11 Essential Tips for Shoulder Season Backpacking

Cascade Mountains; Lassen Volcanic National Park; crumbaugh lake; lake The ice pattern seemd as if waves froze in place.

Small patches of snow lingered on this shoulder season hike. I was glad to be wearing boot for the section that required post-holing.

As summer winds down and fall starts to take over, Luke and I are getting excited about the shoulder season. Sure its a little chillier but that chill drives away hordes of people.

But how is backpacking in the shoulder season different?

In the Sierra, the daytime weather is perfect for hiking; mild temperatures mean that exposed climbs are no longer brutual battles against heat exhaustion. However, nights are often very chilly and long. Do we bring our 3-season sleeping bag and tent? What about clothes?

Here are some tips to get you ready for your shoulder season trip:

  1. Check the weather: Keep track of weather patterns in the mountains to get a sense of what to expect. If you know that a storm system is heading for your trailhead, you can change your plan, and gear, accordingly.
  2. Use the guy lines on your tent: Your 3-season tent will usually be fine. Of course, you will need to use your better judgement, but if a 4-season tent is needed, the winter camping season has probably begun. Since snow is more likely and winds might be strong, be sure to securely stake your tent down. The guy lines add stability and provide additional tension to help prevent condensation.
  3. Increase ventilation to reduce condensation: As the outside temperature drops, condensation is more likely. To help avoid packing a wet tent, you may want to leave doors or windows ajar. We have found that no matter what you do, condensation is unavoidable so make sure to dry your tent when you get home.
  4. Sleep with a hot water bottle: Most nights will be warm enough for your 3-season sleeping bag rated for 32 degrees. However, if a cold snap hits, boil some water, pour it in your nalgene, and cuddle with it at night. Make sure you have extra fuel for this. Alternatively, pack in a few chemical warmers, just in case.
  5. Get a sleeping bag liner: A bag liner paired with a 3-season sleeping bag is often still lighter than carrying a warmer, 20-degree sleeping bag and can add several degrees to your bag rating.
  6. Bring a lightweight jacket: Pack a fleece or puffy to help you deal with wind chills during breaks or while you enjoy camp in the evening. We bring rain jackets on ALL our trips to the mountains; they double as a windbreaker to add extra warmth.
  7. Consider extra clothes: Gloves might be nice late at night or during the morning. Hats or warm headbands are lightweight but can do wonders for warmth. These small items can also keep you warmer while you sleep.
  8. Plan on an evening cup of tea: Having tea in the evening while you sit around camp can keep you warm and extend your time outside of the tent stargazing. Another tip that requires fuel so plan accordingly. A warm morning beverage can also help you get going.
  9. Wear warm shoes and socks: There might be some snow on the ground so be ready. Know your feet! If they are prone to cold spells ditch the trail runners.
  10. Explore lower elevations: Winter hits the foothills less drastically. You can lengthen your warm weather hikes by finding trails lower on the mountain. Most people will have said goodbye to backpacking season, even at lower elevations.
  11. Plan fewer miles each day: Days are shorter and mornings are colder. Not to mention possible snow and muddier trails. Your pace might be slower than usual or you might not want to leave your warm sleeping bag until the sun hits your tent. Either way, you might not be able to get as far.
  12. There is always car camping: Nothing wrong with car camping! Bring as many comforts as you can fit in your adventure mobile and do some day hikes. Blankets, extra jackets, warm slippers; your trunk is the limiting factor in this situation!

Now get out there and enjoy the solitude and beauty of fall!