9 spring hiking tips to get your juices flowing in milder weather

spring hiking tips: flowers and the Matterhorn
Our spring hiking tips cover all the essentials for planning your route, dressing for unpredictable weather and staying safe on the trail (Image credit: Getty Images)

It's not just nature and its abundant colors that come to life as winter turns to spring. Another creature also emerges from hibernation, slightly bleary eyed but full of excitement for the months ahead. This creature's telltale behavior includes poring over maps and planning great journeys called 'summit bagging missions'. It survives on a diet of trail mix, sandwiches and sweets and displays a notably impressive level of intelligence.

And so, while its closely related cousins, the mountaineers and skiers retreat to the valleys to hide from the warm sun, this creature sets out from the trail head, stomping along in its hiking boots. This creature is, of course, the common hiker, arguably the noblest of all creatures.

To help the species survive its fledgling steps this season, we've compiled our spring hiking tips, covering all the essentials: route planning, dressing for unpredictable weather and staying safe on the trail so the common hiker can get moving once more, now that the milder conditions have arrived. 

Meet the expert

Julia Clarke wearing Helly Hansen's Lifa Pro jacket in Wales
Julia Clarke

An veteran of days spent exploring the wilderness, Julia has particular fondness for the American backcountry. Having moved around the States a fair bit after emigrating across the Pond for university, she settled in Vali, Colorado for 11 years and enjoyed many great outdoor adventures. Now back in her native Scotland, she loves long days among the Munros of the Highlands.

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1. Seek south facing slopes

  • In the Northern Hemisphere, south facing slopes get more sun
  • You're more likely to avoid any lingering snow patches

Purple wildflowers in Colorado with mountains in the background

Come spring, you’re more than likely ready to shed some layers, stretch out your legs and enjoy the blooming wildflowers (Image credit: Jason Steen)

In the northern hemisphere, south facing slopes get more sunshine so they’ll be warmer and drier than north facing slopes. If you’re hiking in an east/west valley, you’ll really be able to see the difference as the north facing slopes might still be in good shape for skiing for another month or two. Head to the sunny side and you’ll have more luck finding a passable trail. 

2. Love lower elevations

  • Lower elevations are less likely to still hold snow

A couple hiking a grassy coastal path

Leave the high peaks until summer and instead enjoy some mellower trails through the forest or along coastal paths (Image credit: Mike Harrington)

In many areas, higher elevations will still be snow covered and either impassable or dangerous, so it’s often a good idea to leave the high peaks until summer and instead enjoy some mellower trails through the forest or along coastal paths. If you haven’t been hiking since the fall, this will make you ease in and build up your stamina. 

3. Chase waterfalls

  • Snowmelt and runoff makes spring the best time of year to view waterfalls

A rainbow in the mist of Vernal Falls in Yosemite

Waterfalls are at their most impressive after heavy rainfall or when snow is melting and running off the peaks above (Image credit: Julia Clarke)

Snowmelt and runoff makes spring the best time of year to view waterfalls, so look for trails with cascades along the way. If you really want some of the best falls around, check out our guides to the best hikes in Yosemite National Park, which is home to some of the most stunning waterfalls in the US and our guide to Washington waterfall hikes for some Pacific Northwest enchantment. 

4. Beware river crossings

  • A small stream can be a deep, raging torrent when swollen with snowmelt
  • Look for routes with bridges and avoid direct river crossings if possible

Backpacker crossing high country stream in Colorado

The water tends to be rushing in spring so take care when crossing a stream (Image credit: Kyle Ledeboer / Aurora Photos)

Based on the previous tip, you’ll know that the water tends to be rushing in spring. A summer trickle might be a small stream now and still easy to jump across, but a small stream in fall could be a rushing river so don’t go wading through any fast water, even if you’ve crossed here in other seasons. 

Look for trails that have good river crossings like bridges, and be aware that some trails can be washed out at this time of year if they’re adjacent to a river. If you are forced to cross a river, trekking poles can be of real assistance, as they allow you to feel the surface beneath and give others something to grab hold of as they cross.

5. Wear waterproofs

  • Waterproofs are always essential pack items, regardless of the forecast

Spring is the rainiest season because warmer temperatures mean more evaporation of melting snow and ice so this isn’t the time of year to take your chances and leave the rainproof gear at home. Pack waterproof trousers and your best waterproof jacket and consider either waterproof hiking boots or wear gaiters to keep your feet from getting soggy. 

6. Dress in layers

  • Spring's low temperatures can still catch hikers out
  • Take plenty of warm layers and keep spares in your backpack

backpacking hacks: hiker in the rain

Don't let the blustery conditions in spring can catch you unawares  (Image credit: Preserved Light Photography)

We do always say this, but the blustery conditions in spring can catch you unawares. It might be sunny when you set off and you may be tempted to leave your jacket in the car, but don’t. The weather can quickly take a turn, leaving you shivering on the trail, and precipitation can often be sleet or hail. 

Follow the hiking layering system and wear a base layer and insulating jacket like a fleece jacket or even a light down jacket. You can always put your jacket in your backpack if the weather gods are gazing down upon you, and speaking of your backpack, make sure it contains your best hiking gloves and a hat

When it comes to mid layers, remember that multiple thin layers are better than one thick layer. You can always take one off if you get too hot.

7. Plan for mud

Footprings in the mud

Hiking in spring can be a bit frustrating since the trails can be too muddy to hike (Image credit: Getty)
  • The trails can be extremely muddy in spring, so come prepared

Did we mention all the mud? Hiking in spring can be a bit frustrating since the trails can be too muddy to hike and even though we’ve suggested some planning techniques for avoiding it, mud can be inevitable. Read our tips for hiking in mud so you can stay on your feet and avoid damaging the trails. 

8. Plan for snow and ice

  • Taking a pair of Yaktrax or Microspikes and poles will help on any icy ground

Yep, in addition to a mud bath, it’s common to find patches of snow and ice on the trail, especially if you’re up high. If you’re not prepared for it, the best thing to do is turn back, however you can always toss a pair of Yaktrax or microspikes in your backpack and use trekking poles so any small crossings will be manageable. 

9. Watch for wildlife

  • Many animals emerge during spring
  • Watch them from afar with binoculars and remember not to disturb them

how do binoculars work: mountains and binoculars

Spring is a magical time for wildlife (Image credit: Getty Images)

In addition to the wildflowers, lots of wildlife make an appearance in spring. Bears emerge from hibernation, elks are calving and birds are nesting. Please give wildlife a wide berth and respect any trail closures due to wildlife migration. Read our advice on what to do if you meet a bear on the trail and enjoy the wildlife from afar – by using binoculars

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.