by Gerald Rowan
Every fall season, hikers experience uncertain weather conditions that can not only change daily but deviate from forecasts, surprising you with unfavorable conditions. Unexpected weather is especially troublesome on long treks, when hikers can be at the mercy of the clouds for hours on end. Fall hikers will encounter higher wind speeds, changeable weather, and little cover or protection from trees that are shedding or have lost their leaves. A cold rain can wick the heat from a hiker’s core. The cold rain soaks up body heat, and rain evaporating from a hiker’s clothing draws even more heat. 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 enjoying the 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 middle layer, such as a full-zip fleece sweater, will also help you prepare for drastic temperature shifts as you climb in elevation. Layers can be added and subtracted as conditions dictate. A small, lightweight day pack will provide a place to stow extra clothing and carry water and food.
Fall temperatures may swing as much as 30 degrees or more from midday until moonrise. 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 amid the howling winds and cold temperatures of autumn, it can leave you chilled and at risk of hypothermia. Keep this “cotton kills” adage in mind when preparing for any fall hike. Wool, on the other hand, retains much of it insulation qualities even when wet.
While some 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.
Your fall hiking wardrobe can start with a silk or polypropylene liner layer (even sock and glove liners). A base layer of wool or synthetic fiber goes over that, followed by hiking pants and a top. Add the jacket or coat depending on the weather and temperature, followed by a rain- and windproof layer. In extreme cold temperatures, you’ll lose body heat through the bottoms of your feet.
Warm gloves are also a necessity, as are warm hats. There is speculation about how much body heat hikers lose through their heads. A turtleneck, neck gaiter, or scarf will help prevent warm air near the body from escaping.
Perspiration is the enemy of hikers in cold temperatures. If your clothing layers become damp, you’ll chill quickly after you stop hiking. A good practice is to shed layers as soon as you become warm and add them back as you cool off. Once your body core temperature drops, it’s hard to get it back to a functioning level.
Keystone Trails Association