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Autumn Ambling | Fall 2005 Out Here Magazine

Hiking in the best of all seasons

By Karen Berger 

Summer may be over, but don't pack away your hiking boots just yet. With crisp, comfortable temperatures, bright foliage, and fewer bugs, autumn is the ideal time to hit the trail.

Not only are conditions ideal for a brisk leg-stretcher, but crowds thin out after Labor Day. And the scenery can be nothing short of glorious as the birches, maples, sumacs, and aspens begin their annual display of flaming finery.

But before you head into the wilds, consider your comfort and safety. A change of season means a change of strategy.

An autumn hike can be a four-season adventure: In addition to fall's crisp temperatures and clear skies, you could be in for an Indian-summer heat wave, a drenching spring-like rain, or even a wintry snow storm.

Hikers in high mountains are especially vulnerable to changing temperatures and weather, not only because autumn storms can roll in quickly, but also because hikers above timberline have fewer options if they must seek emergency shelter.

The solution: Check the weather forecast and take at least one more layer of clothing than you think you'll need, including good head-to-toe raingear. Other essentials: a warm hat, extra wool socks, lightweight gloves, matches and fire starter, and a garbage bag (you can sit on it when you're taking a break, or use it as an emergency pack cover).

In autumn, the days grow shorter, so you'll want to plan your route to have plenty of time to return to your car before daylight wanes.

Some safety considerations are:

  • Make sure you prepare for weather
  • Time your hike for daylight hours
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Have blaze orange on your person, your pack, and your pet for hunting season safety
  • Finally, wear bug repellent and be aware of ticks.

Another consideration is water. You'll probably feel less thirsty because of autumn's lower temperatures, but hiking is a workout in hot weather or cold. You need to drink. If you rely on backcountry water sources to fill your canteen, bring along a water treatment such as iodine or a filter. Springs may dry up by autumn — a water source that gushes in June may be barely more than a damp spot in October. Carry a little extra water just in case.

Autumn hikers also need to be aware of hunting season. Wear blaze orange vests and tie something orange to the back of your pack — and to your dog, too, if you bring him with you. For extra safety, hike in parks and preserves where hunting is not permitted. On Forest Service lands and state wildlife lands, check with the local management agency for hunting seasons, regulations, and safety recommendations.

Finally: don't forget the bug repellent. While mosquitoes and biting flies aren't much of a problem in autumn, ticks are still out and about. If you hike in tick country, wear long pants and use a repellent.

Follow these simple steps and don't forget to pack your camera. You might find, as many veteran hikers have, that the autumn wilderness offers a taste of all four seasons — and the best of all of them.

Karen Berger's latest book is Backpacking and Hiking, published this year by Dorling Kindersley.