Summer in the Pacific Northwest, if it ever comes, is a prime time for hiking, with long days and (allegedly) reliable weather — but in many parts of Washington, we’re not. still there.
If, like a record number of Seattleites, you’re about to strap on your hiking boots and hit the dusty (or wet) trail, you need to be prepared for different conditions depending on the time of year, altitude and other factors.
It can be tempting to wait until midsummer to venture into the mountains, but with a little logistical preparation and gear, shoulder season hikers are rewarded with lighter crowds, wildflowers coming out of the snow and fewer insects. Here’s how to prepare for off-season hiking.
expect the unexpected
Joe Sawyer is the equipment manager for Seattle’s mountaineering, hiking, and climbing guide service, Mountain Madness. As a travel guru in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, he has witnessed many shoulder season trips go wrong.
“Using the shoulder seasons to get to the mountains can be both temperamental and rewarding,” he said. “It becomes a balancing act in keeping up with the weather, in addition to being flexible about your goals and objectives.”
Bad weather can bring a mixture of rain, snow or hail, and with precipitation, it is possible to find yourself in difficult situations. In the mountains, a bluebird day can quickly turn into a storm, leaving you in a dangerous situation unless you have the right gear, a stoic attitude and strong preparation skills.
The Ten Essentials are given throughout the year; during the shoulder season, you should also bring gear to adapt to a sudden change in weather.
Bringing the right gear during the shoulder season isn’t as easy as it is at other times of the year. Bring too much and you’ll be weighed down with unnecessary luggage, which will keep you from having fun hiking or backpacking. Wear too little and you risk getting cold, getting wet and, ultimately, rolling over quickly.
Jerry Casson, a longtime employee of Ascent Outdoors, an outdoor hiking, skiing and climbing store in Ballard, is an expert at helping people prepare for mountain adventures. He says June is not always your friend.
“If you’re new to the Northwest, you may not have experienced the classic late-season start to the summer in the Cascades. But this year it’s here: Welcome to ‘June-uary’,” he said. “That means many of your favorite summer hiking trails are still covered in snow, or at least partially covered…think April conditions.”
You need to be prepared to hike in the snow, especially if you venture into Olympic, North Cascades, or Mount Rainier National Parks, which hold snow well into the summer.
“In addition to your normal summer hiking gear, you can add a few early season essentials,” he said. “To start, think about what you need for traveling in snow and some wet and muddy conditions. On your feet, you want traction and you want to stay dry.
Comfort is king
To enjoy hiking in the off-season, you have to be comfortable.
As a sales representative for Perpetual Motion NW, a small Fall City-based outdoor sales agency, Michael Meehan has a good idea of what kind of gear sells at different times 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 the shoulder season is a tarp so I can stay dry underneath or sit on it to keep some padding on the ground,” he said.
Good waterproof clothing is also essential.
“I tend to stick with Gore-Tex products because of their durability and breathability compared to other waterproof products,” Sawyer said. “Plus, having a pair of waterproof pants with full side zippers allows you to put them on and take them off on the fly when conditions change.”
In mid-summer, the hiking trails are simpler: well-worn paths are clearly marked and beaten by hikers. During shoulder seasons, the trails are often snow free near the trailhead, but snow patches build up or completely obscure the trail as you reach higher elevations.
To combat this confusion, Casson focused on improving basic navigation skills.
“Snowy trails can be tricky to follow,” he said. “You can follow footprints in the snow only to find yourself completely off track and lost. When in doubt, always consult a map and/or GPS device.
Melting snow causes rivers and streams to swell, making trails that cross water difficult and sometimes dangerous to navigate, adding another variable in hiking planning. Casson recommends checking out trip reports such as those found on the Washington Trails Association website, wta.org. Here you will find posts from other hikers about the conditions they encountered on a particular day on a specific trail.
Meehan, recalling a May trip to the mountains, says to be well prepared, but that surprises are part of the shoulder season adventure.
“There’s a bit of the unexpected,” he said, “and that’s part of the fun.”