Fall Camping Checklist: What to Take Camping When the Leaves Start to Change
Oct 21, 2020
Founder of The Daggerfish Gear Co.
Fall has finally settled in here in Pennsylvania; the leaves have turned, the air is crisp, and the days are growing short. Summer is over, but that doesn’t mean outdoor adventuring has to stop.
Even though we usually think of camping as a summertime activity, I’m here to tell you that camping in the fall is the best time to go. With only a bit of extra prep and a couple additions to your basic camping gear, it’s easy to make fall your favorite time to camp.
If you’ve never camped in the fall before, it can be a little intimidating. If you’re not sure what to take camping, we’ve got a camping check list for you to download, but first, let me tell you why fall is the best time for outdoor adventures:
Way Fewer People
I like to get away from it all when I go camping, and that can mean avoiding popular places during the height of summer. But in the fall, crowds thin out and some prime camping real-estate opens up.
In parks and other natural areas with fees, the fall and winter season are often steeply discounted, so not only can you get a more private experience, you can save some cash while you do it.
No Menacing Bugs
Mosquitoes, gnats, and other bugs can make camping in certain areas a battleground.
I once camped on a beach during a summertime mosquito hatch, and we spent the entire evening running from our cooking stove back to our tent, zipping it behind us as quickly as we could, and then swatting the dozens of mosquitoes who made their way in, over and over and over until our food was barely cooked enough to eat.
Luckily, autumn has none of that. Dropping temperatures mean way fewer irritating insects, opening up evenings for sitting by the fire in peace.
Cooler temperatures make for better hiking and sleeping weather. you’ll sweat less during the day, decreasing water loss and making it easier to stay hydrated. In the evening, bundling up next to the fire for spooky campfire stories and then falling asleep in the cool night air makes for solid backcountry slumber.
Three Keys to Fall Camping
1. Start Early
Since daylight is limited, especially later in the fall, you’ll want to start your day early to make the most of the sunshine. Check the sunset time for where you’ll be going, and remember that it’ll get darker (and cooler) more quickly if you’re in a valley.
Keep an eye on the sun, and do your best to get camp set up with at least a little bit of daylight to spare.
2. Stay Dry
One common mistake is to overdress for your hike into camp, leading you to sweat into your clothes. Instead, begin your trek wearing less that you think you need - as my old friend Justin used to say, “You want to start out a little cold.”
Your body will heat up significantly as you move, so dress in layers and be ready to take them on and off as the temperature changes throughout the day.
Cooler temperatures also mean that if you do get wet, it’ll take longer to dry, be more unpleasant, and (in extreme cases) put you at elevated risk for hypothermia. You don’t need to be perfectly dry while you’re moving, but once you get settled at camp, changing into the set of dry clothes you’ve been carrying will make a big difference. Take a look at the list of clothes on my camping check list to see what I wear and carry.
3. Sleep Warm
Related to staying dry is staying warm, especially while you sleep. While sleeping in the cold is great for your health, being cold while you sleep isn’t recommended for a good night’s rest.
The keys to staying warm are being insulated from the ground and being insulated from the air around you. While I will sometimes camp with a hammock in the summer, once it starts to get cold I switch to sleeping on the ground with my groundsheet and sleeping pad. The Sleep/Shelter part of my camping check list will show you what I use.
What To Take Camping This Fall
Click here to download my personal camping check list for fall.
This is the essential camping gear I carry when temperatures range from 40-60 degrees fahrenheit throughout the day. This isn’t a list of ultralight camping gear - it’s designed for minimizing weight while maximizing comfort.
Feel free to add or remove items from this list to suit your personal style and comfort level. If you’re curious why certain things are on the list, check out my notes below:
I have a 40-degree bag that I use for camping pretty much year-round. Depending on the temperature, I’ll add a polyester bag liner, and if it’s really cold, I’ll add a synthetic blanket over top of the bag.
Importantly, I always sleep with a knit cap on - having something to cover your head really makes a difference when sleeping on a cold night.
Once the temperatures start to drop, fish become more active later in the day. Trout, for example, will start feeding in the early- to mid-afternoon, giving you the perfect opportunity to stop along your hike and try to catch some dinner.
If you have a Daggerfish ultralight fishing rod, you can carry your bait and tackle with you inside the handline, and stop at stream crossings or small lakes as you go. If you're toting more traditional gear, you might want to hike in towards a known fishing spot and set yourself up for a longer rest while you fish.
I drink a lot of water while I hike, so I usually start off carrying my maximum amount of water. I will always carry my maximum water if I’ve never been on the trail before and don’t know where I’ll find additional water to filter. If it turns out water is abundant, I can always dump it out to lighten my pack.
Outfit/Packed Clothes/Weather Gear:
Earlier I touched on the importance of dressing in layers. Personally, I’ll dress in up to five layers: a base layer (polypro long underwear), a lightweight layer (synthetic t-shirt), a midweight layer (a sweater or wool shirt), a light jacket, and a poncho if it’s raining.
Having a lot of layers means you can more easily adjust to temperature changes, which can have big swings throughout the fall. For an overnight trip, I don’t usually carry more than one set of clothes, but I always carry extra dry socks. Bang-for-your-buck, they make the biggest difference in comfort.
I also carry a set of very lightweight shoes (basically water shoes) to wear around camp. These aren’t strictly necessary, but after a long hike it can be nice to stretch the ponies out a little, especially if your boots have gotten wet.
I’ve written before about how a hatchet can really up your fire-building game, and nothing beats a nice warm fire on a cool autumn night. Where permitted, I highly recommend bringing a saw, hatchet, and knife to help you build the best fire you can.
First Aid and Repairs:
My Possibles Bag (what my Dad always called it) includes a folding knife, compass, lighter, flint and steel, headlamp and extra batteries, toilet paper, and some heavy-duty tape and vinyl patches for my inflatable sleeping pad. In the summer, I’ll add bug spray and sunscreen, but I usually don’t bother with those in the fall.
I carry a very basic first aid kit, mostly to deal with cuts, sprains, and aches. Look for a post on this in the future, but for now, carry whatever makes you feel comfortable.
I use a steel pot as my cook kit, and will usually cook over the fire. If a fire isn’t possible or the weather is sketchy, I’ll carry a small backpacking stove as well.
This list assumes a one-night overnight trip, that you’ll be eating breakfast before you go, and back in time for dinner on your second day. Adjust as you need for longer or shorter trips.
One thing I’ve discovered in thirty years of camping is that there are few better feelings than changing into fresh clothes back at the car. If you can, leave a bag with extra clothes and a water bottle in the trunk, and thank me later.
If you’ll have the opportunity for some backpack fishing, toss a Daggerfish Handreel in your pack. As temperatures drop, fish that have shied away from the summer heat come alive again, and cold-water species like trout will start feeding from noon to late afternoon, giving you the perfect opportunity to stop and fish along your hike to camp.
There you have it! Using this camping gear checklist as a guide, you can easily extend your camping season well into the fall and winter, beat the crowds, and enjoy the experience of autumn in the woods.
Pick a nice weekend for your first foray into fall camping, and I promise you’ll be delighted at what this season has to offer.
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