How to get outside in difficult weather conditions

In addition to everything else in 2020, we had more than our fair share of rain. In fact, by early November we had already seen 53 inches of rain in the Triad region of North Carolina, which is well over a foot above our normal rain level for an average year. Charlotte received almost 59 inches of rain in 2020, far above average as well.

For someone who enjoys outdoor recreation as a primary hobby, and even spends quite a bit of time at work out in the field, all that rain can make it difficult to plan excursions. Cold is another challenge in winter months when it comes to outdoor adventures.

But given the impact of covid-19, more people than ever are looking for outdoor recreation opportunities, even during winter months when we’re used to hunkering down inside.

Three state forests experienced temporary closures due to overcrowding and unsafe conditions when the pandemic was at its peak. Even still, state forest visitation was above average and, in some cases, record-setting for most of the year.

— N.C. Forest Service (@ncforestservice) January 5, 2021

Here are a few tips to plan your hiking trip even in adverse conditions.

Be flexible with length of hike and location

With the weather we’ve had recently, my hiking buddies and I have decided if we’re going to hike, we’re just going to have to deal with the rain and mud. Usually that requires waiting until the last minute on the morning of a hike to decide whether we are a go or not. It’s surprising how often the weather forecast changes even within just a few hours. Being flexible on how long and where you hike can greatly help in getting outside and enjoying the experience. You may have a shorter window of time and get in a quick hike before rain arrives, or adjust the location of your hike to an area of the region that the radar indicates will be drier.

Choose the right trail given the conditions

Picking out the right trail for the given conditions is an important planning tool. My hiking friends and I know certain trails are better on rainy days, like stretches that are mostly on high ground and have few creek crossings, or only cross streams that are small enough to pass over even if flowing. It’s also very easy to take a fall on slippery leaves and rocks, so it’s never a bad idea to bring along a friend or two when hiking in tough conditions.

Consider hiking off trail

Hiking off trail is another good option. Lots of rain and lots of footsteps can make trails a muddy mess. When weather is bad and trail conditions get muddy, walking through the woods, what some people refer to as “bushwhacking,” is always a good option. Just make sure you know where you’re going and how to get back. Taking along an experienced hiker who is familiar with the location and terrain can be very useful when hiking off trail.

Wear appropriate gear for the conditions

In wet conditions, I am thankful to have my Gore-Tex trail running shoes. They keep out water for the most part, but obviously when it gets above the shoe there’s no preventing soggy socks. Consider bringing along an extra pair in your pack. Another possible way to prevent wet feet is to get some gaiters. A good rain jacket is also helpful, and if you’re backpacking you might even want rain pants and definitely a good pack cover (though a garbage bag will work for a decent pack cover in a pinch).

Winter in NC doesn’t just mean wet – sometimes it also means really cold. Now, I don’t mind being wet and I don’t mind being cold, but I don’t want to be wet and cold. There’s a level of danger there I’m just not comfortable with. When dealing with below-freezing temps, be sure to be prepared with plenty of cold weather gear. I make sure to bundle up with earmuffs and toboggan, multiple layers, gloves, and warm socks. And limit your time – don’t be out so long as to allow uncovered areas like your nose to get frostbite.

Don’t let rain get you down, but be prepared. Make sure you’re following a well-marked trail unless you really know your way around. It never hurts to bring a friend or two along. Wear appropriate clothing for the weather, whether that’s rain gear or warm jackets and gloves, and know your own limits.

I think you’ll find though that if you’re prepared you can have just much fun as a warm sunny day – think back to when you were a kid and the fun of splashing around in mud puddles. And the reward of a warm meal and dry clothes at the end of a hike can the best motivation.

Crystal Cockman is director of conservation for Three Rivers Land Trust.