Shoulder Season Camping

Our camping season typically begins when most everyone else’s ends.  Mid to late fall is my favorite time to camp.  There are far less crowds, even on the weekends.  The foliage is aflame with bright scarlets and yellows and the crisp autumn air smells sweetly of dried grasses and late summer memories.  Less undergrowth and falling leaves reveal secret scenes not visible during the warmer months and cooler daytime temperatures are more conducive to long hikes. 

Duker Dog staying warm and cozy during a trip to Brown County State Park in Mid-November.

There are a few serious negatives about shoulder season camping. It gets really cold at night, often below freezing and the weather becomes much less predictable. The same goes with early spring. While there are numerous days perfect for outdoor recreation to be had, the chances of unfavorable and severe weather increase. But if you go with an over abundance of preparation and precaution, a wonderful experience can be had, despite the severity of the weather.

My general rule of thumb for camping in early spring and late fall is to simply prepare for a blizzard.  Winter coat, stocking hat, gloves, rubber boots, lots and lots of extra socks, long underwear, lots of layers and various footwear.  Extra blankets, hand warmers, warm drinks, stiff drinks, hearty meals. Remember, nighttime lows could fall well below freezing, and a crisp cold breeze during the day can make it feel like late November. 

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,”

-Benjamin Franklin

Be prepared for severe weather, especially in early spring.  This means paying attention to local weather forecasts and park authorities about what to do and where to go. If the forecast looks too ominous, be prepared to change or cancel your plans. 

  • Winter coat
  • Lots of extra clothes, layers, warm socks, long underwear
  • Vests and jackets for layering
  • Stocking caps, earmuffs, extra gloves
  • Rubber boots, warm slippers, extra footwear
  • Raincoats, ponchos, umbrellas
  • Extra blankets and properly rated sleeping bag
  • Extra wood because the nights are longer and much colder
  • Stews, soups, warm drinks.  Bring plenty of extras as you’ll burn more calories when its cold out.
  • Extra things to do during the dark evenings.  The sun sets really early so bring card games, books, and plenty of other things to do at camp, in the tent or in the camper.
  • Camping with kids: adhere to the law of extras and bring extra extras.  Extra food, extra snacks, extra clothes, extra stuff to do.  If your kid tends to get cold easily, bring a light snow suit, snow boots, extra blankets, extra gloves.  Plan for activities to keep kids moving around and active.    
  • Camping with Dogs: Make sure your dog will be warm! If your dog is short haired, bring layers for your dog.  That means jackets, coats, and blankets.  Short haired dogs need to layer just like humans.  If you’re tent camping, considered co-sleeping with your pooch for shared warmth.  Co-sleeping is highly recommended by the National Park Service and backcountry backpackers.   

Many Indiana State Parks turn off water supplies after November, but primitive camping is always available all year round. Some properties have one heated bathhouse and one water supply available throughout the entire winter. Most every park keeps its electricity on during the winter, allowing you to bring along small heaters and appliances. Propane tent heaters are available in many shapes and sizes.

For more information about off season camping at Indiana State Parks, visit:

DNR: Winter Camping at Indiana State Parks

You cannot see it, but Duker Dog is wearing classic layers for autumnal hiking. Underneath his insulated outer jacket, he is wearing his red and black Fido Fleece jacket.

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