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Fall hiking tips to keep you warm and safe in autumn

Early morning at Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Our best fall hiking tips help prepare you for cooler weather, changeable conditions and the occasional gun-toting trail user (Image credit: Wayne Boland)

As summer’s heat subsides, so do the crowds on your favorite hiking trails and for many of us, it’s the absolute best time of the year to get outside. Cooler weather makes for more comfortable hiking conditions, the mosquitoes and midges go back to wherever it is they came from in the spring, rushing rivers have turned into gentle streams that are easy to cross and the changing leaves transform the hillsides into a blaze of yellow, orange and red colors. The arrival of autumn marks a change in how you should approach your hikes, however, so make sure to read our best fall hiking tips so you’re prepared for cooler weather, changeable conditions and the occasional gun-toting trail user.

Misty autumn foliage in rural Vermont

Do your research to find out when peak foliage season typically is in your area (Image credit: DenisTangneyJr)

1. Research peak foliage

Whether it’s the golden aspens of Colorado or Vermont’s scarlet maple trees, fall easily offers one of the most beautiful seasons for hiking. Foliage season varies according to your location and altitude, and can last for several weeks or seem to be over in an instant, depending on the weather. Do your research to find out when peak foliage season typically is in your area and keep an eye on the trees to make sure you don’t miss it. One windy day can leave the trees bare before you even get the chance to appreciate them!

2. Watch out for hunters

In the US, fall means hunting season. Since deer and elk like to hang out in the same places as hikers do, you need to be extra cautious when you’re on the trails. Wear a fluorescent orange beanie or even vest to wear over your hiking jacket so that hunters can clearly differentiate you from other animals they might spot through their scopes moving along the hillside.

A tranquil lake in Vermont with autumn leaves and a mountain in the background

Adjust your schedule to leave a little later and be back earlier to account for less daylight (Image credit: DenisTangneyJr)

3. Plan for shorter days

The shrinking days start to become more evident in the autumn, particularly once the clocks change, bringing nightfall an hour earlier. If you live in northern climes, you’ll have gotten used to being able to head out at 6 a.m. and stay out till 9 p.m. if you want to. Try that come September and you’ll be spending a lot of time in the dark, which can mean colder temperatures at high elevations and risk of getting injured or lost if you’re not prepared. Adjust your schedule to leave a little later and be back earlier, and carry a headlamp for longer hikes or in case you misjudge things.

4. Layer up

Yes, we know, we always tell you to dress in hiking layers, but in many popular hiking locations, you’d be forgiven if you haven’t exactly been lugging a down jacket on your adventures over the past few months. Fall hiking weather is typically ideal, since it’s a bit cooler and not so sweaty, but it can also be downright cold once the wind blows in, and a light shower can turn out to be hail or snow (we’ll get to the latter in a moment). Trade out those shorts for hiking pants and head out in a long-sleeved base layer. Carry a fleece jacket and a waterproof jacket in your backpack – even if it’s especially dry where you are, you may appreciate the wind protection. Finally, make sure you’ve got your best hiking gloves and beanie in case it’s chillier than you thought.

A hiker walks through the trees

Trade out those shorts for hiking pants and head out in a long-sleeved base layer (Image credit: Susumu Yoshioka)

5. Plan for snow at high elevations

If you’re hiking in Vermont or the Lake District, the idea of snow in September might sound a bit dramatic, but at higher elevations in places like Colorado and Montana, it’s not unusual at all to find your route snow-covered when it was 70°F and sunny down in town. You’ll usually be able to see if there’s snow on the peaks before you set off, but it can be a good idea to carry some traction like Yaktrax or Microspikes for white trails.

6. Hydrate 

When you’re not sweating it out in the blistering heat of summer, you may not feel as thirsty, but you’re still going to be sweating and breathing heavily, plus the drier air found at elevation in the fall can dehydrate you. Make sure you fill your water bottle or carry a hydration pack and take regular, small sips of water even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.