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M Trekking Techniques for Early-Season Conditions

by Andrew Skurka

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Article Summary:

The conventional hiking season is very short, particularly in the mountainous West, and to a lesser degree in some areas of the Northeast and upper Mid-West. There may be as few as three to four months (roughly mid-June through mid-October) during which trailheads are accessible by passenger vehicles, trails are melted out, weather conditions are comfortable and stable, and avalanche and fording dangers are low or non-existent.

The objective of this article is to help you understand, prepare for, and excel in early-season conditions and their associated challenges. You may benefit from this article if you are looking to schedule and be comfortable during trips that fall outside of the conventional hiking window, such as if you are an aspiring Continental Divide or Pacific Crest Trails thru-hiker.

Gear is not the general focus of this article, but it should be noted that having a lightweight load is beneficial in a number of instances during the early-season. It decreases your overall body weight and hence the frequency of post-holing; it minimizes strain on your legs that could become detrimental while fording swift snowmelt-fed creeks; it has less of an effect on your balance while kicking steps across steep snowfields; and it reduces mental fatigue that may lead to poor navigational or thermoregulatory decisions.