Fall is one of the most beautiful times in the outdoors. In Colorado, the mountains are covered in blankets of amazing colors from the changing leaves. The air is crisper and the last warm days of summer fight to hang on against the cold hands of winter. The fall weather can be unpredictable though.
What makes fall great also brings a lot of people out of the air conditioning and onto the trails. Whether you are looking to see the changing colors or just get those last few rays of sun it is very important to know the weather that you will be up against.
Joining me today is meteorologist Chris Tomer. Chris is a CBM an NWA certified meteorologist and currently can be found on the KWGN morning news in Denver. Chris also does personalized forecasting for mountaineering teams and is an avid hiker and climber. He completed climbing all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers in 2009. He is also a best selling author. The 2011 book he co-authored “Sleeping on the Summits” went on to win awards.
Biggest Risks of Fall Weather
Fatman: Chris thank you so much for joining me today. One of the best parts of hiking for me is getting out in the fresh air and nature. A lot of people like to hike in the fall to see the colors change but it might be one of the few times they hike all year. Would you say sudden snow squalls, wind or something else can be the biggest risk factor of fall hiking?
Chris Tomer, NWA, CBM: I view all hiking on a broad spectrum. Less risk with shorter, low altitude, and low angle hiking. More risk with longer, higher altitude, and steeper terrain. Fall can add snow and wind above treeline complicating matters. So, the most important strategy is preparation. Research and understand where you’re going and what kind of terrain you’re getting into. Then prepare specifically. For example, your family flies in from Tampa, FL and you go see Fall Color at Conundrum Hot Springs. Your family members are in for high altitude and possible altitude sickness, a long roundtrip hike of 10 plus miles, and possible snow and wind above treeline.
FM: Hiking in the fall can be beautiful with all of the changing colors. There can still be extremes though right? Are temperature differences of elevation more extreme in the fall?
CT: Mountain weather is different than Denver weather. I know this sounds obvious but it’s not to many people. You can’t just wake up, look out the window in Denver and assume the mountains mirror that weather. Prepare ahead of time. Understand the forecast inside and out. The four seasons are much more violent in the mountains. Fall delivers more frequent cold fronts with wind, snow, and falling temps in the mountains. Additional gear is required in Fall versus Summer.
FM: Meteorologist Christine Rapp mentioned that you should be off the mountains in the high country by noon in the summertime to avoid thunderstorms. Is this still a good rule in the fall to avoid thunderstorms?
CT: The Summertime rule of summiting Colorado’s high peaks before noon is the gold standard. In Fall, it’s just a little different. Afternoon thunderstorms become less likely between September and October as the atmosphere changes. It’s still a good rule to follow but it’s not as critical. On the other hand, waiting until 2pm to start your hike is also not a good decision. In the case of an emergency you want as much daylight as possible.
FM: What issues do the warmer fall days and cold nights have as far as snow melt and runoff if any and how can that effect a hiker.
CT: Fall temperatures trend colder in the mountains as September and October progress. Overnight lows routinely dip to freezing or colder. Cold fronts hit every few days. High temps can still feel warm in the sunshine but for a much shorter amount of time at the peak of day. Add to this more windy days above treeline and occasional snows above treeline. By late Fall, some creeks and streams will routinely freeze overnight and that can make finding flowing water more difficult for hikers/campers.
FM: As you climb the air gets thinner but it also gets much colder in the fall. Does the colder air have an affect on the air we breath.
CT: As you ascend in the mountains the air gets colder and drier. The air pressure also drops. These have distinct physiological effects on the body. You get colder, more dehydrated, and more susceptible to altitude sickness.
What to do if the weather turns
FM: What in the world do you do if you get caught in bad weather in the fall? Should you act differently if caught in a rain, snow, or hail storm?
CT: More frequent cold fronts occur during the Fall season in the mountains. If you get caught then it will require more gear to survive. You’ll need a heavier jacket, hat, warmer gloves, pants, warmer footwear, water, food, communication, compass, map, and a plan. Don’t rely on your cell phone. It’s standard operating procedure to have a satellite communication device. Colder weather drains cell phones very quickly.
Final Thoughts on Fall Weather
FM: Any other thoughts you would like to share with the readers that might be beneficial to them?
CT: I can’t stress the importance of preparation in the Fall season. It’s transition season in Colorado’s mountains. Cold fronts hit every few days, wind above treeline increases, and snow makes an appearance. Know the weather forecast inside and out. Understand the terrain you’re headed into to. Know your limitations and your acceptable level of risk. Choose your hiking/climbing partners wisely. It can take many years to find the right hiking/climbing partner(s). Don’t get caught up in someone else’s energy. In Colorado on most high peaks you can turn around at any point. This is an advantage. Turn around if you don’t feel well. The mountains will be there tomorrow.
Chris thank you so much for all this help. It is great information to help make sure people are safe on the trail. You brought up a great point with “Don’t get caught up someone else’s energy”. I think this gets over looked so much, especially with beginning hikers who go on a hike with a friend who hikes all the time and think they have to keep up.
More from the Fatman
Hopefully this information was helpful for those of you who are starting a hiking program. I have some other “Getting Started” tips such as summer weather, exercises to get ready, and fad diets and exercise. You can see all of my “Getting Started” series in my Thoughts section.
If you have any suggestions for hikes or comments feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!