Maine hikers are used to dealing with the seasons. They soon learn to embrace the changing conditions. They throw on a rain jacket, fleece jacket, hat and gloves and either keep on hiking or know when to turn back.
This autumn’s weather so far has proven to be as changeable as usual. We’ve had some bright warm days, some windy, cloudy, raw days and everything in between. It’s made hiking a challenge just in deciding what to pack for clothes.
Autumn poses other challenges for hikers besides what to wear. What follows are some tips for hiking in fall that, if practiced, should make your next hike safer and, at the least, more comfortable.
Planning your hike
Every hike starts with a plan. In autumn you should allow for the reduced daylight of the season. If you’re planning a long day hike, one that takes more than six hours, for example, you need to account for the shorter days.
It gets darker in the forest once the sun gets behind the trees. That happens as early as 5 o’clock. It’s earlier in a couple of weeks when we set the clocks back.
Of course daylight lasts longer than six hours, but in autumn you have less allowance for leaving late in the morning. You’ll also have less time for stopping for breaks during the hike, because you need to get back to the trailhead before dark.
In either event you should pack a working flashlight or headlamp, just in case. Bringing a flashlight is so important that Baxter State Park requires hikers to carry one during any season. To allow for enough light to safely hike to your destination and back, set a firm departure and turnaround time before you leave and stick to it.
Packing for fall
There have been days this fall when it has been warm in the morning, then the breeze picks up, clouds form and it’s actually colder in the afternoon. It’s all right to overpack in fall. Pack a rain shell to use as a wind jacket. Then, you’re prepared for either rain or wind.
Wind chill doesn’t just occur in winter. At an air temperature of 40 degrees, a 10 mph breeze equates to a temperature of 30 degrees. Pack an insulating mid-layer of fleece to put on when you stop for breaks. Also pack gloves and a hat.
Carry plenty of water, at least two quarts, and drink before you’re thirsty. Dehydration is common in fall because hikers tend to think that just because it’s cool, they don’t need to drink as much. Actually, the opposite is true. Cold air is just as drying as warm air.
Pack a thermos of hot chocolate or cider to warm you from the inside. Pack plenty of snacks and a lunch for longer day hikes.
On the trail
Start off by wearing as few clothing layers as possible. Begin hiking to warm yourself up in the cool morning air. When you stop for a break, throw on a rain, wind shell or fleece or both. If it’s breezy, find a less exposed spot to stop.
After the break, take off the layer you put on before you leave. If you’re hiking with a partner, time your departure after a break with the other person, so no one stands around getting colder.
Once you are hiking, be aware of leaves lying on the ground. Dropped leaves can make trails slippery, slowing your hiking speed. Snow cover can occur in October and the higher summits usually see snow.
Be prepared for the chance of snow on your chosen hike. We usually don’t have enough snow and ice in fall to require crampon use, but we could. If you didn’t pack crampons and encounter snow or ice, expect that you may have to turn back.
Most approaches to the mountains in Maine pass through forests and it gets dark in the woods almost an hour before sunset. This is where having a firm turn-back time is important. If you find that you’re hiking too slowly to make it to your halfway point before it gets dark, turn around.
Well, that’s it.
Fall is a favorite hiking season for lots of hikers. If you’re prepared, it’s easy to see why. The sky is more likely to be clear and bright than in the haze of summer. Even after the leaves drop, the landscape seems to open up and contours appear that you didn’t notice in summer. The crowds of summer hikers have thinned, leaving the trails to us late-season hikers.
You won’t need insect repellent either.