Nature is such a powerful force, and venturing out into it provides for such a genuine connection, both with the outdoors and oneself. Nothing, at least anything I've experienced, is as freeing and pure as waking up in the woods, with faint sounds of birds chirping, the wind gently finding its way through the trees, and hikers moving around and crunching the ground outside of your tent; as hiking solo or with a dear friend on a beautiful trail; of witnessing breathtaking, secluded views after hours of uphill battle with the granite surrounding you.
Regardless of the beauty, there is great importance in preparing accordingly for the known and unknown when exploring, whether it be a quick stroll to view the autumn leaves changing or a backpacking excursion. As someone who is rather free spirited and lives a life filled with spontaneity, I have experienced numerous situations stemming from lack of research or preparation that resulted in shivering, fear, and at times, being led astray from the trail. With summer coming to an end and fall temperatures quickly approaching, I've assembled my top "what's in my pack" suggestions for chillier weather and changing conditions to guarantee you'll always head to the mountains as prepared as possible when backpacking.
As a millennial, I understand that we've migrated into a digital age where traditional, paper maps aren't the hip thing to have. However, whether it be a conventional map, atlas book, or a phone app, it's 100%, if not 1000% required on trail. By this, I don't mean that a ranger will ask you to leave without one. While out in the wilderness, especially in the fall and winter, you're actually a lot less likely to stumble upon rangers or forest professionals, and therefore, need to be self-sufficient.
A takeaway I've had after years of frequent large hikes, both alone, with groups, or with my pup, is that despite research done prior, you don't know what the trail will be like until you're on it. Something that seems relatively simple and mapped out online can deviate very quickly from this in person, and it's always better to be over-prepared than the contrary. To give an example, I once hiked a trail in the Tahoe area in the late fall, before any large storms had begun for the year. Something that had initiated as a very relaxed, enjoyable day swiftly developed into using hiking poles as an ice axe and hanging on to the ground below me for dear life while looking down at what appeared to be an icy, never ending slope. While still in the situation, I was able to realize that with proper trail maps in the snow, this would have never occurred.
..Hence the need for maps. There are many great options out there, and while I am not at all affiliated, I suggest on my blog to use Alltrails Pro. It allows for maps to be downloaded prior to any trips, so that you can know where you are relative to the trail with or without any phone service.
This is a must have in the summer months as well, but with fall and winter explorations, layers are needed more frequently during the day. Maybe not always while active, but even during quick water breaks, jackets aren't taken for granted with dropping temperatures. As someone that is generally warm and prefers to hike in shorts, you will always find layers in my pack despite the time of year. By layers, I mean a trusty rain jacket as well as a thick, warm, down jacket. Warm pants (waterproof, even) are key as well, especially depending on weather conditions like rain and snow.
With backpacking, the rule of thumb is to bring these items even if you don't think you'll utilize them them. I've made the mistake of choosing not to bring a down jacket while camping during summer months, and was very unhappy with that decision. While traveling light is key, having the necessary clothing for dropping temperatures or weather conditions is essential. The trail can be very humbling, and with clothing, it is always better to be over prepared. Most downs and rain jackets are able to fold up to such a small size that they can squeeze into a pack, no matter how full it may already be.
Other warm layers I'd suggest bringing include a warm hat, gloves, extra socks, and warm pants to sleep in.
Proper Sleeping Bag + Liner
As someone who camped and backpacked with a $40 Target sleeping bag for much longer than I'd like to admit, I can assure you that a sleeping bag that is properly equipped for your situation and season will drastically change comfort levels while sleeping. While my Target bag did wonders for me on warm summer nights in Yosemite, it was not equipped to handle chilly nights in the backcountry, no matter what the season.
With that being said, take the time to find the right bag for you, if you don't already own one. There are many on the market- synthetic vs. down, 15 degrees vs 20, and so many brands to choose from. When choosing my new and improved bag, I listed features that were most important for me- lightweight, made of down lining, and one that was warm enough to bring for most seasons. There are many reputable companies making high quality bags, so do your research and try them out! Also, stay tuned for a blog post on Zoeyweaver.com discussing my bag buying experience and reviews!
Sleeping bag liners are a bit underrated in the hiking community, but are essential for colder nights spent outdoors. They're extremely lightweight, take up a minuscule amount of space, and functionally, are able to increase warmth while protecting your sleeping bag from a good amount of dirt, grime, and many of the other things us hiker-trash find washing down the shower drain after days outside.
Thermal Sleeping Pad
Sleeping pads are essential for comfort while on trail, to avoid a night of poor rest on hard, often rocky terrain. While pads can be quite pricy, there are some great, durable options on the cheaper end that can also play a role in keeping you warmer. Now to decide- foam or air pad? I personally prefer a foam sleeping pad over an air pad, as you save a great amount of time each day avoiding inflating, deflating, and re-packing the pad. Select foam pads have heat reflecting services to maintain warmth as well, which is great for fall and winter camping. However, there are many great inflatable options too, which can tend to have better warming technology and features.
Luckily, REI does a great job of helping customers to find the right pad. They always have all options inflated and ready to test, so you can make the best choice for yourself! If you're in the market, I'd suggest a Thermarest. I own both a foam and air pad made by them, and they're great options that keep me warm and comfortable through the night.
I highly suggest bringing a tarp or footprint with you year round, but it is absolutely essential to pack for fall and winter backpacking trips. With rain and snow storms occurring frequently, often without warning, this can protect you and your tent immensely while battling wet evenings, or even while taking a zero day due to intense weather conditions.
Stove + Propane
Having coffee and hot meals during the day is essential during brisk months. After a long day of hiking, there is no better feeling than putting your feet up at camp with a hot meal. With that being said, to make the meal, you'll need a stove and propane. There are two popular types of cooking options within backpacking, a Jetboil or traditional stove.
Jetboils are a great option if you're looking to avoid bringing additional items, like a lightweight pot. This product is generally around $100, and weighs in at slightly less than a pound. They're a great all-in-one system, and even include insulation to avoid direct contact with any hot surfaces, as well as a lid to cover the pot with.
Traditional canister stoves are also a very popular option within the backpacking community. I personally use the MSR Pocket Rocket 2, and love how it takes up much less space than a Jetboil does in my pack. Most traditional canister stove models can compact into small cases, which is very nice for longer trips. However, the downside of some models, including the Pocket Rocket 2, is that they require a match to light, versus the Jetboil, that can spark itself. If cooking with a traditional model, like a Pocket Rocket, you'd also be required to bring a lightweight cooking pot to heat up water for meals and coffee.
Proper Hydration + Fuel
Hiker hunger is real, so consuming proper amount of water and food while on trail is essential to keep you going until the end of your travels. With that being said, several things to keep in mind:
I suggest bringing enough food for an extra day, to ensure that with any unforeseen weather or circumstances, you're able to stay on trail for a longer period of time if need be
The recommended water intake while hiking is 1 liter per hour of activity
To ensure you possess an adequate amount of water while on trail, make sure to not only bring along 2 bottles and a water bladder, but also to include a water filtration system. While water filtration tablets can be helpful in the event of an emergency, I would suggest the most popular option within mountaineering, Sawyer Squeeze. It's incredibly simple to use, lightweight, and durable.
With food, it is important to eat enough to avoid fatigue, while also providing yourself enough nutrients to power through challenging days. Food can be overwhelming, with many options and styles. For me, being someone who is health-food obsessed, here are some tips I've found to consume enough on trail while also avoiding guilt from eating overly-processed meals for days at a time:
There are dehydrated meals with very simple ingredient lists, just read the labels! Also, experiment with meals before embarking on a trip to ensure it's something you can eat for days on end.
Bars are the most convenient way to snack throughout the day, but can get old- make sure to bring options and find a brand that makes you feel good! For me, those brands are Bearded Brothers and Clif Bar smoothie filled for longer trips. Both have very limited ingredients and aren't overly sweet like most bars.
Coffee is so important to get the day started on chilly mornings, but it's often very challenging to find quality options that are backpacking friendly. Alpine Start is my absolute favorite- it was actually created by mountaineers that love coffee, but couldn't find any options for backpacking that tasted delicious. This is an item I do not leave home without for backpacking trips- I highly suggest the Dirty Chai and Coconut Latte flavors!
Bringing one quality, fresh food can satisfy cravings. My suggestions would be baby carrots or pickles. Bringing fresh produce is adding weight, so may not be valuable for everyone, but I've found is essential for myself and some of the hikers I travel with.
Treat yo'self. You deserve a sweet treat at night after a day of hiking. Whether it be dark chocolate or adaptogen hot chocolate, I always make sure to bring some treats for the journey.
Written by Zoey Weaver:
Hi, I'm Zoey! I'm an avid hiker, adventurer and, backpacker who splits her time between Maryland and California. Most weekends, and some weekdays, you can find me exploring trails in the Sierras or down Highway 1, searching for the best beach spots and breweries. Feel free to follow along through my blog, zoeyweaver.com, or through instagram, @Zoey_weaver!