You don’t have to hike very far or often to appreciate the changing seasons in Maine. This fall has proved that so far. We’ve had cold nights, clouds, rain, high winds, practically everything this fall — except snow. There’s ice on Katahdin that will probably stay until spring, unless we get a warm spell. The snow’s probably only days away on those mountains to the north and west, as well.
For day hikers, changing weather and shorter days during fall present additional challenges to those encountered during a summer hike. Besides bringing proper clothing for the conditions, knowing fall weather patterns helps keep hikers safe during the season. Most trail-hardened hikers know that for comfort and safety on autumn hikes they need to plan and pack accordingly. What follows are some trail-tested tips for a fall hike.
Planning your hike
When you plan a hike, allow time to complete the distance out and back before it gets dark, which seems obvious, until you realize that it gets dark around 5:30 p.m. in the shaded, forested approaches to most of Maine’s mountains. If you try to hike a 10-mile round-trip hike, for example, plan to leave the trailhead early in the morning. That way you’ll have plenty of daylight to take your time and assure returning back before dark. Also, if anyone needs help, there is more allowance for a daylight return trip.
Read the trail descriptions in your guidebooks carefully and be realistic in estimating your ability to complete your hike in the given time. Set a firm departure time and, more important, a firm turn-back time. Once you are on a summit, you are only halfway done on an up-and-back hike. Most injuries occur on the descent, be-cause people think the hard part is over and they become in-attentive.
Loading the pack
The hard truth is, fall temperatures are lower, so pack extra layers. Wear polypropylene upper and lower base layers. No cotton. The old saying “cotton kills” really applies in autumn. Cotton soaks up perspiration and stays wet, cooling you further, and dangerously, in wind. Pack a fleece midlayer for rest stops. It’s better to have it with you and not need it than to wish you had brought it.
Pack a rain shell to double as a wind shell for breaks and summit stops. Carry at least 2 quarts of water for any hike longer than two hours. Pack a lot of snacks to carry in pockets for easy access during breaks.
Eating calories equals heat to your body, so plan to snack often, before you’re hungry. If you pack a thermos of hot chocolate or cider, you’ll be warmed from the inside when you stop. Pack gloves and a hat, and maybe a down vest for the summit. Finally, bring a working flashlight and a first aid kit.
On the trail
Begin hiking by wearing as few layers of clothing as possible to be comfortable. Put on a light fleece jacket, then start hiking to warm up in cool, morning air. When you stop for breaks, throw on the wind shell first to trap your body heat so you stay warm. Take it off and pack it before hiking again. It will get you moving to warm back up.
Drink water before you’re thirsty. Heat exhaustion is not a problem in autumn, but, dehydration could be. In fact, dehydration is common among hikers who think that just because it’s cool, they don’t need to drink as much water. Actually, cold air is just as drying as warm air. When you stop, find a wind break if it’s breezy. Look for sheltered spots behind a ledge or tree barrier that blocks the full effect of raw autumn wind.
While hiking, watch for fallen leaves on the ground. Leaves can make trails slick, slowing your hiking speed and causing slips and tumbles. If you find that you’re not moving as fast as you thought you would, this is where having a firm turn-back time is important. Temperatures drop quickly once the sun sets.
Hiking in hunting season
On some Maine public lands, state parks and 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 the regulations for your destination. There is contact information available, usually posted at trailhead kiosks.
Usually, hikers and hunters don’t cross paths; hikers are too noisy for hunters. Hunters typically have their favorite places off-trail. Just the same, you could encounter each other. In areas with trails that allow hunting, hikers should also wear hunter orange.
Just because you are on a trail doesn’t mean you’re safe without orange clothing. Wear a hunter orange cap or clip it to your pack. You can also wind orange surveyors flagging tape around your pack straps or hang some from the back. If you use a hiking stick, you can also wrap that.
Fall is great hiking weather if you’re ready for the changing conditions. When blue sky is crystal clear like during this past week; you can see unbelievably far in the distance, in absolutely sharp detail. It’s cool in the low angle light from the sun, so you won’t need a head net or bug repellent. That may be the best reason of all to hit the trail in autumn, but not the only one, because winter’s coming.
Here are a few contacts for information on hunting regulations on trail networks around the state.
Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands: 207-287-3821; www.maine.gov/doc/parks.
North Maine Woods: 207-435-6213; 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 these lands.
National Wildlife Refuges: The National Wildlife Refuge system has a web site at www.fws.org. But each unit, like Sunkhaze or Moosehorn, and there are others in Maine, has their own local phone number and regulations available on the site. There is no hunting in Acadia National Park.