How to Plan for a Fall Hike
Camping & Hiking expert Amy B. runs through how to prepare for an autumn walk in the outdoors.
Every season is special for its own reasons, but fall might just be my favorite. Maybe it’s because my birthday is on the autumn equinox, but I always start to crave that cozy feeling of bundling up and enjoying the fresh, crisp air. Not to mention the colorful scenery that starts to pop up, announcing the changing of the seasons. If you need any more reasons to love fall, here’s one for you: it brings some of the most enjoyable hiking conditions!
Hikes during the fall will reward you with beautiful scenery, fewer (if any) pesky bugs, quieter trails, and often more wildlife sightings. Along with these perks, you should also be aware of and plan for the risks that arise with the changing season. I suggest reviewing my Hiking 101 article (if you haven’t already!) and then continue reading below for some fall-specific tips for a fun and safe hike.
Once you have chosen your route, make sure to do a little research on the current trail conditions. During the fall season, there can be big variances to the trails you enjoyed during the summer months: while some will be bursting with vibrant fall colors, others may be completely buried in snow or slick with ice. If you are hiking at a higher elevation, this could be the perfect time to pull out those snowshoes to help break trail or grab some microspikes to give yourself a little extra traction on potential icy surfaces.
Knowing what to expect along your chosen route has a direct impact on how you prepare. You may need gear you did not initially consider or you may encounter treacherous conditions along the way—knowing so ahead of time will prevent uncomfortable experiences or even unnecessary rescue scenarios. Be aware of the current conditions and prepare or adjust your plan accordingly.
One thing to note with the changing season is the shortening hours of daylight. Avoid hiking in the dark by knowing approximately how long your route takes to complete and leaving early enough in the day. Alternatively, if you are planning a sunset hike, pack headlamps with a few extra batteries (just in case) and warm layers for when the sun goes down.
Conditions in the mountains and backcountry vary all year—checking the weather forecast leading up to your hike should always be part of your planning checklist. We have all hiked in a myriad of conditions but consider what is safe (and enjoyable) on your chosen route. Once you have done your research, pack the appropriate clothing layers and gear to encounter any unexpected weather changes on the trail.
Another thing to consider: if it’s raining where you live in the city, odds are, it’s snowing up in the mountains! Heading up to the mountains to escape the rain and hike and play in the snow can be an immediate mood booster. Grab a thermos of hot chocolate and a friend and get on out there.
You can find the full 10 Essentials listed in this article, but let’s cover them again here for good measure. Along with Leave No Trace, these are some of the most important hiking packing “rules” to follow. Packing all of these items along for your hike might seem like overkill. In reality, they don't take up much space and the benefit of being prepared is well worth it.
- Navigation: A topographic map, compass, GPS, PLB, or another trustworthy gadget. Make sure you have something to help you if you get lost.
- Illumination: If you end up on the trail after dark, you’ll want to be able to light your way back. A headlamp is ideal but a flashlight works, too. Don’t forget extra batteries!
- First Aid: Add a blister kit and bug repellent to your kit, and you’re ready for (almost) anything.
- Sun Protection: Sunscreen and a hat with a brim will keep you covered! For extra coverage, try lightweight UPF sun-protective clothing.
- Knife/Multi-Tool: Handy for slicing cheese at lunch but also during emergency repairs.
- Fire Starter: Matches or a lighter will do just fine.
- Emergency Shelter: A bivy or tarp to protect you from the elements in an emergency.
- Extra Food: Pack beyond what you expect to use.
- Extra Water: Again, pack more than what you expect to use.
- Extra Clothing/Insulation: If you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors, an extra layer will help keep you warm.
Hikers and Hunters
Something to remember is that autumn marks the beginning of the hunting season. This time of year, it’s a good idea to check if the area where you are hiking is open for hunting. If so, make yourself visible by wearing bright colors and make noise as you hike: whistle, sing, or simply make conversation with your fellow hikers as you go. Cotopaxi makes fantastic and colorful outdoor gear and apparel.
If you’re hiking with your pet during hunting season, keep them on a leash and help them don a brightly colored T-shirt (or collar) so they are visible and not mistaken for game by hunters.
TLDR: Know what to expect during your fall hike by researching weather and trail conditions ahead of time, and prepare and pack accordingly!
Fall hiking can produce some of the best conditions: colorful scenery, crisp air, and maybe even a chance for snow-a-holics to get an early fix by heading to higher elevation. Pack some snacks and fill a thermos with a hot drink to enjoy along the trail or at a lookout and don’t forget to soak it all in. Your fall adventures may require some new gear (or warmer layers) so feel free to shoot me a note and I can help you find the best options. Just click on my profile below to chat with me. Happy hiking!