Summer has relinquished its sweltering grasp, the foliage is changing from green to shades of red and golden yellow, and cooler temperatures encourage trading out your air conditioned house for the great outdoors.
Fall is one of the best seasons for hiking in pretty much every climate around the country.
The season brings cooler days and longer nights so it involves a bit more creative layering on your part, but we’ll walk you through what to wear hiking in fall — no matter where you live.
Rule #1 – Know Your Climate
The seasons vary depending on where you live — but typically you can expect cooler temperatures in the mountains and the Northwest and relatively warmer temperatures in the East and South.
The Northeast experiences similar temperatures as the Northwest, but the weather is a bit more predictable.
It’s true that the Northwest and mountainous regions boast the most uncertain weather, highlighted by storms and rainfall.
This is something to keep in mind when packing for a fall hiking trip in these regions.
It’s important to remember the temperatures listed below are just estimations…
Weather is ever-changing and the best thing to do is to check the weather report before setting out on a hike, dressing accordingly, and always being prepared for the unexpected.
Northwest: Fall temperatures average between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit and the area receives plenty of rainfall, but not as much as in winter.
Weather is always unpredictable in this region so it’s better to bring extra layers than to go without.
Mountains: Similar to the Northwest, the mountainous regions of the US features cooler temperatures due to the higher elevation.
The higher the elevation, the cooler the temperatures will be.
When hiking in the mountains, expect average temperatures ranging from 40-50 degrees, depending on your elevation.
Northeast: The lower part of the Northeast is significantly warmer than the upper tip, specifically Maine.
Maine experiences averages temperatures between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit while New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York are a bit warmer, with temperatures averaging between 45 and 50 degrees.
The more southern and coastal portions of the Northeast are warmer due to their lower latitude and proximity to the coast, with average temperatures in the 50s.
East: The East is a warmer place to hike in fall, with temperatures averaging between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
The further south down the coast you go, the warmer the temperatures will get.
South: The South experiences the warmest fall temperatures which can easily soar into the 70s, particularly in the southernmost state of Florida.
It can feel like summer even into the fall months in this region, so the key to hiking here in fall is to try and keep cool.
Rule #2 – Learn An Effective Layering System
Layering is key to a positive hiking experience — in any season.
In fall it is especially important because unlike summer, many regions are subject to unpredictable weather, including whipping winds and rainfall.
A layering system is most useful in cooler temperatures, including fall, while in summer your layers will be limited.
Your layering system starts with your underwear and extends out to your outermost layers.
The key is to find a minimal set of light clothing that will suffice in a broad range of conditions.
Base Layers: Base layers can be considered the most important part of your layering system because they’re actually touching your skin, serving as either a protective barrier from the elements or a nuisance — depending on the fabric.
A comfortably fitting long sleeve or short sleeve base layer is recommended for fall hiking, depending on the temperature.
In the South, you’ll likely want to hike in a short sleeve baselayer and carry extra layers with you just in case the temperatures drop, while in the Northwest and mountainous regions, a long sleeve shirt and a pair of base layer bottoms (long underwear) are recommended.
Baselayers are meant to wick moisture from your skin. Check the weather and use your best judgement.
Why? Cotton’s hydrophilic nature means that it dries extremely slowly, absorbing moisture whether from sweat or external elements.
Unless you’re hiking in the desert and utilizing cotton as a cooling mechanism when the sweat evaporates from your body, you should absolutely avoid it at all costs.
In extreme cases, cotton can result in hypothermia because of its slow drying properties.
Merino wool: Wool is an extremely popular base layer fabric because of its thermal retention properties.
Merino wool will keep you warm even when wet – which is ideal in cooler temperatures and wet conditions.
For fall hiking, merino wool underwear, socks, and base layers are some of the hiking clothes recommendations (find all of ours when you visit that link) you will want to seek out because they tend to keep you warmer than synthetic fabrics.
Also, merino wool is less prone to stinking.
Synthetic fabrics: An alternative to merino wool is synthetic fabric. The advantage of synthetic fabric is its quicker drying properties.
Many companies have created base layer blends of synthetic and merino wool.
Synthetic base layers are typically more expensive than wool but if you sweat a lot when you’re active, they might be the way to go.
Because of the cooler temperatures in fall, a synthetic and merino wool blend is recommended if you’re not a fan of straight merino wool.
Baselayer weights: When picking out a baselayer, you’re going to encounter different labels, including lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight.
As a general rule, the heavier fabrics are going to keep you warmer — but the primary purpose is still to wick moisture from the skin.
For fall hiking, a lightweight layer will be ideal in warmer climates while a midweight layer is recommended for cooler climates.
Middle Layers: Your middle layer is meant to retain body heat to protect you from the cold.
In fall, the temperatures tend to be cooler in the mornings and evenings, so you might want to start wearing a middle layer and strip it off towards the middle of the day.
In the Northwest, the northernmost tip of the Northeast, and mountainous regions, the temperatures will be cold enough to justify wearing a middle layer the majority of the day.
Again, steer clear of the cotton and keep to synthetics.
Polyester Fleece jackets: A lightweight fleece jacket is a great insulating midlayer. While not designed for cold temperatures, fleece is ideal for hiking in fall in most climates.
Fleece jackets are affordable and lightweight, making for an easy piece to stash away when the temperatures rise.
Fleece is also available in lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight options, stays warm if it gets wet, and dries fast.
The only downside is that it does not block the wind, requiring the addition or substitution of a wind breaking layer.
Insulating Layers: In colder climates, such as the Northwest and mountainous regions, the temperatures might drop low enough to require wearing an insulating layer.
Insulating layers are lightweight and packable and should be carried in fall regardless of the climate just in case the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Lightweight down jackets or vests: Down is the best lightweight insulator and is designed to keep the cold air out — as long as it’s not exposed to moisture.
Down does not perform well when wet. However, down retains its shape and loft and you can expect it to last for decades with proper care.
There are three different types of down insulation:
- High loft goose down: Provides the highest warmth to weight ratio of any down or synthetic insulation. It is typically the most expensive.
- Standard goose down: Although it has slightly less loft, it is reasonably priced.
- Duck down: Less fine than standard goose down and considerably less expensive.
Synthetic down jackets or vests: In wet climates such as the Northwest and mountainous regions, some of the best hiking jackets for cold weather are synthetic alternatives like softshells (you can find our recommendations by clicking the link above).
They offer thermal insulation and provide some water repellency as well. Synthetic insulation has become extremely advanced in recent years.
Although typically heavier than down, companies have developed some alternatives that rival down in terms of warmth to weight.
The other disadvantage is that they are bulkier than down, and therefore tend to be less compressible, and experience faster degradation, so you’ll find yourself replacing synthetic products more often than down.
Hiking pants: Although some people prefer to hike in shorts in summer and warm climates, hiking pants are the best way to go because they protect your legs from insects and unwanted contact with plant life in addition to providing you with UV protection.
In fall, full-length pants, like the Columbia women’s hiking pants, (that we featured as one of my preferred options in the article via that link) also serve as the exterior layer of insulation on your lower half.
Lightweight, durable, synthetic pants are your best option.
Technical hiking pants wick moisture when needed and are usually reinforced in places exposed to high wear.
Select a thick pair of soft-shell pants for cooler climates and a lightweight pair for warmer climates — but fall temperatures are generally cool enough to warrant some form of insulation on your legs.
In cooler temperatures and towards the end of fall, you’re going to want to wear a base layer under your soft shell hiking pants, so keep that in mind when you’re sizing hiking pants.
Rain pants: If heavy rain is likely on your hike, consider packing rain pants to wear over your hiking pants.
There’s nothing worse than being wet and cold while hiking.
Even if you don’t end up wearing them, they’re lightweight and compressible, so just toss them into your pack.
Outer Layers: Your outer layer serves as your first line of defense from the elements.
Oftentimes you won’t wear an outer layer the entire time you are hiking but it is definitely something you want to pack in case it starts raining or the wind picks up.
Outer layers consist of waterproof and windproof jackets.
Wind shell: A wind shell is ideal for dry conditions such as in the South or the East or when hiking in the desert.
They’re lightweight, water resistant, and most importantly break the wind.
Depending on the temperature, you might choose to wear a wind shell over your base layer or over a middle layer and insulating layer.
Waterproof shell: A waterproof shell is necessary in rainy climates and something you should always pack if there’s a chance of a thunderstorm on your hike.
In the Northwest and mountainous regions, it is absolutely necessary to carry a waterproof shell with you.
Gore-Tex is the most well-known type of waterproof shell but some companies design their own proprietary brands.
Rule #3 – Wear & Pack the Proper Hiking Clothes
Cold-weather layers: Wool underwear and merino wool hiking socks, (check out our article to see all the ones we recommend) a midweight polyester or merino wool long underwear top and bottom, a synthetic midlayer, a down jacket or vest, waterproof/breathable rain jacket and pants.
Rainy weather layers: Wool underwear and socks, a lightweight polyester or merino wool long underwear top and bottom, a synthetic midlayer, synthetic hiking pants, and lightweight waterproof/breathable rain jacket and pants.
Warm-weather layers: Wool underwear and socks, a short-sleeve synthetic or merino wool tee, convertible hiking pants, lightweight wind shell.
Enjoy Hiking This Fall!
Fall is one of the most beautiful times of the year: the trees are decorated in burgundy and amber; the cooler temperatures offer reprieve from summer’s sweltering heat; and the rivers and streams start to cool.
It’s prime hiking season in many places around your country, so get your gear, grab a trail map, and plan a hike.
It’s important to dress appropriately for the weather so use this guide as a starting point so that you can take the first step to getting out and enjoying the great outdoors.
Take climate considerations with a grain of salt and be sure to check the weather conditions yourself — use your best judgement when dressing for a hike, and remember, it’s better to be prepared than to go without.
Now that you know what to wear this fall where will you be hiking? Let me know in the comments!