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Late Fall Hiking Safety Tips

How to stay safe while hiking in late fall. Check the weather. Choose your destinations wisely. Tell others where you will be hiking. Pack the right gear. Know when to turn back. File a trip report when you get back.

As the days of summer fade and hours of daylight dwindle, fall returns to Washington State. There’s no reason to hang up those hiking boots when the air grows crisp and the leaves change color.

In fact, late fall is the favorite season for many hikers. Each season comes with its own precautions, and fall is an especially dynamic and unpredictable time to be outside. Rain and snow begin to fall, and the weather can change quickly. The days get shorter and the temperature drops.

With the right research, planning and gear, hikers can stay safe and have a great time out on a late fall hike. We’ve compiled our top tips and considerations to keep you out on trail discovering the unique beauty this season brings.

Tolmie Peak Lookout by Ethan Panal.jpg
Hikers need to be extra prepared while hiking in late fall. Early snow on Tolmie Peak trail overlooking Mount Rainier. Photo by Ethan Panal.

Check the weather

Expect the unexpected: When it comes to fall weather, the only constant is change. Conditions can shift over the course of a day or even an hour, going from beautiful blue skies to a blizzard, and catching unsuspecting hikers off guard in the process. Plan for a variety of weather conditions, and you’ll be prepared no matter what comes your way. 

Check forecasts: The Mountains Forecast Page is a great resource for accurate conditions in the mountains, including snow levels and road conditions on mountain passes. To get the latest on avalanche conditions, consult the Northwest Avalanche Center. And, to gauge snow depth, check out this Washington snow map

Rain returns: Rain creates wet trails, muddy conditions, and highwater in creeks and rivers.  Aside from bringing the right gear to stay dry, you’ll want to be extra careful treading over slippery surfaces and crossing creeks. Muddy conditions and puddles can create a mess, but they can also contribute to erosion and damage to ecosystems because hikers go off trail to avoid them. We encourage you to stay on the trail and splash right through those puddles, protecting delicate vegetation in the process. 

Snow and ice: A dusting of snow can create beautiful effects on a landscape, but it’s good to know when that dusting turns dangerous. As snow starts to accumulate in the mountains, travel can become difficult, the trail can become completely hidden and the likelihood of avalanches increases. Bridges and hard surfaces may also ice over creating slipping hazards. Many popular summer trails become hotspots for avalanches in the winter, so don't assume a familiar spot will be safe all year round. 

Picking the right trail 

Do your research: Start out with the kind of hiking experience you want — are you okay with snow, or do you want to avoid it? — then use the search filters in our Hiking Guide to narrow down your options. When snow starts to fall in the highcountry, river hikes, beach hikes and foothill parks make great destinations that are usually snow free. It’s also a good idea to check with the local ranger station about trail conditions. 

Read recent Trip Reports: Not sure what conditions on the ground are like? Read Trip Reports to find where others have been and get up-to-date information on road and trail conditions. 

Have a plan B: Pick a second, or even third, hike in the same general area as your top pick in case you encounter obstacles on the road or weather conditions that you didn’t come across in your research. 

Leave your itinerary: Always leave your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member. Tell them where you’re going, your backup plan and when they should expect you back.

Getting there: Take note that days are getting shorter, and factor in the drive time to anticipate how much daylight you’ll have on trail. Late fall is when many roads close for the winter, or start requiring drivers have four wheel drive or chains, so check the latest conditions for mountain passes and check land manager websites for the latest on local roads.

Turning back is okay: Once you pick your hike and get a ways down the trail, pay attention to the changing conditions and your surroundings. If things start to take a turn for the worse, and you’re not comfortable carrying on, call it a day and return home safe. That trail will be there when conditions improve. 

Valhalla by Emily Kline.jpg
First snows at Valhalla. Photo by Emily Kline.

Pack for the season 

10 essentials: Always pack the 10 essentials whenever you go for a hike. With these 10 items, you’ll be prepared for a variety of conditions and circumstances.

Stay dry: Wet clothes and gear can be a nuisance and a discomfort and can even become life-threatening in extreme circumstances. Stay ahead of the rain with waterproof boots, coats, pants and a pack cover. And if that raincoat has been collecting dust in your closet all summer, check out these tips to freshen up your waterproof gear.

Stay cozy: Everyone has those little treats that add comfort to their outing. We have a sweet spot for hot drinks on chilly days. There’s nothing like stopping for a break on a brisk day and sipping some hot chocolate or other steamy beverage. 

Please write a Trip Report  

The late fall is an especially important time for hikers to write up their hikes so others can learn about current conditions. After you head out this fall, be sure to write a trip report to notify other folks in the hiking community about the quickly changing conditions.