Spring hiking: Prepare for mud, how to avoid causing trail erosion – Petoskey News-Review

As the weather begins to warm, snow slowly begins to melt and spring fever starts to set in, those who spend the cold winter inside might start making their way outdoors again. 
Hiking and biking trails are a popular way of seizing the opportunity to breath fresh air again. If you plan on visiting the trails, keep in mind that increased foot traffic and muddy conditions can end up damaging them. 
“Just be aware that you might be ready for the trail, but the trail might not be ready for you,” said Brent Bolin, executive director of the Top of Michigan Trails Council. “Maybe you’ll need to get out and walk on a paved trail for a couple of weeks until things dry up or just understand it’s a transitional time of year and you’re not going to be able to go out and hit everything the way you can in July.”
When sections of trail have large mud puddles, a natural instinct is to avoid it by walking along the sides of the trail. This can lead to widening trails and trampled foliage, which will eventually have to be repaired.
Derek Shiels, director of stewardship at the Little Traverse Conservancy, said the conservancy’s trails are designed to be durable and they are all open for public use year-round. They’re built with the natural topography of the preserve so that water doesn’t pool, making the trail wet and muddy. However, in some cases, it’s unavoidable.
“In most situations, we will add a boardwalk to reduce the impact to the trail,” Shiels said. “It’s recommended that mountain bikers avoid trails when they’re in those conditions, because that’s when the bikes will do some damage to the trails. (For) hikers, the recommendation is to be prepared and hike out in boots or shoes you don’t mind getting muddy in the spring and walking right through the trails versus going around them. That’s where you start creating erosion and weakening that trail treadway and widening the trail to the point where it’s not as stable and starts to impact the natural area.“
Shiels said that trails are meant to protect sensitive areas of preserves and recommended visitors stay on the trails. However, many of the conservancy’s preserves don’t have designated walking areas. The conservancy still encourages off-trail exploration, but recommends spreading out and following a different path each time, to avoid creating social trails that others will follow, trampling vegetation and creating erosion.
When the trails dry out around June is when traffic really picks up for the season. That heavy use can pack down the soil and expose roots, which become a tripping hazard and have to be removed. Shiels said to keep an eye on the trail to avoid tripping.
“We have to go out and constantly remove those stumps and roots that have popped up because the soil has been trampled from heavy use. That’s just a caution for heavy use trails for people to be aware of,” Shiels said.
Hiking trails and nature preserves are one of the biggest draws for residents and visitors to Northern Michigan. Being aware of conditions and taking proper care when using the trails helps to ensure that they remain in good shape for future enjoyment.
“Trails don’t appear magically,” Bolin said. “People work hard to get them built, people maintain them. So when they’re damaged, that’s typically volunteer time, that has to come back around and be put into repairing that trail section. So there’s a cost to that use if you’re not careful and responsible about how you’re using the trail.”

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