Plan a Hike
An excursion on the Ice Age Trail can be as simple as an after-work jaunt on a suburban segment or as challenging as a once-in-a-lifetime, thousand-mile thru-hike. Regardless of the scope of your next Ice Age Trail trek, reading up on the following topics can help ensure your experience will be fun, safe and rewarding.
Before diving into trip-planning tips, it's important to spend a little time talking about private property and the Ice Age Trail.
The Ice Age Trail would not exist without the cooperation and support of private landowners who host segments of the Trail over their property. Many segments are hosted as part of a "handshake agreement" that is revocable at any time by the landowner. It is imperative, both for the present Ice Age Trail and its future, that hikers respect private property:
- Stay on the Ice Age Trail at all times.
- Do not vandalize or mistreat land over which the Ice Age Trail passes.
- If you are backpacking along the Ice Age Trail, be positive you are setting up your camp in an area that's open to primitive camping. Ice Age Trail Atlas maps have a particular pattern of shading indicating where this is permitted.
One irresponsible Ice Age Trail hiker can, unfortunately, cause an entire segment of the Trail to be lost. Our cause is further damaged if the landowner shares the story of irresponsible hikers with neighbording landowners. Please remember: Hiking the Ice Age Trail over private property is a privilege, not a right.
When planning a hike on the Ice Age Trail, two of the most common questions are "Where should I go?" and "What will I find when I get there?" The best way to answer those questions, and many more, is to consult the Ice Age Trail Companion Guide and the Ice Age Trail Atlas.
The Ice Age Trail Companion Guide gives you detailed descriptions of the entire thousand-mile Ice Age Trail. It clearly identifies connecting roads, trailhead access information and resupply, dining and lodging information in nearby towns.
Since the Companion Guide doesn't contain hiking maps, we also highly recommend the Ice Age Trail Atlas. It includes more than 100 color maps showing every mile of the Ice Age Trail route, the locations of parking areas, toilets, campgrounds, shelters, dispersed camping areas, primative camping areas, topography and more.
Both books are written and published by the Ice Age Trail Alliance. All proceeds help build and maintain the Ice Age Trail. To order, visit our online store.
Be sure to also check out our Trail Map and Current Conditions page. If you already own our guidebooks, on this page you'll discover notes on new segments we've opened since the books were published, allowing you to stay current with the evolving Trail route. If you're just getting started learning about the Ice Age Trail, you can view a map of nearby segments to help get you started exploring the Trail.
Your best hikes begin with a little research and planning:
- Weather: Be prepared for a variety of weather conditions. Local forecasts can be obtained from the National Weather Service.
- Distance: How far do you plan to hike? Distance determines what type and how much clothing, food and supplies you will need.
- Destination: If you aren't familiar with the area where you'll be hiking, refer to the Ice Age Trail Atlas and Ice Age Trail Companion Guide to get a lay of the land. Also check the Trail Map and Current Conditions page for updates on special circumstances are affecting the Trail. A call to the Ice Age Trail Alliance chapter coordinator in the area is also highly recommended. As our chapter coordinators are volunteers, please plan to give them a day or two to get back in touch with you if you leave a message.
No matter how nice the trail, it's tough to enjoy it if you're uncomfortable. Layering synthetic-fabric or thin wool clothing is a good approach, especially on longer hikes where temperatures can vary quite a bit over the duration of the hike. Cotton clothing is less desirable because once it's wet, either from rain or perspiration, it stays wet much longer than synthetic material.
Rain gear is a good idea for medium length hikes (4 to 8 hours) and essential for long ones, such as multiple-day backpacking excursions. Rain gear can get a little pricey, so consider your hiking style...for shorter hikes and scattered showers, a $15 poncho may do the job.
Walkers and hikers have fierce loyalties when it comes to footwear. Although most segments of the Ice Age Trail are unpaved and over uneven terrain, hiking boots are not essential. Sturdy hiking shoes with good ankle support are often the best option, as they support the foot well without the weight of a high-top boot.
It can be a tough pill to swallow on a hot summer day, but if you will be hiking a segment that is not through wide-open forest, long pants are recommended. They keep your legs from getting scraped and/or itchy when walking through long grass. With pants tucked into socks and shirt tucked into pants, you'll also be better protected against ticks and mosquitoes.
The Ice Age Trail has a variety of signs marking its route, though the rule of thumb is "follow the yellow blazes". Yellow blazes are the official Ice Age Tral color blaze used to mark the Trail route. These are painted or plastic yellow 2- by 6-inch vertical rectangles placed on trees and posts along the Trail. Additional signs:
- Blue blazes indicate a spur or access trail.
- White blazes indicate a loop trail.
- Red blazes mark the Timms Hill National Trail.
The Ice Age Trail route in some state and county parks shares existing park trails and may have no blazes. Consult local park maps or the Ice Age Trail Atlas for these segments.
You may encounter other signs, as well, on various Trail segments:
- 9-inch rounded-triangle signs featuring the official Ice Age National Scenic Trail logo (with a woolly mammoth) found at trailheads indicate a segment certified by the National Park Service.
- 3.5-inch rounded triangle signs with the official Ice Age National Scenic Trail logo are confirmation markers along the route, at road crossings and intersections with other trails. These also signify the segment as certified by the National Park Service.
- Other 9-inch rounded triangle or square signs found along the route may include the previous National Park Service emblem, which is footprints marking the Trail route across an outline of Wisconsin. Square emblems that show Wisconsin and the Trail route against a yellow background are noncertified segments.
- The Mobile Skills Crew Project Wooly Mammoth plaque can be found posted at each end of a Mobile Skills Crew project site with the year of the project listed.
- End of Section signs are 12-inch brown decals with white text placed on brown carsonite posts. They indicate directions and distance to the next off-road Trail section.
When venturing to unfamiliar places, always use common sense and take precautions. It is best to not hike alone. Be prepared; carry a map, compass, appropriate weather gear, water, light, matches, first aid kit, signal whistle and food, even for day hikes. Other helpful tips:
- Leave an itinerary of your trip with family or friends.
- Stay in contact with home or friends on longer hikes. Let them know your location.
- Carry a cell phone, but realize it may not work in remote sections of the Trail.
- Avoid camping within a half-mile of road crossings.
- Do not tell strangers where you are headed or plan to camp.
- If you run into a suspicious person, consider moving on to another location.
- If you must hitchhike, avoid doing it alone. Be choosy; turn down rides or get out of the car if the situation does not seem right.
- Always trust your instincts.
If you are a victim of crime or witness a crime, report the incident to the police or local sheriff's department and notify the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Call 911 for emergencies. To report an accident, suspected illegal activity or maintenance problem on any segment of the Ice Age Trail, please download, complete and submit a Trail Incident Form to the Wisconsin DNR's State Trails Coordinator.
Be prepared for natural dangers. Read and learn about backcountry travel and safety before you go. Knowledge, experience and common sense are your best tools. Hiking anywhere for any length, including day hikes, can expose you to dehydration, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, contaminated water, lightning, dangerous water crossings, rabies, insect-borne diseases and poison ivy. Bear attacks are rare. Wisconsin has only two venomous snakes: the eastern massasauga rattlesnake and the timber rattlesnake. Both are endangered and the likelihood of encountering one along the Trail is extremely rare.
Be vigilant when checking for ticks. Some ticks along the Ice Age Trail can transmit Lyme disease. For more information on Lyme disease, visit the Centers for Disease Control.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail traverses lands owned and managed by a wide variety of partners, including land trusts, private landowners and government agencies. This tapestry of land ownership is one of the aspects that makes the Ice Age Trail special, but it also complicates trail-user guidelines, because different land managers may have different regulations regarding Ice Age Trail access. This is especially true for hiking on the Ice Age Trail during hunting seasons.
Hunting is a recreational tradition engrained in Wisconsin's culture and a valuable conservation management tool. The Wisconsin legislature annually sets a wide range of season dates for a wide range of game species. The most popular hunting seasons include deer (bow and gun), turkey, small game and waterfowl. Season dates vary from year-to-year and between locations around the state. Even for the dedicated hunter, hunting season dates are not always easily discernable. The best place to get this information is the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' website page on hunting season dates.
The most popular hunting seasons, and the ones for which Ice Age Trail hikers are most likely to their hiking options curtailed, are the gun deer-hunting seasons. Recently, there has been an early season in October, the traditional nine-day season in November and a late season in December. Additional seasons (detailed on the WDNR website) have also been added for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) control and herd control.
Guidelines for Using the Ice Age Trail during Gun Deer-Hunting Seasons
Portions of the Ice Age Trail crossing privately owned lands generally should be considered closed during gun deer-hunting season. "Private Lands" signs are placed at any point where the Ice Age Trail enters private land, most often at a road crossing. Additionally, Ice Age Trail Alliance volunteers often place "segment closed" signs (with dates of the closure) at trailheads. To help ensure the continued good relations with private landowners that are so critical to the Ice Age Trail, it is vitally important that hikers obey these signs and stay off closed segments. If you'd like to go for a hike on a segment you think may be on private land, call the IATA main office (800-227-0046) or the local chapter coordinator to learn whether or not it's open for hiking.
The Ice Age Trail remains open on most public lands year-round. Those who hike an Ice Age Trail segment crossing public land during a hunting season do so at their own risk. For safety, hikers should wear high-visibility blaze orange hats and jackets when using the Trail during these times. The best option for hikers is to head to an area of a state park or forest that's closed to hunting. A list of such places is available on the WDNR website.
Dogs are not permitted on some parts of the Trail, including the Trail in the City of Janesville from May 15th to September 15th, all state nature trails, most beaches, and state park picnic areas and buildings. If you choose to hike with your dog, be responsible. Keep your dog under control at all times. All state park trails and forests require dogs be on a leash, preferably one with a maximum length of eight feet. Do not allow your dog in water sources. Carry a water bowl. Bury your dog's waste. Bring plastic bags to pack it out in urban settings.
Pack animals and horses are not permitted on the Ice Age Trail.
Help us preserve and protect the natural beauty of Wisconsin by following "Leave No Trace" ethics. These guidelines help decrease the damaging impact of humans on the Trail so everyone may enjoy the Ice Age National Scenic Trail at its best.
- Plan ahead and be prepared. Call for trail conditions, carry maps, know the regulations of the area and plan or reserve your overnight camping.
- Carry out what you carried in, including all garbage and leftover food. Repackage food to minimize waste.
- Leave the natural environment better than you found it.
- Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled food before leaving.
- Leave only footsteps. Take only photos. Do not pick flowers, plants or bark off trees.
- Preserve the past. Observe, but do not disturb or take historical artifacts such as arrowheads, historical or cultural structures, rock walls or sensitive natural resources. Do not build structures or furniture, or dig trenches.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
- Stay on the trail at all times. Do not cut switchbacks. Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
- Be considerate of other hikers. Let nature prevail; avoid loud voices and noises. Be courteous and yield to other users on the trail.
- Minimize groups to 20 on day hikes and 10 for overnight trips.
- Where primitive camping is permitted, camp off trail, at least 200 feet from lakes and waterways, and out of sight of developed areas. Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
- Make low impact fires at existing fire rings only and use only downed wood. Douse fires thoroughly before breaking camp. Never leave a fire unattended. Campfires can cause lasting impact to the backcountry. Use a portable stove for cooking instead of a campfire.
- Dispose of human waste properly. Dig a 6-inch-deep cat hole at least 200 feet from trails or water. Cover and disguise the cat hole when finished. Pack out toilet paper and all feminine hygiene products.
- Avoid using soap within 200 feet of any waterway. Sand makes an excellent scrubber. Use biodegradable soap and scatter strained dirty dishwater at least 200 feet from any waterway.
- Respect wildlife. Observe from a distance. Do not follow or approach them. Do not damage their habitat. Never bait or feed wild animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
- Store food and trash securely to avoid rodents or bears. Do not eat in or around your sleeping area. Hang your food properly in bear country.
- Do your part to fight the spread of invasive species. More info on this topic is shown below.
Visit the Center for Outdoor Ethics for more information on Leave No Trace.
Throughout Wisconsin, invasive species are making use of the Ice Age Trail increasingly difficult and less aesthetic. Invasive plants overgrow the Trail, making passage and Trail maintenance difficult. Some invasive plants adversely affect human health, such as those with prickly stems and thorns that cut exposed skin. Others produce chemicals that can cause severe skin burns and eye irritations. Invasive plants often out-compete native wildflowers and other plants, eliminating photographic and wildlife viewing opportunities. Infestation of invasive species often lowers biodiversity of natural areas, resulting in less healthy ecosystems, loss of wildlife habitat and reduced quality of experiences.
Ice Age Trail users have the potential for spreading invasive species. When people leave the Trail, this potential increases as the resulting disturbance may favor invasive species. Ice Age Trail users should follow these Best Management Practices to minimize the introduction and spread of invasive species:
- Learn to recognize invasive species common to the Ice Age Trail.
- Stay out of heavily infested areas.
- Wear clothing and footwear that are not "seed-friendly".
- For both you and your pet, inspect and clean hair, clothing, footwear and gear for soils, seeds, plant parts or invertebrates before and after using the Ice Age Trail. Carefully dispose of soil, seeds, plant parts or invertebrates found during inspection and cleaning.
- Minimize natural-environment disturbance by staying on the Trail.
- Report infestations of invasive species to the appropriate land manager or property owner.
- Volunteer to help control invasive species.
- Spread the word...help educate others about invasive species and their effects on our environment, economy and recreational opportunities.
- Don't pick plants.
- When feasible, incorporate invasive species prevention into planning for special events such as organized hikes.
For more information on fighting the spread of invasives, take a look at the Controlling Invasives presentation from our Dane County Chapter. You can also visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Invasive Species web page and UW-Stevens Point's web page on potential new invasives in Wisconsin.