Aside from the hardcore year-round hikers, mid to late spring is the time of year when most hikers start getting out and hitting trails and exploring the backcountry wilderness. Temperatures are warming steadily, and runoff is coming down at its highest levels. With the increased flow in rivers and higher lake levels, it's important to take extra precautions while out enjoying your hiking and backpacking trips. Here are a few tips to make your time in nature a bit safer.
If Possible, Stay Out of the Water Completely
This one sounds obvious, but sometimes it's tempting to jump into a stream or lake when you're a few miles into your trek and it's a warm day. While temperatures might be in the 80s or warmer in May and June, water temperatures in streams and lakes are still lower than they'll be later in the season. With runoff still happening from snowmelt, waters can be deceptively cold and can cause you to cramp up quickly. Increased flow rates also make for less stable footing in rivers. If you must cross a stream, do so with caution and avoid deep areas. Otherwise, save the swimming for a later trip out.
Mind the Edges
With higher than normal water levels, the edges of lakes and rivers are soft and more prone to erosion. Adding your weight to a riverbank can cause the edge to give way and you can easily fall in unexpectedly. The outside edges of a river bend are particularly unstable at this time of year, so approach the edges of water where you won't be standing over an undercut bank or on a steep incline.
Bring Extra Clothes
Even lightweight clothes are better than wet clothes. If you accidentally get wet, having a change of clothes can make your trip much more comfortable and safe. Have a small dry bag in your backpack that includes a change of socks, underwear, a shirt, and pants. Even if you don't fall into water, late spring often brings unexpected rainstorms that can be heavy enough to drench your clothing. It's worth the small extra weight trade off to have an extra set of clothes.
Expect Mud and Standing Water
It's easy to know where the creeks, ponds, lakes, and streams are going to be, but early in the season snow melt can create a lot of standing water and mud. Even well-worn trails can see large muddy stretches or get inundated with water. Early in the season you need to plan your shoe or boot choices around the idea that you'll be trekking through mud and water. Avoid shoes that are likely to cause blisters when wet or shoes that saturate when submerged. Those Pumas you love are best left at home until later in the year when trails are dry.
Keep Your Group Together
If hiking in a group, stay close to one another, especially around water. With lower temperatures and swift moving water, it's important to help someone out of the water as quickly as possible should they fall in. Getting separated will delay help or make it too slow to arrive entirely. If you have kids along, keep them close and warn them clearly about staying out of the water or walking along river edges.
Let Someone Know Where You're Going
This is a general safety rule for any time you head into the backcountry or even out on a well-worn trail. You should always let someone you trust know where you plan on going so they can send help if you don't return when you are expected to be back. If plans change, update your contact. And while it's not always possible to inform someone if you do change your plans (lack of cell coverage, they're not answering calls, last minute plan change), the I Went Hiking Safety Magnet is a simple way to leave a marker on your vehicle or at your base camp. If help needs to come for you, it's always going to arrive faster if people know where to look.
Use common sense while out on the trail. If something doesn't look or feel safe, avoid it. Don't take risks, even if it means that it will cut your outing short. Come back later in the season to revisit areas that aren't quite ready to be approached safely. Getting a major injury early in the season could shut down the entire summer and fall for you, and even worse, you could lose your life taking risks that just aren't necessary. The backcountry is amazing, but it's not without risks. Be careful and always do everything you can to return home safely.