Fall is an incredible time to hike in a national park. Deciduous forests are shucking their leafy mantles, wildlife is more visible, temperatures are moderate, if not cold, and the mountains and meadows are beckoning. Just make sure you go properly prepared.
Properly prepared means you're ready in case a wet rain or cold snow starts falling, that you can tend to moderate aches, pains, cuts and blisters, can find your way back to the trailhead even if you somehow stray from the trail, and that you can spend a night if you need to.
While it's nice to think you carry an angel on your shoulder when you head down the trail, it's always better to have something with you even if you don't end up needing it, rather than need something that you don't have. With that said, here's a list of items you should carry with you on a fall hike:
* Layers of clothing. A good base layer that will wick away moisture, a mid-layer to ward off the cold when you stop for a rest or if the weather changes, and a breathable rain jacket to keep you dry. And a hat, of course, to help keep you warm and offer some shade from the sun.
* A reasonable first-aid kit, something with Band-Aids, 4-inch pads, tape, an ACE bandage, and pain relievers.
* Matches kept in a waterproof container, or, better yet, a pocket lighter, just in case you need to start a fire.
* A compact stove. This comes in handy if the weather really turns and you need to warm up with a hot drink. I like the JetBoil stoves in large part because they're so light, compact, and have self-igniters. Having a stove also means you won't need to filter water, since you'll be able to boil it for safety's sake.
* Water. These days there's really no excuse not to carry water with you. More than a few outdoor companies have products that make it easy, from daypacks with hydration systems on board to flasks and plastic water vessels.
* A compass. While GPS units might be easier to follow back to your starting point, their batteries can die. A compass, and the skills to use one, can be invaluable. A good book to use to teach yourself those skills is Be Expert With Compass And Map, The Complete Orienteering Handbook.
* A map. Anytime you're heading away from the trailhead it's a wise idea to have a map of the area you can consult. It can help you decide how far you have to go to reach your destination, and can play a key role if you somehow get lost.
* Munchies. Whether you like trail mix, granola bars, or sweet-and-salty bars, something to snack on is great to have to keep the energy going.
* A whistle. If you're lost and hoping to attract attention, blowing on a whistle is a lot less exhausting than hollaring. Plus, the sound likely will carry farther.
* A headlamp. Flashlights are nice, but you need to hold them, something that can be problematic if you need both hands to perform a task. Extra batteries are a bonus.
* Bear spray, if you're in bear country. Even black bear country.
* Check with the ranger. Before you head down the trail, it's not a bad idea to stop in the nearest visitor center to ask the rangers if there's anything you should know about the trail you're heading down. Any bear activity you should know about? Any bridges washed out, or trees downed across the trail.
These are just some baseline items you should carry with you, items that you can even store in your daypack so you're ready to go and won't have to go on a scavenger hunt in your house looking for these items. Are there any additional items you carry regularly?