Hiking in the Shoulder Season

Let's get a few more miles in before snow blankets our favorite trails. There are a few safety considerations to plan for during the shoulder season. This friendly reminder will help you plan, stay safe, and enjoy the best autumn has to offer.
Heidi Walker Heidi Walker
19-year member
November 22, 2023
Hiking in the Shoulder Season
Fire and ice mix in Autumn. Photo by Heidi Walker.

Wild blueberry leaves, red and encrusted with frost, sparkle as early morning sunlight peeks through trees lining the meadow. The cold air awakens my nose and lungs. While I am happy with my choice of a long-sleeve shirt, I might regret the decision later when I’m higher on the mountain. Right now, the long sleeves keep me warm. Through the trees, I can see the top of Mt. Baker glowing against a blue sky. A cleansing rain in the lowlands brought early season snow to higher elevations a few days before.

As I look at fresh snow on Mt. Baker, I wonder if snow or ice has reached or still lingers on my trail. This may be the last clear day to get a hike in before autumn fully engulfs the Pacific Northwest with gray, rainy days.

As autumn turns to winter, we often want to get one last adventure in before we start prepping our snow gear. Fall is my favorite time to hike - when the days are clear, they seem to sparkle. Add fall colors and you have the makings of a great memory for gray days. However, the beauty of the season doesn’t come without dangers to be aware of and make preparations for.

Let’s talk about the big indicator of enjoyment and concern: weather. 

Temperatures can flux dramatically during the shoulder season. You can start in the morning bundled in a hat and gloves, yet as the hours pass, the temperature will rise. Starting the day in the high 50s and ending in the mid 70s is not unheard of in September and October. Starting a hike in sunshine then ending in rain - or, my favorite, starting in rain and ending in sunshine - necessitates proper clothing to ensure your comfort and safety.

We’ve all heard it before: dress in layers. This is the season to put it all in your pack, so you can change with the temperature and weather. 

The other concern is that weather can and will be different in the mountains than it is in the lowlands. A day of rain in Seattle could easily mean a day of snow in the mountains. This time of year, we need to watch the elevation of snow and know where our trails lead. We could read a trip report from last week that says "the time to hike is now," but a week of rain may have left snow on the trail. Will you be prepared if you encounter snow or ice while hiking?

Traction devices and trekking poles come in very handy during the shoulder season to help you stay safe. Route-finding skills are especially beneficial when your trail becomes obscured by snow. Ultimately, knowing when to stop and turn around is your most valuable and often overlooked item in your safety tool kit. 

Being aware of weather and planning your trips with precaution to changing conditions can enhance the enjoyment of your autumn adventures.

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