July 19, 2024

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Variety, as they say, adds flavor to 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 wandering 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 wonderful time and—dare we say it—actually enjoys heading for the hills when the weather gods are up to mischief. 

10 Tips for Hiking in the Rain

When hiking, our clothing is the most important defense against precipitation.

While that may seem almost too obvious to merit mentioning, the number of hikers who get it wrong tells us otherwise, and a little bit of clarification might be in order.

1. Dress to Stay Dry

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.

Start with a breathable base layer, which 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 temperature you will be hiking in but also provides plenty 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 will help to shed perspiration through a process known as MVT to avoid soaking your interior layers as a result of excessive sweating.

Look for a jacket with pit zippers, mesh pockets, and adjustable sleeves for an added breathability boost. To ensure your jacket is fit for the task of keeping you dry, opt for a model with a dropped hem, a peaked, adjustable hood, and sealed or laminated seams.

Choose waterproof pants with the same hydrostatic head and breathability rating as your jacket, and, again, look for mesh pockets to increase airflow when needed.

2. All About Footwear

When we’re hiking in the rain, no part of our attire comes into more frequent contact with the wet stuff than what we wear on our feet.

In addition to the liquids falling from the sky, our footwear also has to deal with those encountered in puddles, boggy sections of trails, wet brush or foliage, and dripping onto 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 on the market runs into the hundreds, but for every pair of reliable, high-performing boots, there are at least two or three pairs of less worthy models that are liable to leave your feet exposed to a good soaking or make negotiating boggy or slippery sections of trail a lot trickier than is necessary.

To steer clear of the latter of these two widely available boot types and opt for the superior quality of the former, consider the following factors when purchasing your hiking boots:

  • A waterproof and breathable membrane, such as Gore-Tex, is ideal.
  • A grippy sole that performs well even on wet rock (Contagrip and various types of Vibram soles are our favorites).
  • On loose terrain or boggy trails, a deep “lug” or tread in the sole provides grip and purchase.
  • Use a mid- or full-height boot, not trail shoes, to prevent precipitation from creeping in around your ankles.

3. 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 worn 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 negative news.

The positive news is that you can easily rejuvenate the waterproofing and breathability capacities of all of your wet-weather gear items to make them as positive 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.

4. Ventilate

Outdoor clothing manufacturers would have an easier time if their only goal was to make 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.

However, the issue with these garments is their inability to effectively absorb the liquids produced by our bodies, such as sweat, within the fabric.

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 be if we went 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, post-purchase care, and on-the-trail guidance 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 as soon as possible to avoid starting to build up a sweat while putting in the additional exertion and inclines demand.

5. Research Your Route

The arrival of wet material from above can have a different impact on various routes.

For example, exposing a trail that’s more difficult in dry conditions to a few splashes of water might not make it any harder.

However, a relatively straightforward route could transform into a completely different experience if it encounters obstacles such as a river crossing, the possibility of landslides, sections that traverse or climb slick rock, or slot canyons and washes susceptible 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 rain is likely to throw up anything you’re uncomfortable with, then look for any possible diversions around the hazard or simply choose another route.

6. 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 information about the road, campsite, and trail conditions so as to avoid any nasty surprises.

If you’re planning a trip to a national or regional park, you can visit the ranger station, where you’ll not only gain a better understanding of trail conditions and learn about any closures, but also receive a more accurate weather report than you’re likely to find when conducting research from a distance.

Rangers will also be able to give you suggestions on alternative routes and help you identify any potentially tricky passages on your chosen route.

If there isn’t a ranger service in the area where you plan to hike, look for recent trip reports on hiking forums and websites and heed any advice you can gather from locals on your way to the trailhead and along your route.

7. Expectation Management

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 trekking through sodden landscapes with limited views and enduring the associated hardships can be somewhat discouraging, it is an integral part 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.

This is all part of what you signed up for when you set off, so enjoy it for what it is, even if that means trudging through torrential rain or waiting for a few hours until the worst of a storm or downpour passes.

8. Accessorize

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

This helps to ensure that no H20 sneaks in between the cuff of your jacket and the top of your gloves, as well as protects you against drafts.

Stuff Sacks

Waterproof stuff When conditions turn particularly nasty, sacks, available in all sizes, can save everything from cell phones and GPS devices to sleeping bags and insulating layers.

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

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, thus stopping to retrieve it every time you need to do a little bit of map-based navigation.

9. Wet Weather Navigation

Proficiency with a map and compass is never more necessary than when hiking in wet conditions.

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 of 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.

10. Steering Clear of Storms

Few things can strike fear into the heart of an outdoor person 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 much 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 find yourself in the midst of a thunderstorm or spot one approaching while hiking, follow these 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, exposed passes, and open areas, such as meadows.
  • Stay away from water (which can act as a conduit for lightning).
  • Ditch any metallic or electronic objects you are carrying, such as trekking poles, backpacks, smartphones, keys, jewelry, or GPS devices, that may attract lightning to you.
  • By 100 feet, distance yourself from your pack and metallic objects.
  • 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.
  • If on open ground, separate from your group and spread out around 30 feet from each other.
  • Assume the safety position: make yourself as small as possible by crouching down with your knees and feet together, with your head tucked down between your legs, and with your hands covering your ears.
  • Only retrieve your pack and call for help when you are absolutely sure the risk of another strike has passed.

Wrap-Up

Heading out for a hike in wet conditions can be daunting for novices and experienced hikers alike.

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 enjoyable than hiking in perfectly pristine, sunny conditions.

We’re sure you’ll be well on your way to becoming an “all-weather” warrior very soon if you follow the above tips.