What is Shoulder Season?

You may have heard the term before, and you’re pretty sure you have the basic understanding, but what does it really mean? And, why do people like hiking or backpacking in these “Shoulder Seasons”?

The shoulder seasons fall in between the main months of mountain activity: summer and winter. The shoulder season is when it’s too cold for the normal hiking season but not snowy enough to ski; in the Rockies (and in most other places too), it’s early fall and late spring. The term was coined in the 1960’s. Used by the travel agency, it held the same meaning it does today: the time in between the peak seasons. The only major downside to shoulder season is you have to pack a few more layers, but – past that – the benefits are huge!

Waterfall at Rocky Gorge, on the Kancamagus Highway, in White Mountain National Forest
Waterfall at Rocky Gorge, on the Kancamagus Highway, in White Mountain National Forest
Why You Should Hike in the Shoulder Season?

The main reason to hike at this time is the thin crowds. You’ll have more of the views to yourself, which means more serenity. Plus, the people you do find on the trails are typically good, salt of the earth people who, like you, just want to enjoy the trails as much as possible.

We love the crisp air in shoulder season.  This might not be for everyone, but that air has a certain something to it. It’s the kind of crispness that makes you grateful for your coffee.  It’s the right amount of chill, keeping you refreshed – but not frozen – as you sweat your way up some scree. It has the smell of savouring time and living in the moment. It’s the kind of crispness that, as you can see, can make a man wax poetic.

When you’re picking your shoulder season hike it might be worth your while to pick ones at a lower elevation: the lower elevation means less snow. That being said, if you have some crampons (more on them bellow) in your bag you can afford to be a little more fearless. We actually love hiking across a light layer of snow in the shoulder season. It means the peaks will be capped and glistening. The contrast for your photos will be on point.

A beautiful fall landscape as seen from the Long Trail in the Brandon Gap of Vermont
A beautiful fall landscape as seen from the Long Trail in the Brandon Gap of Vermont
What You’ll Need to Pack for Shoulder Season?

We like packing a warm hat with us.  You might not want all the heat escaping from the top of your head. We have some thin merino toques we use. You’ll also want a thin, easy to pack down layer. These thin down jackets are great. They pack up so small, and they keep you toasty. We normally only pull them out when we stop for a break. You usually won’t need one on while you hike.

If you’re backpacking in shoulder season you’ll want to make sure your sleeping bag is rated for the chillier nights, and you’ll want to bring a thicker sleeping pad. Plus, if you don’t already, pack a pair of long johns!

As mentioned above, a pair of crampons would be a great thing to bring. Crampons are little rubber straps that slip onto the bottom of your hiking boots that are lined with metal spikes. These help you across snow and ice, which – as we know – can be very dangerous. You can find a pair of them for around $30, so it’s not much of a steep investment.

The weather can be a little more unpredictable at this time of year, so now more than ever it’s important to check the weather before you go, and then pack your bad weather gear just in case!

If you keep all of this in mind, we think you can have a great, extended hiking season! The shoulder season should only scare off the tourists, but for a smart hiker like yourself you can soon see the beauty in this forgotten time of year.