“Shoulder season backpacking”. A phrase that has become more common in recent years. Applicable not just to backpacking, but to any outdoor activity that falls outside of the peak season. But what is shoulder season backpacking? (Or for that matter, what is shoulder season hiking? Or what is shoulder season camping?) And what gear should you bring? Read more to find out!
What is “Shoulder Season” backpacking?
“Shoulder Season” is a term borrowed from the travel industry. The time just before or just after the peak period. A term that works equally well for the outdoors. In terms of backpacking, the time period implied is early Spring and late Fall.
The days can be anywhere from cold to warm, and the nights can be cool to cold. There may be a chance of snow, the weather can sometimes be a little more raw, and the nights can be shorter. But you will often have the mountains to yourself and Nature reveals itself in way that many people do not see. With some preparation, some extra gear and the right mind set, “shoulder season” can be a very rewarding time to be outdoors!
The exact time period for this shoulder season differs based on location, elevation and general climate.
In the Colorado high country (and the parts of Wyoming and New Mexico close by), shoulder season is usually just before Memorial Day Weekend to around mid-June depending upon the area. The shoulder season for the Fall is typically mid-late September until early-mid October. Note that this rough time line also seems to apply (with some adjustments) to other similar areas in the continental US. The High Sierra, the Cascades, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and so on seem to have the same rough time frame.
In the cold, still snowy, but very beautiful Pecos Wilderness of New Mexico.
As mentioned, in other areas, the seasons differ. In Utah, the shoulder season can be pushed into mid-late November. When I did the Benton MacKaye Trail located in the southern Appalachians, I pushed the envelope the other way a bit and started in late-February (there was nasty cold snap part-way through the hike. Brrr!!!!!)
Markhamm one cold, but beautiful, morning in Canyonlands National Park.
Why spend time outdoors in “Shoulder Season”?
Shoulder season is a wonderful time to be outside. The crowds are less, in the late Fall the insects are gone and the days can be crisp. Plus, there is the fact that you are outside and spending more nights in the backcountry! What’s not to like?
A reason to spend time backpacking during shoulder season.
Gear and Clothing to bring for “Shoulder Season Backpacking”
Because it is late or early season, the gear is a little different from typical three season gear. Think of the gear brought as three season plus.
As a person who does lightweight backpacking, my three season gear is pretty minimal. For shoulder season? I typically take an additional (but light) fleece hat, what I call a mini-puffy (a synthetic of down-filled jacket that is lighter and less bulky than one rated for winter)and a Z-Lite instead of my blue foam pad.
The extra hat provides a little more warmth than my polypro balaclava. The mini-puffy gives some extra insulation for breaks and beefs up my 20F bag. And the Z-Lite provides more insulation from the cold-robbing ground than the blue foamer.
Thought I usually go stoveless now on solo trips, I’ll sometimes take a canister stove during the colder times of the year. A hot drink can be nice at night (and sometimes hot water bottles in the sleeping bag during esp. chilly nights).
If you are on a budget, you don’t have to break the bank to extend your backpacking seasons a little bit. An additional blue foam pad will add more bulk (but not more weight; esp if trimmed) than a Z-lite or similar with even better insulation properties. Only $10!
My fleece hat of choice was purchased for $4 CDN at MEC in Calgary (and is similar to hat’s I’ve seen in other places for $10) and the m-65 liner jacket is a warm, inexpensive and light ‘mini-puffy’ that is serviceable if not pretty and found in many surplus stores (I used one on my BMT hike during the nasty cold snap).
Those are just some ideas. Colder sleepers may want to take fleece pants (or even the liner pants that are similar to the above jacket) or heavier weight long underwear for example.
The idea is to take a gear that is a little more than three season gear but not full on winter gear gear. A thicker foam pad vs a down-filled pad, a mini-puffy vs an expedition weight jacket (or even a warmer sleeping bag in many cases) and so on. A little extra will not only fit in your three-season backpack and be lighter, but will also extend your time in the outdoors.
Using some shoulder season gear in Canyonlands National Park.
Shoulder Season Camping
After a while, it gets too raw in the high country and dark very early at night. Not as much fun with the long and cold nights.
The solution for Adrianna and I is to go car camping in areas that are not normally backpacking destinations, but are still wonderful. We can bring all the warmer gear we need, lots of yummy food and not worry about the weight.
The places where we car camp are usually lower in elevation and therefore the shoulder season extends further vs the higher elevation places in Colorado. The best part? These places are less crowded with little- to-no-people. We often have the area almost or even entirely to ourselves.
The Great Sand Dunes in May is a madhouse. In late-November? One of my favorite times spent in the outdoors. The company was not bad, either….
Pawnee Buttes in November.
Places for spending time in “Shoulder Season”
Interested in spending some time outdoors in the the shoulder season?
Here are a few ideas:
- Rocky Mountain National Park - Though the rules are tighter now than in years past (bear canisters required for any backpacking below tree line) and the permits are some-what pricey at $20, late Fall backpacking is often sublime in the park. The ground cover is russet, the aspen are often still golden and the elks are bugling.
- Indian Peaks Wilderness – The mountains I consider my backyard. After September 15th, no permit is needed. Not by coincidence, the people are mainly gone, too. Hike on the Continental Divide, feel cold air at night and enjoy the last bit of Fall minus the crowds of the summer
- Lost Creek Wilderness – Typically, the last backpacking trip of the year is done here for myself and some of my friends. This area seems to open up first before the higher areas and is typically the last place that is still snow free in the High(er) Country. The aspen are usually gorgeous, the red rocks really stand out against the blue sky and the nights (esp with a campfire and a small libation) are cold enough to be bracing but not extreme. A great place!
- The Great Sand Dunes National Park - As mentioned, this place is chaotic in the late Spring when Medano creek is flowing. It is a Colorado Beach Party! Come in late November? The mixture of sand and snow in the dunes with the snow-covered Sangres forming a backdrop makes for a dramatic appearance. The trails start right at the campsite…which Adrianna and I had almost to ourselves
- Pawnee National Grassland – Another area for shoulder season camping. Not a backpacking destination, but a great place to take in early season wildflowers or to enjoy the waning days of Fall. A large Colorado sky is above. The famous Pawnee Buttes are in front. Sit, rest, soak in the wide, open spaces and enjoy this unique area. The mountains are dramatic; The Great Plains invite contemplation over the vast landscape.
Mandy going over Buchanan Pass in late-September