Summer slips into autumn so quickly. Days stay warm but nights get longer and suddenly the pool and the lake are not quite as warm anymore. Spending the day splashing around shifts to only running in to cool off; time at the beach becomes less about seeing how far we can swim and more about seeing how large a structure we can build.
September started in a whirlwind of kids going back to school, organizing shoes, back packs and lunch kits. We took a day to sort through drawers and closets — to tuck away swim shorts and to make room for long pants and sweaters. The boys wore shorts to school for a few days until the rain and frost hit. Suddenly we’re all excited to snuggle into fleece sweaters and wool socks, to prepare for Thanksgiving and Halloween, to practice for soccer and cross-country, to rake leaf piles for jumping. We blink our eyes and already it is November.
Summer ended, warm autumn weather has made way for the inevitable chill, windy rain and we are preparing for another season of being more inside than out.
When my boys started school I realized how easily we could slip through autumn without spending much time together in the wilderness. Sure we were spending lots of time outside and pursuing many worthwhile adventures, but we weren’t paddling, hiking and camping. This did not sit well with me.
Autumn is by far my favourite time to camp. The biting flies have mostly moved on, earlier darkness means more campfire fun than in the hot summer, and best of all, the boys stay in their sleeping bags longer in the morning because of the cool air. One of my most treasured places to be is tucked into my sleeping bag in my tent. Since having children I have learned to my delight that it is even more fun to be tucked in with my babes tucked in around me.
Camping this late in the season can have its challenges. I have learned that spending a bit more time preparing and making a bit more room for extra warmth is all that it takes to have an enjoyable autumn outdoor season.
Dress for it. A cotton sweater is great near home but once it gets wet it just acts like a towel — heavy and wet and only drying if hung in the sun for a few hours. Fleece and wool sweaters stay warm even if wet. Polyester, wool, or silk long underwear keep my boys warm even when the temperature is right around freezing. No long underwear? Check the tags of the kids’ pajamas. Many pjs are made of polyester — not my fave for the kids at home in bed but ideal for camping in the fall. If you don’t already have some they can be picked up cheap at consignment or thrift shops.
Cotton socks are just as bad. Better to go barefoot than to wear little white socks in shoes when camping. We stock up on wool socks each fall. When I have been without enough for the kids I have put my socks on their feet. They’re too big but still warm and the kids love wearing my socks.
Carry extra clothing. I always expect that each boy will get completely soaked each day that we are out, so I pack accordingly. Yes, that means we bring double the clothing as days we plan to be out. We often bring home many clean clothes, but then again we also often use up most of the clothing that is packed.
Whenever we do have wet clothes I hang them to dry as soon as possible. Drying gear out means it can get back in rotation as a dry option. The value of this cannot be overstated with my playful, exploring campers.
These trips are often our first chance to wear mitts and toques for the season. They make a big difference in the morning, not to mention when we are tucked in at night. I usually sleep in my toque. On occasion when we have been unable to find our mitts, wool socks have made great hand warmers.
Make a warm lunch. In the summer we usually get by with sandwiches, fruit and other snacks when we’re out. As the weather gets colder I find a bit more, warmer sustenance helps keep us going longer. Grilled cheese, eggs, hot dogs, soup and tea warm us up for lunch. We carry extra pouches of soup, oatmeal, tea and hot chocolate just in case someone gets soaked or the weather is especially cold. They are not ideal nutritionally but they cook up quickly and warm us almost immediately.
Stay dry. On autumn paddling trips I keep the sleeping bags and sweaters waterproof yet easy to get to. I always imagine the worst-case scenario- the boat overturning with all of us in it. I’m absolutely confident I can make sure this does not happen on open water. At the shoreline though, loading and unloading, is when it’s much more likely to happen. Getting soaked is shocking. Staying soaked because the warm gear was poorly packed not only feels terrible, it could possibly mean the early end of our trip. Being cold and wet and staying that way is also a safety concern. I have a dry bag that is just the right fit for our sleeping bags and one warm sweater each. It is always right behind me in the boat and the first bag that gets unloaded. We haven’t had emergency need of it yet, but it is ready just in case.
Stay warm. I have learned that I need to take care of myself first. If my teeth are chattering or my hands are frozen I am of no help to anybody. I dress smartly and keep my own extra gear close by. That way I can pull on a sweater or wool socks immediately when I am cold so that I can more easily help the boys get warmed up too.
I sleep with tomorrow’s clothes in the bottom of my sleeping bag. I have taught the boys to do the same, (though they are just as likely to wear the same clothes for the whole trip. That suits me fine as long as they are dry.) Pulling on cold underclothes makes for a rude awakening on a frosty morning. The kids need me to help get the fire or stove going in the morning, so keeping my undies warm all night makes it easier to get dressed and out and about.
I keep the stove handy on a fall trip. If we go for a paddle I’ll bring it and some single servings of oatmeal, soup or hot chocolate along just in case we get chilled before we get back to camp. When hiking I might leave the stove behind but bring along a thermos full of warm cider or tea. It is amazing how uplifting a hot beverage can be on a cool day.
Unless its REALLY cold I still go barefoot in the boat, especially to push off and land. Our shorelines are almost never smooth. Bare feet get much more traction on slippery rocks and I can feel what’s there, plus I won’t be tippy-toeing around trying to stay dry. I can steady the boat for the kids much better when I’m in the water. I can get dry as soon as we’re all out. When the paddle is long and the cold seeps through into my feet I might put on my socks and shoes once I’m in the boat then take them off again when we are preparing to land.
Camping in the fall has so many advantages.
We usually save a bit of money on our fall trips because we don’t make reservations. I always hesitate to reserve with kids because of how circumstances can change so easily. Illness, thunderstorms, or cold wet weather can find us needing, or wanting, to stay home instead of heading out. Camping certain places in the summer require a reservation if we hope to be able to get a site at all, interior or at campgrounds. In the fall this is not the case. We have learned that we can just show up at a provincial park, drive around and find a spot that suits us. The boys love having a say in where we stay.
We also bring our bikes. Campground traffic can be busier than our home in the summer but come fall we’ve got the roads and paths mostly to ourselves. The kids can ride up hill and down, through giant piles of leaves with hardly a care in the world. They love it.
We also bring our rakes. Being surrounded by mature deciduous forests the campgrounds we frequent are practically buried in leaves in the fall. The rakes take up very little space in our van and provide hours of entertainment at the campsite. Everyone loves playing in the leaves.
When heading out on a paddling trip I have learned to call ahead to make sure the route I have in mind is possible. Low water, summer fire or wind damage, and parks closing early can all be factors that end a trip before it even begins. Checking in with park staff and reading trail blogs can help ensure that our planned route is in fact possible.
Autumn can be a busy time for so many reasons. Work and school schedules, sports and other extra-curricular activities, social invitations and obligations take up so much time. Autumn is also fleeting. One day the leaves are shining in the sun, the next they are decaying on the ground, blown by the chill wind and rain. Once our work and play shifts indoors we will need to stay there for close to six months. Our winters are long and cold.
I love the cold and snow and the work and play that come along with it. Until it does come, though, I will spend as much time as I can deep in the woods with my family, cherishing autumn.
If you are not already out there, I hope you will feel inspired to join us.
Sonja Lukassen used to get paid to bring city-folk into the forest. Now she does it with her family and friends for fun in rural Ontario, Canada. She blogs about their exploits and shares ideas at Forest Kids.