Mud is a huge headache when you’re hiking. How on earth can you navigate it without falling?
To hike in the mud without faceplanting, you’ll need to pick your trails carefully and move more slowly than usual. Also, you should use sturdy footwear, trekking poles, and gaiters. It’s best to avoid hiking in the mud, but you might as well embrace the experience when you don’t have a choice.
A muddy trail can transform a fun hiking trip into misery. Mud is slippery and sticks to your shoes, and it can be difficult to determine just how deep you’ll sink in. Not to mention that hiking in the mud can have some serious impacts on the trail and the land around it.
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That said, sometimes you just can’t escape the mud. In those situations, it’s important to know how to hike through the mud safely. Continue on, and I’ll give you several tips for hiking in the mud, provide some gear options to make the hike easier, and even provide some insight into cleaning your footwear when the hike is over.
Tips For Hiking In Mud
Weather happens, and we can’t always predict every change in the weather ahead of time.
That means you may find yourself hiking in a variety of conditions. You may begin your hike on a warm, sunny day, but find that clouds and rain have moved in by the time you need to head back to your car. If you’re backpacking, there’s an even greater chance that the weather will decide to change unexpectedly over the course of your journey.
While it might not seem like a big deal, mud can actually have a pretty big effect on your hiking experience. Below, I’ve gone over some tips that can help you to stay comfortable and safe when hiking in muddy conditions.
Avoid If Possible
If there’s any chance you can move your hike to another day, that’s the best way to go when you’re going to be dealing with mud on the trail. While some might be inclined to treat mud as nothing more than an inconvenience, hiking on trails that are muddy can be dangerous for both you and the environment.
To begin with, mud’s going to stick to your shoes, making your shoes heavy– and it can be unreliable to walk on. You never know when you might end up stuck in it or sliding over it. That kind of unpredictability means you’ll have to be a lot more careful to avoid injuries.
All it takes is one wrong step to lose a shoe, end up falling, or much worse. Hiking in large amounts of mud doesn’t just come with a decrease in fun, but also a decrease in your overall safety.
Secondly, the ground is more susceptible to erosion when it has been softened by rain. I’ll cover this more in a later section, but it’s essential to know that making a habit out of hiking through mud contributes to environmental damage. As a result, the area can become less enjoyable for humans and more difficult for nature to thrive in.
Now, obviously, sometimes you don’t have a choice–or sometimes you do, and you still want to make it work. Let’s talk about that.
Embrace The Mud
Avoiding the mud is ideal, but that may not always be an option.
If you’re out on a backpacking trip and some unexpected rain makes things muddy right in the middle of your trip, staying put until the ground is dry again is probably too disruptive to your schedule. Or perhaps, you’ve reached one end of a trail and now need to trek back to your car while the ground is sopping wet.
These things happen, and there’s no reason to feel bad about hiking in the mud.
When you know you’re going to be in the mud, you might as well get into the right mindset. Bring with you the expectation that you’re going to get dirty. Depending on how much mud there is, you may look like a creature crawling out of a swamp by the time you reach your vehicle.
Prepare Your Footwear
Before you head out into the mud, it’s best to accept that whatever footwear you bring will get wet and muddy. Don’t bring shoes that you want to keep nice. Similarly, expect your feet to get wet as well.
Some people love waterproof shoes or boots, but the prevailing thought is that waterproof shoes and boots are actually worse for very wet trails because they take much longer to dry.
Lightweight, breathable footwear on the other hand will get wet fast, but it will also dry fast. This really comes down to personal preference. If you want your feet to stay dry, than waterproof boots with gaiters is a better way to go.
If your footwear isn’t already waterproof, there are sprays like Kiwi Camp Water Repellent (Amazon) that can add waterproofing to the shoes you own, but if your shoes are mesh on top… well, the spray isn’t going to do much. But it’s still not a bad idea to coat your gear.
Aside from the possibility of damp feet, the depth of the mud you’re walking through can also cause some serious issues. To begin with, trudging through mud puts a lot of strain on your shoes. You’ll want to make sure you have durable footwear that is laced tightly. Deep mud is known to trap shoes, leaving hikers without any choice but to dig for their shoes. Tightly-laced shoes are a must-have, and some hikers may even opt for locking shoelaces (Amazon) for extra protection.
Be Aware Of Erosion
Most of us are aware that we need to be careful about leaving litter behind while we’re out on a hiking trail. We know that it’s a bad idea to leave graffiti along the trail, damage natural structures, and disturb the wildlife in the area. However, we may not be as aware that just walking on the trail can have a negative impact on the environment.
When the ground is wet and muddy, it can be tempting to move to the side of the trail to avoid walking through the mud. If too many hikers start making that choice, the soil on the sides of the trail will become damaged and unable to grow plants. Eventually, the empty space in the area expands, and the natural foliage shrinks.
According to a research report from the National Park Service, soil that has been walked on too much loses nutrients and increases the cost of restoration for the park. Additionally, it becomes a trail that people no longer want to use due to the lack of natural beauty.
Patience Is A Must – Slow Down
Moving on a muddy hiking trail won’t be anywhere near as easy as walking on a dry trail. As I mentioned previously, mud makes for an incredibly unreliable surface to walk on. If you try to keep up your normal pace, you’re likely to exhaust your body more quickly or wind up injured.
Slow down in areas where the trail is muddy. Walk mindfully and use any tools you may have at your disposal to check for sections of particularly deep mud. If you don’t have any hiking poles with you, then try to find a long stick that you can rely on for support as you walk.
It might be frustrating to have to slow down and make less progress, but it will be far worse if you try to rush and end up with an injury.
Rock hopping means instead of hiking directly in the mud to walk on the rocks poking out of the mud to keep your feet dry.
As a hiker, everybody has done this–and it can be done, but my personal opinion is that you have to be extremely careful. Because there’s mud, there’s water, and slippery rocks can be deadly. Furthermore, if the rock rocks at all, then you’re gearing up for a fall. Only mentioning that because it’s happened to me.
It’s undeniably safer to hike in the mud than on the rocks–but if you do any rock hopping, I’d say that hiking poles become a MUST rather than a suggested piece of a equipment. Hiking poles will stabilize your body and you’ll have something to fall back on (even if it means a busted pole) in case you slip on the rock.
Try To Hit The Muddy Spots Early
Let’s say you’re familiar with a particular trail, and you know that there are certain spots that tend to get muddy more easily than others. Aiming to reach those areas when the temperature is cooler can make the trek a lot easier. The colder the muddy areas are, the easier it will be to walk over them. Doing so can also allow you to avoid trail erosion by trying to avoid the mud altogether.
This option may not work as well in some areas as it will in others. Locations that tend to be hotter may still present you with mud to walk through no matter what time of day it is. However, trying to get across that mud while it’s as cool as possible will still help in some way. At the very least, you won’t be making things harder on yourself by trying to work your way through an annoying patch of mud in the heat.
Think Carefully About The Trails You Choose
Mud will affect each hiking trail a little differently. Many factors play a role in this, such as the environment the trail is located in, how the trail was made, and what the trail is made out of. Dirt trails will typically be more susceptible to damage than trails that are paved or contain a higher percentage of rocks and gravel. The latter trails won’t be perfect in wet, muddy conditions, but they will be safer to walk on than dirt paths.
According to Outdoors.org, the best possible trails to visit in wet conditions are sandy trails that may be on or near a coast. As you might expect, these areas are much more used to water and sand won’t create a nasty muddy mess like dirt will. Keep these tips in mind if you’re planning a hike or deciding which trail to take on a wet day during your backpacking trip.
Gear That Helps With Hiking In Mud
Being prepared for hiking in the mud not only requires strategies, but also tools.
Proper footwear, hiking poles, and comfortable clothing can make a huge difference when muddy conditions have made the trail more difficult to traverse. That’s not all you’ll need for a muddy hike though. Below, I’ve gone over some useful gear to bring on a muddy hike. Take a look, and consider what you may need while you’re out on the trail.
Bring Those Hiking Poles
While some might view them as unnecessary, I’m a total convert. I used to think they were just stupid for years… until I tried them.
You see, even if the ground is flat and reliable, they can help you to keep your balance and turn the hike into a full-body workout. Hiking uses primarily your lower body and so you can hike farther (at least in my opinion) by spreading the muscle fatigue over your body and not just your legs.
They’re even more useful when the trail is difficult. Hiking poles are incredibly useful for going up and down hills, traveling through wet conditions, and keeping your balance in rocky or slippery areas. Essentially, they allow you to have two extra legs on the ground at all times. Not only will that make your hike easier, but it will also be safer.
I really can’t understate how much more stable it feels to hike on mud with hiking poles vs without hiking poles, especially if you have a backpack.
Some hikers may also opt to add baskets to their hiking poles. One such example is the powder basket offered by Black Diamond Pole Parts. These additions can make it easier to use your hiking poles in snow, around rocks, and in the mud. The basket essentially stops the end of the pole from sinking too deeply or with too much speed. You can think of them as being similar to snowshoes. They create a larger surface area so that it’s easier to move across soft surfaces.
Let’s say you only have one pole. Perhaps the other one broke, or you only have one set between two people. Is it still helpful to just use one hiking pole? Discover more on that topic in our article here.
(One more quick story about hiking poles: I was on a hiking trip with a big group and one lady had knee trouble and was having severe knee pain while descending off of a mountain pass. I lent her my hiking poles and they helped her tremendously as she got down off the mountain. I was already sold on hiking poles but this convinced me even further.)
Are Hiking Boots Good For Mud?
Benefits Of Hiking Boots
The benefits of wearing hiking boots in the mud include the following:
- Water resistance. Hiking boots are often designed to keep water out, and they do a great job at it as long as they aren’t submerged for long periods of time.
- Tight fit. With taller styles and tough laces, hiking boots are more likely to stay on your feet when they get stuck in the mud.
- More reliable gripping ability. Because they’re made for hiking, hiking boots are made to be able to grip difficult surfaces more efficiently than other types of shoes.
Downfalls Of Hiking Boots
While they’re great in many ways, hiking boots do come with a few downfalls:
- Poor breathability. Hiking boots may keep water from the outside away from your feet, but they also trap the sweat from your feet inside the boot (as well as any water that gets in through the top.
- Slow drying. Once they’ve gotten wet, hiking boots can take a long time to dry and may require the help of a campfire or drying device.
- Lack of sole support. Depending on the boots you choose, some hiking boots may not offer the same shape of support you’d get from a good pair of running shoes.
When it comes down to it, there’s only one question you really need to answer to determine whether or not hiking boots are your ideal choice for hiking in the mud. Would you rather have footwear that works harder to keep moisture out or footwear that will dry more quickly?
If you aren’t worried about your feet getting too sweaty and want to keep moisture out, then hiking boots might be a solid option for you. On the other hand, those who would prefer any moisture in their shoes to dry up quickly might want to look at some other options.
Other Footwear Options
Everyone has their own preference when it comes to hiking footwear. For muddy conditions, hikers who don’t choose hiking boots tend to go with trail runners, duck boots, or sandals. As long as you choose footwear that keeps your feet comfortable and won’t get lost in the mud, the choice is entirely yours. Just make sure to bring plenty of extra socks if you’re wearing shoes that require them!
Choose Durable Clothing
In most cases, mud may not cause much of a problem to any clothing above your calves. This is why I’m focusing more deeply on footwear in this article than on other clothing items. Keeping your feet and lower legs protected and comfortable will make or break your hiking trip.
However, mud is caused by water. That water might be rain, snow, or the result of an overflowing water source. In any case, water is likely to be involved. At the very least, choose outer layers that will keep moisture away. Rain jackets and water-resistant or quick-drying bottoms are a great start. Opt for clothing items that can handle rain well and will be easier to wash if they do end up covered in mud.
If it’s still raining while you’re hiking, you’ll need to know how to be prepared to stay safe and comfortable with all the excess moisture. Prepare yourself by learning what the best clothing options are for hiking in the rain in our article here.
Add Some Gaiters
Whether you’re walking through mud or water, gaiters like these (Amazon) can be very helpful for keeping your legs dry. They’re made to attach to your shoes or boots as well as your lower legs. Because of that, you won’t have to worry about them getting in the way of knee movement. Furthermore, gaiters tend to be very lightweight and are made from materials that can stand up to moisture and mud easily.
No matter what shoes you’ve chosen to take on your muddy hike, gaiters are great for keeping the mud from traveling too far. It’s one thing to have muddy feet, but most of us probably don’t want to have to change our pants when we get back to our vehicle.
To be clear, you don’t need high gaiters, you can get by with lower gaiters that cinch around your ankles and that will be enough to keep mud out of your shoes. A worthy goal.
Bring Along Extra Clothing
It never hurts to have extra clothing and footwear on hand. Even if you’re just going for a short hike in pleasant weather, having an extra set of clothes and shoes in your car is something you’re unlikely to ever regret. You never know when the weather might change, leaving you uncomfortable with the outfit you’re in. Hiking might also be rough on your footwear or cause you to end up with a hole in one of your socks.
When mud is the issue, you can expect that – at the very least – your shoes are going to end up muddy and gross. Odds are, you won’t want to wear them in your car after the hike.
Pro tip: If you bring along extra shoes and socks, you can store your muddy shoes in a plastic bag and avoid causing a mess in your car.
In the event of rain or mud getting onto your clothing, it’s nice to have some clean, dry clothes to change into before you leave the trail. There’s no need to bring anything fancy (unless you want to), but some comfortable, clean clothes can make your trip home after a hike that much nicer.
Don’t Forget Emergency Items
Any time you go hiking, it’s essential to be prepared for a potential emergency. Although more often than not things work out okay, it only takes one instance of something going wrong to disrupt your life. A number of things can happen on any hiking trail, including accidents caused by inclement weather or damage to the trail, falls, (the most common cause of hiking injuries), but even contact with poison ivy, a scare with animals, etc.
Additionally, there may be a chance you could get lost or are somehow unable to get back to your vehicle.
With mud on the trail, the risk of an accident is increased. Without steady ground to walk on, it can be easy to slip and fall, twist an ankle, or otherwise injure yourself. Because of that, it’s even more important to have some emergency items on hand.
Make sure that you bring a fully-charged cell phone so that you can contact someone for help. If you’re going on a longer trip, a battery bank may also be a good idea. Other items you might want to include on a hike are a first aid kit, an emergency blanket, extra water, a flashlight, and tools to start a fire.
If you’re hiking in a remote area, than a GPS Satellite Messenger (see this one on Amazon) can be a life saving item.
Always make sure someone knows where you’re going and when they should expect to see you.
When Is It Too Muddy To Hike?
The answer to this question is going to be different for each hiking trail. A rainy day might result in one trail becoming unusable, while another might be perfectly fine. Because of that, it’s best to start by considering the kind of landscape your desired trail is on. Additionally, look for a website that may provide information on the status of that trail.
Most of the time, mud is caused by rain. What other effects might rain have on a hiking trail? Should you hike right after the rain has ended? Learn more about this topic in our article here.
Next, think about how safe you’d feel walking on that trail in muddy conditions. Is the trail you have in mind relatively flat? Is it near any water sources that might overflow? Is the weather drying up, or becoming worse? Consider the possibility of a storm, flash flood, or other dangerous situation. It’s always better to wait for kinder weather than to risk your safety.
Finally, think about whether or not you actually want to go out in muddy, potentially-rainy weather. Hiking should be a fun experience. It’s not worth going if you think you’re going to be unhappy trudging along in the mud.
How To Clean Muddy Hiking Boots/Shoes?
No matter what shoes you choose to wear out in the mud, you can expect that they’ll get dirty.
However, there’s a big difference between getting your footwear dirty and leaving it dirty. Allowing dirt, rocks, and other debris to remain on your hiking shoes can shorten their overall lifespan. Considering how much a dedicated hiker might spend on their footwear, cleaning muddy boots is a must if you want to get the most for your money. Before you start cleaning, make sure that you have the proper cleaning solutions for your specific hiking boots or shoes.
Here are a few steps you can use when cleaning off muddy hiking boots or shoes after a hike:
- Take out your laces (and insoles if applicable). These pieces should be washed separately. Insoles can be de-odorized as needed, and laces can be cleaned with warm water and a small amount of dish soap.
- Clean away any dried dirt, rocks, or other debris. Take some time to remove anything that can be removed while your footwear is dry. Clean out the outsoles to make sure your shoes maintain their grip.
- Scrub the outside of your footwear. You can use saddle soap, specialized boot or shoe soap, or dish soap alongside plenty of water for this. Grab a small brush and get to work cleaning all of the outer areas.
- Get rid of any remaining soap. With a damp cloth, clean away any soap that might be left on your footwear.
- Apply any waterproofing you may want. It’s ideal to do this while your footwear is still damp.
- Start the drying process. Place your footwear in a dry place where the sun doesn’t shine directly. You can also add some baking soda if you’d like to help with the process.
In some cases, you might also want to use leather polish to keep the leather healthy. Chrome polish can also be used on any boots that have metal hardware.