, backpackers should also beware of rockfalls.

What gear is recommended for canyon backpacking?

In slot canyons where water is likely to be present, you’ll need quick-drying clothing or a swimsuit, dry bags for all your gear, and a pair of sandals or water shoes. In dry canyons, you’ll need standard backpacking gear plus a backup navigational device (finding your way can be tricky) and a very detailed map.

What risks are associated with desert backpacking?

The main risks when backpacking in the desert are those associated with high temperatures and sun exposure: dehydration, sunburn, heat exhaustion, sunstroke, and heat stroke. Other risks are getting lost, prickly plant life, and snakes.

What skills are required for desert backpacking?

When backpacking in the desert, good map and compass skills are essential. Hikers should also be able to dress to limit sun exposure, be able to find and treat water, and know how to deal with heat-related ailments or injuries.

How to find information on current backpacking trail conditions?

The best ways to find information on current backpacking trail conditions are listed below.

  • National Park or State Park websites
  • Online hiking group trip reports
  • Recent photos on social media
  • Calling ranger stations in the area
  • Checking ski resort web pages
  • Checking live-feed snowcams in popular skiing areas
  • Regional information pages like New England Trail Conditions, Wisconsin Hiking Trails Report, or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for example.

Where to update others about current trail conditions?

You can update others about current trail conditions by calling or emailing the relevant national or state park office or range station, on social media, or by adding a trip report to online groups or resources such as The Appalachian Trail Conservancy or Trailforks.

How do you check backpacking conditions when already on the trail?

When you’re already on the trail, you can get updates on trail conditions from passing backpackers, places you pass on your route (mountain huts or villages on thru-hikes, for example), a simple weather search, or by checking the bulletins on park websites.