The shoulder season could use a PR makeover. Too many people think autumn is a time to stay home between summer camping and winter skiing and snowmobiling. They pack up their camping gear after Labor Day and wait for the snow to fly. But it really makes no sense.
Hunters have long known that fall is one of the best seasons to be in the woods, and not just because it’s a great time to chase critters. It’s just a great time to be outdoors.
The scorching summer heat is gone. The crowds have thinned, and the forest takes on an entirely different feel. On some mornings, there’s a frost on the ground like a hint of the first snowstorm. The leaves turn fiery red, orange and gold, like the foliage is putting on a still-life fireworks display.
Evenings are brisk, maybe even chilly. But you know what? Adding another layer of clothes and tossing a big log on the fire feels so good after sweating all summer and wishing for cooler weather.
Mornings? No doubt, they’re nippy and sometimes even frosty. It can be hard to drag yourself out of a warm sleeping bag, but take your time. There’s plenty of daylight, and sleeping in will be rewarded by warmer temperatures when you finally roll out of the tent.
Now you’re up and wondering what to do with your day. There are plenty of options.
Trails are in prime shape for a hike or a bike ride. Trail crews work throughout the summer to cut downed trees, fix eroded sections and improve stream crossings. Those lingering snowbanks that blocked trails in late spring and early summer have melted and trickled downstream. Stream crossings are now fun little exercises in rock hopping.
But what’s really cool about fall hikes is just a different feel to the woods. The air is cool and clear. It breathes easy and makes your lungs feel a little more full of oxygen and your hiking boots a little lighter. Exertion brings warmth instead of dripping sweat.
Same goes for a mountain bike ride.
When you’re not fighting the heat, it feels like you shed a few pounds or bumped up your fitness level a notch. Those grueling climbs feel less oppressive when they’re not shielded in summer heat. And the downhills feel like someone cranked up the AC as you swoop through the woods and across meadows.
Pick any other ride, from horses to ATVs, and cooler is better.
Even the scenery looks a little different. Aside from the palette of fall colors, the slanting sunlight gives the forest a warm glow instead of a blast of summer sun.
And those lakes and streams where you tossed a worm or cast a fly during a lazy summer afternoon? They often fish better in the fall because trout love cool water, and they also know winter is looming, so they feed like every day is Thanksgiving.
Back at camp, when the afternoon shadows are creeping toward evening, it’s time to gather firewood and get ready for a big dinner. There’s a big pot of chili slowly simmering, and if you want to make it better, light some charcoal and make cornbread in a Dutch oven.
You’ve got plenty of time. When the sun sets behind the ridge, there are several hours between campfire time and bedtime. Finish it off with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and roast S’mores over the campfire.
When the fire burns down to coals, don’t be surprised if you start yawning a couple hours before your normal bedtime.
The campfire’s dancing flames and soothing heat will make you drowsy.
Crawl into your sleeping bag with a headlamp and a book or magazine, but don’t be surprised if you doze off before you finish a chapter or article. You will sleep soundly in the cool night air.
When the morning sun peeks back over the ridge, creep out of your sleeping bag and brew a cup of coffee or make some hot chocolate. There’s another day ahead, and lots more to do.
But first, rekindle the campfire and let the warm drink chase away the morning chill. Listen to the songbirds waking up and the squirrels and chipmunks chattering in the trees, and ask yourself, “Why do they call this the shoulder season?”
Fall camping tips
— Pitch your tent or park your RV where there’s direct morning sun. Mornings are typically the coldest part of the day, and shady spots warm slower. Avoid camping right next to lakes and streams, because colder air settles there at night.
— Have a good sleeping bag or add a fleece liner. Liners usually keep you warmer than adding a blanket over your sleeping bag.
— Check out the desert. The nights are cool, but the days are usually sunny and warm.
— Travel on roads suitable for your vehicle in any weather. You may encounter heavy rain or snow in the fall, which makes dirt roads sloppy and slick. If rain or snow are likely, camp near a paved or gravel road so you won’t get stuck.
— If the weather forecast looks iffy, camp at a state park or a place with electric hookups and bathrooms with running water. It’s a luxury to run your furnace in your RV and not have to worry about draining your batteries. A hot shower is also nice in cool weather.
— If you’re planning to camp at a Forest Service campground, call the local ranger station to make sure it’s still open. Some close after Labor Day weekend.
— Fall is hunting season, so expect to see hunters and hear gunshots. If you’re a non-hunter, it’s still safe to do outdoor activities, but wear bright colors so you’re easily recognizable.