Variety, they say, is the spice of life.
While the intentions of the original speaker of these words no doubt pertained to mixing up your daily routine a little bit for the sake of avoiding monotony, they can apply equally to hiking.
Heading for the trails when the skies are a pristine blue and the only clouds are of the fluffy, unthreatening variety has its merits, sure, but after a while those blue skies, soft breezes, and perfect conditions can all start to feel, well, just a little bit tame.
What follows, then, is an invitation to indulge your wild side and get your wander on in the backcountry even when the rain’s falling and the rest of your hiking buddies are cooped up at home in front of their televisions waiting for better weather.
More than that, this article offers a simple, fuss-free, ten-step guide that will help to make you a fearless, all-weather hiking warrior who isn’t about to let a little bit of H20 stand in the way of your pursuit of a good time and—dare we say it—actually enjoys heading for the hills when the weather gods are up to mischief.
Ten Steps to Stay Dry and Safe When Hiking in the Rain
Dress to stay dry
Our most important defense against precipitation when hiking is our clothing.
While that may seem almost too obvious to merit mentioning, the number of hikers who get it wrong tells us otherwise and that a little bit of clarification might be in order.
So just how do you dress “right” for hiking in rainy weather?
The short answer to this question is this: by using the layering system and finding the optimal balance between breathability and weather-resistance in our duds.
The slightly longer answer we have summarized in the bullet points below:
- Start off with a breathable base layer: that means avoiding cotton and opting for either synthetic or other breathable materials like merino wool
- Choose a season-appropriate, high-wicking baselayer
- Use a midlayer that provides adequate insulation for the temps you will be hiking in but also provides plenty in the way of breathability (lightweight, grid-patterned fleece and down sweaters work well)
- Top it all off with a shell jacket that has both a high hydrostatic head rating and a high breathability rating—the former will take care of airborne liquids and the latter help to shed perspiration through a process known as MVT (Moisture Vapor Transmission) to avoid soaking your interior layers as a result of excessive sweating
- For a breathability boost, look for a jacket with pit zippers, mesh pockets, and adjustable sleeves, all of which can be used in a pinch to increase airflow
- To ensure your jacket is fit to the task of keeping you dry, opt for a model with a dropped hem, peaked, adjustable hood, and sealed or laminated seams
- Choose waterproof pants that boast the same sort of hydrostatic head and breathability rating as your jacket and, again, look for mesh pockets to increase airflow when need be
All about footwear
No part of our attire comes into more frequent contact with the wet stuff when we’re hiking in the rain than what we wear on our feet.
In addition to the liquids falling from the sky, our footwear also has to deal with that encountered in puddles, boggy sections of trails, in wet brush or foliage, and dripping onto it from our waterproof pants.
All of this, of course, means that getting your footwear right is a must.
The number of wet-weather-worthy boots currently available on the market runs into the hundreds, but for every pair of reliable, high-performing boots there are at least two or three pair of less worthy models that are liable to leave your feet exposed to a good soaking or making negotiating boggy or slippery sections of trail a lot trickier than is necessary.
To avoid the latter of these two very general boot types and get your hands on (or feet into) the best of the former, when buying your hiking boots look for the following:
- A waterproof-breathable membrane such as Gore-Tex
- A grippy sole that performs well even on wet rock (Contagrip and various types of Vibram sole are our favorites)
- A deep “lug” or tread in the sole to provide grip and purchase on loose terrain or boggy trails
- A mid or full-height boot (not trail shoes) to prevent precipitation sneaking in around your ankles
Prep your gear
While all of the waterproof gear we buy comes with varying degrees of water-resistant properties, after a while these can start to get a little tired and jaded and, as such, lose a little in the way of efficiency and performance.
The more you use your wet-weather gear, moreover, the more susceptible it is to impairment from dirt, grease, body oils, and exposure to the elements.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that you can easily rejuvenate the waterproofing and breathability capacities of all items of your wet-weather gear to make them as good as new with the minimum of fuss and very little financial outlay.
Brands like Nikwax and Grangers make excellent technical detergents that restore both the waterproofing and breathability capacities of your gloves, jackets, waterproof pants, tent, sleeping bag, down jackets, and even your hiking boots.
Outdoor clothing manufacturers would have an easy time of things if their only goal was making hiking gear that is 100% waterproof.
Technologies that have been around for years have been used—in the rubberized affairs worn by fishermen, for example—to effectively block the threat of H20 using very cheap materials.
The trouble with these garments, however, is that they do diddly squat to help with the liquids produced inside the fabric by our own bodies—i.e. sweat.
If we were all to do our hiking in rubberized, PVC-coated waterproofs, the chances are we’d suffer very little at the hands of airborne liquids but terribly at those of perspiration, which, without any means of escape, would do just as good a job of giving us a soaking as heavy precipitation would were we to go without any defenses at all.
To get around this problem, in the 1970s brands like Gore-Tex started introducing waterproof-breathable products that, as the name suggests, provided high levels of—but not perfect—water-resistance in combination with breathability.
As effective as these technologies may be, however, in many instances they need a little help from the user—us—both in terms of pre-purchase decision-making and post-purchase care and on-the-trail gumption in order to ensure they can perform optimally.
First up, get your hands on a pair of waterproof pants and jacket with a high breathability rating, pit zips, and an adjustable hood, hem, and cuffs.
Secondly, wash these items frequently with a technical detergent to reduce breathability-curbing pollutants like grease, grime, and body oils.
Thirdly, if things start getting a little sticky under the collar on your hike, remove or throw on a lighter insulating later and/or pull down the zips and open the cuffs, pocket zips, pit zippers, hem cinch and hood cinch to increase airflow whenever possible.
Finally, if you are approaching a steeper section of trail, take the above measures asap to avoid start building up a sweat while putting in the added exertion inclines demand.
Research your route to identify hazards
The arrival of the wet stuff from above can affect different routes in different ways.
A trail that’s more difficult in dry conditions, for example, might not become any more difficult just because exposed to a few lashings of H20, whereas a fairly simple route might become a different prospect altogether should there happen to be.
For example, a river crossing, landslide potential, sections that traverse or climb slick rock, or slot canyons and washes prone to flash flooding.
Before you head out on your hike in the rain, take some time to research the route thoroughly and identify any potential hazards.
If the presence of rain is likely to throw up any you’ll be uncomfortable with, then look for any possible diversions around the hazard or simply choose another route.
Call ahead of time
After checking weather forecasts and researching your route, it’s a good idea to contact local authorities in order to garner further info about road, campsite, and trail conditions so as to avoid any nasty surprises.
If you happen to be headed to a national or regional park, then you can do the same with the ranger station, where you’ll not only get a better idea of trail conditions and learn of any closures but also get a more accurate weather report than your likely to find if doing your research from afar.
Rangers will also be able to give you suggestions on route alternatives and help you to identify any potentially tricky passages on your chosen route.
If the area in which you plan to do your hiking isn’t blessed with a ranger service, look for recent trip reports on hiking forums and websites and follow any advice you can pick up from locals on your way to the trailhead and along your route.
When out on a hike or thru-hike, many hikers are apt to despair when the clouds roll in and start delivering their contents on their trails.
While it can be a bit of buzzkill to trod through sodden landscapes with limited views and have to put up with all the hardships this might entail, getting a little wet and enduring these hardships is simply part and parcel of the hiking experience.
Instead of lamenting your luck, turning for home, or soldiering on in dangerous conditions (a heavy downpour, zero visibility, or in a thunderstorm, for example), try to accept that less-than-perfect conditions are integral to your time on the trails, all part of what you signed up for when setting off, and then enjoy it for what it is, even if that means trudging on through torrential rain or sitting it out for a few hours until the worst of a storm or downpour passes.
A small handful of accessories can serve to make your time hiking in wet conditions a whole lot safer and more comfortable:
- Gaiters: There’s really no way to look even remotely cool while wearing this wet-weather accessory, but what it lacks in style it makes up for in substance and soak-resistance, particularly when hiking through marshy terrain or rain-sodden brush
- Gauntlet-style gloves: These help to ensure no H20 sneaks in between the cuff of your jacket and the top of your gloves and also protects you against drafts
- Stuff sacks: Waterproof stuff sacks can be bought in all sizes and can be the saviors of all items of gear—from cell phones and GPS devices to sleeping bags and insulating layers—when conditions get particularly nasty
- Tarp: A lightweight tarp can be used in a number of ways in wet conditions, most notably as an improvised awning for your tent, a quick shelter for rest stops, to create a dry area in the porch of your tent, or to cover any rips or tents in your tent should you happen to be a bit clumsy with those trekking poles, ice-axes, crampons, etc.
- Tent slippers: Keeping the interior of your tent and feet dry when camping in wet weather can be a tricky business. Tent slippers make things a whole lot easier by saving you from crawling around the inside of your tent in your stocking soles and changing into and out of your boots when in the porch area
- Map holder/case: A little bit of exposure to precipitation can quickly turn any map into an illegible pile of mush. This lightweight, low-cost accessory keeps your map safe and prevents you from having to stow it inside a dry bag or your backpack and, thus, stopping to retrieve it every time you need do a little bit of map-based navigation
Wet weather navigation
When the skies are blue and visibility is perfect, most of us can stroll happily onward without much thought to our direction of travel, relying solely on trail signage and perhaps even visuals on our intended destination somewhere in the distance.
When the weather takes a turn for the worse, however, we must be able to navigate confidently and assuredly without the help of more notable features in the terrain which, owing to conditions, may no longer be visible.
Before setting off on a hike in poor weather conditions or a longer trek where at least a day or two of imperfect conditions might be expected, be sure to get in plenty of practice with your map and compass.
In particular, you should be able to use triangulation, take a bearing, and walk on a bearing confidently.
Steering clear of storms
Few things can strike fear into the heart of the outdoorsperson quite like an electrical storm.
While lighting accounts for relatively few deaths in the mountains, the fact that the terrain we hikers venture into is often far more exposed and far from any adequate shelter means that we need to take extra care in order to stay safe.
As with every aspect of backcountry safety, maximizing your chances of avoiding harm at the hands of a thunderstorm begins at home.
Before setting off on any trip, check forecasts from a handful of sources and, if things look sketchy, put your trip off until conditions are more favorable.
If setting off on a longer, multi-day hike, it’s a good idea to research potential shelters along the route, mark them on your map, and also identify any particularly exposed sections of terrain (ridges, for example) and be sure to take them on only if conditions are looking distinctly storm-free.
If you happen to get caught in a thunderstorm or see one approaching while out on the trail, take the following steps:
- Seek shelter, referring to the potential safe locations already identified on your map (a house or mountain hut is your best bet—small structures such as open shelters common on hiking trails offer no protection)
- Don’t try to take shelter in a cave
- Avoid ridges and exposed passes and open areas like meadows
- Stay away from water (which can act as a conduit to lightning)
- Ditch any metallic or electronic objects you are carrying such as trekking poles, backpacks, smartphones, keys, jewelry, or GPS devices that may attract the lightning to you
- Distance yourself from your pack and metallic objects by 100 feet
- Ensure you are not the tallest object in the area and avoid taking shelter next to a single tall tree or rock
- If you take shelter in a mountain hut, avoid contact with the plumbing and electrical appliances
Heading out for a hike in wet conditions can be daunting for novices and experienced hikers alike.
However, with the right gear, just a little bit of know-how, and the right mental attitude, there’s no reason that hiking in the rain should be any less fun than hiking in perfectly pristine, sunny conditions, and by following the above tips, we’re sure you’ll be well on your way to becoming an “all-weather” warrior sometime very soon.
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