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Apr 24 2018

5 Easy Ways to Keep Muddy Trails in Tip-Top Shape

A little bit of care goes a long way

Exploring Montana, Featured

You’re strolling along a sunny trail, admiring the buds on the trees and the first green shoots poking up out of the ground, feeling the sun melt winter’s gray away, and then PLOP. You step right into a muddy hole hiding around a shady bend, soaking your shoes and socks and caking your lower leg in the goopiest of goop.

We know the effect that stomping right into a mud puddle has on our dignity and our hiking boots, but how does it affect our favorite trails? 

Mud season is a familiar reality in Montana, and while it’s wonderful to see some greenery and feel the sun on our faces, spring is a sensitive time for our favorite trails. Wet and muddy trails are easy to damage, and that damage can be difficult and expensive to fix. To help you minimize trail damage when you’re out exploring this spring, we’ve put together a list of five handy tips to keep in mind when you encounter a muddy trail. If we all work together, we can keep our trails smooth and pristine so everyone can enjoy them all year long. 

1. Embrace the filth

When you meet a muddy spot on the trail, don’t go around it - go right through it! Sure, you’ll get a little muddy, but that’s what spring hiking and biking are all about. Trying to go around mud puddles widens the trail, and that’s really tough to fix. Leaving established trails also causes damage to delicate plants and makes the trail more prone to erosion, which can cause even more hard-to-repair damage. 

2. Stay on the trail 

Leaving the trail entirely isn’t any better than skirting mud puddles. When you leave the trail, you create a “social trail” that others can follow, and that leads to more erosion, more confusion, and   more expensive trail maintenance. It’s best to just stay on the trail and keep point numero uno in mind.    

3. Choose carefully 

Avoiding muddy trails in the first place is often the best bet. Trail surface, aspect, and cover can all make a big difference in how much mud you’ll find. Loose sandy soils drain a lot faster than a water-hungry clay soils, so they dry out more quickly. Sunny south- and west-facing trails tend to dry faster than north- and east-facing trails, which spend more time in the shade. Trails out in the open dry out faster than trails in the trees. If you’re not sure which direction a trail faces, you can check with a map and compass before you leave the house. 

4. Check the clock

Time of day can also play a big roll in how soggy and sloppy a trail is, though there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules. If a trail is a little bit soggy, giving it the morning and early afternoon to dry out is a good idea. If it’s been cold at night but warm during the day, getting out on a trail early while it’s still frozen can avoid mud and reduce damage.  

5. Turn on your brain

On the trail, as in life, using common sense is always a good idea. If a trail seems like it needs to dry out, give it some time. If you’re leaving huge holes with every step, try heading somewhere else. If you’re pushing through endless mud in the vague hopes that things will get better soon, they probably won’t. 

Those are just some of our favorite springtime trail tips. If you’ve got other ideas to share, head on over to our Facebook page and let us know!

- Sonny Mazzullo, MWA stewardship coordinator