On the Trails: Mud season presents a slate of challenges

By Sean Ogle

The last year has been difficult for everyone. Even in our idyllic corner of the world, we’ve been confined to our homes, isolated from loved ones and tasked to endure additional hardships when going about our daily lives.

I began to view the COVID-19 era as a form of protracted winter and, as every New Englander knows, after winter comes mud season.

The great thaw brings warmer weather and optimism, so it is understandable that many wish to get back to business as usual. But we must continue to be vigilant or else risk worsening the effects of winter.

Mud season always presents a challenge due to conditions that result in the greatest damage to trails. One day it might snow a foot, while the next might be 60 degrees and sunny. These fluctuations, coupled with spring rains, saturate the soil beyond its ability to absorb the water.

One only needs to drive off of pavement for a moment to see the devastation normal activities wreak upon our infrastructure when the frost leaves the ground.

The U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab conducted a study of muddy Vermont roads. Their report, Improved Performance of Unpaved Roads During Spring Thaw, concluded that the cost of improving mud season road conditions can be estimated at up to a staggering $140,000 per mile.

The comparative impact to trails is just as significant. Trails that are oversaturated are vulnerable to soil compaction, which in turn makes the soil less absorbent. Even worse, as any gardener knows, compacted soil is less conducive to vegetative growth and is more susceptible to erosion.

These factors create a vicious cycle of worsening conditions in which a small impact becomes a lasting problem. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to act responsibly at this time

Luckily, one can easily minimize damage done to trails. During mud season, it may be advisable to avoid certain trails entirely such as those prone to seasonal wetness or those with sensitive habitats. Many online resources, such as the UVTA’s Trail Finder, provide up-to-date information on trail conditions as well as closures that might result from mud season.

Certain types of trail usage are more impactful than others. Motorized vehicles are on one end of that spectrum, with equestrian and biking in the middle, but even foot travel can alter saturated trails permanently. Please be courteous of other users, the resource and your own future enjoyment by taking the time to assess whether a specific use is appropriate for a specific trail during mud season.

No matter how you recreate, all trail users can follow a few tips to minimize impact. When possible, stick to trails with more durable surfaces like pavement, sand, rock and crushed stone. When selecting a trail, low elevations and south-facing slopes are likely to dry out earliest in the season.

If a trail or access road is particularly muddy, consider selecting another trail nearby or coming back another time. This is one situation in which quitting is a courageous decision.

Perhaps most important is a piece of advice that may not seem so intuitive: In wet environments, it is generally more sustainable to go through a puddle than around it.

Though it may be preferable to keep your feet dry, walking around a wet area is likely to worsen damage to a trail by widening the impacted area, further trampling erosion-mitigating vegetation and compacting the soil that is most likely to absorb the very puddle you are trying to avoid. Honestly, this is something I could improve about my own trail use; I’m not a fan of wet socks. I think it is a good idea to start commending people that trudge right through the puddles since they are doing everyone a favor.

To bring it full circle, the situation with COVID this spring is a particularly good metaphor for why is it imperative to stay responsible during mud season. The warmer weather and optimistic outlook after a dark winter may entice us to forego our better judgment in order to get back to enjoying life again. But if we become irresponsible and reckless, we only worsen conditions for everyone.

Written by Sean Ogle and published in the Valley News on April 9th, 2021.