Stewardship Tip: Stop Mud Season from Making your Community Trails a Mess

Boots in the mud

Spring rains reveal the sand, dirt, and debris left behind by melting snow. New dog owners quickly learn their pet’s winter deposits do not melt away. The entire New Hampshire landscape changes as warmer temperatures once again reveal the ground beneath our feet.

Trails that were once a gateway into a wintery wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts with snowshoes and skis are no more. A winter of busy recreation has compacted the snow and ice. Even if the trailhead and sides of the road are free from snow, hikers will still find ice, slush and mush on popular trails. Woodland trails will hold snow even longer due to the cooler temperatures and shade found in places likes a hemlock grove.

When trails are muddy, it’s best to encourage your community to fight off cabin fever for a few weeks until trail surfaces dry out and firm up. This will go a long way toward protecting trails. Other things to consider are the long-term cost of trail reconstruction, water quality impacts on nearby streams, soil erosion and hiker safety.

Here are three ways to help your community cope with mud season:

1. Walk single file, even when it’s wet and muddy.

This tip comes from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. If you do head outside, bring footwear to match the trail’s conditions. When hikers walk around muddy spots to avoid getting their feet wet, they widen the trail and impact tree roots and other vegetation. Walking single file and going through, not around, muddy sections will help preserve the natural environment of the trail.

Leave No Trace’s principles apply in backyards or the backcountry, no matter the season. It’s common to find wet or muddy spots on otherwise dry trails year-round. Check out Leave No Trace’s website for more ideas on enjoying our natural world in ways that avoid human-created impacts.

2. Leave your gear by the door just a little longer.

Patience is hard, but consider the impact of all these trail activities over time and by numerous people. Activities like mountain biking or trail running have a higher impact during mud season. The narrow tires on a bike sink into mud, leaving deep ruts in the center of the trail and causing water to pool up. Avoid running during mud season. Running impacts the trail more than walking because of the force of your body’s weight coming down on the trail.

Similarly, equestrian and ATV users should wait a couple weeks until trail surfaces have firmed up. If high-impact use during mud season is a consistent problem in your community, consider posting temporary trail closures.

3. Celebrate with a volunteer workday

Let your community know trails are open for use by holding a spring volunteer workday. The best time to get out and start cleaning up the trail is around the start of black fly season (kudos if you can sneak it in before they hatch!). Clean up downed branches and trees and fix blazes and signs that have fallen into disrepair. Most importantly, this is the time to clean out drainages so that water moves quickly and efficiently off the trail. This way, water doesn’t build up, erode the surface, or flow down the trail.

Learn about the best ways volunteers can help with trail stewardship in this free guide: Trail Maintenance for Volunteers from the Stewardship Training Guides series published by UNH Cooperative Extension and Nature Groupie. If you decide to invite the public to help, Nature Groupie makes it easy to recruit volunteers with our free calendar and registration system for outdoor volunteer events (submit an event here). Our volunteer community of outdoor enthusiasts in New England is 2,600 people strong and continues to grow.

This story was originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of New Hampshire Town and City, a publication of the NH Municipal Association.