Andrew Skurka and I spent an afternoon together about a month ago, talking about the things that separate more experienced hikers and backpackers from less experienced ones and the kinds of skills he’ll be emphasizing in his guided Ultimate Hiker instructional trips this year.
The top skill on both of our lists was hiking in the rain, something that a lot of hikers I know go to great lengths to avoid.
I used to feel that way too, at least until I hiked Vermont’s Long Trail which is notorious for it’s rainy weather and muddy trails. After that experience, rain doesn’t bother me at all!
You Are Going to Get Wet
If you only hike on days when there’s zero percent chance of rain, you aren’t going to do much hiking. Sooner or later, you are going to get soaked through-and-through on a hike.
Forget all of your fancy gear: it won’t be worth a hill of beans when you have to walk in pouring rain for a few hours on a day hike, or several days on a backpacking trip. Your waterproof, breathable rain jacket and pants won’t keep you dry, nor will your waterproof hiking boots/trail shoes.
Your best defense isn’t expensive gear, but learning how to stay healthy and safe when you get wet. You can only gain this experience by hiking in the rain, which is why you want to practice it close to home before you need to rely on it in more challenging or dangerous conditions.
Jedi Rain-Walking Secrets
Rain gear will not keep you dry in 100% humidity. It will help keep you warm however, as long as you keep moving and generating body heat.
Wear hiking footwear that drains fast and dries quickly. Avoid shoes with a waterproof liner because they take a very long time to dry when they get wet. Mesh drains quickly and dries fast. Leather dries the slowest.
Prevent chafing. Wear long synthetic or wool boxer jocks. Carry zinc oxide to sooth irritated skin between your legs and butt cheeks.
Lubricate your feet with vaseline to make them slippery and prevent rubbing in your shoes, which can lead to blisters. Hypropel also works, but is far more expensive. Duct tape works well for heels because its silver exterior is so slippery.
If you are backpacking, let your feet dry completely out at night.
It’s possible to get hypothermia in surprisingly warm weather. Learn to recognize the early signs of hypothermia in yourself and your companions, such as the umbles (mumbles, stumbles, fumbles, and grumbles). Stay well hydrated. Keep moving and eating.
Wear a few layers in cooler weather, especially if the DWR on your rain gear has worn away or you are only wearing a base layer under a rain jacket and it’s soaked. Adding a mid-layer will prevent the cold from conducting from your rain jacket to your skin.
A billed cap will keep rain off of your glasses or out of your face.
If you use hiking poles, attach them to your pack in cool weather so you can put your hands in your pockets to keep them warm.
Taking a Powder
Getting the hang of all of these techniques, dialing in your own system, and validating it in different temperatures takes a surprising amount of practice, but pays dividends when you need it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pitching your shelter and hanging out for a day in your sleeping bag if the weather is really bad and you have enough food with you.
Hiking is supposed to be fun, after all.