Written by Tanya Koob
An early spring hike can lead you through three different seasons in a day. Weather can be hard to predict, and trails will often be snow covered or icy through March and April. But your family can still enjoy some fun hikes with a bit of careful planning and paying extra attention to safety.
- Be prepared with a well-stocked day pack. You likely won’t be heading out for an eight-hour backcountry hike this time of year, but it’s still important to be prepared with enough layers and warm clothing for changing weather conditions (or a different forecast than what was predicted).
I always have a first-aid kit with me (stocked with band-aids in all sizes), hand and foot warmers, and I never skimp on snacks, candy, and water in addition to a packed lunch for the trail.
Finally, expect that somebody might have to go to the bathroom on the trail and carry a garbage bag, wipes or TP, and hand sanitizer - and be prepared to pack it all out.
- Layers, more layers, and even more layers! The No. 1 clothing rule when it comes to shoulder season hiking is to wear layers. Start with a polyester T-shirt, layer with a long sleeve shirt, hoodie, or fleece sweater, and then wear a rain jacket, soft shell windbreaker, maybe a vest, or even a light puffy jacket on top. Pack what you don’t need and add or remove layers as needed.
Consider wearing long underwear under insulated pants or water repellent shell pants for cool morning starts - you can always duck behind a tree if you must remove the bottoms later in the day. Or, depending on what you wear overtop, remove your overpants. Again, think smart layering for both bottom and top.
Finally, avoid wearing cotton and denim - neither fabric will keep you warm if you get wet.
- Always bring toques and mittens or gloves! I always have these items in my backpack year-round because conditions can change quickly on the trail (even on a warm day). I also like to bring a buff or something else that I can pull over my face if it’s windy.
- Expect ice, snow, and mud! Wear waterproof hiking shoes or winter boots rather than light running shoes that will get soaked if you encounter snow. Wearing a pair of gaiters over your pants also adds warmth to your lower legs and keeps your pants dry from snow or mud. You can pick up a pair of gaiters from most outdoor clothing stores.
Finally, bring ice cleats or microspikes to avoid unpleasant and potentially dangerous falls on slippery trails (even if walking around the town trails in Canmore or Banff).
- Choose a trail you’re familiar with and make sure it’s winter safe. I like to stick to official well-signed trails when there’s snow on the ground. If choosing a summer trail that you’re familiar with, make sure it’s a safe trail for winter hiking. Many popular trails cross into avalanche terrain, and as the sun hits the mountains in spring, avalanche risk goes up!
Stop in at a visitor centre or check the website for the park you want to visit and look for suggestions for safe winter hikes. I also like to check trail reports, so I know what I’m in for in terms of muddy or icy trails.
- Take your summer hiking distance and cut it in half. Consider halving the normal distance and length of time that your children would be able to hike in summer. Adventures always take longer in winter (even if it’s because you stop every two minutes to shake snowy trees on each other!). Hiking through a mixture of snow, ice, and mud will increase your hiking time.
- Make sure you can hike down whatever you have hiked up. There’s no harm in turning around because you weren’t expecting a foot of fresh snow in April or because a trip is taking longer than you thought it would take. I like to set a turnaround point for when my family wants to be back at our vehicle by dark (or earlier if we don’t want to drive home in the dark).
- Be careful of frozen rivers or lakes. Spring is not the time to get playful running around on a frozen lake as the ice starts to become rotten. If you must cross a frozen body of water, send an adult first with a second adult ready to perform a rescue if they fall through. It’s easiest, though, to stay off ice in the spring.
- Be a responsible pet owner if hiking with your dog. Assume that there will be other hikers on the trail that are fearful of dogs and plan accordingly. Your dog should never approach other hikers unless invited to say hi and everybody should feel safe when they meet you and your pet.
It’s also a good idea to always keep your dog on a leash. Keeping your dog on a leash keeps them safe in the event of an encounter with a wild animal and it ensures your dog doesn’t get lost by running ahead or darting off into the trees after a squirrel. In most parks, it’s also the law to have your dog on a leash.
Also, please pick up after your dog on the trail and don’t leave little goodie bags along the path. If you aren’t prepared to hold onto those little goodie bags the entire time, leave your pet at home.
- You don’t have to go far to have a great outing! Calgary has over 600 natural areas spread around the city. Pick a new one and head out for some fresh air and an urban hike. I especially enjoy city walks in the afternoon when time is short after school. Visit The City of Calgary website to find a new natural area near your home.
See you on the trails and prepare for a great adventure with your family as you hit the trails this spring!
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to an energetic teenage boy. She loves hiking, camping, skiing, and all things mountain related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com. Feeling Social? Follow on Instagram @MountainMomYYC.