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Backpacking Rain Gear – Some thoughts

Have you ever stopped to think about the rain gear that you bring on backpacking trips and its true purpose?

For example, there is a common misconception among many hikers that the purpose of rain gear is to keep you dry. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead rain gear is meant to keep you warm when it's raining by creating a vapor barrier around your legs and torso that keeps your body heat trapped close to your body. In doing so, rain gear will often make you as wet from condensation as if you were naked in the rain. Except without it, you'd quickly get chilled and possibly become hypothermic.

The same goes for pack covers. More often than not, they do little to protect your pack from rain and instead cause so much condensation to occur that your pack's exterior gets wet anyway. In reality, it's your backpack liner that keeps your gear dry. A pack cover's real utility is to protect your pack from damage from stray branches or thorns, particularly if you have an ultralight pack that has a lot of external netting. I keep my pack cover on most of the time these days when I'm hiking rough trail in Vermont or New York State to keep it from getting torn, and it's a must have when bushwhacking.

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17 Responses to Backpacking Rain Gear – Some thoughts

  1. tritan August 14, 2008 at 3:51 pm #

    where did you get this pack cover?

  2. Earlylite August 14, 2008 at 3:54 pm #

    It's also from Gossamer Gear. They're one of my favorite ultralight boutiques.

  3. Sil August 16, 2008 at 1:40 am #

    The BEST, BEST, BESTEST rain cover is the ALTUS raincape made in Spain.

    Ay-yay-yay … I have tried ponchos, rain jackets, rainsuits and pack covers …. none really worked. The poncho usually sticks up at the back and flies up in strong wind. In rain trousers and jacket one steams up so much inside that you end up wetter than if you just walked in the rain.

    The ALTUS is a long, lightweight raincoat with sealed seams, raglan sleeves with velcro ties at the wrist, a zip up front with added velcro straps, air vents on the chest and …. best of all, a hunchback to cover the backpack, with a hood and peak to keep the rain off your face.

    A little bit weighty at 450g but replaces over trousers, jacket, hat, pack cover etc.


  4. Deborah April 4, 2009 at 5:22 am #

    Could you tell me how to order the Altus brand raincape? I looked at the Decathlon stores website but they didn't seem to carry it–or else I couldn't find it there. Thanks for your help,


  5. Earlylite April 4, 2009 at 8:53 am #

    Looks like it's only available in Europe.

  6. lori April 5, 2009 at 7:35 am #

    I'm about to retrofit a Driducks poncho with draw cords on the end for an undercover to protect the underquilt on my hammock and to help in gusty wind situations – not that I have many of those. So far *knock on wood* I have only been in ongoing drizzly rain with little wind.

  7. Earlylite April 5, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    Jacks R Better used to sell exactly this (using the driducks material) as a wind and vapor barrier. I actually have one with some very minor damage and will send it to you for free if you pay for postage. I'm not using it. Let me know if you're interested.

  8. lori April 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    Jacks R better is in fact now using the DriDucks Poncho, instead of the older version of the weathershield. Their retrofitted version costs about twenty bucks. I'm going to use my own cordlocks and line. I'd rather have the dual use item than a dedicated weather shield, but thank you for your generous offer. :)

  9. Earlylite April 5, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    That's it – it was called the weathershield. Dual use sounds better.

  10. RevLee March 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    A rain skirt (or kilt, or wrap) is great for warm weather hiking in the rain. It will keep your shorts dry while allowing plenty of ventilation. ULA sells them, but they are fairly easy to make out of silnylon.

  11. Korpijaakko March 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    "The same goes for pack covers. More often than not, they do little to protect your pack from rain and instead cause so much condensation to occur that your pack's exterior gets wet anyway. In reality, it's your backpack liner that keeps your gear dry."

    I disagree. I've often used only pack-cover (no liner) and the gear inside has stayed dry. Quite likely the stuff would get wet during prolonged rain as the fabrics would soak from the back panel…

    PS. Nice recycling of posts. ;)

  12. Earlylite March 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Did you contradict yourself there – you did use a pack liner, but the gear would get wet anyway from prolonged exposure?

    I haven't budged on this stance – except for bushwhacking and on bad trails, I still think backpack covers are a waster of time. Seriously, how much water will silnylon or dyneema absorb (nil). A pack liner is your best bet, and also serves as an excellent 1/2 bivy around the base of your sleeping bag if you're in a tent that has condensation dripping on you because of heavy rain and humidity.

  13. Grant March 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    Imagine if outdoor gear companies marketed rain gear as something that will prevent hypothermia but not prevent you from getting wet. I would love to see those ads.

  14. Earlylite March 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    God forbid they get told the truth! Next thing you know they'll want to keep their pants from getting muddy too.

  15. DripDry March 24, 2011 at 6:48 am #

    Nice idea on the 1/2 bivy from the pack liner. That hadn't occurred to me before- that is a problem in shelters as well as wind driven rain or splash can come in.

    It will be interesting to see if some of the new fabrics (i.e. eVent co-development, MH DryQ, Columbia Omni-Dry) will bring any relief to the sweat-box reality to hiking in wet weather. I am not sure fabric will solve it though. My hope is that cottage manufacturers can access these fabrics and start to design something truly "fit” for hiking in the real world. I was surprised to learn from a couple of garment manufacturing reps how much control the fabric manufacturers have over venting features such as pit-zips, etc. As a consumer, I want the ability to use the most lightweight breathable fabric available with every venting option imaginable to dump the heat and body moisture, but apparently many fabric manufacturers are more concerned with the image that the garment needs to be vented than the reality that ALL garments do.

  16. Earlylite March 24, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    You're right. It is a handy trick in shelters in blowing rain. I've also used it on very windy nights on tent platforms around my sleeping bag to stay warm. Really works well.

    We'll see about new fabrics. I'm not hopeful. We're designed to sweat for a reason. The answer may simply be old age – I hear you sweat less as you get older.

  17. Curt April 15, 2016 at 12:23 am #

    Ponchos baby! An old-school totally waterproof fabric poncho and a set of waterproof chaps will keep you dry in an all-day rain. The breathable-waterproof rain gear sold today in neither. If it were breathable why the venting? If it were waterproof why do I get soaked after a few hours? A poncho made of completely waterproof fabric will shed rain and the style and shape of the poncho makes it very vented and dry inside. It’s back to the future for me, see ya there.

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