Late Fall Hiking: How to Hike in Comfort and Safety
By Bethany Taylor for The Berlin Reporter

My mother welcomes this month by saying "no leaves, no sun, no snow, November," particularly apt for the North Country. The days are short, dark, and cold, and opportunities to get outside seem to be limited to swathing oneself in blaze orange and toting a gun into the woods. Nothing against the sport, but I'm not much of a hunter myself. There are other things that I would rather do in outside. Namely, hiking.

Being warm, dry, and comfortable is crucial to enjoy a hike in the dismal late fall. To get and stay that way requires wearing layers of clothing. As much as possible, avoid cotton: once a pair of jeans or a cotton shirt gets wet, either through sweat or rain or falling in a stream, it is useless as an insulating layer, defeating the goals of warm, dry and comfortable.

View from Square Ledge (photo by Mark Malnati) Avoiding cotton, I wear thermal long underwear, shirt and leggings, and work from there, depending on the weather and where I'm hiking. I wear polyester Labonville pants over my long johns. Any sort of synthetic pants will work; my cousin, a very casual hiker, wears yoga pants, some people prefer wind pants of some sort. I wear a light fleece over my thermal shirt, and put a heavier layer, usually a fleece or wool sweater, or down jacket, and a shell for wind and rain, into my pack, along with a hat, mittens, and extra socks.

Wear shoes or boots with good tread, frost lingers for most of the day and can make trails unexpectedly icy. Until you have figured out your own best layering system, bring extra everything, so that you can determine what makes you most comfortable. Just remember, it's better to have something and not need it, than to need it and not have it. Start hiking in the least number of layers you are comfortable in, so that you aren't dangerously sweaty the moment you start uphill and into colder temperatures. (A fun fact: the temperature drops 3-5 degrees Celsius for every 1,000 feet gained in altitude; this is the adiabatic cooling rate.)

Knowing the weather forecast is also important, and watching the Weather Channel the night before isn't enough: the mountains are as cantankerously independent as any other New Hampshire native, and have their own weather systems. Check with the Mount Washington Observatory or the Appalachian Mountain Club for the daily forecast. Plan your hike accordingly, taking into account any weather systems moving in and how much time the hike will take compared to when it will get dark. And don't go out if you think you could get into danger–comfort is more than the right layers of clothing.

Safety becomes a greater concern with late season hikes. It is dark earlier, and your body has to work harder in the cold, thereby tiring you more quickly. Tired, cold hikers in the dark, while the trail is icing up, is a recipe for disaster. Preparing to avoid one doesn't need to be Boy Scout extensive, but should include reading a trail description, bringing a map, a working headlamp or flashlight, some first aid supplies, food, and water. Batteries work less efficiently when cold, so bring extras for your headlamp, and keep them in your pocket or somewhere else warm.

Water does a better job of hydrating the body if it is warm, and sticking your water bottles inside spare wool socks is a good insulator. Bring a variety of small snacks, raisins or pretzels or GORP, and eat a bit whenever you stop for water.

Take breaks as needed, but remember that the best way to stay warm is to keep moving. However, a rest break is the best way to take in the views, which, even on a familiar trail, can be breathtakingly different without the leaves, making November less bleak, and, actually, a spectacular time to be in the mountains.


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