This story was originally published in October 2011.
Maine’s fall weather has shown hikers one thing: it’s definitely changeable. One day it’s summer and the next day you have to wear your mittens and your woolen hat. Sometimes it happens on the same day.
It’s typical in the fall, the second most changeable season after spring. Expecting conditions to change is part of planning a safe hike at any time of the year. This is especially important when it comes to fall hikes. Having a safe hike is important in any season, and it’s no different in the fall. Here are some 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 the fall. The days get shorter as the season progresses. If you plan on doing a half day hike longer than six hours, plan to start before the “crack of noon” or you could return after dark. By starting early, if there is an incident where you need help, you increase the chances that help will arrive before dark.
Read the trail descriptions in your guidebooks and be realistic in estimating your ability to complete your hike in the average time listed in the trail description. Set a firm departure time and, more importantly, a firm return time. Leave a note for someone at home about your planned hike, or a note on the table at home, if you’re going solo.
what to wear
It’s a fact in the fall that the temperatures are lower, almost wintry, so pack extra layers. Wear polypropylene or other absorbent layers. No cotton. The saying “cotton kills” applies more in autumn than in summer. It absorbs sweat and stays moist, cooling you further; dangerously upwind. Pack an insulating layer of fleece to wear during breaks.
Pack a rain shell to act as a wind shell for breaks and summit stops for views. Bring at least 2 liters of water for any hike over two hours. Pack plenty 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 get 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.
During your hike
When you leave the trailhead to begin your hike, wear as few layers of clothing as possible to be comfortable. Everyone’s heat engine is different, but you should start the hike to warm up. When stopping for breaks, put on the windbreaker first to trap your body heat to stay warm. Take it off again and put it away before you go hiking again. This will allow you to move to warm up. If you’re with a partner or a group, plan your departure together so no one is left hanging out.
Drink water before you feel thirsty. While heat exhaustion isn’t usually a problem in the fall, dehydration might be. Dehydration is actually common among hikers who think just because it’s cool doesn’t mean they don’t need to drink as much. Cold air is actually just as drying as warm air.
When you stop on peaks, find sheltered places for windbreaks, even if it means giving up a good view. Humans begin to feel the effects of wind chill at temperatures up to 50 degrees.
If you find you’re not moving fast enough to get back to the trailhead before dark, that’s where a firm return time comes in. Temperatures drop rapidly once the sun 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 can meet. In some state parks and wildlife refuges, hunting is permitted. In others it is not. It’s up to you to find out about the rules and regulations specific to your planned hike. There is usually contact information at trailhead kiosks.
In trail systems that allow hunting, hikers must wear at least one hunter orange colored item. Just because you’re on a trail doesn’t mean you’re safe without it. When you’re wearing a backpack, it’s hard to see the orange, so wear an orange hat or clip it to your bag. You can also wrap orange tape around your bag or clip it to your backpack.
Fall is a great time for hiking if you’re up for it. The sky is less cloudy than in summer, the crowds have thinned out and you won’t need nets and insect repellent. After the leaves fall, even the scenery looks different under the strong, low-angle autumn sun.
Here are some contacts for rules and regulations on hunting areas in trail networks:
• Maine Parks and Lands Office, 287-3821, maine.gov/doc/parks. Information on state parks and public lands.
• Northern Maine Woods, 435-6213, www.northmainewoods.org. Private land information from Jo-Mary, Greenville north to St. John and Allagash, including Katahdin Iron Works, Gulf Hagas and part of the Appalachian Trail.