October 06, 2023 5 min read

By Katie Kommer

I can easily say shoulder season is my favorite time of the year to backpack. This term describes the two months bracketing summer on either end, so late fall and early spring. It varies from state to state. Here in Utah, May and late September/early October are what I consider to be the shoulder season months. Summer backpacking certainly does reward hikers with wonderful temperatures, long days, and plenty of sunlight. However, I prefer the early and late months due to the lack of bugs, crowds, and incredibly comfortable daytime hiking temperatures. Though it’s my favorite time of year to backpack, there are additional challenges to be aware of. Early season often brings snow up high and higher water crossings, and late season carries the threat of early season storms. And, both times of year the nighttime lows will be significantly cooler than the dead of summer. With plenty of trial and error, I’ve nailed down the simple tweaks I make to transition my backpacking kit from summer to shoulder season.

Double Up On Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pad warmth is determined by its R-value. R-value is a standard term used in construction to talk about the insulating power of a material. In short, the higher the R-value on a sleeping pad, the more insulated your body heat is from escaping into the ground, and the warmer you stay. For shoulder season trips, I like to take a sleeping pad with an R-value of 4.0 or higher. However, if you only own a summer pad, there is a cheap hack to beef up your sleep system. A closed cell foam sleeping pad ($35 - $60) adds an extra layer of insulating power and durability to your sleep system, without having to buy a new pad. Sleeping pads can be combined to enhance warmth, you simply add the two R-values together to get the total insulating power.

So, if you already own a lightweight air mattress that weighs about a pound with an R-value of 2.5, you can easily add in a CCF mattress underneath. Then, you’ll have a shoulder season ready setup for under 2 pounds, and only about $50 extra. A bonus perk of using a CCF pad underneath another one is the enhanced durability, and having a mat to lay on during lunch breaks/around camp.

Pay Extra Attention to Your Extremities

Cold fingers, toes, or ears is one of the quickest ways to ruin a trip. Carrying a thicker pair of gloves, dedicated sleep socks, and a fleece headband is very worth the weight for me in chilly temperatures. Additionally, if it’s a cold and wet trip I’ll pack lightweight Gore-Tex mittens to keep my gloves dry and fingers toasty. In order to keep your fingers and toes warm, it’s also extremely important to ensure that your core stays warm. Whenever I’m skimping on layers and trying to start hiking too cold, my extremities are the first thing to lose feeling. I tend to run warm, so a fleece headband to cover my ears is usually plenty in terms of head warmth. However, if you run chilly, consider a fleece-lined or thick wool beanie to keep heat from escaping out the top of your head.

Take Your Time to Switch Up Layers

If you’re anything like me, about 10 minutes into hiking you’ll start to sweat no matter what the weather is. Though I usually do my best to start cold, inevitably I’ll need to de-layer pretty quickly. It’s extremely tempting to keep pushing through, especially at the beginning of a long day on trail. However, I force myself to stop and shed a layer. Keeping your clothes as dry as possible and your temperature regulated is crucial when there’s large temperature swings. For the first few chilly moments on trail, I’ll usually start with a shell, fleece headband, and gloves over my base layer top and pants. Within the first few minutes of hiking, I’m usually able to take off the headband and gloves and stash them in a pocket. Once I feel the first drop of sweat, and stop, take my pack off, and change into my all day hiking clothes.

As soon as I find my campsite for the night, the first thing I do is change into my cozy clothes. Any sweat that’s accumulated throughout the day will immediately send chills down my spine when I stop moving. Doing this as a first step before I set up my tent or cook food helps immensely when I know the temperatures will rapidly drop as the sun goes down.

Choose Campsites Carefully

When temperatures hover at and below freezing, it’s imperative to select campsites carefully. While it’s tempting to pitch a tent at a stunning high elevation lake with a sweeping alpine view, the warmest campsites are unfortunately usually less scenic. You’ll want to camp at lower elevations whenever possible, and in dense forests. Camping next to water without trees nearby is a great way to soak your tent with condensation, and wake up to a mini shower of freezing water droplets.

When I hiked the John Muir Trail in September, we did our best to camp in the deepest forest valleys possible. This actually got us into a great routine of climbing passes early in the morning, and stopping by high alpine lakes for midday swims and lunch spots. Though it’s extremely tempting to camp at high alpine lakes with expansive views of jagged peaks and gnarly pass climbs, sleeping amongst the trees is much more pleasant when it starts to get chilly.

Consider Shortening Daily Mileage

There is one night on the JMT that is burned into my memory. We decided to camp at Evolution Lake (almost 11,000 feet), as the Evolution Basin is one of the most stunning and magical spots along the trail. However, by mid-September, the nighttime lows were in the mid-20s. Though we had a great view from outside our tent, we didn’t enjoy it at all as we were shivering and cowering inside our tent all night. And, the next morning, we couldn’t bring ourselves to start hiking until 10 am when the sun had finally hit us.

Given this experience, I like to expect somewhat shorter days when backpacking in shoulder season. On long summer days, I can enjoy 15 hours of daylight and most of those with the warm sun on my skin. There’s no reason for me to do anything but walk all day. On the other hand, with shorter days I like to plan for a bit more time at camp. I love bringing a deck of cards and some whiskey to keep those extra cold and dark hours entertaining.

With just a bit of extra planning and pack weight, fall may quickly become your favorite time of year to backpack as well.