I’m on my county’s search and rescue team, and educating hikers about how to hike safely is one of my greatest passions as a SAR member and blogger. While there are certain things we SAR teams hope every hiker will take the time to learn, no matter what the season, there are a few extra precautions you should take and things to keep in mind while hiking during the magical season of color and change.
Plan Accordingly Before Heading Out
In early fall, it’s easy to forget that the sun sets sooner with each passing day. It’s not as noticeable as it is in the dead of winter, when we’re all acutely aware of the increased darkness. Remember to check the timing of sunset before heading out and allow yourself enough time to be off the trail before it gets dark.
Even though fall may be a shoulder season, it does not guarantee immunity from early snowstorms and bitterly cold weather. Even here in the south, it isn’t uncommon for us to get snow in October, especially in the higher elevations. There’s a fairly famous story in Great Smoky Mountains National Park involving two teenage boys who needing rescuing from a rogue and and extensive snowstorm in late fall. Any mother who reads the story about it will certainly appreciate the gratitude one of the boys’ mother’s still shows the park each year, even 40 years later.
Because of the risk of snow and much colder temperatures, it’s imperative to check the forecast before leaving home. Check the forecast for the day of your hike, but take a peek at what’s predicted to happen for 2-3 days beyond the day of your hike, on the off chance you get lost or injured and need help (search and rescue operations, no matter how fast, are never as fast as hikers would like them to be, especially if they’re looking for someone who is lost).
Pack according to the forecast that day, but make sure to bring appropriate cold weather attire such as gloves and hats, even if it’s not cold, as well as the 10 essentials that you should always have in your pack.
Wear Bright Colors
I typically have my kids wear bright colors on hikes any time of year, so they can be spotted easily. However, it’s important for everyone to wear something bright in fall, especially if you’re hiking in an area where people may be hunting. This is not the time to try and blend in with the forest, so stand out and be seen!
Pay Careful Attention to the Trail
Those brightly colored leaves are eventually going to fall from the trees and blanket the trail you’re hiking with a mosaic of multi-colored splendor. While it’s stunning to witness, it can create confusion if you can no longer follow the path easily. Basic navigational skills become incredibly important in these situations, to avoid getting lost. Learning how to use a map and compass is imperative for any hiker; however, in the age of smart phones, a navigational app such as Gaia is also highly recommended, so you don’t lose your way.
In addition, if you live an area where there are nut-bearing trees, they can act like little ball bearings along the trail, causing you to slip and fall in an instant (don’t ask me how I know this!). Be mindful of your surroundings and tread cautiously downhill where you’re more likely to take a spill.
Watch out for Wildlife
The fall is a busy time of year for animals who are either fattening up for a long winter’s nap or for a season of scarcity. Because of this, your encounters with them may be more frequent.
If you’re hiking in an area with moose, bear, elk, or any other large mammal you may startle, be sure to make enough noise to alert them of your presence (and hopefully the leaves on the trail will help you with that objective!). Snakes will always seek sunny spots, but it’s especially true in the fall when finding warmth isn’t as easy for these cold-blooded creatures.
Thankfully, mosquitoes have usually passed their peak of annoyance by the fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean stinging insects aren’t a risk. In the south especially, yellow jackets can be very aggressive as they guard their underground nests. Be mindful of flying insects ahead on the trail as you’re walking and make a wide berth around their nests.
In conclusion, fall is simply one of the most wonderful times of year to take a hike. While every season has its own unique set of guidelines and precautions hikers should follow, don’t let them detract from your experience of just getting out there to see what you can see!
Meet Team Member, Nancy: Nancy lives and plays in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband, three children, and dog. She is a small animal veterinarian but she is also passionate about her blog, Hope and Feather Travels. She writes extensively about her hiking adventures and outdoor education topics, inspired by her position on her county’s search and rescue team and her commitment to educating hikers with knowledge that will keep them safe in the backcountry. Her greatest passion is spending time in the Great Outdoors, and she is a strong advocate for curing “nature deficit disorder” in children. Her family spends as much time as possible hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, kayaking, and skiing, and she is a firm believer that good gear makes for great adventures.
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