As summer loses its hold, it’s easy to think the camping season is over. Think again. Shoulder season camping is even better in many ways. Here’s why, and how to have a blast camping well beyond the sweet season.
The end of summer also means the end of having to arriver super early to snag a good campsite or spending all your time checking online reservation systems. You’re far less likely to be camped cheek-to-jowl next to a loud party scene, and if you are, there will be room in the campground to spread out. Even if the high-profile campgrounds are full, nearby low-profile drive in sites usually have plenty of space after Labor Day.
Fall is a better time for wildlife watching than summer. Elk move into the lowlands. In the Rockies, moose go into their rut. Bears stock up on food before winter torpor. Along mountain ranges, birds of prey migrate southwards. Seabirds do the same along the coasts—as do Gray whales in the Pacific. Spawning salmon fill the rivers in the Northwest. It’s a great time to camp.
And let’s not forget the biggest spectacle of all: the autumn colors that can turn a drab, boring campground into an explosion of color.
Raw and Rugged
But the best thing is nature’s wild rawness. The morning air that’s clear as a bell, the crisp temperatures, and the shifts in weather pack a bit more punch. Summer is easy; shoulder seasons are the real outdoors.
How to do it?
That campfire is more than a marshmallow roaster in fall. You’ll want it to warm up and take the edge off the earlier darkness. Bring more firewood than you think you need.
Bring enough warm clothes that you can be toasty while sitting still, especially in the morning while you’re waiting for the coffee to kick in. Be generous with the hot cocoa, tea, coffee, soup, and hot breakfast. If you’re sleeping cold, do pushups in your sleeping bag when you crawl in: this generates heat that your bag’s insulation will trap. Even better, heat rocks in the fire and bring them into the tent. They’ll radiate heat for a good long while. Handle them carefully, obviously. Place rocks on a thick piece of piece of bark so they won’t melt the tent floor.
3. Plan for Rain
Bring tarps and cord, and set up tarps before the rain hits. It’s no fun to improvise a shelter while the rain is coming down hard and you’re already wet.
4. Night Walks
When it gets dark earlier, it’s easy to just crawl into the tent. Don’t. Before bed, go for a night stroll. It will give you another way to experience the outdoors at a time when a lot of wildlife is active. If your kids are unnerved by the dark, night walks teach them to enjoy the night.
5. Go Low or Go South
You’ll obviously be heading for lower-elevation campsites in the shoulder season. Another alternative is to go south: and often you don’t have to go far. A few hours drive in my home state of Oregon gets me from the north coast—where storms come a bit earlier—to a stretch of coast called “the banana belt.”
And if the weather’s truly nasty, rent a yurt or cabin instead of camping in a wet tent. They come with heat and more room to move, and there’s no reason to punish yourselves. The whole point of shoulder season camping is to have fun!