Trail Tuesdays (it’s new!): what you need for shoulder season hikes

Spring is finally starting to arrive here, which has me thinking about hiking.  When the sun is out and temperatures are rising, it’s tempting to want to get cracking on your hiking bucket list. However, just because Spring is…springing (see what I did there?) into action where you live, it doesn’t mean higher elevation trails aren’t still in winter’s grip.  This is what we call shoulder season, that transition between winter and hiking season, and it’s basically a crap bag of weather and conditions for which you need to be prepared. That’s why today’s post is all about how to prepare for shoulder season hiking.

Quick note: My recommendations here are for lower elevation day hikes during shoulder season, not more ambitious scrambles or mountaineering. That’s not my jam and it requires a considerable amount of knowledge and gear, neither of which I have.

Tips for Picking Shoulder Season Hikes

1. Check mountain forecasts not city forecasts: :  It may be sunny and snow-free where you are, but mountainous areas tend to be their own weather systems. Many National, State and Provincial parks have detailed weather reports for their parks, and some even have weather stations within the parks. These will give you far more accurate expectations for weather conditions on the trail.

2. Whenever possible, check trail condition reports:  Many parks also provide regularly updated trail condition reports that can keep you informed of all sorts of things that can ruin your planned hike (i.e. avalanche risk, washed out access roads, washed out trails, deadfall on trails, etc.). There are also countless online forums where other hikers provide trail reports.  Just be sure to check report dates to ensure you’re actually using recent information.

3. Follow the sun: Your best shoulder season hikes are on trails that get the most daytime sun exposure.  They’ll be the first to be snow-free in the Spring/Summer and the last to get a solid base of snow in Fall/Winter. Consider whether the sun’s trajectory is going to work in your favour on your planned hikes. For me, that most often means southwest facing slopes.

4. How low can you go: Low elevation may not yield the most spectacular views but, unless you know what you’re doing in snowy conditions, they are your best bet for hitting the trails during shoulder season. It’s simple science: snow lingers longest at higher elevations.  You have all summer to summit peaks and to get epic panoramic views. Keep it low in shoulder season.

what to take, what to wear & what to know

It’s important to note here that basics like first aid kits and other safety gear should be carried year round, so I haven’t included those items below. Though much of the gear I have mentioned below is also helpful year round, I think it’s particularly critical for the varied conditions you’ll encounter during shoulder season.

1. Light-Weight Waterproof Jacket: It may not be raining or snowing at the trail head. It might even appear to be a perfect day.  But I promise you that even a couple hundred metres of elevation gain can leave you standing in drastically different conditions, not to mention that weather systems generally change more quickly in the mountains.Take it from me, the girl who never carried a rain coat and nearly froze her ass off several times in the dead of summer: a compact, light-weight waterproof jacket will offer great protection against rain, snow and wind when temperatures don’t warrant a full-on winter coat.

2. Microspikes: The earlier in the season you attempt to hike, the more likely you’ll encounter some form of snow or ice.  I have been ill-prepared for many a shoulder season hike and have descended very long sections of trail only by combining a fierce crab-walk with some anxiety-riddled tree hugging. I don’t recommend either. Microspikes barely take up any room and will save you from making a spectacle of yourself in front of more prepared hikers (not that I would know anything about that).

3. Hiking Boots: I hate hiking boots. They are clunky and heavy and they interfere with my ability to feel the trail beneath my feet. Vanity alert: I also don’t have the leg shape to pull off hiking boots with shorts. Whenever possible, I’m the first to go with trail runners for any hiking experience. The one exception is shoulder season. If it’s not slush or snow, it’s going to be mud.  Any and all of these will lead to wet feet if you’re stubborn (like I’ve been in the past) and refuse to wear your hiking boots. You have all summer to hike in trail runners or low day hikers but this is the time to keep your feet insulated and dry.  For most moderate snow conditions, I find that hiking boots suffice, though there are the odd occasions when even gaiters would’ve been welcome.

4. Gloves & Toque/Hat: It’s generally good form to carry these two items, but it’s especially important during shoulder season. Should temperatures or weather change, you will be far happier.  I’ve also been known to use my hands to help me climb through steep sections of snow. Do that with bare hands just once and you’ll pack gloves forevermore.

5. Poles: I wrote about how much I hate carrying poles in another post in which I recommended carrying them in case of injury. Well, trekking poles are equally helpful for shoulder season in case you encounter snow and ice. They will give you a little extra stability, particularly descending on snow or crossing steep snow slopes.  I’ve also used them to test snow depth and stability when on unfamiliar terrain (more on unfamiliar terrain later).

6. Headlamp:  Hiking in shoulder season can sometimes take longer than expected due to trail conditions,  we sometimes forget the days are still shorter, and it can seem a lot darker in the woods than out in the open. If you are unexpectedly slower than planned, a headlamp is a great thing to have on hand. They’re cheap, light-weight and a lot brighter than the built-in flashlights on smart phones.

6. Know your route and know your limits:  If you do encounter snow during shoulder season, it’s entirely possible your route won’t be easily identifiable.  There may be no track to follow, and not all routes have tree markers. Let me tell you that even when I’ve been on trails I’ve hiked a million times in Summer conditions, I’ve found snowy conditions change the landscape enough that it can be disorienting and you can easily be led astray. Even if there are tracks in the snow, you can’t be entirely sure that previous hikers are on the right routes or travelling safely. Snow is an entirely different ballgame and what looks like sturdy snow may not be. If you’re unsure of the trail’s direction or snow stability, call it a day and wait for warmer weather to finish the trail. Safety first!

With the right gear and information, shoulder season hiking can be absolutely stunning. If you don’t believe me, here’s just a taste of the tranquility you can find:

Typical shoulder season: Wet snow, all of which had melted by the time I descended.
This was the wettest, stickiest snow to hike through. It constantly clumped on my microspikes but it was still worth it.

Happy trails!

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