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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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