Autumn is a great time of the year to get outside and take a hike. Whether you have an afternoon stroll in mind, or a backpacking adventure, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your experience, and keep you safe.
These are not general hiking safety tips. What to wear, how to pack some gear, what to eat, etc. are all broader topics. This article assumes that you have some basic knowledge, and are now focusing on particular autumnal concerns.
Ways to maximize the positive fall experiences:
In the north, the fall colors can be spectacular. The cooler weather is invigorating, which may give you more energy than those hot, humid days of summer.
Check with the local visitors’ bureau for information about which weeks have peak colors. Cross check these times with trails in those regions, and plan your hike when the colors are at their best.
Birds are migrating in the fall. Armed with some information from the Audubon Society, or various agencies (State Parks, Forest Service, etc), you can take your hike in a location where you are likely to see dozens of kinds of birds. Be sure to take a field guide, because during migrations you are apt to spot birds that aren’t common in your area.
Plants can be just as interesting in the fall as they were when the flowers were blooming. Seeds have an incredible diversity of shapes, textures and sizes. You can botanize at whatever skill level you want. You can just play games to compare fluffy seeds with spiky ones, for example, or you can take a field guide and try to really identify them. Watch for brightly colored berries (don’t eat any that you can’t positively identify as edible). There are often interesting fungi growing in the fall, especially following a rain.
The underlying geology of the land is more apparent when the leaves come off the trees. Plan a hike that includes some vantage points which will really allow you to see valleys, rivers or streams, etc.
Ways to prevent small and large fall disasters:
For some people a disaster is coming home tired and chilly. Other people wouldn’t call anything short of death a disaster. But, wherever you fit on that spectrum, you want to be prepared to minimize any problems.
Because it is cooler and people feel like exercising, they tend to overdo. Just because you feel great when you leave the house doesn’t mean that you can do a ten-mile hike, if you aren’t in shape for a ten-mile hike. At the least you’ll come home sore, with a blister. At the worst, an injury or rescue emergency situation could occur.
Be sure that you have some extra layers of clothing with you. The mid-day sun of October warms your shoulders, but by late afternoon the air is chilly, and nights quickly fall to freezing. Stuff an extra fleece jacket in your pack. It weighs almost nothing and could save your life. A nylon shell and pants also weigh very little, and provide protection from wind and light precipitation.
Remind yourself to drink water. When it’s cooler you may miss the signals from your body that make you feel thirsty. Carry water with you and drink some at least every hour.
Keep in mind that it gets dark much earlier in the fall. It’s all too easy to forget that you won’t have daylight until 8:00 pm or later. Many a hike has ended in the dark because everyone forgot to turn around in time to get back to the car before the earlier sunset. Most of these errors result in nothing more than a few scary moments and the basis for a good laugh later. But there are those occasions where hikers have become disoriented in the dark, and lost the trail. A cold night outside may be just “not much fun, ” or it may be your last night on earth- hypothermia is a deadly condition.
Finally, keep in mind that most hunting seasons are in the fall. You can find out the dates of various seasons from your state’s natural resources agency. Different seasons create different concern levels for hikers. During small game seasons, hunters are usually looking carefully for, well, small animals. They aren’t shooting at anything that moves, and they probably are using shotguns, not rifles. Also, during archery deer season, hunters are more careful. A deer has to be fairly close to kill it with an arrow. If you wear one article of blaze orange during those seasons, you should be safe. Hunters consider a cap to be good protection. It’s visible from every angle.
However, during gun deer seasons, it’s another story. Way too many accidents happen during these few weeks. If you insist on going hiking during these times, wear as much orange as possible. Don’t hike at sunrise and sunset, as these are peak times for wildlife movement, and thus for hunters. Your best plan is to research and frequent areas where hunting is not allowed. There are usually sections of State Parks where hunting is restricted. There may be parks or nature preserves near you that allow no hunting at all.
If you hike with a dog, provide the pet with an orange vest as well. An animal is at greater risk than you are to be mistaken for prey.
Good Planning Equals Good Hikes
Many a hike could have been better if you planned ahead. How many times have you slapped your forehead and said something like, “We could have ended this hike at the cider mill.” A little advance research can allow you to take advantage of the best that autumn has to offer.
Most accidents that happen to hikers could have been easily prevented by being more prepared. Don’t ask for trouble by pushing your limits, wearing summer clothing, or by making foolish decisions about where to hike.
The best hikes of all end at your home, at the close of an invigorating, satisfying day.