Fall weather is a guessing game

Hikers lean into a strong wind on top of a mountain. Wind can be an overlooked element when preparing for a cold-weather outing. (Provided photo — Spencer Morrissey)

In lieu of the off-and-on frigid temps we typically have in the fall it can be crapshoot as to what you might find, especially in higher elevations. I got to thinking that many cold-weather issues come with unpreparedness and a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the weather patterns. Maybe this will help.

I want to point out that I am not rewriting the Bible here, just giving you a basis to start with. For your own outdoor autumn and cold-weather activities, I strongly recommend further reading and maybe a wilderness first-aid class, but until then here are a few bullet points to pass the time:

– Who, what, where and when: Let someone know your plans, routes and expected time back. Don’t depend on a cell phone.

“Weather” or not to go: Check the weather periodically for up to a week ahead of time to help recognize odd weather patterns, like decreasing temps, wind chill, etc. Adirondack weather changes daily which surely makes the local meteorologist a heavy drinker.

– Plan for the unexpected: This doesn’t mean carry a 100-pound pack to camp or a 45-pound day pack. It means think about your gear and what multiple uses they have. For example: a simple 10×10 tarp that weighs in at less than 6 ounces can be used a vapor barrier, a quick shelter from the elements, a splint or a ground cloth.

Teamwork is advised when the conditions become challenging. (Provided photo — Spencer Morrissey)

– Extra, extra, be all about it: If you can gather the gumption to change your baselayer just before you hit tree-line, after a climb or about halfway through the day, you will be warmer and happier. Extra socks are great too because often times your feet get sweaty and then your feet become cold. Socks also make great water bottle insulators and emergency mittens.

– Layering it on: Base layer, mid-layer (fleece), waterproof/breathable layer with a hood and insulating layer. One bulky jacket is equal to two or even three layers sometimes. Sounds efficient, right? NOPE! What if you get overheated? Then you take off the one jacket and you’re cold. With layers you can peel back your coverage like an onion — without the smell or eye burning — I hope. Go at it one layer at a time until your temperature is correctly regulated. This may take a bit to get down to a science, and then you can call yourself Dr. Cool.

– Cotton, cotton, whose got the cotton?: Leave cotton for around town, use wool or synthetic fibers for layering. Cotton absorbs sweat and other moistures and when this happens you get cold and dangerously so.

– Wind-chill factor: Ambient temperatures are different than temperatures with wind-chill, be sure to adjust for it. A wind-chill chart can be easily obtained on the web for easier calculations. The charts are actually quite accurate. Use the predicted with speeds and predicted temperatures and use that as a base. Always plan on stronger winds and gusts once you leave treeline or come to a ledge view.

– Drink, drink, drink: This means no alcohol or too many caffeinated beverages, save that for the after party. You can lose over 1 liter of water a day, just through breathing alone. Drink if you are not thirsty, dehydration happens in cold weather too and it will hit you out of the blue.

A good pair of gloves is necessary for cold-weather travel. (Provided photo — Spencer Morrissey)

– You can’t drink ice: Purchase a water bottle parka and carry it upside down to prevent the top from freezing over; this is more for winter hikes but it can get darn cold in late fall too. If you make the bottom of your bottle the top, the bottom will freeze. Water freezes where there is air. Be sure the cap in on tight. Try and avoid metal bottles and small mouth bottles, these tend to freeze quicker. Also, adding a bit of Gatorade or other electrolyte drink to your water you can slow the freezing process.

– Got the snackies: You burn way more calories in the winter than in the summer, up to 5,000 calories a day, even more during a long hike in the High Peaks. Your body works harder to stay warm and this burns calories. Keep snacks close to your heart, in what I term an oven pocket. Keeping quick to eat snacks in a midlayer keeps them warm a palatable and accessible to make it quicker to grab some energy on the move without stopping and cooling off. A bit here and there can make all the difference.

– Snuggle up your fingers: Carry a pair of mittens and chemical hand warmers. Fingers like to be close together, and this is not possible in gloves. Use the hand warmers as needed.

– Your own personal thermostat: Hats work wonders, they can regulate your body temperature. You lose most of your heat through your head. Take a hat off to cool down, put it on to warm up. It’s quite odd, but you can warm up your hands and feet, by simply keeping your head warm.

– Don’t get exposed: If you do get cold hands and feet that can’t be warmed quickly by activity, skin to skin contact is the best. Use the belly, armpits and crotch area for optimal warmth. Don’t use someone else’s without permission. Exposed skin can become injured skin. Have something in your pack that will cover all your skin areas. You might not use them, but you may.

– Slip sliding away: Traction is a must. Of some sort, you should have a way to travel on slippery surfaces and snow. Snowshoes or skis are required if there is more than 8 inches of snow. Consider a pair of trekking crampons or Microspikes for variable conditions, especially those you will surely find up high in the fall season. It is not abnormal for ice to be a regular suspect in the High Peaks and even over 25 inches.

As I mentioned this is a list to get you started, but there is so much more to learn about fall and winter activities, each of the bullet points above can easily be elaborated on, but as a base for further research you can start here. Plan early and play safe.


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