Fall Hiking 101


Fall hiking might seem a bit intimidating if you’re new to the activity, and rightly so.  Between figuring out how to plan a hike, what to wear in those weird, in-between temperatures, and what (if anything) you actually need to bring along, it’s totally normal that fall hiking might seem a bit overwhelming.

Have you ever seen gorgeous pictures from other people’s hikes and wanted to try it out for yourself, but didn’t know how or where to start?

The good news is, between beautiful landscapes filled with colorful leaves, less bugs, and cooler temperatures, fall is actually the perfect time of year to get outside and start hiking!

Keep reading for an illustrated guide including how to plan a hike, what to pack, and what to wear for fall hiking

How to Prepare

Before venturing out on a fall hike, ask yourself the following:

  • What is the difficulty level of the trail?
  • Is the area currently open to hunting?
  • Do I have the appropriate gear?
  • Will I hike alone, or with others?  If so, who?
  • Is the trail an appropriate difficulty level for everyone joining you on the hike (dogs, kids, family, friends)?
  • What time is sunset?  Do I reasonably have enough daylight left to hike the distance required?

One thing to keep in mind when heading out for a hike is that hiking (or trail running) pace is usually NOT the same as normal walking (or running) pace.  For example, my natural walking pace is around 3.0-3.5 mph.  While I’m capable of hiking at a pace close to my walking pace, my normal hiking pace is usually around 2.0 – 2.5 mph.  Mud, exposed roots, rocks, hills, obstacles, and sand all contribute to slowing down your pace a bit, and this is normal.

In fall, when daylight hours begin to shorten, definitely pay attention to the time of day the sun sets and plan accordingly.  If you’re not sure what your pace is, allow yourself at least one hour of hiking time for every two miles you plan to hike, or more if you’re doing a lot of obstacles or strenuous climbing.

Hiking Apps

While I would not recommend relying solely on your phone for hiking, there are a lot of apps out there that can be helpful.  A few of my favorite apps for hiking and trail running are:

  • Hiking Project: Find trail maps and by area and see your location on a particular trail
  • All Trails: Find trail maps by area
  • RunKeeper, MapMyHike, GarminConnect: Activity tracking
  • iNaturalist: Let other people identify random plants and animals for you

Hiking Maps

Even if you’re using an app to track your hike or view maps, or hiking on a trail that has maps available at the numbered posts along the way, it’s still a good idea to carry a printed map and compass with you (and know how to use them).  Cell phone batteries can drain, you might lose signal, and sometimes maps and mileage aren’t always available on posts, but carrying your own map as a backup gives you access to that information whenever you need it.

Check out your state DNR’s website for printable state park maps, www.nps.gov for national parks, and for national scenic trails, the organization’s website.  Maps can also be found (free or for purchase) at park visitor centers and gift shops.

If you have a choice between different maps to print or buy, here are a few helpful details you’ll probably like having available:

  • Landmarks / Points of Interest
  • Topography (hills, etc.)
  • Mileage
  • Numbered Posts

How to Start Training

Start Small:  For your first couple of hikes, start small.  Choose a nearby trail with an “Easy” rating that’s a distance you know you can reasonably do, then just go for it!  The goal of these hikes is to get used to hiking in the least stressful way possible and build your confidence.  Use these hikes to just relax, test out new gear items, or even practice your map reading skills.

Hike Regularly:  Like any sport, practice is good.  Once you’ve gone on a couple of small hikes and feel a bit more confident, try to establish a regular hiking routine.  If you can, try to hike at least once a week or once every other week.

Improve Gradually:  Once you’re hiking regularly, you may find that you’re up for a challenge.  At this point, try increasing your distance gradually, such as by 1 mile every week or every other week.  Or, try out a new trail with more hills or obstacles, gradually increasing the difficulty level of your hikes.

Cross Training:  It’s okay if you’re not able to hike every day.  Activities such as walking, rowing, cycling, spinning, swimming, and running can help build your endurance when you’re not able to hit the trail.  Yoga, strength training, and stretching can also help with flexibility and balance and prevent future injuries.

Bring a Buddy:  If you plan on hiking with friends, your dog, or your family in the future, why not invite them to come along?

What to Wear

Wearing the right clothing can make or break your hike.  When choosing what to wear on a hike, your objective is to dress so you’ll stay as dry as possible, but still have what you need in case the weather changes.

Below you’ll find some of my outfit suggestions for fall hiking, as well as tips on how to layer and pack your clothing.  Do keep in mind that these ideas are based on my own personal preference and hiking experience, so what works for me may not work for you.

The Outfit

My general rule for hiking (and running) is to dress like it’s ten degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than it actually is, but keep extra layers in your day pack (more on that later).

Being underdressed might sound crazy, but once you get moving, you’ll actually start to warm up pretty quickly.

If you get too sweaty, your clothes will be wet, making you feel colder later on.  Your goal while hiking is to keep your warmest layers as DRY as possible so you can put them on when you stop moving.

If you don’t have a great grasp on what to wear at different temperatures yet, the Runner’s World website has a great tool to help you decide.

Here are a few of my picks for cool weather (40s – 60s) hiking outfits:

A moisture wicking flannel and tank top with moisture wicking capris with pockets!  (50s F)
pictured rocks backpacking
A moisture wicking flannel and tank top with moisture wicking shorts. (50s F)
A lightweight fleece with a moisture wicking tank top and capris (Low 50s F)
A moisture wicking flannel with long pants.  Sometimes if temps are closer to the 40s I’ll layer a long sleeve moisture wicking tee underneath the flannel for added temperature control. (40s F)
A rain coat layered over a moisture wicking t-shirt or tank top, with water resistant hiking pants (or rain pants over moisture wicking shorts/leggings).  Also a bag over my cast, because I’m cool like that. (40s F + Rain)
hocking hills state park fall hiking raining with dogs
A moisture wicking tank top, flash dry shorts, plus a rain jacket with pit zips.  (50s F + Rain)

Again, clothes are a matter of personal preference and what works for me at different temperatures may not work for you.  Just be mindful of how you’re feeling and make the effort to remove a layer if you start to get sweaty or add one if it starts to feel cold/windy or if it begins to rain.

The Accessories:

Buff or Hat:  Choose a baseball hat if it’s warm and sunny to keep your face from burning, and a beanie if it’s cold.  A buff worn as a headband works great at any temperature because it keeps your hair back and helps soak up sweat from dripping into your eyes while still covering your ears.

Blaze Orange:  Not all bright colors are created equal.  If you’re hiking in an area open to hunting during the fall, choose clothing or accessories in a high visibility orange color.

I usually carry a bandana with me when I’m hiking since it can be used as a pack towel, for first aid, as toilet paper, as a headband, a dog drool catcher, or whatever else you need it for.  I recently just bought a bunch of high visibility orange bandanas so I can store it on the outside of my pack to double as a flag during hunting season.

Socks:  Unless you love getting blisters and walking around in soggy socks, do yourself a favor and pick up some actual hiking socks made from fabrics like merino wool.  They’re surprisingly not too hot or annoying to wear, even in the summer!  Some of my favorite hiking socks are Darn Tough 1/4 Hiker Socks, Darn Tough CoolMax socks (they’re soft), and the Injinji toe socks.

Underwear:  Cotton underwear will get swampy and sag, so again, opt for something that says “moisture wicking”.

Shoes:  Hiking boots or trail runners are your best bet for hiking, as they offer better protection from all the rocks and roots you’ll be stepping on and decent grip for rocks and mud.  Some boots and hiking shoes are waterproof, which can be a blessing and a curse depending on how many miles you’re doing, what the ground is like, and how the weather is.  If you don’t have proper hiking footwear yet, choose shoes or boots that offer good traction and arch support.

What to Pack

At minimum, you should be carrying the Ten Essentials in your backpack every time you go hiking to ensure you’ve got your bases covered.

It might seem like overkill and that you don’t need all of these items to get out on the trail, and you might not actually use them, but when you need them, you NEED them.

Beyond the Ten Essentials, here are a few items that I often like to bring along with me on my autumn day hikes and camping trips:

  • Camera Gear
  • Gloves (or plastic bags…which I actually prefer…seriously!)
  • Rain Coat and Rain Pants (or a Poncho)
  • Packable 850 Down Jacket
  • Treats/food for my dog

Another tip is to ALWAYS carry a printed map of the trail you’ll be on, even if you have a copy of the map on your phone.  (I like to print mine on waterproof paper.)  Again, this might seem like overkill, but it’s always smart to cover your bases in case your battery gets drained, you lose cell service, etc.

If you plan on bringing your dog along and aren’t sure what to pack, check out my blog post on what Patronus carries on our hikes by clicking here.  For backpacking trips, you can find my actual packing checklist by clicking here.

Morale Boosters

Sometimes being outdoors can be a bit of a slog, particularly in cool or rainy weather.  Although it may require a bit of additional planning and added weight in your pack, bringing along some type of luxury item can help get you through a hike that doesn’t turn out to be as enjoyable as most.

Some of my favorite “morale boosters” to pack in cold weather are a pack of hand warmers and my camp stove, along with the stuff to make tea, hot cocoa, or even a backpacking meal.  Another idea is to prepare soup, coffee, hot cocoa, etc. in advance and store it in a well-insulated thermos.

For warmer weather hikes, sometimes I like to pack fruit snacks, a candy bar, or a cold drink in an insulated mug or thermos.

It might sound a bit weird, but another thing that also sometimes makes me feel better on hikes is to stretch or do yoga…seriously!  It helps work out any tightness in my muscles and soreness in my feet and helps me to be able to keep going even longer than I thought I could.

I hope you’ve found this guide helpful.  If you have any additional tips to share, be sure to leave them in the comments below. 

Happy hiking! 

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