BY ALAN KESSELHEIM
Fall is my favorite. The cottonwoods are flaming, geese are in the sky, ice in the water jug in the morning, blustery days on the water, everything ebbing toward winter. Part of the attraction is that most people are done - back to school, or work, or on to other activities. Paddling in October in Montana, or November some years, or March, for that matter - it just doesn't cross people's minds. All the better, because I have the river to myself. Weather can be an issue, sure, but if I'm ready for it, no big deal. A few key pieces of gear make it workable. No, more than workable . . . so nice it makes me smug.
There are the obvious cold weather add-ons anyone would think of. Yes, the puff coat. The warmer sleeping bag and beefier, full-length pad. Maybe a pair of down booties for camp. Winter hat. Spare batteries for the headlamp for longer nights. The good book. Hot drinks.
Here are a few that make my essential list for the shoulder seasons, and which elevate the experience from survival to actual comfort.
1) Rubber boots: Pull those babies on over some warm socks, and stay cozy and dry all day, even getting in and out of the boat.
2) Full fly tent: A fly that covers the entire tent walls adds significantly to the overall warmth.
3) Paddling gloves: I like the neoprene jobs with finger-free gloves and the mitten flap that comes over the top with a Velcro closure, and I've had the most luck finding them at angling shops.
4) Camp gloves: I still wear those old mountaineering-style fingerless gloves. We used to call them Millar Mitts - fingers free to light the stove, but hands warm. I'll bet the pair I still use are 25 years old, maybe more. They, or products close to them, are available if you hunt around online.
5) Fire pan and grill. Nothing like a lunch stop with fire and hot drinks, and a campfire at night is mandatory when sunset flames out by 6. Sometimes I cook over the fire as well and leave the stove at home. The only limitation is rivers where fires are illegal, but I don't tend to go there. Remember that a fire pan can be as simple as an aluminum oven drip pan from the grocery store.
6) Some bright clothing during hunting season -- in Montana, a survival necessity.
7) Sleeping socks. One pair of mid-weight, dry socks that only go on at night in the bag, never during the day.
So, next time the long-range forecast in mid-October looks doable, don't hesitate. You won't regret it. More than that, you'll steal a bonus backcountry indulgence and come back to town wearing that self-satisfied smirk, especially if your kit includes a few essential extras.
-- Read more shoulder-season tips from canoe country.