While most people plan their camping trips in the summer, there is something special about camping in the fall. The bugs are mostly gone, campgrounds are less crowded after Labor Day, and the spectacular fall colors are hard to beat. Throw in the cooler temps and you’ve got some of the best sleeping weather for camping you’ll ever experience. Of course, camping in autumn also has its challenges. Some campers have a miserable, cold September or October experience and refuse to give this time of year another chance. That’s a shame, because we think it’s one of the best outdoor adventures when you’re properly prepared.
We’ve been fortunate to camp quite a bit during the fall months over the last few years and we’ve learned the hard way what to do and what not to do on your first fall vacation. Today we share some fall camping tips to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. Once you get it right, you might find that fall is your new favorite camping season, as we have over the years.
What to pack for fall camping
It doesn’t typically apply to RVs, but most fall camping trips involve dealing with cold weather, which is why my sleeping bag is my number one consideration for any fall trip. I’ve been using the Big Agnes Sidewinder Camp 20 for about a year and it’s the best sleeping bag I’ve ever used. The combination of synthetic and down makes it extremely light yet incredibly warm for those chilly mornings. You get what you pay for with any sleeping bag, which is why I recommend buying the best sleeping bag you can afford. Here in the Midwestern United States, I wouldn’t venture out without a bag that’s rated for at least 20 to 30 degrees. It also never hurts to go deeper. It’s easier to cool down when you’re too hot than to warm up when you’re losing body heat through an unsuitable sleeping bag.
Opt for down sleeping bag insulation for dry areas and a synthetic material if there’s a chance of getting wet. The synthetic material keeps you warmer if you accidentally get wet. If you are backpacking, down compresses are better to carry more camping gear. What you sleep on is just as important as the sleeping bag. Go for the thickest sleeping pad you can carry. A cot or air mattress is even better for tent camping in an established area. The ground gets quite cold at night. This cold will seep into your sleeping bag and into your body unless you can create a separation between the two.
I usually bring at least one extra blanket when camping by car. It is better to have and not need than to need and not have. Some campers like to take a hot water bottle with them to warm up and stow it under their sleeping bag at night as an extra source of heat.
Another important thing to pack along with warmer clothing is quality base layers. Avoid cotton; Go for wool and down. They cost a lot more than cotton, but they help retain your body heat. If you want it light and warm, opt for merino wool. It’s the most expensive of the group, but it’s also the warmest. It also has moisture-wicking and anti-odor properties that will make your camping that much more comfortable, especially if your camping plans include canoeing or kayaking for fishing or leafing.
The last thing I would suggest for comfort is at least a quality three season tent, although a four season tent is even better. Precisely because these tents are specifically designed for fall, they also tend to have a better rain canopy than a one- or two-season tent. I recommend applying some seam sealer to each stitched surface of the tent and fly. It provides just a little extra protection against water getting inside the tent and helps keep you warmer.
That being said, most of the gear you use during the summer months will still be good well into the fall. I recommend always packing rain gear because you never know what the weather will bring during the transition between summer and winter. Otherwise, you can load the usual headlamps, cooking utensils, coolers, and camp axes you normally use.
Preparing for a fall camping trip
If you plan on tent camping, I highly recommend sealing your tent before setting out, even if the manufacturer has already done so. It never hurts to be redundant and make sure all stitched areas are sealed from moisture. Pay close attention to the corners of your tent as this is where most leaks start. Seam sealing your rain gear is also a good idea.
I like to bring an extra tarp to put up over my fly for some camping trips. I’ve also seen people use one of these pop up shelters over their tent to get a little extra protection from the late fall rains. It may seem like an overstatement, but getting wet in your tent is miserable enough when it’s warm outside. When you combine a damp tent with cold weather, it becomes downright unbearable. In extreme circumstances, it can even become dangerous when hypothermia sets in.
For those planning on using full hookup campsites, I like to use an electric blanket for a little extra warmth when the forecast calls for freezing temperatures. I have used a small electric or ceramic heater in my tent before, but have recently moved away from this practice. Primarily because if you use the right padding and a sleeping bag, they are not necessary. Eating a filling meal before going to bed at night also helps. Pack something high in calories because your body burns more when it’s cold. Bring a quality camping stove to cook meals nice and hot. A quality, high-calorie meal helps keep your body temperature significant throughout the night. My final tip is to pack a warm winter hat to wear to bed. It will help retain heat that you would otherwise lose through your head.
Avoiding the crowds
Unfortunately, the secret of camping adventures begins to surface in the fall. I’ve noticed a significant increase in filled campgrounds at my favorite state parks over the past few years. That means using reservation systems if you want to secure a spot at an established campsite. However, if you choose the right place, you can still find peace of mind. Watch out for seasonal closures at campsites. These don’t appear everywhere, but the final weekend usually has an added benefit. For example, last year at the end of September I was at Bewabic State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Little did I know until I got there that the park was only a few days away from closing for the winter. Most of the regulars had said goodbye for the season which made for a pleasant and quiet experience.
The same applies to national parks. My favorite trip to Yellowstone was in mid-October, just before the east gate closed for the season. Imagine my shock when I arrived at Old Faithful with only ten people walking around, some of whom were rangers doing their fall chores. It’s a great time of year to hit the trails and enjoy some waterfalls without the crowds of dumb tourists that ruin an otherwise peaceful summertime experience. The downside of planning late for a place like Yellowstone is that you don’t know when the park will close, so you could potentially skip out altogether if winter comes earlier. We recommend calling a location with unpredictable times ahead of time. The Rangers usually know when they are told to wrap up the season.
Here in Michigan, I’ve noticed things slow down after Labor Day. However, around Halloween, they pick up again in state parks because many campgrounds are now hosting spooky weekends at the campgrounds. However, these themed weekends can be a fun experience, especially for the kids. But that also means that most pitches and rustic huts are fully booked months in advance.
Finally, I strongly recommend booking your autumn stay between Monday and Friday. These are the quietest times because most of the kids are back in school and tons of after-school activities and sports eat up people’s free time at this time of year. This is usually the perfect time for a quiet road trip to your favorite national forest or state park.
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