Hiking in the fall months, like October and November, is a great way to get out and enjoy mild temperatures and see the leaves changing colors, but many people wonder which types of clothing might be best for hiking in cooler conditions. After all, the weather can change dramatically on a fall day, and you don’t want to get caught far from your vehicle without the right gear.
Hiking in cool weather requires finding the right blend of base, midweight, and outer layers to keep you warm while also preventing getting too hot or sweating too much. Inner layers should be made of breathable materials that wick moisture away from your skin, and outer layers should be water-repellent.
Let’s take a deeper look at the concept of layering, the types of clothes you should layer, and how to be prepared for changing weather conditions. Once we’ve established what you should look for, we’ll discuss different types of fall hiking clothing that will work great for any fall hike.
Pack Extra Layers
One thing I tell everyone who is new to mountain adventures is that the one constant is change; this is especially true when hiking in the shoulder seasons. Not only can the weather conditions change quickly, the temperature can vary widely throughout the day, and you will likely be exerting yourself at different levels throughout the day.
This makes the concept of layering so important for a successful fall hike. Although it may take some time to find the perfect combination, there are three different types of clothes you will need to bring to have a good experience: base layers, midweight layers, and an outer layer.
It will likely be chilly when starting out in the morning, but once you get moving you will warm up quickly. I often leave camp wearing a midweight vest or fleece and stuff them into the outer mesh of my backpack within the first half mile of hiking. This quick warm up also makes it important to wear a synthetic base layer that wicks moisture from your body, like a lightweight t-shirt or silk long sleeve top.
As you hit your stride, your core temp will stabilize. If you are heading up a mountainside, get exposed to a breeze, or stop to take a break, it will be nice to be able to put your midweight layer back on to recapture some warmth.
If you plan to summit a mountain or hike along a ridgeline, having a heavier, windproof outer layer to throw on will make the journey much more safe and enjoyable. This is also the time to throw on a warm hat and gloves to preserve your body heat. Even if you expect pleasant weather, carrying a water-resistant, windproof outer layer is a necessity in the fall due to the possibility of being outside when temperatures drop below freezing.
Choose Wicking Fabrics That are Easy to Layer
It is widely accepted in the outdoor community that cotton is a huge no-no because it absorbs moisture and doesn’t dry quickly. Although I like to buck the trend and wear a favorite t-shirt while hiking in the summer, I absolutely stick to silk, nylon, or polyester base layers in the fall. Wearing fabric that can breathe and wick moisture away from your skin is absolutely essential for preventing hypothermia and overheating when hiking in changing weather conditions.
Likewise, a versatile, breathable midweight layer, such as a puffy down vest or fleece pullover, allows you to quickly warm up your core while also providing decent protection against a bit of sleet or drizzle. If it does start to actually rain or snow, however, you will want to put on a durable, water-repellent outer shell as quickly as possible to reduce the chances of any cold outside moisture penetrating to your core.
When you picture yourself wearing all of these layers, you might think you’ll be so bogged down that you won’t even be able to move. This can actually happen if you don’t plan your purchases carefully, and goes back to the idea that it might take a few fall hiking trips to determine the best setup for your body type and energy level.
Fortunately, most quality light- and midweight synthetic garments match up together really well, and there are many sturdy outer shells that are designed with the concept of layering in mind. It’s always a good idea to wear the inner layers you plan in hiking in when you go to try on a new jacket or coat, so that you don’t end up buying an outer shell that is too restrictive, or ridiculously bulky.
Fall Weather Can Turn Bad Quickly
I can not repeat this enough about fall hiking: Weather can change quickly, especially in the mountains. You might start hiking on a sunny, warm morning only to find yourself in blizzard conditions on an exposed ridgeline by noon.
Always pack the appropriate cold weather gear, including a jacket or coat, gloves, and a warm hat. You might be surprised how often you actually need them, and they may actually save your life someday.
Which Fall Hiking Clothes to Choose
There are so many quality brands of hiking apparel on the market that it can be tough to decide what to buy. No matter which route you go, ask yourself these questions when selecting your fall hiking clothes:
- Does it come from a reputable manufacturer or outdoor retailer? These brands may cost more, but if they have a reputation for selling quality equipment you will get the features and performance you pay for.
- Is it designed for changing weather conditions? Look for zip-up collars, roll-up or removable sleeves, and synthetic fabrics.
- Can it be layered effectively? Look for base layer garments with a slimmer fit, and outer wear with a relaxed fit.
Next, use this checklist to make sure you have all of the components of a reliable fall hiking wardrobe:
Choose a lightweight, long sleeve silk, wool, or synthetic top to wear against your skin. Same for bottoms; look for light- or midweight breathable leggings or thermal underwear. If you buy a quality base layer that breathes well you won’t sweat through it when it’s warm out, but you’ll stay toasty when the temperatures drop.
Hiking in jeans can be an unpleasant experience in cold, wet conditions. Depending on your body type, opt for synthetic hiking or climbing pants that feature a full range of motion, or relaxed-fit pants with plenty of room in the knees and seat. A slightly longer inseam will allow the cuffs to cover your hiking boots or shoes, keeping out precipitation, dry grass and rocks.
A Puffy Vest or Fleece Sweater
This is the workhorse of your fall hiking wardrobe. It might get removed and put back on several times throughout the day, so look for something stylish, versatile, and packable. If you tend to run warm, get a vest to maintain your core heat while allowing your armpits to ventilate. If you run cool, get a fleece pullover with a quarter zip collar, which allows you to adjust your core temperature.
Lightweight Jacket or Coat
The choice between a lightweight jacket or a heavier coat depends on your preference and the weather you will potentially be facing. A light jacket can live in your pack virtually unnoticed, then emerge to save the day in an unexpected squall, or if the wind picks up. A heavy coat will be a lifesaver if you may experience snowy, windy conditions.
Although they run about $20 a pair, the new generation of wool hiking socks are well worth the expense. They prevent blisters by wicking moisture away from your feet yet are remarkably warm, and they dry quickly if you find yourself walking through the rain or snow.
Either invest in a separate pair of waterproof trainers or boots, or wear a lightweight pair that dries easily.
Gloves and A Warm Hat
You might not need these at all, but if you do, you’ll be glad you packed them. There are several brands of lightweight gloves available, and any beanie that covers your ears will suffice. These items don’t weigh much and take up hardly any space in your pack, so be on the safe side and keep them with you.
HIking in the fall or winter requires a bit more gear than in the summer, but it is important to have the correct clothing to keep your body from overheating, or succumbing to hypothermia.
Finding the right combination of layers can take some experimenting, but buying quality breathable inner garments, synthetic pants and a warm top, and a windproof, water-repellent outer shell is the key to a safe and enjoyable fall hiking experience.