If you’re a hiker in Maine, spring is the season you wait for all year. The ground is greening up, right along with everything else. Trees are starting their leaf-out, and migrating songbirds are arriving in droves. Trails are snow-free in most of the networks, at least at lower elevations.
In Maine’s western mountains such as Bigelow, or on Katahdin, the last of the snow will be melting away soon enough. The call of the trail in spring is strong, and hikers respond by heading out. Before lacing those boots up, however, there are a few precautions to consider that are unique to spring hiking. You might find a few techniques and tips here that’ll work for you.
Planning your trip
Planning should be a big part of any hike, especially in spring. Making a plan is so important that Leave No Trace, an organization that supports sound hiker ethics, puts it at the top of its list of hiker practices. Planning doesn’t take much time. It can be as simple as deciding where you’re going to hike; and if it’s a hike that fits your ability. It also means you should carry a map and compass and know the regulations of the trail networks you plan to visit and land use.
Before leaving for any hike, determine its difficulty, either by reading the guide book or by looking at the map. For your first hike of the season, allow yourself plenty of time and consider starting off slowly, by taking shorter hikes, then increasing the mileage over a few trips.
The most important aspect to consider in spring hiking is the weather. This is the most changeable season, weatherwise. In a late spring like this one, you could start off your hike in cool temperatures, then have it warm up, then turn back to cool temps and rain. Weather fronts move quickly and sometimes defy the best of the weather models in Maine.
When you’re planning a spring hike, realize that stream crossings could present high water levels. There are miles of trails that cross streams in every major trail network in the state, and rain-swollen crossings could force a change in your plans.
Packing for spring
Packing for spring is kind of like packing for “winter light.” You won’t necessarily need long pants instead of shorts, but you might. If you have zip-off convertible pants-to-shorts, wear them. Otherwise, pack a pair of lightweight summer pants. Pack a wind shell for those windy summits. Throw in a wool beanie or fleece head band for when clouds obscure the sun and the temperatures drop. You probably won’t need gloves this time of year, unless you hike early in the morning.
Always pack a map or guidebook, compass, knife, first aid, and the others in the 10 essentials; flashlight or headlamp, knife, snacks, matches, signal device and emergency shelter.
On the trail
Once you’re on the trail start off slowly, especially if you haven’t been active over the winter. Try to keep a steady pace and take as many breaks as you need. Running out of daylight shouldn’t be a problem with the increasing amount of daylight now, but you still should get an early start for longer mileage or difficult hikes.
In the planning and packing for spring conditions you, of course, brought your extra wind, cold and rain apparel. Keep those items in the top of your pack for quick access, pull them out and put them on if the weather suddenly turns ugly.
Snack often, and drink water more often. Carry 2 quarts for longer hikes in case there’s no treatable water on your chosen trail.
When you do stop for breaks on summits and it’s windy, suit up in your wind shell and find a protected area to block the wind.
If you encounter high water at stream crossings, decide whether it’s worth risking your life for a hike before you attempt to cross. Gauge water depth with a long stick or your trekking pole before getting in. Flow is deceptively strong in spring, especially after a recent rain. I don’t recommend crossing swollen streams at all in spring, but if you do, don’t go solo. Either buddy up with other hikers to cross using safe practices, or wait until the water levels drop.
These are just a few tried and true methods that could make your spring hiking days go by with a little less effort and a little more safely. This is the time of year when there are rewards to just standing still in the outdoors. The air is crisp, and the views on clear days are expansive. The biting insects? Well, they haven’t arrived in force, yet. We’ve got a few weeks before that happens, depending on where in the state you are, of course. But that’s a whole other subject.