Step outdoors in October and you’ll prove the old adage is true: “If you don’t like the weather in Maine, wait a minute.”
This fall something has come from the sky in one form or another. It’s either been sunny, windy, cold, cloudy, raining or all of them put together, usually in the same day.
Then, there has been the snow.
One hike I went on last weekend involved wearing a fleece jacket that I zipped up early in the morning because it was cold. I stuffed it in my pack by mid-morning as the day warmed up. Then, I needed it again in the afternoon, when clouds blocked the sun. Once the clouds parted, I stuffed it back in the pack, until the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Out came the fleece, again.
That’s typical for this time of year. Fall is second only to spring in terms of changeable weather. It makes it endlessly interesting in the all-important task of properly planning a day hike. Although wearing appropriate clothing is important, there are a few other considerations to ensure that your fall hike is enjoyable and safe.
Plan your hike
When planning your hike, allow yourself enough time to complete the return hike during daylight hours. It seems obvious until you realize that if you wait until the day warms up, around noon, to start a six- hour hike, you’ll be hiking after dark. It gets dark around 5:30 p.m. now and it’s slowly getting earlier.
Most mountains in Maine have a long forested approach. It’s darker in the woods an hour before sunset. If you plan to start early in the morning you’ll have more allowance for daylight, in case someone needs help.
Look over guidebooks and maps carefully and be realistic in estimating your ability to complete a hike in a given time. Set a firm departure time and turnaround time in case you end up taking longer than you thought to reach your chosen mountaintop.
Loading the pack
The simple fact is, fall is cooler, so pack accordingly. You may not wear an extra middle layer of fleece, but it’s better to have it with you and not need it than to wish you brought it.
Pack a rain shell to double as a wind jacket when you take breaks and mountain summit stops. Wind chill occurs at an air temperature as warm as 40 degrees. If you’re in a 10 mph wind, the wind chill effect is 30 degrees. Throw in a pair of gloves and a hat, and maybe a down vest for comfortable summit breaks.
Carry at least two quarts of water for any hike longer than a couple of hours. Nothing warms you better than a cup of hot chocolate or cider. If you pack a thermos of either, you’ll be warmed from the inside. Pack plenty of snacks and a lunch for longer day hikes. I pack a stove for a trailside cup of soup. Bring a first aid kit and flashlight, too.
Once you’re hiking
Begin your hike by wearing as few clothing layers as possible. Wear a set of polypropylene upper and lower base layers. Put on a light fleece jacket and start hiking to warm up. Stop for a break and then throw on the wind shell first to trap your body heat so you stay warm. Take the wind shell off and pack it before you start hiking again. It will get you moving and warmed back up.
Drink water before you’re thirsty. Even though heat exhaustion is not a problem in cool temperatures, dehydration is common because hikers think that because it’s cool, they don’t need to drink as much. Actually, cold air is just as drying as warm air, so drink plenty of water. Get out of the wind if it’s breezy. Find sheltered spots for breaks behind a ledge or tree barrier that blocks the full effect of raw autumn wind.
When you’re in the forest, be aware of leaves on the ground. Leaf drop can make trails slick, slowing your hiking speed and causing slips and tumbles. We’ve already had snow on the bigger mountains north of Greenville and Millinocket. Trails there are icy in spots. If you encounter those conditions without crampons or snow-shoes, be prepared to turn back.
If you find that you are not moving as fast as you thought you would, this is where having a firm turnaround time is important. Temperatures drop quickly after sunset.
Hiking in hunting season
Now is the time of year when hunters and hikers can run across each other. Some state parks and Acadia National Park don’t allow hunting.
On some Maine public lands, state parks and national wildlife refuges with trail networks, hunting is allowed. What type of game can be hunted, where in the area and even the season varies from one parcel to another. It’s up to you to find out. There is contact information available. Usually it’s posted at trailhead kiosks.
Normally, hikers and hunters don’t cross paths. Hikers are too noisy and hunters usually have their favorite places, way off the trail. Just the same, you could encounter each other. In areas that allow hunting, hikers should wear blaze orange. Just because you are on a trail doesn’t mean you’re safe without it. Clip a blaze orange hat to your pack, at least.
You can also wind orange surveyors flagging tape around your pack or hang some from the back. If you carry a hiking stick, you can wrap that, too.
Here are a few contacts for information:
— Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands: Phone: 207-287-3821, Web: maine.gov/doc/parks. Info on state parks and public lands.
— North Maine Woods: Phone: 207-435-6213, Web: www.northmainewoods.org. Info on private lands from Jo-Mary, Greenville north to the St. John and the Allagash, including Katahdin Iron Works. Much of the Appalachian Trail passes near or through their lands.
— These are only a couple of places to check. The National Wildlife Refuge system has a Web site at www.fws.org, but each unit has a local phone number. Call those for more information.
Autumn is great hiking weather if you’re prepared. The sky is less hazy than in summer, the crowds are gone and you won’t need the head net and bug repellent. After the leaves drop, the landscape even looks different in the strong, low angle light of fall sunshine. Get out on foot and reap the rewards.