Shoulder Season Camping: How to Be Safe and Prepared

Looking to plan some spring or fall camping trips? Camping & Hiking expert Elizabeth H. shares how to have a great time camping during the shoulder season.

Autumn in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Photo by Joshua Woroniecki

Camping during the shoulder season is one of my favorite ways to avoid crowds while still enjoying beautiful weather! Most people think of camping as a Memorial Day to Labor Day activity, but I’ve enjoyed camping from March-November in the Rocky Mountain region, and for those of you lucky enough to live in places that are temperate year-round, there’s no limit to when you can camp!

Research Your Trip

The first thing to do is research! Pick a place to go, then find out more about it. If it is a National Park Service site, their website is a great place to start. They provide tons of information, from places to camp and what to do, and weather data is also easily accessible from Park Service websites. If you are headed someplace less developed, look for the local chamber of commerce or call the local ranger district.

What to look for when researching:

  • Campgrounds or campsites
  • Trails or places of interest
    • I love using AllTrails when I visit somewhere new
    • Ask a local! Go to a coffee shop or ask your campground host, often these people have lived there for a while and will suggest places that you won’t find online!
  • Drinking water access - some places turn water spigots off for the winter
  • Weather data and predictions - you can look for average overall temperatures and when your trip gets closer, find a more accurate weather prediction
    • I like using the National Weather Service. They have an interactive map that gives you a prediction for anywhere in the U.S.
  • Weather appropriate activities
    • I like to use the shoulder season to do longer hikes that wouldn’t be fun in the hot summer sun!

Some of my favorite places to go in the shoulder seasons:

  • Southern Utah - Early spring and late fall desert trips are my favorite. Warm days but nights cold enough to keep the crowds at bay!
  • Sawtooth National Recreation Area (central Idaho) - Check out my article on the best hikes in the SNRA.
  • Pattison State Park (Wisconsin) - I had a great time there in early October. It wasn’t very crowded and there were lots of great fall colors
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee/North Carolina border) - I went in early December and the weather was absolutely beautiful!
A trail-side sign that reads: "Appalachian Trail. Sweat Heifer Creek Trail - 1.7. Boulevard Trail - 2.7. Katahdin Maine - 1972.0.

You would never guess that this photo was taken in December! Photo by Elizabeth H.

What to Bring

Once I know a bit more about where I’m going and what the weather will be like, I will make a packing list. Most of my packing list stays the same no matter what season I’m headed out in, but the unpredictability and variability of shoulder season weather means that you should be extra prepared!

My shoulder season essentials:

  • A 15-degree sleeping bag
  • Fleece sleeping bag liner
  • Insulated sleeping pad
  • Thermal layers - top and bottom
  • Wool socks
  • A beanie, gloves, and a neck gaiter
  • Rain gear- jacket and pants
  • 3 season tent
  • Reusable hand warmers

Sleeping gear

The biggest safety concern that I worry about is staying warm while I sleep. Daytime temperatures are often pleasant, but it can easily drop to below freezing at night. A temperature-appropriate sleeping bag is a must! I own both a 15- and 30-degree bag, the 15-degree bag with a fleece liner is warm enough for me even on the chilliest shoulder season nights. Sleeping bag liners are a great way to increase the temperature rating of your bag without having to buy a new one. Talk to a Curated Camping & Hiking expert today to find the right bag for you! A favorite tip to help keep you warm is to stuff the bottom of your bag with extra clothes. This is a great way to ensure that your clothes for the next day are warm when you want to put them on and for shorter people like me, it takes up dead space in my bag which increases its insulation! For more information on cold weather camping, check out this guide here.

The author stands and smiles in a raincoat in front of Little Manitou Falls in Pattison State Park.

Little Manitou Falls in Pattison State Park. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth H.

An insulated sleeping pad is also a must. I personally love my Exped Megamat, I bought it about 4 years ago to try to make my back happier when I’m camping, and I’ll never go back. It is super comfortable, even for side sleepers like myself, and the R-value is 8.1. The R-value is a measure of how insulating a pad is, so an 8.1 is designed to keep you warm in temperatures as low as -40F which is a heck of a lot colder than I would ever camp in! It’s important to note that the Megamat is very large even when packed up and at $200 it is definitely an investment!

Staying cozy

Another item I love for shoulder season camping is reusable hand warmers or hot water bottles. I’ve even filled my Nalgene with warm water and taken it to bed with me to help keep me warm! Hotsnapz makes reusable hand warmers which are such a little luxury while camping and are super easy to reset for the next use.

Clothing

Warm clothing is also very important during the shoulder season. I’m a chronic overpacker, but my preparedness has saved me many times. Wool or silk tight-fitting base layers are a great place to build from. I’ve had thermal pants from Smartwool, Helly Hanson, and Columbia and enjoyed all of them. My current base layer pants have Columbia’s Omni-Heat technology which uses foil to reflect your own heat back to you. It’s a super neat technology, and the foil doesn’t feel weird if you are worried about that! As a top layer, I usually start with a tank top that has a built-in bra then layer my Patagonia baselayer top or a tight-fitting Outdoor Research quarter-zip.

That’s my standard sleep uniform, but depending on how cold it gets, I will add extra layers on top of that. Wool socks like these are always a must in colder conditions—I like to keep a separate pair just for sleeping so that they feel clean in my sleeping bag. The next pair of pants I add is either fleece-lined leggings or a pair of sweatpants, two layers of pants are usually enough to keep my legs warm while in my sleeping bag. For an extra top layer, I will add a hoodie or fleece jacket. If your nose gets cold like mine does, I love using a beanie with a brim that I can fold down over my eyes and nose while sleeping.

Changing weather

Be prepared for lots of weather conditions during one day. I will hike with my larger daypack so that I have space to put extra layers if I take them off. A rain jacket or rain pants will help you in colder conditions as well and they are often very lightweight. They will keep you dry if you sit on dewy grass and help keep you warm in windy conditions as well. I never hit the trail without my rain jacket!!

The author takes a selfie, smiling and scrunching up her face while wearing a beanie, rain coat, fleece, and a backpack.

My rain jacket and fleece were warm enough for unexpected snow on the trail. Photo by Elizabeth H.

On the other side of things, you might also hit warmer weather during the shoulder season, so don’t forget to pack your sun protection. A shirt with SPF in it was one of my more recent additions to my camping and hiking gear, and I honestly don’t know what I did without it. It is super lightweight and perfect for when you are traveling solo and don’t have anyone else to put sunscreen on your back for you! Sunglasses are also a must-pack, I like having darker tinted glasses for bright days but those aren’t the best in changing conditions. Sunglasses with interchangeable lenses are a great option. They are often marketed towards cyclists, but your glasses don’t know what they are being used for!

Shoulder season trips are a great way to explore new areas without the crowds and test out some new gear. Don’t be afraid of a bit of rough weather, but please stay safe out there! I’ve packed up my whole camp at 11 pm because I couldn’t get myself warm enough. No shame in that! When planning a shoulder season trip, do your research, be prepared with the right gear, and don’t forget to have fun. You are outdoors after all!! To get suited up with all the perfect gear for you, reach out to a Curated Camping & Hiking expert for free, personalized advice and recommendations.

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Written By
I've grown up in a family of outdoor lovers. I've been camping and being carried on hikes since before I could walk and that love has continued throughout my life. I absolutely love spending time outdoors and exploring the National Parks and Monuments. My early years hiking, camping, and rafting ins...

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