When you’re approaching mud on the trail, what do you do? Leave No Trace principals and trail etiquette

When the trail is wet and muddy

When you’re trail running and you come up on a mud puddle or muddy section, what do you do? Do you go around, stepping off of the trail to avoid it? Do you go through it? Do you leap over it?

When people are asked this question, there are a variety of responses. Some people would go through it, not minding it. Some people will do their best to jump over it or have fun leaping over it. Some people say that they would avoid the mud by going off of the trail. Some people respond worried about their feet getting wet or their shoes shoes muddy, so they step off of the trail.

What should you do? Take the route of making the least impact on our backcountry, wilderness, parks and recreational settings.

What you should consider

Consider going through or over the mud, not around it if you have to step off of the trail.

Here’s why you should go through or over

When we stray from the trail:

  • It damages the what’s growing along side of it. Flowers, plants, saplings, mushrooms, etc. It causes a disruption to what is naturally occurring in the forest.
  • You risk crushing an insect or little critter. You might not see that salamander keeping cool under some foliage or a butterfly that just landed on a flower. There is a risk destroying a habitat.
  • Stepping off of the trail causes it to widen. If everyone steps off of the trail, it’s going to widen.
  • When the trail widens, it creates a bigger puddle.
  • Erosion issues.
  • People who created the trail put hours and hours of work into it. It takes effort to create and maintain a trail. Let’s try to help them.

How can you support the land?

To reduce trail damage and minimize impact, please stay on the trail and practice the Leave No Trace principals. Volunteer in some way, do trail work, or donate. Check with your local trail committee or conservation to see when their trail clean up and maintenance days are. Another really simple thing that you can do is to pick up one or two pieces of litter that you see while out. It feels really good to finish a run knowing that you grabbed litter, making the trail a better place for wildlife and other people.

The Leave No Trace Principals

The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors. Although Leave No Trace has its roots in backcountry settings, the Principles have been adapted so that they can be applied anywhere — from remote wilderness areas, to local parks and even in your own backyard. They also apply to almost every recreational activity. Each Principle covers a specific topic and provides detailed information for minimizing impacts.

Leave No Trace
  • Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare
    • “It helps ensure the safety of groups and individuals.”
    • “It prepares you to Leave No Trace and minimizes resource damage.”
    • “It contributes to accomplishing trip goals safely and enjoyably.”
    • “It increases self-confidence and opportunities for learning more about nature.”
  • Principle 2: Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
    • “Land management agencies construct trails to provide identifiable routes that concentrate foot and stock traffic. Constructed trails are themselves an impact on the land; however, they are a necessary response to the fact that people travel through natural areas.”
    • “Concentrating travel on trails reduces the likelihood that multiple routes will develop and scar the landscape. It is better to have one well-designed route than many poorly chosen paths. Trail use is recommended whenever possible. Encourage travelers to stay within the width of the trail and not shortcut trail switchbacks (trail zigzags that climb hillsides).”
    • “Travelers should provide space for other hikers if taking breaks along the trail. The principles of off-trail travel should be practiced if the decision is made to move off-trail for breaks. Hikers in the same group should periodically stop to rest and talk. Avoid shouting to communicate while hiking. Loud noises usually are not welcome in natural areas.”
  • Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
    • “The Center encourages outdoor enthusiasts to consider the impacts that they leave behind, which will undoubtedly affect other people, water and wildlife.”
  • Principle 4: Leave What You Find
    • “Allow others a sense of discovery by leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts and other objects of interest as you find them.”
    • Minimize site alterations.
  • Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts
    • Ask yourself: should you build a fire?
    • Lessen the impact of having a campfire.
  • Principle 6: Respect Wildlife
    • “Learn about wildlife through quiet observation.”
    • Do not disturb plants and animals just to have a “better look.”
  • Principle 7: Be Considerate of Others
    • “Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets and damaged surroundings take away from the natural appeal of the outdoors.”

To learn more, see research, or get involved, go to the Leave No Trace website.

Sad story

Sadly, I’ve seen these happen at a local ultramarathon, Oil Creek 100. There was record rainfall on race day and the trail was ankle deep mud and water in most sections. The race had three distances with roughly 100 people in each distance. The course was a loop, where one loop was 32 miles. Race participants, depending on their distance, had to either complete one, two, or three loops. Many runners, including their pacers went off of the trail to avoid mud. In the end, trying to avoid the mud didn’t make sense, everything became covered in it. After the race, the trail appeared to have taken a huge beating from people stepping off of it. It was definitely widened in places, which was upsetting to see. A friend of mine went back to the trail the next day to hike and mentioned that it was sad to see the trail in poor condition. I hope that it regains some growth and that this isn’t repeated in following years. This situation could have been avoided if people stayed on the trail and ran through the mud. Even people who went off the trail were head to toe in mud, they didn’t stay clean.

Oil Creek 100, Gerard Hiking Trail (2021). Perfect example of a trail getting ruined due to people going around vs through.

Coach Kyle Kranz (Plant-Based Run Coach) made a good video on trail etiquette, check it out for some solid tips

Final thoughts and tips on dealing with mud

In my opinion, you are out trail running, so enjoy the trail and all of the mud that comes with it. Mud is soft and provides an additional challenge, it’s fun. Your shoes will be fine. When my shoes get caked in mud, I see it as a sign of a good run. The mud comes off on a dry, sunny day of trail running or the next time you go through a stream. Mud on shoes is not a big deal. Your feet will be fine. I use Squirrel’s Nut Butter (the vegan one) and Injinji socks when I know that the trail will be wet and muddy. Trail Toes is another anti-chafe foot and body product. I’ve found that these products help so much, even during events where it rained the whole time! You can clean your car or house. We can do all of these things, but we can’t easily take back harm done to the trail. Please, choose mud.

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