Fall Hiking: How to Dress and What to Pack
Why fall hiking? Fall is probably the best season for hiking. Gone are the nasty hot temperatures, in are crispy cold mornings and beautiful foliage changes. The trails are emptier and accommodation gets more affordable.
I encourage you to go on fall hikes – either shorter day-long ones or multiple-days treks. If you have the right gear you can even enjoy fall camping. I want you to have a pleasant and safe fall hiking, so let me remind you about a few important things.
When we prepare for hiking in the fall, we need to think about the unique qualities of the season: big differences in temperature between day and night with possible frost, quickly falling darkness, common rain and even early snow, slippery trails thanks to mud, melting snow and rotting leaves.
The right clothes for fall hiking
The fall weather can be lovely and even warm – but also nasty cold and wet. No matter which one it happens to be – you can enjoy your hiking as long as you prepare well. What is true for all-season hiking, is, even more, the case during fall – wear layers. Even though it might seem like you have a lovely warm day ahead of you – prepare for sudden changes and rain. Remember, that whatever the weather is like at the feet of the mountains, it can change very fast with every meter in altitude you gain.
Base layer for fall hiking: I’m a big fan of merino wool and the colder it gets, the more I suggest wearing it. Grab a nice merino long sleeve top with undies (merino or synthetic) and forget about any cotton!
A warm layer for fall hiking: Synthetics and down win here. Grab a thin down sweater of synthetic insulated jacket. All-favorite thin fleece (100-weight) will work here great as well. In addition – pack another warm layer like an insulated jacket of similar kind into your backpack. The moment we stop moving it can get really cold right away, especially with strong winds and wet weather. Easily packable insulated jackets (synthetic or down) are again perfect for this.
Check out your options in insulating mid-layers below:
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Jacket and rain protection for fall hiking: if there is no rain in the forecast, grab a soft shell which will protect you from the cold wind. It does not mean you can skip waterproof layer – always carry it with you. It’s small and can be stuffed into your backpack with no problems. Choose a thin, light membrane jacket.
Take a look at your options of rainproof jackets below:
Pants for fall hiking:
In the summer we generally pick pants that are so thin we can hardly feel them. Even getting wet is not a problem as they usually can dry in no time. But it all changes when the temperature drops. Wet legs combined with strong, cold wind is not fun. Even dry but thin pants might not be all that pleasant when hiking over some exposed ridges. Additionally, the problem with getting your pants wet in heavy rain is not just wet legs but that the water flows freely into your boots soaking them from inside. Been there, done that. Don’t want to repeat it so I carry a pair of waterproof pants for cold and wet weather.
It might be a good option to wear a pair of thicker fabric pants, like softshell kind which provides extra wind and cold protection but are still breathable and comfortable. Just remember that jeans are never a good option for hiking – they are heavy and dry forever when wet. In bad weather, they could even be a factor in risking hypothermia.
Footwear for fall hiking:
Fall means beautiful color-changing leaves… but it also means those leaves fall and make paths slippery. Add rain to it and you need to be seriously careful. Sometimes, especially in the morning or higher up, we can encounter iced frost or even snow. Choose only hiking shoes or boots with very good, rugged soles providing good traction. Additionally, you probably want a better water protection than in the summer.
I love hiking in my Salomon boots, but I know a lot of folks prefer lower shoes. If you have no issues with ankles and the trail is easy – go ahead, choose whatever you want. You might want to wear gaiters with your low hiking shoes to keep any debris out, though. Remember about layering your socks – first a wicking synthetic liner and then a wool sock to provide amortization, prevent blisters, and provide temperature insulation.
Hat, gloves, buffs for fall hiking:
I always have a Buff or two in my bag – they are tiny but highly versatile. Use them as a scarf, a hat or headband. I have both the original buff and a merino one. If you are going hiking on a particularly cold day, wear a simple beanie or a buff. You might also want to take a pair of gloves. I use a pair of thin runners’ gloves – perfect for hiking with trekking poles in the mountains, where cold winds are common. If you know there is heavy rainfall in the forecast, you might need a pair of rainproof gloves or mittens. I have a thin (membrane only) pair of mittens I can wear over my running gloves – a perfect combination!
What else to pack for fall hiking:
In addition to the right clothes, you need to remember about a few pieces of gear as well. One of the main characteristics of all is that the days grow shorter. Sunsets at 6 pm or even as early as 4 pm can be a real surprise for the unprepared hiker. Weather changes fast and we need to be prepared for its turn for the worse. All the more so if the trail leads high or over the exposed terrain. Think also about protecting your electronics - not just from moisture, but also cold temperature. It’s a good idea to carry an extra power bank even for a day hike - our phone’s battery can drain quickly when we use navigating apps, take photos, check weather, and when it’s cold out there. So many tourists who got surprised by darkness up on in the mountains admit their phones died and they had no idea where to go.
Headlamp - Even a short hike might get delayed and your phone flashlight app is really not enough. It is worth grabbing a much stronger headlamp than regular – especially if you plan on hiking longer or camping in the fall. The moment the sun sets it can get pitch black and really cold – hence all the warm layers you have to pack “just in case”.
Trekking poles – I encourage to using them all year round but in fall they might prove even more useful than in the summer. On the slippery, muddy paths covered with first snow, it’s good to have the support of a pair of trekking poles.
Hot drink flask – I find them too heavy to carry around in summer but it changes during fall. I drink only water when I hike in summer months, but there is something wonderful about drinking hot tea or coffee during your fall hiking break. Especially for shorter day-hikes, it’s worth packing a good, insulated water bottle filled with hot goodness to your backpack. And while you are it - why not pack hot lunch with you? You can prepare one at home, or make one early in the morning at the mountain refuge. This could be a great idea if the day is to be cold and wet.
Dry stuff sack – Protect your clothes and documents. Although most backpacks have their rain covers, it’s always good to do the extra step to make sure you have dry clothes to put on or that your wallet is still dry. If you want down jacket you always have to pay extra attention to ensure it does not get wet. Grab a few in different sizes and colors to help with organizing your things.
Orange vest/hat – If you live and hike in hunting areas you have to wear clearly visible clothing for personal safety.
Plastic map case can be a very valuable thing for rainy fall hikes.
Power bank - no need to carry a huge one for a day trip, but make sure you have at least one phone charge on it. More if you go for multi-day trek.
Camera - come on, how can you not take photos of all that stunning foliage?
After you come back
Make sure you take a proper care of your clothing and gear after you return home. Clean all the mud, dry whatever needs drying, reapply water repellent if needed. You don’t want to grab a piece of your equipment later on to discover it stinks of mold, don’t you?
In addition to good clothes and boots, the gear below also come in handy on (or before) your fall hiking trips:
Fall hiking – additional tips
Take more food. When the weather gets colder we need more fuel to stay warm
If you plan on camping – check well what can the night temperature be and grab appropriate gear. You might need a warmer sleeping pad and bag.
No matter the weather – always practice the Leave No Trace rules. Take with you everything and don’t leave any litter (even organic) behind.
It may be colder but the sun can still be in full force – remember about sunscreen if the weather is nice.
Take insect repellant. There are fewer mosquitoes and flies but the ticks are still a real risk.
Be prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions – have extra money in case you need to call for a taxi (if available) or pay for an unexpected night in a hotel/cabin.
Your day hike backpack should be slightly bigger than your summer one – you need to have room to pack your extra layers. A backpack 25 – 30 l should be perfect. Make sure it has a rain cover or buy an extra one.
If you plan on camping you might want to check my ultimate 3-season hiking and camping list for all the needed gear.
Don’t forget to take a camera with you to capture all that stunning fall foliage! If you hike alone (or want to make group photos) you can grab a small, light and flexible tripod.
If you would like to read some additional tips to improve your hiking and camping skills - I highly recommend this article.
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