How to Hike in the Rain - and Love It!
It’s pretty obvious that generally, hikers wish for a nice and clear weather. But it does not mean that if there is a rain in the forecast we should cancel our plans. Hiking (and camping!) in the rain may be fun and a chance to see the area in new light. There is also more chance to have the trail just to yourself as a number of potential hikers may change their plans.
Rain quite often comes with gloomy and moody clouds, creating a dramatic stage for your adventure. Of course, quite often it comes also with thick white fog and horizontally falling rains and hail... but that also can be quite breath-taking.
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Before I get into tips and advice I would like to write a few words of caution. First of all – there is a difference between rain and a wild thunderstorm. Hiking in December rain is not the same as in a July one… And as much as I encourage you to try and go hiking even if the weather is far from ideal, one needs to have common sense switched on always.
When is it smart to cancel or postpone your hiking trip?
- When the trail goes through narrow gorges and canyons with risks of flash floods. The rain could be many miles away but you could be on the path of water from it.
- Severe weather in the forecast – violent thunderstorms in areas with no shelters – mountain shelters, bigger caves, pubs, etc.
- Rain in cold weather can lead to hypothermia if you don’t have appropriate gear.
- When the trail takes you through areas prone to mudslides or where crossing streams are part of the experience.
Before you get on the trail
Prepare mentally: assume you will get wet. Don’t expect to be dry thanks to high-tech gear – it’s just not possible. The appropriate gear helps to keep you drier and warmer for longer – but it’s rather impossible to stay completely dry. Accept it and enjoy it as part of the adventure.
Even if there is no rain in the forecast, always carry rain gear (unless you plan on hiking in the desert) – forecast you hear on a radio might be for valleys and the weather up in the mountains changes substantially with every meter of height gained.
Basic rain gear
The kind of gear you need depends on a few factors. First of all – the season you hike in. If you expect a light summer rain in high temperatures you don’t need to prevent heat loss as much as when hiking on a cold November day.
Hiking in the summer rain
Grab a light rain jacket which won’t protect you as much but also won’t make you boil on the inside. The problem with rain gear is that it blocks proper ventilation. So it might stop the rain from getting to you but you get soaked in your own sweat. Find a jacket that has ventilation – like pit zips – to regulate the body heat.
You might wonder why you need a jacket at all – maybe getting soaked is a better idea? It might be if the weather is really hot and the rain goes by fast so you can dry soon after it’s done. But even during summer when it starts to rain the temperature can drop really fast and heavy winds blow your body heat away. Hypothermia might be a problem even in the summer! Especially when hiking at higher altitudes.
Some people love them, some hate them. Ponchos' greatest advantage is its loose frame which is great for ventilation. It could be the great idea for heavy summer rains. Some ponchos are made for wearing it over a backpack. The problems start when rains come with strong winds - it's hard to keep the poncho in place.
Some ponchos are made to be an emergency tarp as well, which could get handy. The cheap ones are thin and can be stuffed with ease even in a small backpack.
When the weather is not too bad you might not even need the rain pants. Some people prefer to get the shorts/pants wet than overheat in long rain pants. Most of the hiking pants are made of quick-drying fabrics and cold legs are not as much of a problem as a chilled upper body.
You might want to consider a rain skirt/kilt. It protects your shorts or upper pants but provides better air circulation.
The big downside of not having rain pants is water getting into your boots – even gaiters don’t prevent it. Rain pants cover the boots’ opening which helps a lot.
In the end – you need to decide if you need it. In countries like Iceland or Norway, summer rain can get quite cold and I was happy I had my rain pants when I was there!
I don’t know about you but I hate to have rain on my face and glasses. I always wear a hat to keep the rain away. It also gives a bit of cold protection. If it’s really cold, I put a hat or buff over the cap so all is taken care off. When it’s only a light drizzle, the hat takes care of it and I don’t even put a hood on.
Spring-Fall or Winter hiking
When hiking in colder temperatures there is a bigger need to protect against getting cold. Not only your rain gear should be up to the task but also the layers you wear under it.
Cold rain and wind can be dangerous, as the moment you stop, your body heat leaves very quickly and you can get into hypothermia fast.
To make sure you are safe you have to pay attention to what you wear under the rain protection. First of all – never wear cotton. When wet, cotton stays that way for a long time and does not protect your body from cold. Wear either synthetic or wool clothes. Synthetic fabrics wick any moisture away and dry very fast. Wool insulates your body even when wet.
Be careful with down – it dries forever and does not insulates well when wet. So instead of a down sweater on a cold rainy day, grab a synthetic insulated jacket, a thick fleece or wool sweater.
Have a good rain jacket and rain pants. Make sure your rain jacket has a way to regulate your hood so it fits you well and a longer tail in the back to cover your butt. I would also advise grabbing a pair of rainproof mittens or gloves – this is important especially when you use trekking poles. Your hands can get miserable very fast when wet and hit with cold wind.
Trekking poles and good trail shoes/boots
I am a big fan of hiking with trekking poles no matter the weather but I find them especially useful during wet conditions. On a slippery, muddy trails, when crossing puddles or streams - they are an absolute must.
Crossing muddy trails or climbing wet rocks requires footwear that sticks well to such tricky terrain. I can recommend two types that I love. Salomon Quest 4d proved to be very comfortable, pretty water proof and having great grip. Hoka One One Tor Ultra Hi are superbly comfortable, stick to a wet rock like geckos but not as water proof.
Protecting your gear from rain
Most backpacks have some kind of a rain cover but it’s generally not good enough with stronger or long-lasting rain. It covers only one side of the pack and rain trickling down your back can get inside of it. The same problem is with backpack’s sides or seams.
A set of dry clothes
This is the most important thing in you quest against hypothermia. The moment you stop hiking for the day you must change into dry clothes and get warm. When you camp it's a must you have a dry set of clothes for the night. If you have the chance, jump in a warm shower (most campsites have them) and put the dry clothes on.
In the morning you hiking clothes would probably still be wet and it could be tempting to just go in your sleeping clothes, especially if the weather cleared somewhat and it might look like no rain was in the future. If that's case - great, your dump clothes will dry on you.
But you can't just go hiking in your one set of dry clothes. As much as it's a huge pain, you need to change into the wet clothes and keep the dry set protected in your pack. It will be cold and nasty but the moment you start hiking you warm up pretty quickly. If it rains again, all your clothes get wet, you have no way to protect yourself from hypothermia.
I always pack everything that I don't want getting wet into dry bags, in addition to the backpack cover. Grab a few dry bags in different sizes to ensure all is dry when needed. Take special care for things like sleeping bag, extra clothes or electronics.
Planning for a night stay in the rain
If you happen to camp during rain it’s a whole additional set of things to think about. It’s important to choose your camping spot well – never in a dry river bed or a hollow spot where water can gather. It’s actually better to pitch your tent on a gentle slope, so water can drain away from you. Read this article on camping in the rain to prepare well.
Learn to pitch your tent as quickly as possible to avoid getting it completely soaked. If you use double walled tent (most of them) check if you can attach the inner to the outer tent, so you can protect your “bedroom” from getting soaked while setting it up.
If you use a footprint, make sure you tuck all of it under the tent or you may accidentally create a pool for your tent.
Other tips for hiking in the rain
Eat and drink enough
When it’s sunny and hot it’s natural that we grab for water more often. But when the weather turns wet, we might forget about hydrating properly. We might go avoiding taking breaks for the lack of lovely spots to sit on, which means snacks get overlooked. Drink and eat a lot – all the more so when the weather is not just wet but cold, too. Provide your body with fuel.
Extra Dry clothes
Grab a pair of dry socks and an extra shirt even for a day hike – it can make quite a difference to being able to change the sorry soaked ones when the rain stops or you reach a mountain shelter. Don’t forget about an extra level of clothing – when we are wet we are cold.
No, it’s not a weird thing to use an umbrella. There are even ones you can attach to your pack for hands-free protection. Some hiking umbrellas provide also good UV protection for summer hikes. I’ve never hiked with one but you may consider it.
Take extra care when navigating the trail
Rain often causes worse visibility. Thick milky fog or rain curtain can cause us to miss trail markers or a turn. We tend to look down more often when it’s raining – hence the big benefit of a brimmed hat! Put your map in a zip bag or a special rain cover to easily use it when needed.
Sometimes you can buy laminated maps which are waterproof and last for a long time. If you use GPS or phone app – make sure your phone is waterproof or place it in a cover.
When it rains we might walk slower as the terrain gets more difficult or the wind holds us back. It's important to have it in mind when planning the day's hiking distance or the kind of trail. Take it easy, don't attempt to hike a very difficult trail where slipping on a path can end in a nasty fall down a steep mountain.
Do you enjoy hiking in the rain?
What are your tips and tricks to deal with rainy hiking weather? Share below!
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