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Are Rain Pants Meant to be Worn over Hiking Pants?

Hiking in the Rain with Joe
Hiking in the Rain with Joe

Rain pants. Now there’s a topic that I am sure many of us have different opinions about!

I almost always wear my rain pants over my hiking pants, except when I am doing laundry in a trail town and rain pants are the only pants I am wearing!

Joking aside, I wear my rain pants over my hiking pants because it’s much easier to put them on and take them off when it starts and stops raining. Think about what a hassle it would be to switch between the two every time it started or stopped raining during the day.

I also wear hiking pants under rain pants because they slow body heat loss when my outer layer is wet. It’s the same reason I wear a fleece sweater or mid-layer under a rain shell in the rain, because it keeps the cold shell fabric off my skin where it can rapidly chill me.

I know a lot of people who don’t hike with rain pants at all. This is really a regional issue; New England weather tends to be much wetter than many places in the western USA where it doesn’t rain or doesn’t rain enough. That’s why I always carry rain pants on hikes, even on dayhikes.

This was a question a reader new to backpacking sent me. What else should they know about alternatives to rain pants?

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25 comments

  1. I’m with you. My rain pants always go over my hiking pants. Though sometimes when I’m in camp I’ll wear just the rain pants if my hiking pants are damp (from not putting my rain pants on fast enough) and need to dry. As far as alternatives… Some people use ponchos. In fact I just bought a poncho tarp, so I’m looking forward to testing it out. From pics I’ve seen a poncho combined with waterproof gaiters should keep you covered. Might be easier to slip on and off too… But then if you go with a poncho tarp you won’t be protected in camp because your poncho became the shelter.

  2. @Mike Personally, I prefer a poncho. Easier to put on and off. And you get less sweaty in it (I have a breathable one). Plus it keeps your rucksack and everything in it dry as well. The only drawback is if you’re hiking in a forest and there are many branches; you get stuck easier.

  3. I’ve never found a poncho to be very effective as a substitute for rain pants. Your hiking pants still get soaking wet. This is particularly bad when you are walking down a trail and the wet bushes rub against your legs – doesn’t even have to be raining.

  4. If using a poncho, rain chaps are good to keep the legs dry while keeping over-heating at bay.

  5. When I wear rain pants I always wear them over hiking pants, however I don’t use rain pants unless I’m caught up in a sustained downpour. I prefer to rely on quick dry hiking pants as long as possible.

  6. I agree on wearing rain pants over hiking pants. Mine have zippers all the way up the legs so they’re super easy to throw on. I’ve never tried a poncho, although it seems like it would be more comfortable in the summer than rain pants. The reasons I haven’t are 1) it seems that if there’s any wind your pants would get wet anyway and 2) it would be a lot of material floating around and getting in the way. Do poncho users agree with that or does it depend on where you’re hiking?

    • Yes, for sure depends on where you’re going and also the time of year. In Summer I’m more concerned about overheating than cooling off too much, so a poncho works great for me. Also, if you’re wearing shorts a poncho is nice. About the flapping: yes that does happen when it’s windy, but mine has a couple of fasteners that connect the back and front between your legs so it can’t blow up higher than your behind. Works well for me. What I like is how easy they are to throw on and how they keep a lot of you dry (including your backpack). And air circulates under them easier so you don’t get that sweaty. I must admit that in colder weather I’d prefer rain pants too, but for my upper body I’d still go for the poncho.

  7. I didn’t talk much about sweating under rain paints above. Yes you will probably sweat,especially if the relative humidity is high (when it’s raining). That’s ok if you are wearing quick-drying hiking pants made out of a synthetic materials because they wil dry very quickly (heated by your body) when you take off your rain pants. It’s also ok because the rain pants will keep your body heat from escaping and keep you warm even when your hiking pants are wet. It’s another reason why you shouldn’t wear cotton hiking pants underneath your rain pants, because they take too long to dry and will actually cool you which can be very bad (hypothermia bad) when you take off your rain pants. The bottom line I guess is that wet synthetic hiking pants are better under rain pants because they will keep you warmer than wet rain pants (wet with your sweat) directly on your skin, which will chill you.

  8. I don’t think there is a single answer for this that works year ’round. I wear rain pants over my quick-dry hiking pants in the winter, only when my gators prove insufficient. In the summer, I wear a poncho that comes down to about my knees. If the bottoms of my pants start to get wet, I zip them off, as I’d rather my skin get wet than my cloths (as my sister says, humans are waterproof.)

  9. I have Berghaus Deluge as my rain pants. They have both a zipper and snap fasteners up the sides of the legs. An advantage of this is that you can leave the zips undone and just have the fasteners closed. This allows plenty of ventilation without any rain getting in, in all but the worse weather.

    Don’t forget to take a plastic grocery bag with you when hiking in bad weather.

    Why?

    Ever tried to slide muddy wet boots into rain pants? Put the grocery bag over your boot then into the rain pants leg!

  10. Try a cloud kilt. zpacks by Joe Valesko.

    I tried the just rain pants and coat without base layer. Found that the rain hitting them then the skin made me pretty chilly even on a mild day. Plus I need some air flow to keep it dry

    Here is my rig.

    Zpacks Cuben Fiber Poncho/ground cloth
    Zpacks Cuben Fiber Cloud Kilt with zipper goes just past my knees
    Gaiters
    Patagonia knickers

    I get the much needed air flow. Lets face it. It rains, you are not going to stay 100% dry. Just try to stay 100% comfortable. Peeling of rain coats and pants at the end of a long day with wet base layers is not comfortable, and then knowing they will never dry at night. Enjoy that.

    Now some may say I look like a girl wearing capris with a skirt, but I could care less.

    • I have not tested my new cloudkilt in heavy weather yet but I do like its versatility. I purchased the newest version which is available as a large rectangle with a full zipper verticle closure and a cinch cord at the waist. This redesign was intended to address some complaints that the earlier version was too restrictive to one’s stride ( uphill, downhill etc.) I have found this a very versatile piece of multi-purpose gear that, at less than 2 oz., has earned its spot in my bag. In a light rain, I can drape it over my bag at camp, in fair weather it serves as an additional ground cloth, and in typical summer storms, it does a perfectly adequate job of keeping me mostly dry with no real internal wetting out from body heat. Seriously dorky looking, but I don’t really give a s**t about what others think I look like ( and I know they wish they had brought one).

  11. Here in the Southeast/Mid-Atlantic region, I’ve never worn hiking pants when backpacking. I do carry rain pants, but wear them most often on colder evenings in camp. If it is cold, I’ll put on Capilene 1 long underwear with shorts. If the snow is above my gaiters or it is a very cold rain, then I’ll put on the rain pants over the Cap 1’s.

    Now in a heavy rain with shorts, I’ve got a sil-nylon rain skirt that I wear. It tucks in under the hip belt and covers down to the knees. Very convenient to put on and take off, and much cooler than rain pants.

  12. I have a pair of Red Ledge rain pants that have full zips. They are part of my layer system and I wear them over my synthetic hiking pants. Once, my brother and I hiked in a day long downpour with just the rain pants over our undies. I also wear them while polluting washing machines with my camp clothes at laundromats.

  13. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone taking off their hiking pants to put on their rain pants. Over all the way. That said, unless I’m expecting extended periods of heavy rain and it’s cool/cold, I rarely carry rain pants for 2 reasons:

    1. I’m fine with my hiking pants getting wet as long as they dry quickly (they do).
    2. Most rain gear (jackets or pants) doesn’t breath well enough and I sweat like a fool in it if I’m moving. At that point, everything’s just getting wet anyway so I’d prefer the rain-based wetness.

  14. Sooner or later you get soaking wet in them anyway. I use them simply to manage how wet I end up while hiking in the rain.

  15. Or just use some Pàramo Waterproof trousers!

  16. I hike mostly in Southern California. Shoot, it’s so dry here, we throw a party every time it rains. I’m only partly kidding.

    Given how dry and hot it is here, most of the time, I just wear a poncho. I’d sweat to death in rain pants and a rain jacket on most hikes. If my pants get wet, no biggie. I wear nylon, and they’ll be dry in 1/2 an hour, so who cares?

    Winter of course is different, and then I wear my rain pants over my regular pants — and hope I don’t wind up wetter from sweat than I would from the rain.

    HJ

  17. I have never been fond of rain pants. I have never been much fond of wet pants either. Over the last couple years I have transitioned to tights. This this has been one of the single best changes I could have made in years for hiking/backpacking comfort in inclement conditions. My wife, who hates being cold and wet, agrees with me on this one too!

  18. I only wear rain pants while hiking if it’s cold and I’m worried about getting chilled. If it’s warm and raining, I’d rather get wet from the rain than my own sweat! When I wear them, however, I do wear them over hiking pants (or shorts).

  19. I’m trying to decide between rain chaps, and a kilt.

    • Since the kilt is just a large rectangular piece of silnylon, it can perform some other functions too. You can use it to sit on or lay stuff out on a wet surface, or as some additional rain protection when under a tarp.

  20. I just strip down into my happy hippy hiking suit. ;)

  21. I’m in the Southeast, tights under rain pants in the winter no hiking pants, rain skirt in the warmer months.

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