What do you need to know about hiking conditions before hitting the trail?

Before you set off on a hike, you need to know a few things about trail conditions. This includes the factors that affect trail conditions, how to stay safe in extreme conditions, how to find information on trail conditions, and what conditions you can expect on different hiking routes at different times of year.

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What factors affect hiking trail conditions?

The main factor impacting hiking trail conditions are recent and actual weather conditions. Other factors include traffic (causes erosion and degradation), flooding, treefall, landslides, water levels (if the hike is tidal or involves river crossings), and bridges being out.

How does the level of maintenance impact trail conditions?

Well-maintained trails are invariably easier and safer to hike on. The following list contains some of the main maintenance features and what they do.

  • 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.

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?

Yes, 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 various 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.

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 hiking, or by checking the updates on the park website.

How do you hike safely based on current trail conditions?

Below, we summarize how to hike safely in 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 base in good time.

Under what conditions or circumstances should you cancel a hike?

You should cancel your hike if trail reports or forecasts indicate any of the circumstances or conditions on your hiking route from the following list.

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

When is weather too severe to safely go hiking?

It’s in your best interests to take a rain check 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. We also wouldn’t recommend hiking in temperatures north of 85 degrees (F) or in a thunderstorm.

How does the weather affect hiking 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.

Why do people hike in the rain?

While most hikers don’t actively seek out to hike in the rain, many are happy to not let a little rain ruin their plans. Rain also tends to make trails quieter, keeps the bugs away, clears the air, and makes the whole hike more adventurous.

How does rain impact trail conditions?

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

Is there any particular terrain to avoid in the rain?

After or during heavy rainfall, it’s best to avoid slot canyons, trails that involve stream or river crossings, and areas prone to landslides.

What gear do you need for hiking in the rain?

When hiking in the rain, we recommend wearing waterproof hiking boots, rain pants, and 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.

How do you keep dry when hiking in the rain?

To stay dry when hiking in the rain, invest in a quality rain jacket, rain pants, and waterproof boots. Wear gaiters if you’ll be wading through soaked undergrowth or boggy terrain, and a hat with a brim to keep rain off your face. It’s also a good idea to use a backpack cover (or wear a rain poncho) and use dry bags for spare clothing. 

We also recommend re-waterproofing your gear before your trip and wearing breathable layers to avoid sweating excessively.

How do you hike in the snow?

When hiking in snow, you need to dress appropriately, carry the right gear, and know the necessary skills.

This means wearing warm hiking boots with good tread and microspikes or crampons, gaiters to keep the snow out, and tweaking the layering system, using thicker layers, to stay warm. It’s never a bad idea to carry spare socks, gloves, and a hat, and all of the Ten Essentials.

Learn crampon techniques and how to walk with an ice axe before setting off, and always pay close attention to weather and avalanche forecasts for the area. To avoid disappointment, make sure you check the trail is open before you leave.

How does snow impact trail conditions?

Snow on the trails increases your risk of slipping and also makes progress much slower as more effort is required. Deeper snow can also make some portions of the trail impassable and poses an avalanche risk where the trail is exposed to steeper slopes (30–50 degrees).

What hiking skills are required for hiking in snow?

For hiking in snow, it’s important to learn suitable crampon techniques, how to walk with an ice axe, and how to self-arrest with an ice axe.

What temperature is too cold for hiking?

While there’s no definitive answer to what constitutes “too cold” when it comes to hiking in cold weather, the risk of frostbite, frostnip, and hypothermia increases exponentially the further temperatures drop below freezing. 

What precautions can be taken for hiking in cold weather?

To stay safe when hiking in cold weather, you should dress appropriately, check avalanche forecasts, know how to treat hypothermia, bring microspikes or crampons, carry the Ten Essentials, hike with a partner, stay hydrated, carry an avalanche beacon if hiking above the snowline, wear gaiters in deep snow, and be prepared for the worst.

What should you wear for hiking 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.  

What hazards are associated with hiking in icy conditions?

The main hazard associated with hiking on icy trails is slipping. Ice can also cover trail markings, making it more difficult to navigate, and increase the risk of hypothermia and other cold-related injuries.

How do you hike safely on icy trails?

To stay safe on icy trails, we recommend wearing a pair of microspikes or crampons. There will provide the traction needed to stay on your feet and avoid the many injuries that may result from slipping. 

How windy is too windy for hiking?

At 25 miles per hour, most hikers will struggle to maintain balance. Wind speeds above 40 mph will most likely make conditions unviable for all but the most experienced hikers.

How do you maintain balance when hiking in windy conditions?

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

How do you keep cool on hot-weather hikes?

To stay cool when hiking in hot weather, you should try to choose a hike with shade and avoid hiking at the warmest times of the day. Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, hydrate, take regular breaks in the shade, and dip your shirt or hat in cool water if you pass a stream or river to cool off.

What hazards are associated with hot-weather hiking?

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

How do seasonal changes affect hiking trail conditions?

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 hiking 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.  

Why hike in winter?

Winter is a great time to experience quieter trails and enjoy the beauty of natural landscapes cloaked in snow. You also won’t have to worry about bugs.

What hazards are associated with winter hiking?

The main hazards associated with winter hiking are avalanches, whiteouts, frostbite, hypothermia, injuries from slipping on ice, less daylight, difficult trail conditions, and hidden trail markers/blazes.

What do you wear hiking in winter?

When deciding what to wear hiking in winter, the top two priorities are warmth and breathability. Your getup should include a breathable baselayer (pants and top if needed), a wool or synthetic midlayer, a windbreaker jacket or hoodie, or insulating jacket (synthetic or down puffy), rain pants and jacket in wet conditions, thick socks, gloves, and a beanie. 

It’s also a good idea to wear gaiters (if there’s deep snow on the trail), a neck gaiter to prevent drafts, and sunglasses to block the strong UV rays reflected by snow cover.

How do you stay warm when hiking in winter?

On a cold-weather hike, it’s vital to use the layering system and tweak your system by adding thicker layers than you’d wear in spring or fall. Make sure all layers are made with breathable fabric (even your hat and gloves), and bring spare socks and gloves just in case.

Limit rest stops to 5 minutes to avoid cooling down excessively on the trail, and use your pit zips, leg zips, and pocket zips to cool off instead of shedding a layer.

Why hike in fall?

The following list highlights the reasons why fall is considered to be the best season for hiking.

  • 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 hiking in fall?

When hiking in fall, the main risks are temperature variations, shorter days, cool nights, slippery leaves, hidden hazards (leaves can obscure roots, rocks, and holes), and hidden trail signage (those leaves again!).

What should you wear for hiking in fall?

When hiking in fall, we recommend wearing a light or midweight baselayer, a midweight midlayer (fleece jacket or hoody), quick-drying socks and underwear, breathable pants, and waterproof hiking boots or shoes.

You should also always carry a rain jacket and pants, an insulating jacket (synthetic or down), a beanie, and gloves.

Is summertime best for hiking?

While summertime might seem like the best time to hike, 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 hiking?

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

What gear should you take on a summer hike?

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 on a summer hike?

On a summer hike, your two main goals are sun protection and staying cool. To this end, we recommend wearing 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, and a neck gaiter.

Why hike in spring?

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

What hazards are associated with hiking in spring?

The following list contains the main hazards you might encounter when hiking in spring.

  • 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)
  • Temperature variations

What to wear hiking in Spring?

When deciding what to wear hiking in spring, be prepared for everything from blazing heat to biting winds and snowy conditions. We recommend wearing a light or midweight baselayer, a midweight midlayer (fleece jacket or hoody), quick-drying socks and underwear, breathable pants, and waterproof hiking boots or shoes.

You should also always carry a rain jacket and pants, an insulating jacket (synthetic or down), a beanie, and gloves, and a pair of gaiters in case you have to hike through remnant snow.

Why do people go night hiking?

People go night hiking for various reasons, but mostly to enjoy a unique experience, for quieter trails, and to stargaze.

What hazards are associated with night hiking?

The main risks of night hiking are included on the following list.

  • Getting lost.
  • Trips on exposed roots and rocks.
  • Falls.
  • Inability to see approaching wildlife (predatory animals are more active at night).
  • Hunters might not be able to see you.
  • Hypothermia (temperatures are lower at night).

How do you navigate while night hiking?

Most night hikers navigate the same way as daytime hikers – with a map and compass or a GPS device. Some night hikers also choose to navigate by the stars.

How does terrain type impact trail difficulty?

The type of terrain you’re hiking on can significantly affect how easy or challenging your hike will be. Some types of terrain you might encounter, and their difficulty, are include below.

  • 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 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 hiking?

The main hazards associated with high-altitude hiking 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 do you acclimatize for high-altitude hiking?

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 hiking?

The following list includes some beach-hiking gear that might come in handy.

  • 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 hiking?

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

What specific skills are required for alpine hiking?

Because alpine hiking 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.

What gear is recommended for alpine hiking?

Some gear you might need for alpine hiking is listed below.

  • 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. 

What hazards are associated with hiking in canyons?

The main hazard when hiking in canyons is flash flooding. These 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.

What gear is recommended for canyon hiking?

This depends on the type of canyon. For 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 hiking gear plus a backup navigational device (finding your way can be tricky) and a very detailed map.

What risks are associated with desert hiking?

The main risks of desert hiking are those associated with high temperatures and sun exposure, such as dehydration, sunburn, heat exhaustion, sunstroke, and heat stroke. Other risks are getting lost, prickly plant life, and snakes.

What skills are required for desert hiking?

For desert hiking, good map and compass skills are essential. Hikers should also be able to dress to limit sun exposure and know how to deal with heat-related ailments or injuries.

What hazards are associated with wetland or marsh hiking?

When hiking in wetlands, the main hazards are saturated ground that makes the going slow and more tiring, wildlife, drowning (in coastal wetlands), bugs, difficult navigation, poisonous plants, and hypothermia.

What skills are required for wetland or marsh hiking?

The main difficulty for hikers in wetlands or marshlands where there are no or few boardwalks is navigation. As such, your map and compass skills and ability to find and follow trails should be on point.

How do you find information on current hiking trail conditions?

The following list contains the best ways to find information on current hiking trail conditions. 

  • 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 or Wisconsin Hiking Trails Report, 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 hiking conditions when already on the trail?

When you’re already on the trail, you can get updates on trail conditions from passing hikers, 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 the park website.