Life Leisure

Spring Hiking in Washington: What to Know Before You Hit the Trails

April 23, 2018
©unite images/Stocksy United

For people who love to hike, any sign of sun or warmth in the forecast at this time of year is practically an order to head to the mountains. Even the casual outdoor enthusiast is probably at least thinking about getting outside at this point. 

“Hiking is a great way to get fit while soaking up the benefits of being out in nature, but you need to be prepared before you head into the woods,” says David Townes, M.D., M.P.H., an emergency medicine physician at the University of Washington Medical Center who specializes in wilderness medicine.

Some hiking safety tips—pack first aid supplies, understand how to read a trail map, tell someone where you’ll be—apply all year. But others are more specific to spring. Follow these tips to stay safe and have fun the next time the mountain is out.

Pack layers

Just because the forecast is calling for 60 or 70 degree temps doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Temperatures can fluctuate throughout the day, and it tends to get way cooler as the day goes on.

“Especially in the spring, there’s a fairly dramatic difference between daytime high and late afternoon low temperatures,” says Townes.

The weather conditions once you reach a peak can be dramatically different, too, even on small mountains.

Pack more layers than you think you’ll need, including a hat and gloves. And since it’s the Pacific Northwest, bring something waterproof, too.

Know when the sun sets

When the days get longer, we can get tricked into thinking we’ve got all the time in the world on the trail. But just because it may feel like summer, remember that the sun doesn’t set at 9 p.m. Know when the sunset is before you head out, and give yourself more time than you think you need, as hikes often take longer than people think, Townes says.

Be prepared for lots of mud

Visiting a trail in the spring months that you've hiked before in the summer can come as a rude awakening. (Think mud, and lots of it. And maybe even some snow.) Wear sturdy, waterproof footwear to help you navigate wet and slippery surfaces and protect your feet, and consider buying or renting snow shoes or hiking poles in case you encounter snow or ice.

“Treat it more like winter, even it feels like summer,” says Townes.

Read recent trip reports

Trail conditions can sometimes seem like a mystery to novice and experienced hikers alike. Luckily, there are resources that can help take the guesswork out of it.

The Washington Trails Association’s online hiking guide is a great resource for researching the distance and difficulty of a hike. Looking at recent trip reports from fellow hikers can help you determine if you’ll encounter snow or ice and what condition the trail is in before you venture deep into the woods.

Don’t underestimate a hike

Nature doesn’t mess around, and neither should you. Before heading out for a hike, be really honest with yourself about what shape you’re in, how experienced you are as a hiker and the difficulty of the hike you’re signing up for, says Townes.

“I think a lot of people get in trouble because the hike was harder or steeper than they expected and has taken longer than they thought it would,” he says. “It’s better to have a nice, pleasant hike on a trail that took less time than you thought it would versus it taking longer and you end up being out after dark.”