The Perfect Kit for Fall Hiking (and Spring Hiking Too)

Some things in life are predictable. The sun will spin around the Earth. Your best friend will make you laugh. And time spent outside will lift the corners of your mouth. Summer and winter weather tend to be somewhat predictable too, which makes it easier to dress for a hike. You’ll need gear that breathes, wicks sweat and dries quickly in the hotter months, and items that insulate, withstand white and wet, and keep you upright with reliable traction in the cold ones. 

Let’s not call fall and spring “unpredictable”—they’re spontaneous. Just like you may have the sudden urge to chuck everything in a daypack and play hooky from work, a sunny October or April day quickly might turn brisk with a chilly breeze or drizzle.  

That unpredicta– er, spontaneity helps us feel extra alive these times of year, though. The fleeting red and yellow leaves and golden autumn light, or the year’s first wildflowers awaiting along the trail are well worth the added forethought needed for fall and spring hiking. While it might be hard to know what exact conditions you’ll encounter, we can help you feel prepared with nifty gear and stylish apparel. (Rules of thumb: Carry extra layers, prep for precipitation in different forms and have a hat and shades on hand for when the sun comes out. And don’t forget the Ten Essentials.) 

Read on for gear to help shoulder the burden—or rather, the bliss—of the shoulder season’s unpredictability.  

Two people on a hike in front of trees turning yellow and orange.
Photo credit: Dustin Kingman

Hiking in the in-between seasons means packing a lot of extra layers and gear. That means you’ll need a backpack that’s up to the task. The Cloud Walker 18 from CamelBak certainly is: This hydration pack features body-mapped back panels, 18 liters of stow space, two side stretch pockets and trekking pole attachments—perfect for toting every item on this list. The Cloud Walker is made with 200-denier recycled ripstop nylon and comes with the brand’s signature water reservoir (2.5 liters) to ensure you’re sippin’ pretty. $90 

Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoodie (Women’s & Men’s)

Equinox hiking adventures require not just a base layer, but also require middle and outer layers, even if they’re only stashed in your pack for just-in-case scenarios. The R1 Air full-zip hoodie from Patagonia has been a favorite in this midweight category since it was first introduced in 2020—and for good reason. It’s made with 100% recycled polyester jacquard fleece that wicks moisture effectively, dries quickly, breathes easily and isn’t bulky. Slightly stretchy woven bindings on the cuffs and back hem ensure a just-right fit, while off-shoulder seams prevent chafing under pack straps. Patagonia trail run ambassador Luke Nelson has used his R1 Air for multiday running trips, expeditions to Nepal and Bhutan, avalanche control work, mountaineering and on days when the AC in his shared office is set too high. “[It’s] a piece of clothing that I take with me just about everywhere,” he tells Uncommon Path. “It is on my packing list anytime I am leaving the house.” $179

Learn more about dressing right for the weather with our Layering Basics guide. 

Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a down jacket—whether you call it a puffy coat, puffer jacket, down coat, quilted jacket or just plain “puffy”—is a snuggly mid or outer layer for frosty fall evenings and nippy spring mornings. The REI Co-op take on this classic piece features a windproof and water-resistant shell fabric composed entirely of recycled nylon. Modern, saturated colorways are subtly stylish, and the 650 comes in sizes ranging from XS to 3X for women and S to XXXL for men. $129 (Other versions: kids’, $89.95; infants/toddlers’, $59.95)

Arc’teryx Atom Insulated Hoodie (Women’s & Men’s)

When the fall and spring’s notorious gusts blow in, don the Atom (and its insulated hood) from Arc’teryx. The proprietary Tyono™ 20 face fabric is wind- and water-resistant yet still soft to the touch, lightweight and breathable without sacrificing durability. Meanwhile, the interior insulation retains warmth even in damp conditions. The trim-fitting Atom fits like a dream, stretches like a gymnast and features an on-trend matte exterior that works just as well in the city as it does on the trail. $300 

Two hikers in an autumn wood
Photo credit: Gianna Keiko

Since temps may drop unexpectedly, it’s always wise to keep an extra pair of gloves or mittens on hand. These Screentap gloves from Black Diamond are a lightweight, tech-effective option. (An added bonus: They only come in one color, decision fatigue be darned.) Conductive material on the palm and fingers facilitates gloves-on touchscreen use, while the back of the hand (called the dorsal side, if you’re curious) features water-resistant and stretchy 195-gram Polartec® Power Stretch pro. $34.95 

A person wearing a purple fleece top and bright blue pants with yellow zippers standing in a field
Photo credit: Meron Menghistab

Outdoor Afro + REI Co-op Trail Pants (Women’s & Men’s

What do you get when two outdoor powerhouses team up to create a pair of hiking pants? Bottoms that consistently earn 5-star ratings and customer reviews that include descriptors like “comfortable,” “lightweight” and “absolutely excellent.” Outdoor Afro is a national not-for-profit organization that works to educate and empower Black folks in the outdoors and is a longtime REI Co-op partner. In 2022, the co-op collaborated with Outdoor Afro, Inc. to create a line of hiking apparel that celebrates Black joy and connection with nature while fitting a broad range of body types. The Trail Pants from that collection aren’t just a pretty face (or leg), either. The nylon/spandex fabric resists tears, abrasions and snags; repels rain, blocks sun (UPF 50+ comin’ at ya); and stretches to move with your body. Zippered pockets throughout ensure anything you stash stays put. Our Hike editor adds, “I love that I can unzip the legs or that they cuff up pretty well (and look cute doing it!).” $99.95 

REI Co-op Trailmade Hiking Boots (Women’s & Men’s) 

With HydroWall™ complete waterproof/breathable protection, a woven ripstop upper (vegan-friendly!) and trail-to-town style for days, do you really need another reason to check out the Trailmade hiking boots from REI Co-op for your “spontaneous season” outings? Well, how about the thoughtful design that includes extra toe box space in case your adventuring feet swell, and an anti-slip lugged outsole made with TerraGrip™ tread? Meanwhile, Mother Earth digs the inclusion of recycled materials, from recycled polyester in the uppers to laces made from recycled plastic. $140 

A pair of black sunglasses with dark gray lenses against a white background

Sunglasses aren’t just for summer days. Turns out that Mr. Golden Sun comes out to play in the shoulder seasons too (and damaging UV rays can penetrate cloud cover, even when he’s hiding). To help fend off eye damage from long-term exposure, we recommend making sunglasses a staple in your year-round hiking kit. Treat yourself to an affordable, durable pair of Torrey Pines polarized sunglasses from Knockaround, which block more than 99% of UV light. The impact-resistant lenses are designed to take a lickin’ and keep on protectin’. The spring hinges on these sunnies ensure the Torrey Pines will fit practically any size noggin. $35  

A pair of blue hiking socks against a white background

A discerning sock choice is always essential for time on the trail, and that’s especially true when melting snow or sudden showers make for unexpectedly soggy conditions. The merino wool Eve Light Weight Hiker crew socks from new-to-REI-brand ToughCutie will no doubt do you right. They’re made by women for women, for everyone from newbies to seasoned hikers. ToughCutie incorporates multiple technologies to prevent tugging and rubbing, from ventilation zones and flex grooves to seamless toes and reciprocated heels. Pillowy cushion underfoot and 360-degree arch support up the comfort factor. Slouching in the sock’s cuff? Not on this crew’s watch, thanks to fortified spandex through the upper half. $24 

A pair of winter traction devices against a white background

Ice and snow come early in some of the most hikeable parts of the country. And even on warm, sunny spring days, high-elevation trekkers are likely to encounter remnants of winter. When you hit a patch of ice or snow, it’s time to get a grip—literally. This traction system from Kahtoola is our can’t-go-wrong pick. With 12 no-nonsense, stainless-steel spikes; reinforced eyelets; an easy on/off design; and flex chains to prevent frustrating snow clumps, it’s no surprise these spikes have earned top ratings out of more than 800 REI customer reviews. An included tote sack helps prevent the spikes from spearing the other gear in your pack, but we prefer to hook them to the outside of our bags for moment’s-notice deployment. $74.95 

A pair of trekking poles, one folded and one fully extended

Even if you don’t regularly hike with poles, experts note that it’s wise to have a pair on hand to prevent injuries when hiking in wet and slippery conditions—you know, like those frequently found in shoulder seasons. We highly recommend the Distance Z trekking poles, a best-selling pair that’s been in the Black Diamond lineup since 2018. Their aluminum shafts are lightweight yet durable; the EVA foam grips are comfortable; they’re snow basket compatible; and they come in four different fixed lengths to ensure you find the right fit (100, 110, 120 and 130 cm). Their main feature, Z-Pole, is quick to deploy and break down, and allows the poles to collapse down impressively small. We’ve lashed these poles to numerous backpacks, flown with them in our carry-on and relied on them to keep us upright while carrying our most precious cargo (our kids)—in all kinds of conditions. In short, we agree with the REI Co-op customer whose review says, simply, “I love these!” $139.95 

A person wearing a hat standing in front of a waterfront scene at sunset
Photo credit: Dustin Kingman

Four-way stretch for comfort, two layers for a boost of warmth, a sun-defying UPF 50+ rating and fast-drying capabilities all put the DryFlx hat from Buff definitively in the performance headwear category. Plus, reflective detailing all the way round this simply snazzy head-topper adds visibility for after-dark hiking expeditions (which means any time after 4 pm in fall … sigh). $26

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