Part of the reason it is so fun to spend time in the great outdoors is that every trip into the wilderness is different. You may witness deer feeding on trailside vegetation one day, spot a row of recently bloomed wildflowers the next, and observe a recently fallen tree the day after. The forest (or field, desert, swamp or any other habitat you may visit) is constantly changing, and each trip will yield new and interesting sights, sounds and smells. But while some of these changes occur randomly, others are related to natural seasonal cycles. It behooves hikers and campers to familiarize themselves with some of the obvious (and not-so-obvious) changes that occur as the calendar advances. This will not only help keep you safe, but it’ll also help you maximize your time in the great outdoors too.
Winter Hiking Considerations
Winter is undoubtedly the best time for those seeking solitude to head outdoors – you’ll share the trail with relatively few hikers and campers during the coldest months of the year. There are obviously exceptions, but most wildlands outside of the sunbelt are pretty empty during the winter.
But there’s a reason that relatively few people take to the trails during the winter: It’s cold. The frigid temperatures of December, January and February certainly pose challenges. Frostbite and hypothermia are common threats on winter trips, and it is hard to get warm while you’re living outdoors for an extended period of time. It can also be extremely challenging to traverse icy or snowy terrain (although good trekking poles can help), and it’s often harder to do simple things because your fingers are constantly cold.
However, there are a few really neat benefits the winter provides. You’ll have to decide if they outweigh the challenges posed by the cold temperatures, but every outdoor enthusiast should give winter camping a try at some point. For example, you can see much farther into the forest in the winter. Most of the deciduous trees will have shed their leaves, which opens up sightlines and vistas that are obscured for most of the year. In some cases, this may mean that a campsite that doesn’t provide much of a view throughout the warm portions of the year will suddenly afford beautiful views of the surrounding lands.
Additionally, you won’t have to battle many biting bugs, such as tick bites, during the winter. Most mosquitoes, ticks, spiders and other creepy critters die off or hibernate during the winter, so you won’t spend the evening slapping at bugs and checking your body for ticks. Additionally, most dangerous snakes spend the winter snoozing underground, so you aren’t likely to step on one sunning on the trail.
Spring Hiking Considerations
Spring may be one of the most beautiful and exciting times to explore the great outdoors. The new leaves on the trees and deciduous shrubs make the entire world look green, wildflowers provide color everywhere you look, and bird songs will usually form the soundtrack for your trip.
And best of all, you get to enjoy all of these things before many of the warm-weather problems present themselves. In fact, the early spring presents a number of the same benefits that winter does.
If you hit the trail early enough, you won’t have to contend with many bugs, and most of the poison ivy (and poison oak) leaves won’t have blossomed yet, which will reduce your chances of suffering an itchy rash. However, all of these threats will become factors by the middle of spring (depending on the local climate), so it is often wise to schedule spring camping trips as early as possible.
Spring can present a pretty significant challenge though, as the entire landscape will be covered in pollen. This can make allergy sufferers miserable and force them to spend much of the trip hiding inside their tent while taking antihistamines. But there are a few ways to limit the problems caused by pollen, and we discuss several of them here.
Trails and campsites occasionally become crowded during the spring, but the earlier you venture out, the smaller the crowds will be. However, you’ll need to be prepared for a wide variety of temperatures during spring camping trips, as the difference between the nighttime lows and daytime highs will be particularly exaggerated. Cold snaps are also a perpetual possibility in the early days of spring. These can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared for the cold weather and icy terrain, so it is important to make sure you still have all of your cold-weather gear anytime you hit the trail in the early spring.
Summer Hiking Considerations
Because most kids are out of school during the summer and many adults schedule their vacations for this portion of the year, summer is usually the most crowded time of year for most popular trails, national parks and campsites. This isn’t necessarily a problem for all outdoor enthusiasts, but those who prize peace and quiet may want to head to particularly remote locations during the summer.
Summer presents campers with all of the standard warm-weather challenges. Snakes, bugs, poison ivy and other familiar threats will be at full strength, afternoon thunderstorms are often common, and high temperatures will often persist through most of the day and night.
Those trekking in high mountains or northern latitudes may not experience uncomfortably warm temperatures, but campers and hikers in most places will suffer through daytime temperatures that climb into the high 80s, if not further. This’ll make you sweat throughout the day, and it can increase the likelihood of blisters, rashes and friction burns from clothing or backpack straps.
You can partially mitigate these factors by wearing appropriate clothing and changing your socks immediately, anytime they become damp. But there are still times in which you’ll be unable to escape the heat very easily, which can stoke tempers and fray nerves. You’ll just have to do your best to stay cool, and obviously, make sure you remain hydrated.
On the plus side, summer is the best time of year to enjoy most types of aquatic recreation, including everything from kayaking to fishing to swimming. In fact, the warmest days of summer are often the only times it is fun to go swimming in cold-water streams.
And while you’ll always need to keep food safety in mind while hiking or camping (especially if you are using perishable, fresh foods), it is wise to remember that food will spoil more quickly during the summer than any other time of year. Be sure that you keep hot foods hot and discard the remainder in an appropriate way to avoid attracting bugs. Eat everything you can (enlist the help of your companions if need be), but you can throw the last spoon’s worth or so in the fire.
Fall Hiking Considerations
A lot of people enjoy hiking during the fall, but the season is largely underappreciated among campers. That’s a shame, as there are a number of great reasons to pitch a tent during the season, including the amazingly gorgeous red, gold and orange colors of the canopy.
But while the changing leaves are certainly enough reason to get out and spend some time in the forest during the fall, the season offers a number of other benefits too.
For example, the fall is a great time to view wildlife. Most of the mammal and bird populations will be at or near their peak, and many of the adults will be accompanied by their young. Squirrels, jays and other animals will be busy collecting acorns, while bears will amble about looking for tasty berries, bugs and trash.
The temperatures during the fall – at least the early portions thereof – are usually pretty comfortable too and don’t require an outdoor blanket to sleep. The days often continue to get warm enough for you to wear shorts, and the nights aren’t usually perfectly suitable for sitting around the campfire. Additionally, fall, in many parts of the country, is the driest of all the seasons. This will allow you to enjoy hiking and camping without having to worry about rain ruining your good time.
Of course, fall does present its share of challenges too. The increased contact with wildlife will also include bugs and snakes, whose populations will also be nearing their peak during this time of year. Additionally, a few common allergens tend to bloom in the fall when the humidity drops, which can make allergy sufferers miserable.
On balance, the fall is clearly one of the best times to enjoy the outdoors, so make sure you get outdoors the next time it rolls around. As you can see, each season presents unique opportunities as well as challenges. Just try to incorporate the tips provided above and prepare for the difficulties described, this will let you make the most of the opportunities available to you and minimize the effect of the negative aspects of each season.