This story was originally published in October 2011.
Maine’s fall weather has shown hikers one thing: It sure is changeable. One day it’s summer-like and the next you need to wear your mitts and wool hat. Sometimes it happens in the same day.
That’s typical in fall, the second-most changeable season after spring. Expecting conditions to change is part of planning for a safe hike any time of year. It’s especially important when it comes to fall hiking. Having a safe hike is important in any season, and it’s no different in autumn. What follows are a few tips to make your fall hikes a little more comfortable and safer.
Plan the length of your hike around the reduced amount of daylight in fall. Days are getting shorter as the season progresses. If you plan to take a half-day hike of more than six hours, plan to start before the “crack of noon” or you could be hiking back after dark. By starting early, if there is some incident where you need help, you increase the chances of aid arriving before dark.
Read the trail descriptions in your guidebooks and be realistic in estimating your ability to complete your hike in the average time in the description of the trail. Set a firm departure time and, more importantly, a firm turn-back time. Leave word with someone at home on your planned hike, or a note on the table at your home, if you’re going solo.
What to carry
It’s a fact of autumn that temperatures are lower, almost winterlike, so pack extra layers. Wear polypropylene or other wicking layers. No cotton. The saying “cotton kills” applies more in autumn than summer. It soaks up perspiration and stays wet, chilling you more; dangerously in the wind. Pack an insulating layer of fleece to wear at rest breaks.
Pack a rain shell to double as a wind shell for breaks and summit stops for views. Bring at least 2 quarts of water for any hike longer than two hours. Pack lots of snacks to carry in jacket pockets for easy access during breaks. Eating calories equals heat to fuel 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 colder days.
On your hike
When you leave the trail head to start your hike, wear as few layers of clothing as possible to be comfortable. Everyone’s heat engine is different, but you should start hiking to warm up. When you do stop for breaks, throw on the wind shell first to trap your body heat so you stay warm. Take it off again and pack it before hiking off again. It will keep you moving to warm up. If you’re with a partner or group, time your departure together so no one stands around getting chilled.
Drink water before you’re thirsty. Although heat exhaustion is usually not a problem in autumn, dehydration could be. Dehydration is actually common among hikers who think that just because it’s cool, they don’t need to drink as much. Cold air actually is just as drying as warm air.
When you stop on summits, find sheltered spots for wind breaks, even if it means giving up a great view. Humans start feeling the effects of wind chill in temperatures as high as 50 degrees.
If you find you’re not moving quickly enough to make it back to the trail head before dark, this is where having a firm turn-back time comes in. Temperatures drop quickly once the suns sets behind the trees, around 5 p.m. or earlier this time of year.
Hiking in hunting season
Fall is the time of year when hikers and hunters may encounter each other. In some state park and wildlife refuges hunting is allowed. In others it’s not. It’s up to you to find out the rules and regulations specific to your planned hike. There is usually contact information at trail head kiosks.
In trail networks that allow hunting, hikers should wear at least one article of hunter orange. Just because you are on a trail doesn’t mean you’re safe without it. When you’re wearing a pack it’s difficult for the orange to be seen, so wear an orange hat or clip it to your pack. You also can wind orange surveyor flagging tape around your pack or hang it from your backpack.
Autumn is great hiking weather if you’re prepared. The sky is less hazy than in summer, the crowds have thinned out and you won’t need the head net and bug repellent. After the leaves drop, even the landscape looks different in the strong, low-angle fall sunshine.
Here are a few contacts for rules and regulations on hunting areas in trail networks:
• Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, 287-3821, maine.gov/doc/parks. Information on state parks and public lands.
• North Maine Woods, 435-6213, www.northmainewoods.org. Information on private lands from Jo-Mary, Greenville north to the St. John and the Allagash, including Katahdin Iron Works, Gulf Hagas and part of the Appalachian Trail.