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What Backpacking Gear Should You Bring for Cold, Wet Weather?

Rain Mitts with Long Gauntlets are Invaluable
Rain Mitts with Long Gauntlets are Invaluable

Scenario Analysis

On my latest Appalachian Trail section hike from Southern New Jersey to Southern Connecticut, I hiked 173 miles over a 14 day period in cold and wet weather.

While I could give you a blow-by-blow account about each item on my gear list for this trip and how wonderfully it performed, I think that kind of analysis misses one of the key tenets of lightweight backpacking. Individual items by themselves are far less important than the ways in which they can be used together to address different environmental situations that you encounter. The art of minimizing your gear requires that you envision as many different scenarios as possible and how the gear you choose can address them, and that you learn how to improvise to address unanticipated situations.

So instead of reviewing individual items or groups of products lumped together into a category, like a “sleep system”, I want to talk about how I used the elements on my gear list to address the cold wet weather I experienced on this trip. Talking about systems, while useful, also breaks down when we combine items across systems to address a specific situation.

I think this kind of analysis, where we focus on environmental scenarios, instead of individual items is far more illustrative and educational  for beginners than a more product centric approach.

Let’s give it a try.

Environmental Conditions

Assume the following weather conditions – these reflect the conditions of my last big trip.

  1. You are on a 2 week backpacking trip, where you plan on hiking an average of 13 miles and an average of 1,000 feet of elevation gain per day.
  2. You are hiking on a well blazed trail which has lean-tos or established camp sites every 10  miles.
  3. Daytime temperatures range from the low 50’s (F) during the day to the low 20’s (F) at night. There is no snow on the ground.
  4. You can resupply up to 3 times on the trip.
  5. You are hiking at elevations between 500 and 1500 feet, through hardwood forest. It’s early spring and there are no leaves on the trees.
  6. It rains on and off every day and every night, ranging from heavy day-long downpours to fine mist and drizzle. You never have a sunny day with blue sky during the entire trip. Instead, the skies remain heavily overcast.
  7. You have abundant fresh water but some of the lean-tos do not have water supplies near them.
  8. You will not encounter any hostile animals, but you may encounter black flies, gnats, and ticks.

Gear List Strategy

Without naming any specific products, what kinds of gear would you bring along with you on a trip like this, and why?

Here’s what I did. If you can’t resist looking at the specific gear I used, here’s a link to my gear list.

  1. Clothing:
    • I’d augment my normal 3 season layers with a lightweight synthetic jacket for use in camp and to wear in my sleeping bag to augment its warmth on cold nights.
    • When the weather is not drizzling or raining and I’m walking, I’d wear a lightweight fleece sweater with excellent wicking properties over a synthetic base layer, since it dries a little faster than wool when wet. For pants, I’d wear a pair of long lightweight synthetic pants and synthetic boxers underwear to prevent chafing.
    • When it was raining, or if I got cold, I’d put on a breathable rain shell and a pair of breathable rain pants over my existing clothes. If I was still cold, I’d put on a hat under my rain shell parka hood, and a hard shell mitten or glove with a separate layer of lightweight synthetic gloves liners, underneath. You’d be surprised how much warmer you’ll get wearing rain mittens and glove liners.
    • If it’s cool, but not raining, I’d put on a polypro hat and just the glove liners and wear the wicking sweater and my base layer short. If I’m hiking, I can usually stay warm with just these layers, but I can also put on my rain parka for a little extra warmth if I need it.
    • The key with all of these layering variations is to minimize the amount you sweat. If you can avoid sweating, or wear garments that move the sweat away from your skin quickly, you’ll stay warmer and use less energy.
    • On my feet, I’d wear wool sock liners with trail runners that were not lined with gore-tex and thus, more breathable. As long as I’m walking, my feet stay warm even in colder weather.
    • I’d also bring along a pair of gore-tex socks to wear over the wool liners if the weather got very cold, or if I had to walk through a lot of cold mud for hours on end. The gore-tex socks help retain the heat generated by my feel and keep them dryer, at least until they fail and develop leaks (or for about a year of use).
    • I’d bring an extra pair of wool sock liners that I always keep dry for wearing in my sleeping bag at night to keep my feet warm.
    • And finally, I’d bring an extra pair of long underwear (top and bottom) to wear in my sleeping bag at night, in order to keep it clean, and as an additional base layer under my other clothes if it really got cold during the day.
  2. Shelter:
    • I’d try to sleep in a shelter every chance I got and avoid camping out, even if this meant walking extra mileage each day.
    • I’d bring the lightest possible shelter with me that still provides good rain protection in heavy rain, since I’m probably going to sleep in a shelter most nights. I’ve found that a 1/2 pound, two person tarp is the best option for me under these conditions, even though it’s floorless.
    • I’d also bring a very lightweight ground sheet or some kind of water proof sleeping bag cover to keep my sleeping bag from getting wet at night. It would be ideal if it had heat netting to protect my face from any bugs at night. Otherwise, I’d bring a separate head net or wrap my face in a buff for the night to prevent bug bites. This works surprisingly well, actually.
  3. Sleeping:
    • I’d bring a mummy style down bag rated to 15-20 degrees (F) and some kind of sleeping bag cover for nighttime use to provide a little more warmth. If you’re just a little bit careful, the down bag won’t get wet, and it’s lighter, and much smaller to carry than a synthetic bag.
    • I’d also bring a balaclava or a polypro hat to wear in my sleeping bag to keep my head warm.
    • I’d bring a warm sleeping pad with me and maybe a second short pad that I could put under my torso, and that would double duty as a sit pad on cold wet ground. I’d be aiming for an R value of about 3 or 3.5 under my torso and 2 under my legs.
  4. Packing:
    • I’d line the inside of my backpack with a plastic bag instead of bringing a pack cover because it’s lighter and works better for me.
    • I’d pack my extra clothing and sleeping bag in waterproof stuff sacks. I realize that’s redundant, but it’s what I’d do.
    • I also bring a backpack that has internal and external storage. External pack pockets, particularly mesh pockets, are useful for storing gear you want to get at quickly during the day, especially when it’s raining cats and dogs outside. I typically pack snacks, my rain gear, and my shelter in the external storage so I can access them without opening up my main pack compartment and exposing it to rain.  For example, when I get t camp, I can set up my shelter without exposing my pack contents to rain. Plus, setting up my shelter is much faster, since I don’t have to dig around in my pack to find tent stakes, etc.
    • Finally, I like wearing a backpack in cold wet weather that has full contact with my back because it provides me with extra insulation.
  5. Cooking
    • I’d bring an isobutane stove for a trip like this to avoid having to prime an alcohol stove in cold weather. A medium-sized canister is sufficient for a trip this length, even without a resupply. If the trip were any longer though, I’d probably bring an alcohol stove because it’s far easier to get denatured alcohol at any hardware store than it is isobutane, unless you can pre-stage a resupply.
  6. Other considerations:
    • In extended wet conditions like these, I’d made sure I brought along a tube of zinc oxide to prevent chafing and I’d always air my day time underwear at night to help it dry out.
    • If I got cold, I’d get into my sleeping bag to warm up. As long as you’re in a sheltered location, away from the rain, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get into your bag whenever you’re not moving and generating heat.

Does your gear strategy differ from mine? How so? Please explain in a comment, or leave a question if you have one.

Was this a helpful way to approach the issue of what to pack on a trip like this?

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24 comments

  1. It has to be pretty cold to wear rain pants when hiking. I prefer a rain kilt or skirt to avoid the heat build-up while moving. In camp I switch to the rain pants for warmth.

  2. Interesting post. In philosophy, it's much the same packlist I have. I personally consider a wet environment around freezing as the toughest one to be in. IMHO, if you one can handle this type of weather, you can handle any kind of weather.

  3. I agree Chris. If you can handle days of this, you can pretty much go where you want.

  4. Rev – it was cold. So cold, I'd get into my sleeping bag to get warm before making dinner, and then get back in to go to sleep before sunset. Tell me it's warmer in Virginia in April and I'll be there in a flash next spring.

  5. Well…last year it was 92 in VA on the trail in April, but that was unusual. Last week I got sunburned on one day, and walked another in weather like you are describing. The real deal is that the temperature here is much warmer on average at that time of year, but you can still get exactly the kind of days you ran into. Having two weeks of it would not be typical.

    I wore rain pants last year in the snow when it was below freezing, but agree with RevLee on the Kilt being a better option when it is warmer- I just get too hot in pants. After we crossed Mt. Rogers I don't think I was ever in pants except for camp- and I am typically cold-natured.

    Good post btw- interesting read as it is almost exactly what I do as well. The only exception is I like Gore-tex shoes to keep my feet dry until late Spring/Summer, and I used a silk bag liner last year which seemed to help my skinny body stay warmer in the bag.

  6. I also wore gore-tex socks a few days on this hike, but they leak, and I don't think they helped me stay warmer or drier, all that much. Still a useful option, if they don't leak, because your shoes will dry faster if they're not lined.

    Appreciate the feedback on the post format. I'm trying to dream up better ways to communicate the concept of going light, without such a heavy gear-specific emphasis.

  7. Hiking in rainpants is a great way to get soaked, unless it is really bucketing down. I use a similar system- though with both pack cover+ liner. One of the things I like about the Mariposa+ are the huge outside pockets which keep the wet things wet. Nothing cures incipient hypothermia like dry clothes:

    Generally I try to have a wet set of clothes and a dry set& never let them meet. One thing I've learned to like about tarps and tarp like systems is you can set them up very quickly on a break during rainy weather- thus getting out of it for, say, lunch. Not sure I'd do that with a tent.

  8. True on tent vs tarp, but I keep moving when it's raining. Hate to cool off.

  9. Hi, Earlylite.

    You probably realise that an old Scotland hand is going to think of the conditions you describe as benign, although the comments about kilts make me think that mugginess is more of a problem for you guys below the tree line.

    Rain pants have come a long way. I find mine comfortable and not restricting. Also, they do not leave me damp on ascents of 2000 feet, even though, wanting to be on the ridge, I take the climbs rapidly. Using a RAB eVent rain suit, I always finish rain days dry despite preferring merino base layers. eVent is great stuff.

    Did you find you had got a bit niffy in that synthetic gear?

  10. Down south it is probably more a mugginess issue. Up north it's just nasty. We have a partialy maritime climate that is very much like Scotland, but the snow lasts a lot longer in spring.

    Yes, synthetics makes me stick. But wool makes me itch, so I go with a synthetic base layer. Easy to rinse in streams and faster to dry than wool, although you stop caring after a few days. I consider it a bear deterrent. :-)

  11. I wish it deterred midges!

  12. Phil, Yup, those are some of the worst conditions. You spend most of your time cool & cold or hot and sweaty. I spent a couple weeks last year in the ADK's on a canoe trip last May, it rained every day. Staying dry was impossible.

    Nylon pants were the best bet. They dried out in about a half hour at a shelter with a fire.

    Now there is a skill, building a fire in the rain coverd by the edge of your tarp…wish I was better at it, but, heat IS important.

  13. I enjoyed this post. I just completed two cold wet weekend hikes in Northwest PA. Prior to these trips I had to put a lot of thought into how I was going to keep warm and dry. My system pretty much matches yours.

    My big turning point in developing a system was a few years ago when I realized that my rain gear could be worn when it was not raining to keep warm. Before that each piece of gear had a specific purpose and was only used for that purpose. The rain gear only saw rain.

  14. OK- after googling "niffy" I would have to agree, but after a week on the trail that is about as nice as anyone would describe a hiker's smell! My wife calls it "earthy"- which is kind. I wore one synthetic shirt for 2 1/1 months of hiking last year, and even after a year it still smells "earthy"- the plus is that it brings back good memories whenever I catch a whiff. It just smells like the trail to me.

    The kilt idea (homemade version of the ULA Rain Wrap) came about after hiking in shoulder temperatures in heavy rain with only shorts- water tended to run down the pack and find its way into a personal "channel" area, which became anoying and cold. The kilt stops that while not changing the airflow to my legs. In sub-freezing wet weather, I would likely wear my rainpants. I still use Paclite as I can't find the "perfect" eVent solution yet, but I am still looking!

  15. Yes – rain gear is a great layer all by itself. fantastic observation!

  16. I tried to get by with a mid-weight fleece blanket in the Berkshires last summer. Ended up with all my clothing layers on at night. In desperation, I finally put on my rain gear and put my lower body into my empty back pack. I was pleasantly surprised at how much it helped. Not a real solution to my poor planning but it helped. I have no idea why I forgot the winter hot water bottle trick, maybe cause it was July? I remembered it on the drive home and felt extra stupid. I have since learned that adding dry leaves to the empty backpack would have helped.

  17. We always keep our warm hats and rain/wind shells handy (outer pockets of packs) for breaks or lunches or weather changes.

    Also, some of Walmart's Starter brand of 100% polyester pants (the lightest versions) make great pants for cool weather. They absorb almost no water and dry very quickly for $10.

    I really enjoyed your choice of this format. Thanks.

  18. Ken – like that term – personal channel, lol.

    I think I avoid the run-off issue because my rain shell has a little extra tail at the bottom that covers the hem of my rain pants. sure helps.

  19. Scott – good point. I keep main rain gear out too. Thx for the feedback on the format. Trying to figure out the best way to convey some of these tricks for less experienced folks.

  20. Why isn't anybody singing the praise of the simple umbrella? Sure you're going to have to forgo the treking poles for awhile but if you're only getting intermittent showers it's the best way to go imo.

  21. Some people like them. I remember reading that Francis Tapon used a Golite brella on his back-to-back CDT thru-hikes. I destroy them faster than hiking poles.

  22. Great post! But a small correction:

    "Sweat makes you cold because you body compensates by trying to evaporate it, using more energy, which makes you feel cool."

    That's not at all correct. What actually happens is that the AIR evaporates your sweat, and water has a very high heat capacity. That means that in cold, dry air water evaporates from your skin readily, especially since the water close to your body is being warmed BY your body, so it carries a lot of heat away with it. Wind just increases the efficiency of this process. This is entirely the reason that vapor barriers help to keep you warmer — they're trapping all of that moisture so that the water can't carry away heat and cool you down.

    When you exert, your body heats up, and compensates by producing sweat so that it can let the air cool you down. The problem is that when you stop exerting in cold weather, the air continues to carry off that water through evaporation, and the heat along with it, but when you're not exerting, you're no longer generating enough heat to compensate for the heat loss.

  23. I prefer pack covers myself. I like keeping the pack dry. I also prefer to keep my tarp or tent and sleeping pad on the outside of my pack so the cover keeps them dry. This system has worked well for me including a trip where it rained for 5-6 days straight. For footwear I prefer Gore-Tex boots. I don't like trail runners. They are too low and feel too much like sneakers. I wear some kind of boot all the time and sneakers just don't feel comfortable.

  24. But I'm not talking about cold, dry weather, but cold wet weather when you're wearing multiple layers and a DWR which prevents wet out and evaporation.

    But you're not the first person to complain about my nuanced usage, so I just removed the offending phrase to avoid detracting from the other main points in the post.

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