Fall Hiking—What to Wear

Every fall season, hikers experience uncertain weather patterns that not only change daily, but also can deviate from forecasts and surprise you with unexpected—and unfavorable—conditions.

This volatile weather trend is especially pronounced on long treks, which put hikers at the mercy of the clouds for hours on end. The sixty-seven 4000-footers in New England that rise above tree line also pit outdoor enthusiasts against serious weather changes. Without the protective coverage of trees, this can send temperatures plunging by as much as 30 degrees and whip up dangerous winds. Compound the cold and wind with any form of precipitation, be it rain, sleet, or snow, and you've got the makings of a harsh hike.

But this doesn't have to keep hikers from having fun outdoors. What it does suggest is that anyone going on a trek, no matter the difficulty or location, should hold one mantra in mind: Be prepared with the right outdoor clothing and supplies.

Dressing in Layers

The most effective way to prepare for unexpected weather during a hike is to layer up, from a base of long underwear to a waterproof outer shell. Bringing along a midlayer, such as a full-zip fleece sweater, will also help you prepare for drastic temperature shifts as you climb in elevation.

Hiking in the fall naturally means lower temperatures, so the best way to stay warm is to start with any synthetic clothing or other material that can wick moisture away from the body. Keep in mind that cotton doesn’t have these properties; cotton absorbs perspiration and doesn't dry quickly, so in the cold temperatures of autumn and howling winds, it can leave you chilled and at risk of hypothermia. Keep this "cotton kills" adage in mind when preparing for any fall hike.

While some men's and women's jackets are made with waterproof, breathable fabrics such as System Three or Gore Tex, others may be only water resistant. Though these jackets will keep you warm, you’ll need a final rain shell to keep all layers below as dry as possible. This shell can also serve as protection from the wind, which can pull heat from your body at an alarming rate.

Resting and Keeping Warm

Don't be tempted to de-layer during rest breaks. You may be warm, but your body will soon cool off, so pack a performance-rated fleece to wear during these breaks. Also, if your rain shell isn’t already on, throw it over the rest of your layers to hold onto body heat you've already generated. If it’s not raining, pack the shell away before hiking again to keep a consistent core temperature.

It may be fall hiking, but often as you approach a peak, where the air gets thinner and the trees get smaller, temperatures can plunge to winter digits. It may seem excessive at the base, where it could be sunny and 60 degrees, but we highly recommend bringing along a winter jacket, especially when hiking at higher altitudes.

We cannot stress enough the importance of layering. Humans can feel the effects of windchill in temperatures as high as 50 degrees. Once shivering sets in, it can ruin what otherwise could have been an awesome outdoor experience.

In addition to being prepared with the right cold-weather gear, keep in mind the hiking basics. Just because the air is cooler, it doesn't mean you should skimp on drinking water. You may not be subject to heat exhaustion, but dehydration is always a possibility when your body is faced with physical exertion.

With the right clothing, supplies, and awareness, an autumn hike can be a fun, safe way to enjoy the great outdoors.