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AUTUMN HIKING: A SIMPLE LAYERING GUIDE

Autumn hiking: a simple layering guide

How to plan for the weather and what to pack to make the most of autumn hiking

BY: MARK COHEN • hike • 02.09.2022


We’ve always had a soft spot for autumn hiking. The bugs have thinned out and are all but gone. The summer crowds have died down, too. The daylight hours are changing, but so too is the beauty of the light. And while the days are getting shorter, there’s still ample time to enjoy long days getting lost in the sun. In other words, it’s perfect.

 

Autumn boasts crisp, clear mornings and warm afternoons. An ideal combination. So glorious is this season for spending time in the mountains in fact, the Swedes have a word for it: vårvinter (spring-winter) - their unofficial fifth season. Unlike unpredictable and fickle spring, the trails are clear of snow, mud has all but dried and the window’s open to hike as high or as long as you like. The stage is set to get out and explore.

 

With winter near, the only variable to hike like a legend in autumn is the weather, and that’s easily done simply by packing the right layers. 


Man hiking with ascent n-thermic jacket
Hiking layers men
Hiking layers women

Avoiding "base camp damp"

The Annapurna Circuit is a classic three-week hike in Nepal. Perfect for avid hikers. From village to village, you gain altitude in a landscape that shifts from lush valleys to rhododendron forest and finally alpine tundra. I hiked it during a magnificent spell of searing blue skies and warm weather in early autumn years ago, framed by a backdrop of Himalayan peaks that resembled works of art. Conditions never wavered: frosty mornings, daytime sun and warmth, and then frigid nights.

 

In the afternoons, while still high in the sky, the sun peeked through a wall of 7,000-metre peaks, opening a brief window of respite from the heat before the impending gird against the cold. The higher we hiked, the narrower the window, until it was only a sliver of warmth. And every day I had the same problem.

 

As I yanked on a second or mid layer, my base layer felt damp. It was too heavy for my pace. And in the equivalent of an atmospheric cold plunge, it wasn’t holding body heat. My second layer couldn’t move that much moisture fast enough either, so I relied on a third layer to better regulate my body temperature. The result was discomfort until everything dried out (eventually) in the evening, followed by the whole cycle repeating the very next day. 

Layers: years in the making

Back in the Alps, and to anyone who has spent time hiking in mountains at altitude will agree, the experience of fast-changing weather and how to deal with it won’t be unfamiliar. Many times, the weather is seasonal at the start of a hike – mild but manageable – and then the sun drops, or the rain sets in. Because you’re at altitude, the air temperature can drop instantly, sometimes by 10 degrees or more.

 

From that time in Nepal, I learned two things about layering: not all base layers are built alike, and to choose your base layer carefully.

 

Every next-to-skin layer should effectively do the following: regulate your body temperature and draw moisture away from your skin. That is the effective definition of a base layer. But the weight of that all crucial layer – particularly when hiking – and the material from which it is made - is what differentiates one layer from the next. This is easy to deal with it in summer, when the temperature is more consistent, but less so in autumn or spring, where it can be sunny, then cool, then rainy all in the same day.

 

Back in Nepal, I eventually figured that out with a lighter weight base layer, a 150 grams per square metre merino. The advantages were clear. It was natural. It was anti-microbial, meaning I could wash it less and it didn’t smell. It also did a better job at doing what I needed it to do which was to regulate my temperature even when I was hiking uphill, downhill, or just generally moving fast.

 

I had options with me on this trip, which helped. But here lies the key when hiking, even if only for the day, for experienced hikers and beginners alike: expect conditions to change. Along with routes and group pace, it is the single biggest factor that can affect your day. To manage it, always pack one or two layers of different weights. 

Hiking couple with ascent jackets

Picking layers

Layering is subjective. Where my wife prefers synthetics, I opt for the by-product of 178 million years of evolution: wool (more specifically, merino). If you’ve tried it, you will already know why everyone at ODLO loves it. It’s natural, naturally thermoregulating and naturally anti-microbial (meaning it doesn’t hold smells like synthetics).

 

This year ODLO will launch the start of a multi-year product line called Performance Wool. Traditional spinning methods twist some of the life out of most merino – historically a material that is rarely associated with high sweat activities. All that changes with Performance Wool.

 

Performance Wool uses something called Nuyarn which doesn’t twist or stretch the wool and thus creates performance characteristics that more closely mimic wool in its natural state. If we’d recommend a Performance Wool product for autumn hiking, it’s the Ascent Performance Wool full-zip hoody - a mid layer that works directly with your base layer to help move moisture from your body and boasts all the thermoregulating features you want for spending time outside.

 

When the temperature drops further or the clouds move in, go for the Ascent S-Thermic insulated hooded jacket – a synthetic alternative to down with a soft, stretchy outer fabric featuring good air permeability to prevent overheating. This one’s especially good for later autumn and cool days in winter. It will continue keeping you warm, even if the weather turns wet, and packs down to a good size. 

What`s in your pack?

Here is a simple packing list for things I bring with when out hiking in the Alps September through November:

 

  • A fully charged mobile (with an extra external battery) + ear buds for music
  • GPS route on my watch (to be safe, it’s also great to carry a paper map)
  • Food for the day + a little extra
  • A headlamp for late returns to the car
  • Collapsible hiking poles
  • A long sleeve merino base layer
  • Two mid layers
  • An outer layer
  • Lip balm, sunscreen, and a small med kit for cuts and scrapes
  • A sun hat and a beanie (in case the temperature really drops)
  • A 1.5 litre water bladder + a couple electrolyte tabs for taste in case I can fill up at a “mountain fountain”
  • Sunglasses. Indispensable.

 

Once you get layering for conditions right, and packing lists sorted, you’ll be halfway out the door for a wonderful day out.

 

Now all that’s left to worry about is the inevitable arrival of spring. 

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