How Muddy Are Your Trails?

By Erik Mickelson, Field Manager

Muddy Trail

Photo credit: Flickr/Mr.TInDC

Can you predict how muddy your favorite trails will be this spring? In a way, yes.

The Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) can be useful as a gauge for estimating the water from snow melt onto trails, since snow melt is analogous to a rain event. The SWE “is the amount of water contained within the snowpack…as the depth of water that would theoretically result if you melted the entire snowpack instantaneously,” explains the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In the winter these melt (or rain) events can make for soggy trails–assuming it all melts “instantaneously.”

Water trapped in frozen soils holding autumn rains and freeze/thaw event moisture may add to the SWE flows unleashed during snow melt. If the soil was near its water holding capacity (field capacity) at freezing, or between SWEs, there’s a good chance the trails could be wetter than anticipated from snow melt alone.

Northeast SWE

Snow Water Equivalent Map, February 2015

So how long will you be slogging through mud? The rate trails dry after rain is a function of many factors. Other than grades, outslope, and trail soil profiles, two factors that help dry trails are evaporation and transpiration from plants. The two together are called evapotranspiration, or ET. ET rates from late fall to spring are low, while SWE flows can by high, making for muddier trails.

If you decide to get out on the trails this spring, take a mental note of the good and bad trails after rain events–and save the wet ones for later.

Want to learn more? Check out this interactive SWE map and zoom in on your location.

About Trail Walker

Since 1920, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has partnered with parks to create, protect, and promote a network of more than 2,100 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep these trails open, safe, and enjoyable for the public. We publish maps and books that guide public use of these trails. The Trail Conference is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization with a membership of 10,000 individuals and 100 clubs with a combined membership of 100,000 active, outdoor-loving people.
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