If you, like a record number of Seattleites, are getting ready to lace up your hiking boots and hit the dusty (or wet) trail, you need to prepare for different conditions depending on the time of year, elevation and other factors.
It can be tempting to wait until midsummer to venture into the mountains, but with some logistical and gear prep, shoulder season hikers are rewarded with lighter crowds, wildflowers poking out of the snow and fewer bugs. Here’s how to prepare for hiking in the shoulder season.
Expect the unexpected
Joe Sawyer is the gear manager for Seattle mountaineering, hiking and climbing guide service Mountain Madness. As the guru for packing out trips into the Cascade and Olympic mountains, he has witnessed many trips during shoulder season go awry.
“Utilizing the shoulder seasons to get in the mountains can be both finicky and rewarding,” he said. “It becomes a balancing act of tracking weather, in addition to being flexible on your goals and objectives.”
Inclement weather may bring a mix of rain, snow or hail, and with precipitation comes opportunities to get into predicaments. In the mountains, a bluebird day can quickly turn into a stormy one, leaving you in a dangerous situation unless you have the right gear, a stoic attitude and solid preparation skills.
The Ten Essentials are a given year-round; in shoulder season, you also should bring gear to accommodate a sudden change in weather.
Bringing the right gear during shoulder season isn’t as cut-and-dried as other times of the year. Bring too much and you’ll be weighed down with unnecessary baggage, taking the fun out of hiking or backpacking. Carry too little and you may get cold, wet and, ultimately, turned around quickly.
Jerry Casson, a longtime employee at Ascent Outdoors, a specialty outdoor hiking, skiing and climbing shop in Ballard, is an expert at helping people prepare for mountain adventures. He says June isn’t always your friend.
“If you are new to the Northwest, you might not have experienced the classic late season start to summer in the Cascades. But this year, here it is: Welcome to ‘June-uary,‘” he said. “This means that a lot of your favorite summer hiking trails are still covered in snow, or at least partially covered … think April-like conditions.”
You need to be prepared for hiking in snow, particularly if you are venturing into Olympic, North Cascades or Mount Rainier national parks, which hold snow well into summer.
“In addition to your normal summer hiking gear, you might add a few early season essentials,” he said. “For starters, think about what you need for snow travel and some wet and muddy conditions. On your feet you want to have traction and you want to stay dry.”
Comfort is king
To enjoy hiking in the shoulder season, you must be comfortable.
As a sales representative for Perpetual Motion NW, a small outdoor sales agency based in Fall City, Michael Meehan has a strong pulse on what type of gear sells during different periods of the year. Despite the wide variety of high-tech outdoor gear, Meehan says simplicity and comfort are most important to him.
“The main piece of gear I bring in shoulder season is a tarp so I can stay dry under it or sit on to keep a little padding on the ground,” he said.
Good waterproof clothing is essential as well.
“I tend to stick with Gore-Tex products due to their durability and breathability when compared to other waterproof products,” Sawyer said. “In addition, having a pair of waterproof pants with full side zippers allows you the flexibility of putting on and removing them on the fly as conditions change.”
In the middle of summer, hiking trails are more straightforward: Well-worn paths are clearly marked and beaten in by hikers. In shoulder seasons, trails are often snow-free near the trailhead, but patches of snow accumulate or cloak the trail entirely as you reach higher elevations.
To combat this confusion, Casson emphasized improving basic navigation skills.
“Snow-covered trails can be difficult to follow,” he said. “You may follow footprints in the snow only to find yourself wildly off-trail and lost. When in doubt, always consult a map and/or GPS device.”
Snowmelt causes rivers and streams to swell, making trails that go through water difficult and sometimes dangerous to navigate, adding another variable in planning where to hike. Casson recommends consulting trip reports such as those found on the Washington Trails Association website, wta.org. There you will find postings from other hikers regarding what conditions they experienced on a particular day on a specific trail.
Meehan, recalling a May trip in the mountains, says to prep well, but that surprises are part of the shoulder season adventure.
“There’s a little bit of unexpected,” he said, “and that’s part of the fun.”