By Michael Lanza
There are only three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and at some point, getting rained on when dayhiking or backpacking. As we all know, wet clothing conducts heat away from your body, making you colder. Staying as dry as possible while on the trail or in camp is key to staying warm in the backcountry when the weather turns wet—especially in temperatures below around 60° F and in wind, which swiftly chills your body. This article will help you enjoy a much more comfortable and pleasant backcountry adventure—even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Many hikers mistakenly assume that all one needs to do when caught hiking in the rain is don a rain jacket. But in mild temperatures, even a high-quality waterproof-breathable shell can cause you to overheat and sweat a lot—especially when walking uphill and carrying a pack—making you wet from the inside rather than the outside.
The key to staying as warm and dry as possible while hiking is learning the strategies for balancing your body’s heat production with the ambient weather conditions and your clothing layers.
I’ve walked through countless downpours and long days of rain over three decades of dayhiking, backpacking, and climbing from the rainforests of the North Cascades and Olympic National Park to New England, the Tour du Mont Blanc, the mountains of Norway, and New Zealand—formerly as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and now for many years running this blog.
After that many trail miles in miserably wet weather, you either learn some tricks for staying dry or you give this stuff up, and I couldn’t give it up.
The 10 simple tips below will help you stay dry and warm through the wettest adventures. Please share any tips of your own or your questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.
Click on any photo in this story to read about that trip.
1. Carry an Umbrella
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? So why don’t more hikers and backpackers carry one when they expect rain (as my daughter is in this photo from Italy’s Dolomite Mountains)?
A lightweight, backcountry umbrella can be very effective at keeping rain off you, as long as it’s not so windy that the umbrella keeps getting inverted or the wind snaps its arms. I like the Six Moon Designs Silver Shadow carbon umbrella ($40, 6.8 oz.), Sea to Summit Siliconized Cordura Trekking Umbrella ($45, 8.5 oz.), Gossamer Gear Liteflex Hiking (Chrome) Umbrella ($39, 8 oz.), and the Helinox Trekking Umbrella ($75, 7.5 oz.). The Six Moon Designs Hands Free Umbrella Kit ($10, 0.35 oz.), allows you to attach an umbrella to a pack’s shoulder strap, keeping both hands free.
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2. Eat and Drink
People hiking in rain commonly just put their head down and keep plodding forward without thinking about hydration and nutrition needs. It’s easy to do: You may not feel hot or thirsty—until a dry mouth and other sensations of thirst hit you, typically long past you becoming dehydrated—and you just want to get where you’re headed. You don’t want to stop in the rain to get food out or treat and refill your water.
But hydration and food provide the fuel critical to the body’s ability to generate energy and heat and for all cells to function normally. Just as when hiking under a hot sun, drink frequently—every 15 minutes or so—and eat something every hour. Keep snacks that are easy to eat on the move in pockets within reach so you don’t have to stop.
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3. Ventilate Your Jacket
Waterproof-breathable rain jackets have a membrane or coating that enables some moisture on the inside to pass through to the outside, while preventing rain from penetrating inside. But most are better at keeping rain out than releasing moisture and heat from your body that builds up inside. That’s why, when hiking in rain and warm temperatures, we can overheat and getting very wet from perspiration.
Many rain jackets made for hiking have zippers under the arms that allow ventilating; open them when needed and unzip the front of the jacket partly to release heat and moisture.
Are these tips helpful? See also my “7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry.”
4. Don’t Wear Pants
Rain pants, that is. In moderate rain and warm temps, just wear quick-drying soft-shell or nylon shorts with either high or low gaiters to help keep your feet dry. (Low gaiters I like: the Outdoor Research Flex-Tex II.) In cooler temps and steady rain, wear soft-shell pants—which will eventually get wet in a hard rain, but trap heat reasonably well and dry fairly quickly on your body once the rain abates.
5. … Unless You Need Pants
By the afternoon of our second straight day of steady rain and wind on a September backpacking trip in the rugged Bailey Range in the Olympic Mountains, my soft-shell pants had become steadily soaked and the wind was blowing hard. I realized I had slowly become hypothermic—it can come on that slowly. Only by continuing to hike at a rigorous pace did I finally warm back up again over the next hour.
In extreme conditions, you need shell layers on top and bottom. When hiking in heavy rain and a combination of wind and temperatures cold enough that wearing shorts or soft-shell pants will not keep you adequately warm and dry, have waterproof-breathable pants to can pull on over whatever bottoms you’re wearing.
When wearing rain pants with gaiters, layer the pant cuffs over the gaiters, rather than tucking pant legs inside the gaiters, so water drains over rather than inside the gaiters.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
6. Slow Down or Speed Up
Use your pace, or exertion level, to stay warm without overheating. If you’re sweating under a rain jacket on a long uphill climb, but the rain is too heavy to take off your jacket, slow down until your body’s producing enough heat to remain comfortable but reduce how much you’re perspiring; you may even actually dry out the jacket on the inside, which feels more comfortable than when it’s clammy.
Similarly, 20 or 30 minutes before reaching camp, slow your pace to where you’re warm but not perspiring. This can dry out your base layer and the inside of your jacket—and you’ll be more much comfortable and happy putting on your hiking layers the next morning if they’re dry.
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7. Throw on a Layer
As illustrated by the previous two tips, three factors—weather conditions (ambient temperature, wind, and precipitation), your exertion level, and what you’re wearing—dictate how warm or cold you feel. Whether stopping for a break or reaching a windblown mountain pass, when exertion level drops or weather conditions worsen, throw on a shell to block wind and/or rain or another layer under your shell to provide added warmth when needed.
Anticipate the need for another layer: Pull it on before reaching the pass or as soon as you stop for a break rather than waiting until you’re cold.
Stay dry and safe. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking”
8. Take Short Breaks
We’ve all had the experience of stopping for a drink and bite to eat while dayhiking or backpacking in cool, damp weather, and feeling an abrupt cooling effect. When your exertion level drops suddenly, your body’s heat production also drops off rapidly. Avoid that by making those rest stops brief—get moving again before you start cooling off.
9. Dry Wet Clothes With Body Heat
Once you reach camp, if the rain has tapered off or stopped, keep your wet rain jacket on while pitching your tent and setting up camp to let your body heat dry it.
If the rain hasn’t stopped, once your tent is up, shake the water off your jacket as much as possible (under the protection of a tree if you can) before diving inside your shelter. Then either wear the jacket inside the tent to dry it, or try to drape it over your pack in the vestibule so that it starts to air dry; leaving it in a balled pile will guarantee that it stays wet.
Similarly, wear your damp T-shirt or jersey—as long as it doesn’t make you cold—to dry it before bedtime, so you’re not putting on wet layers the next morning. If the T-shirt I hiked in is only slightly damp, I’ll wear it over a dry, long-sleeve base layer—so that I have a dry layer against my skin while my body heat dries out the damp T-shirt for wearing the next day.
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10. Carry a Dry Change of Clothes
A week into a solo October backpacking trip on Vermont’s Long Trail many years ago—by which point I had no inkling of the weather forecast, learning what I had hiked through only after my trip—a hurricane moved up the East Coast and dumped several inches of rain on Vermont’s Green Mountains over three days, while temperatures never climbed out of the 40s.
Wearing a budget rain jacket (what I could afford then) and no rain pants, I remained warm only through exertion while hiking each day. In a lean-to shelter every evening—alone, because it seemed everyone but me knew a hurricane was hitting Vermont—I stripped off my wet layers, rubbed and shivered myself dry, then pulled on my one dry set of base layers and mummied inside my dry sleeping bag.
Keep an extra set of base layers (T-shirt, long-sleeve top, bottoms) in a zip-lock plastic bag or waterproof stuff sack for changing into in camp and sleeping in. Do not hike in that dry set of clothes. They might save your life.
Bonus Tip: Wet Bag, Way Bad
When you expect rain on a backpacking trip, keep your sleeping bag dry by either lining its stuff sack with a plastic trash bag or using a waterproof, dry bag-style stuff sack with a roll-top closure.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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