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Fall Kayaking Fun & Precautions
By Athena Holtey

Fall offers some of the best paddling experiences for the kayaker. Not only are the views spectacular, but summer crowds have all but disappeared from the landscape and bugs are not so buggy.

Water temperatures are still warm with a cool and comfortable air about you as you paddle through the ever changing scenery of your local waters. You must take extra steps by dressing for immersion & wind. Careful route planning with bad weather alternatives & bail-outs is needed. Also while under way you must pack "at the ready" warm clothes, shelter, and camp stove. Nonetheless, this is our favorite time of year for kayak touring as well as colorful day paddles.

We have several stories on the site about our fall adventures exploring the lakes of New England but this article is a practical guide for the unique preparations required for you to get the most out of the season accross the U.S.

Peak Season Lake or Ocean? Clothing / Planning Hunting Season Resources

fall paddlingWhen Is Peak Season?

For the wilderness kayaker touring and camping is so rewarding this time of year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service has a fall foliage report online by region to help you plan your Autumn kayaking adventures:

All over the U.S. kayakers can find "leaf peeping" pleasures. New England's "Peak" time for great color begins flowing North to South from the Canadian / Maine border about the end of September; then through Columbus day, New York State's Adirondacks and New Hampshire's White Mountains. Massachusetts and New York State's Catskill Mountains will see the most vibrant colors usually mid to late October.

The colors are most famous in New England because of the variety of mixed forest: maple, ash, birch. But all states have their moments of beauty. You may be disappointed if you pick a lake destination surrounded by evergreens. Get it? EVER-green! However in the west the yellow of aspens in the fall against dark green pines can be striking.

For color variety look for oaks, maples, beeches, sweetgums, yellow-poplars, dogwoods, hickories, aspens and, my favorite, staghorn sumac. Peak lasts more or less about two weeks. Most areas with good foliage view post a prediction for their "Fall Peak Season" on that area's website or see the links below.

Lake or Ocean?

Refuge From WindEven in Hawaii our kayak club would schedule its Fall and Winter paddling adventures off the open ocean, exploring protected bays and rivers on Oahu and the outer islands. With some advanced scouting and planning the ocean paddler can especially appreciate their inland waters as a refreshing change of pace.

Whether by canoe or kayak this crisp time of year has its own advantages. We like to kayak camp in the fall for the colorful foliage, lack of bugs, no crowds and the quiet coolness of the North Woods.

Fall is also a good chance to put our skill, kayaks, clothing and gear to the test. Never underestimate the effect of weather on the water; even lakes surrounded by beautiful majestic trees.

We have been astounded at how suddenly and powerfully a wind can turn a casual wilderness day paddle into a challenging and even perilous race back to camp with wind, chop and waves zapping the strength of the best of us. Photo: "Rocky Refuge In Wind & Chop" See "Lake Umbagog".

fall paddlingSo don't abandoned the safety precautions you have learned to rely on in the warmer months. They are all the more necessary.

fall paddlingOn one trip only one of our group brought a reliable weather radio. As we sat around a campfire on a still and starry night he turned it on to demonstrate its reception. To our surprise a massive wind storm was headed right toward us, due to arrive sometime after midnight.

It blew all the next day with 40 mph winds and gust up to 60; but we were prepared. All kayaks were tethered down. A wind break had been immediately set up with large tarps to protect our kitchen for use that day.

Our tents had extra stakes and were otherwise reinforced.

We made the most of our precious time to enjoy this wilderness event by spending the day hiking in some protected trails off the lake and reading and visiting in our tents. Photo: "View" & "Windy Breakfast" See "Bog River Flow".

Clothing & Trip Planning

While summer is the quintessential paddling season with its long hot days and easy, safer kayaking, the fall is just as good, but does require some additional preparation.

Mike, Rapid RiverYou must take extra steps by dressing for immersion & wind. Careful route planning with bad weather alternatives & bail-outs is needed. Also while under way you must pack "at the ready" warm clothes, shelter, and camp stove.

Dressing in layers provides good options for enjoying the day. Bathing suite or wicking underwear under wet suit or shorts and top; topped with fleece top and pants, topped with a splash / wind top and long splash pants are a good way to start out. You can raft up with a paddling partner as you feel the need to peel off layers, stashing or switching them around for comfort as needed. Hat and sunglasses for the low bright sun are a must. A seat pocket in your backrest and/or bungie deck cords and a dry bag on deck are useful here. Photo: "Lunch Break on Rapid River"

Plan to keep one set of dry camp clothes and one set of wet paddling clothes without mixing them up. That way you will always have something dry to change into after a long day of paddling. Paddling clothes will dry slower in the cooler weather. When you are warm and/or exercising you can "dry" wet clothes on you shoulders or head with your body heat. For more information on clothing see: "Cold Weather Clothing & Paddling Tips" as well as Watersports Clothing For Kayakers.

Adarondacks Lowe's LakeHave a "Float Plan" - For short day trips or overnight expeditions a Float Plan can be as simple as an email record of when and where you will be going. It should include launch and landing points; cell phone number or communication channels as appropriate. It is a good practice to make a copy for each member of the trip and leave one with someone who cares about your return. It helps you visualize and anticipate circumstances you may face.

In the fall days are shorter. Extra care should be taken to get early starts and finish your days paddle before sunset. Always have a headlamp or flashlight onboard.

fall paddlingEat and drink at regular intervals, hungry or not. It is easy to forget this important rule as we did so recently on a short trip circumnavigating some islands on Squam Lake. The paddle back always seems longer when you've been having a fun day in the low fall sun. That last mile or so can feel more like three on an empty stomach. If you are hydrating properly you should have good consistent stamina. "Gotta put fuel in the tank" as Tom always says.

Late in the day you can judge how many hours of daylight are left by raising your arm fully extended and measuring the distance between the sun and the horizon line. Each fist equals one hour of daylight left. (Each knuckle equals fifteen minutes.)

After sunset there is about 20 minutes left of usable light. It is more important for fall paddlers to carry waterproof flashlights, headlamps and chemical light sticks than summer paddlers because of the shortening days. See: "Kayak Lights & Kayak Lighting Techniques For Dawn, Dusk & Night Paddling" By Tom Holtey

Carry the appropriate signal devices suggested in the article "Signal Devices" for kayakers in accordance with the local regulations.

Umbagog - refuge from windCampsite Choice - Some areas waive the campsite fee after Labor Day. This may make it easy to access the best sites, but don't neglect to notify the local authority that you will be out and about - a good practice and important must for every float plan, day trips or overnight. They can also clue you in about hunter activity in the area and offer predictions on the better sites and foliage dates.

Choose a campsite with good wind protection where possible. Select a tent space that will not collect rain water in puddles. A tent-size, flattish mound is best. Avoid low spots and gullies Staying dry is important because of the cooler nighttime air temperatures. Island campsites can leave you completely marooned in bad weather so have a back up site in mind and an extra day planned into the trip for "lay-overs".

Umbagog morning view from island campsite.We especially enjoy island camping to help guard against curious wildlife; even so, we always "tree" our edibles. Bears can swim and black bears in our area have been sighted doing so some significant distances to check out such sites for left overs. Fall is a drowsy time for black bears, however and most have retreated to hibernation areas or are on the run from hunters and bear dogs. Nonetheless, follow the wildlife rules for the area. We've been robbed blind by aggressive red squirrels stocking up for winter. See "Rules of the Wild" for more information.

Navigation - Take into account the basics of kayak navigation principles taught in this article: "Planning Your Route And Finding Your Way With Kayak Navigation." Have a compass and good chart or map of the area. We take both topographical maps and charts when available as well as rely on updated guide book descriptions. Whether for just a day trip or an overnight adventure, this can be a fun exercise as ideas and resources of information about the waters you want to explore are shared between trip members in planning the trip. Noting your place on the map should be practiced whenever the opportunity avails itself. Of further interest would be the article "Group Paddling Techniques."

Every float plan should be written down and left with someone who cares about where you are and when you will be back. Take communication devices that you know how to use. See the article VHF Marine Radios & Communication Devices .

Decoys on UmbagogHunting Season

Check the local hunting info before doing fall trips. Fall is also the Hunter's most looked forward to time of year. Bring some "blaze orange" clothing; the vests and hats are very easy to use and cheap. Do not wear white as it can be mistaken for a deer's tail. Blue and red are not a good idea in turkey season. See links in our resource section below for more on that. Walmart's sporting goods department is a good source for cheap "blaze" orange outer wear.

Hunting of most land creatures will not pose immediate threat to kayakers, but hunting of water foul can. Regardless, you don't want your movements on the water or in camp to be mistaken for their prey. It does happen. Photo: Fancy Decoys on Umbagog by Joseph Hu

Every state publishes either on the web or in pamphlet form what animals or fowl are in season and rules unique to their environmental conditions. Find out what is in season and when. On Lake Umbagog, for instance, a lake that lays across the Maine / New Hampshire border, it was duck season on one shore the first part of the trip and on the opposite shore the last few days. Needless to say, we awoke and went to sleep the whole week to the sound of gunfire echoing off the beautiful "fruit-loop" colored mountains.

fall paddlingThis link should guide you to hunting dates for your paddling destination:

Check with local authorities and workers as well. During the same season a year later on Richardson Lakes just east of Umbagog we never heard a shot the whole time. Checking with the local caretakers of docks and rangers as we could locate them revealed that this particular lake didn't attract the type of fowl that area hunters like to pursue.

It was as interesting and beautiful a trip and we did see some marvelous water fowl groups. Especially thrilling was a group of about eighteen loons in their annual dance and social gathering at dusk one evening.


We hope you will venture out and enjoy the beauties of kayaking in Autumn. Help for your specific area can be found by participating in our Forums and searching out guide book suggestions in our book shop. We welcome your suggestions as well. Here are the links mentioned in this article as well as some additional support:

More articles on the subject of kayak camping are posted in our Kayak Touring Section. See also:

"Kayak Lights & Kayak Lighting Techniques For Dawn, Dusk & Night Paddling" By Tom Holtey

fall paddlingFall Foliage:


Kayak Navigation:


Hunting Season:

  • This link should guide you to hunting dates for your paddling destination: Fish and Wildlife Management Offices - State, Territorial, and Tribal

  • From the U.S. Forest Service Website: "Blaze orange colored clothing is recommended during all major firearm seasons. Outer clothing easily seen such as a hat, coat, or vest are best. Firearm season for deer hunting runs from November 16-December 1, 2002 and muzzleloader hunting from December 7-22, 2002. Archery season is October 1-December 1, 2002 and December 7 through January 5, 2003. The wild turkey season runs from April 23 to May 11, 2003, and is another time when orange clothing is recommended. Do not wear white clothing as it may be mistaken for a deer's tail. Blues and reds can be mistaken for the color of a turkey's head in the spring firearm season."

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