If you are sitting at home wondering when it is O.K to start hiking, the answer is ‘now.’ There certainly are different experiences to be had while hiking in winter versus summer, but you can hike, for the most part, 365 days per year if you have the right gear and clothing.
Hiking season for most people starts in the late spring and runs through the fall. When you can start hiking will depend upon several factors relative to the climate of the area you live in, which impact such things as the snow cover or day-time temperatures.
As always, use common sense. Some people have a greater tolerance for being uncomfortable. Some people have better equipment for dealing with harsh conditions while hiking. Know your limits.
What Is the Best Season for Hiking?
Which season is best for hiking is a matter of personal choice. Do you enjoy colder weather? Do you enjoy identifying flowers in the fields? Do you enjoy swimming in mountain streams? Ultimately hiking is an outdoor activity that we engage in for the enjoyment of exercise and discovery.
Most people agree that fall is the best season for hiking. The fall season offers cooler temperatures while waterways may still be warm enough for aquatic recreation. The fall season is also best for hiking because you can avoid the crowds of summer tourists on the trail.
It is important to remember that seasons are very different in different climates. Winter in South Texas along the Mexico border where I live is like summer in Seattle. Winter in Seattle is like standing under a leaky faucet in front of a refrigerator with all the lights turned off. It sucks, which is why it is a great time to get outdoors and boost your mood with some exercise.
Can You Hike in the Winter?
To answer this question, I will assume that you live in a climate with cold winter temperatures and persistent winter snow in higher elevations.
People can hike in the winter in any climate region as long as they have proper equipment and training. Hiking in the winter presents additional challenges due to shorter days, frigid temperatures, and terrain hazards from snow and ice.
Winter is not an ideal season for hiking but it does have some advantages.
Hiking in the winter provides new experiences on familiar trails. Your favorite hike will feel completely different in the winter. The leafy, vibrant environment you are accustomed to will be stark, dark, and mysterious. The waterfall at the end of the trail may be encased in a lattice of crystalline ice.
Hiking in the winter is a great way to avoid the crowds. I just hiked some beautiful trails in a national park in December and saw few other souls. Suppose you want to hike a National Park in the middle of winter, head to Big Bend National Park. It is magical.
Advantages to Hiking in the Spring
Cabin fever is a real ordeal for many people that live in cold, gloomy climates. When the thaw begins, a primal desire to get outdoors and stretch your legs can become an obsession.
Spring is a wonderful time to go hiking and is a close second behind fall for the best season to go hiking.
Spring is a great time to go hiking because the entire environment is sprouting. The woods are coming alive after the winter, and this vitality presents itself with blossoms and budding plants. New growth is good for the soul.
Spring is also a good time to hike because days are getting longer, and so you have more time on the trail than you would in the winter. The spring runoff in the mountains can make some waterways impassable or more treacherous.
Spring hiking can be challenging since trails may not have been maintained since the year before. You may encounter wash-outs or fallen trees from the winter.
Is Summer Hiking Good?
Summer is the classic time to go hiking. Think of your summer camp experiences or afternoon hikes with your family when you were a child. A great summer hike is tough to beat.
Summer hiking is good if it is not too hot and the trails are not too crowded. More people hike in the summer than in any other season. Summer break from school, warmer weather, and family holidays contribute to the more significant number of summer hikers.
Summer hiking has some distinct advantages. The warm weather means that you can bring less gear. The longer days mean that you can travel farther or take longer on a trail and spend more time at some interesting features along the way.
Hiking in the summer often means hiking in the heat. I wrote an entire guide on hiking in hot weather based on my experiences hiking deserts. There are some simple but effective ways to mitigate the effects of walking in higher temperatures.
A friend introduced me to Poncho outdoor shirts, which are my new favorite thing. I got two for Christmas and hiked in the Chihuahuan desert with them. They are loaded with features and look great. For me, it was nice to have a high-quality shirt that was not a typical name brand that everyone else on the trail is wearing. Here is a link to their website.
I have the Gunnison and the Iceman, which is completely white and was great in the desert for staying cool.
Why Fall is the Absolute Best Season for Hiking
Hiking in the fall is really the best time of the year for hiking. Yes, you can hike any time of the year, but a great hike is made even better when you do it in the fall. The air, cooler temperatures, fall colors, and fewer hikers come together in harmony for any avid hiker.
The fall is the end of the hiking season, and so you will find less traffic on the trails. Children are back in schools, and vacationers have gone back to work. Part of the allure of hiking for me is to participate in nature. It isn’t easy to be one with nature when you have to wait at the end of a switchback for twenty or thirty people to pass.
Fall weather is wonderful for hiking. In the fall, you have the advantage over any other season that the temperatures are more moderate and comfortable for hiking, and yet lakes, streams, and other bodies of water may still be warm enough to cross, wade in, or swim in without as much risk of hypothermia as winter or spring.
In the end, it comes down to personal preference and your local climate. In many areas, you can hike all year round. Hiking in each season presents unique experiences and challenges.
Know yourself, know your route, and know your gear. Go hiking!