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Five Tips for Fall Hiking

Autumn is a fine time to get into the mountains. The backcountry is bursting with fall color, crowds have thinned to a trickle, and the bugs are all but gone. But like any type of recreation, hiking carries certain risks, and your safety is best ensured with preparation and caution. WTA offers five tips for fall hiking.

Blue Lake larches
The Early Winters spires provide a striking backdrop to a lone larch tree at Blue Lake. Photo by Inge Johnsson.

Autumn is a fine time to get into the mountains. The backcountry is bursting with fall color, crowds have thinned to a trickle, and the bugs are all but gone.

But like any type of recreation, hiking carries certain risks, and your safety is best ensured with preparation and caution. And shorter days, colder nights and quickly-changing weather like we often experience in autumn in the mountains can make even a simple day hike more risky than your average summer excursion.When hiking in the fall, pack some extra caution into your backpack.

Carefully choose your hike destination, and take the time to check trail conditions and weather forecasts before you head out. Let someone know where you will be and when you plan to return. Bring warm clothes, and be prepared for any weather. And pack the backcountry essentials that could save your life should you get lost or injured.

Here are some tips for safe backcountry hiking in autumn:

  1. Check the latest trail conditions. Many trails will have new snow, and our snow level will continue to drop as autumn goes on. Check for recent trip reports from other hikers to confirm your chosen trail is snow-free. And always call ahead to local ranger stations for conditions.
  2. Let someone know where you are going, and when you expect to return (and call them when you do return). If your destination changes, follow up and let someone know. Here is an easy form to share your hike itinerary with someone.
  3. Always pack the 10 Essentials on any hike, including a topographic map, compass, extra food, extra clothing, firestarter, matches, sun protection, a pocket knife, first-aid kit, and flashlight. In unpredictable weather, it’s also a good idea to bring some sort of emergency shelter, even on a day hike. Hiking poles or ice axes can be of help on stretches of unexpected icy or snow-covered patches. Remember, cell phones don't always get reception and batteries can fade quickly in cold weather. They are not a substitute for carrying the backcountry essentials that could save your life.
  4. Watch weather forecasts. This time of year, weather can turn cold and rainy, even snowy, in an instant. Hikers should turn back if encountering treacherous snow and ice unless equipped with an ice ax and knowledgeable about how to use it, and be aware of avalanche danger. The website Washington Online Weather is a good source for mountain forecasts, as is the National Weather Service's Mountain Forecast website. A good source for avalanche conditions and safety is http://www.nwac.us/.
  5. Be aware of hunting seasons. Autumn is hunting season, and each year hunters come out to pursue elk, deer, and other game. Read our tips for staying safe around hunters.
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