I used to loathe March. For me, this month of basketball madness was the season of mud, gray skies and most importantly, it was too early to fish. March was a dud, at least until I began looking at it in a different light.
Now, retooling my own mindset, it has become apparent that March is perhaps the best time of the entire year for hiking in Indiana. Granted, the temperature can range from brutally cold to nearly summer-like, often within a period of days but when you keep a weather eye and take advantage of opportunity, March hikes can be wonderful.
Right now the bugs and undergrowth are non-existent, the humidity is nil and recreation areas are virtually deserted. The chill can even be refreshing when you are dressed properly, certainly more so than the muggy heat of summer when most people are hiking, and there are things to be seen and experienced in the barren landscape like no other time of year. Finding a solitary south-facing rock wall, protected from the incessant spring breeze, where you can pause, stretch out and bask in the warm sun like a lizard on a rock, is an experience that is almost transcendent.
For hikers, the highly variable weather of this month makes it difficult to set up outdoor activities far in advance. During March it is most important to be flexible and make plans only after the day has already tipped its hand and revealed if the forecaster was actually correct.
The best measure of weather right now is the sun. As the days have grown longer and the sun is higher in the sky, even a cold day can be tolerable if there is sufficient sunlight to heat things up. No sun usually means a damp chill that will sink into your bones like winter fog.
Hiking during late winter is the easiest time to travel the wildlands of the Hoosier state but the season has its own set of problem that hikers need to consider.
Clothing is the biggest factor for a successful day. Temperatures vary considerably this month and clothing must be flexible to meet these changing conditions. It is not uncommon to start the day wearing a hat and parka with a fleece jacket underneath and then progressively shed layers as your activity level and the higher sun begin to heat things up. I find that it is more refreshing to be underdressed while hiking and then immediately throw on jackets and perhaps a hat during rest breaks. Obviously, a daypack makes stowing excess clothing much easier.
Attention should be given to footwear. During the day you will certainly encounter mud, water, and both in varying combinations so waterproof footwear is very handy if not required. If you don’t have waterproof hiking boots, a good pair of wool socks is helpful to keep damp feet warm as temperatures drop later in the day.
You should also think about your vehicle. This might seem an unusual hiking consideration, at least until you prepare to head home. As you begin stripping off wet pants and muddy boots you will wish you had brought other clothing to protect your car seats and modesty. After once driving home wearing only wet socks, a fleece jacket and a trash-bag kilt, I take extra clothing for the end of the day.
Safety can be an issue if you hike alone because a problem could force you to spend the night outdoors. This is not usually an issue for most day hikers but speaking from the experience of shredding an ankle in the backcountry, an unplanned overnight in the woods is only a misstep away and given the fact that trails are deserted, a lone hiker with an injury might find the arriving chilly night a very unwelcome visitor.
During March, the darkness hours are cold even if daytime temperatures reach the 60’s. Therefore you should carry exposure protection whenever you venture more than earshot from civilization, especially when alone. A small space blanket or tarp weighs next to nothing but would be worth more than gold if needed. A tent would be overkill but a small fleece blanket in addition to a space blanket could be lifesaving if going to very remote location or off-trail. A whistle, matches and compass should already be in your pack for other hikes regardless of time or season.
Don’t let the sometimes ugly weather of March keep you indoors. Bundle up, put some extra gear in the pack next to your lunch and then head out to the Indiana wildlands. You probably won’t see many people but the effort is a great way to shake off those last lingering shards of cabin fever.
When you find that first adventurous wildflower defying the cold ground, the season of mud is quickly forgotten.