By Joe Coleman, Contributing Blogger
Shoulder, or in-between seasons, can be confusing to pack for. It’s either too warm for your winter gear or too cold for your summer gear. Do you have to buy a whole new kit just dedicated to four months of the year at maximum? Luckily, the answer is no. Should you just want to buy some new gear, though, we definitely won’t stop you!
What is the Shoulder Season?
Shoulder seasons are the transitions from spring to summer and summer to fall. In general, they go from March-April and then September-October, though there is some variance depending on where you are in the country.
Why Hike During the Shoulder Season?
Besides beautiful fall colors or crisp spring mornings, you’ll run into fewer crowds. While the most popular parks will always see crowds, you won’t run into the same numbers you see during the summer. If there’s a popular hike that’s on your bucket list, consider hiking it during a shoulder season if conditions allow for it!
Will My Three-season Gear Work for Shoulder Season?
As most backpackers come to realize, “three-season gear” tends just to mean warm weather gear. That being said, you can definitely utilize three-season equipment for the shoulder season with just a few tweaks to your kit.
Tips for Shoulder Season Packing
Most of your summer backpacking gear is still useful here. If you’re a warm sleeper, that’s even better news as this will be easier for you. Cold sleepers, fear not, there are ways to keep warm without breaking the bank!
Yes, the first and most obvious tip is dressing in layers. You likely already own most of this if you backpack semi-often. If you don’t have layers for colder weather, start with merino wool base layers and socks. Those alone will go far most of the year.
If you’ve got base layers covered, invest in a good rain jacket or shell. Lightweight gloves and hats are good accessories to have that won’t take up much space. It’s always good to have an extra pair of socks (especially wool), but it’s a must during wetter weather.
Bring Extra Batteries
The cold will quickly sap the energy from your rechargeable devices, so extra batteries or a power bank can go far. While you won’t lose power as fast as you would in winter, you want extra batteries kept in a warm place. Pro tip: put your battery pack in your sleeping bag during the night so it stays warm.
Sleeping Bag Improvements
You have two main options here: buy a cold-weather sleeping bag or supplement your three-season sleeping bag. A good cold weather bag or quilt is expensive but worth it for the frequent backpacker. If you don’t want to go that far (or you’re just looking to save weight), a liner is an excellent addition to a sleeping bag. You can add anywhere from 5-20 degrees of warmth with a good liner, and it’s much cheaper than a cold-weather bag.
Sleeping Pad Improvements
The same rationale follows here from the sleeping bag. You can get a cold-weather sleeping pad (and it’s much cheaper than a cold-weather sleeping bag) for the shoulder seasons and even use it in winter. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, use a combination of a closed-cell foam sleeping pad under a mid-rated inflatable pad.
Boots or Trail Runners
Hiking boots are a favorite for spring and wetter weather in general. You get lots of grip and some extra ankle support with a good pair of boots that Chaco’s just don’t afford you. Not all hikers love boots, and some swear by trail running shoes instead. Aggressively tred trail runners with a low drop (like Altras) are a popular alternative to hiking boots and cut down on weight and bulk. Whatever you choose, grip and support are a must in the spring, especially with the cold wet, ground.
First Aid Kit
Yes, you always want a first aid kit, but you want to be sure it’s one you’re comfortable with during shoulder seasons. Cold and wet ground means you’re more likely to slip and fall. Before heading out, make sure your kit can treat cuts and sprains and practice using it.
This last item won’t be for everyone, but crampons are good to have if you’re in an area that gets below freezing and sees snow. While you may not run into ice or snow at lower elevations, you’ll want a pair of crampons if you’re looking to bag some peaks. You may not need them, but they’re good to have if you think you’ll run into ice and snow.