Do You Need Rain Pants for Backpacking?

Do You Need Rain Pants for Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking rain pants are designed to protect you from the chilling effects of rain or wind. If you plan to hike in a climate where it rains frequently, carrying and wearing rain pants or a rain kilt is probably advisable. If it does rain and you don’t have rain and wind protection for your legs, or conditions are too unpleasant to continue, there’s nothing stopping you from setting up a tent or shelter and getting dry and warm. It’s often the best option, so it’s surprising that people don’t do it more frequently.

Chilling Effect of Rain and Wind

We constantly lose body heat under normal circumstances, so if we feel cold, we add extra clothing to feel warmer and hold onto more of it. But if your clothes and skin get wet, your rate of body heat loss increases by a factor of “25” because water is so good at conducting heat away from an object. Rain pants can help prevent heat loss by preventing water from reaching your skin. Rain pants are also another layer that helps trap your body heat and keep you warmer.

Rain pants will keep you drier and help insulate your legs
Rain pants vary in the amount of venting they provide to reduce perspiration and internal condensation.

Wind can also have the same effect as rain by quickly stripping away your body heat: the stronger the wind, the colder you get. You won’t notice this as much on a warm day as on a cold day in the form of wind chill, which can result in cold injuries like frostbite if it’s too high. Rain pants can also help keep the wind off your skin while also providing added insulation by trapping your body heat.

Some hikers carry wind pants instead of rain pants if they know that wind chill is an issue when rain isn’t. Wind pants are virtually identical to rain pants, except they’re seldom waterproof. Rain pants can serve double duty as wind pants and are often used for this purpose.

Some rain pants have full size zippers and can be removed or put on without removing your shoes
Some rain pants have full-length side zippers and can be removed or put on without removing your shoes.

Types of Rain Pants

There are many types of hiking rain pants available that are best suited for different conditions. Some are best used in cold weather and some in warmer temperatures. Some have zip-off legs, zippers that run the full length of the outer leg for venting, partway, or have zippers up to the tops of the ankles.  You can also buy rain pants without any venting at all.

If there’s one common property of rain pants, it’s that they WON’T keep your legs absolutely dry when worn for hiking in the rain. If you’re hiking, it’s more than likely that you are perspiring. Plus, if you’re wearing rain pants and it’s raining, condensation will form inside of your pants if it’s colder outside (That’s why rain jackets can feel wet inside when worn in the rain.)

The most effective way to reduce moisture build-up is to have vents built into your rain pants that release body heat so you sweat less. Waterproof-breathable rain pants can help, but they will rarely keep up with the perspiration-levels hikers produce, let alone added condensation.

ModelVentingWeight
Enlightened Equipment Visp PantsAnkle-Zip4 oz
Outdoor Research Helium Rain PantsAnkle-Zip6.7 oz
Outdoor Research Foray PantsHip-Zip (3/4)10.7 oz
REI Essential Rain PantsAnkle-Zip9.5 oz
REI Ranier Full Zip PantsFull-Length12.6 oz
REI XeroDry GTX PantsAnkle-Zip10.0 oz
Rab Downpour EcoAnkle-Zip7.9 oz
Black Diamond Stormline StretchAnkle-Zip8.3 oz
Columbia Rebel RoamersNone11 oz
Marmot Precip Full Zip PantsFull-Length12 oz
Marmot Precip Eco Boot Zip PantsAnkle-Zip8.1 oz
Marmot MinimalistAnkle-Zip10.5 oz
Patagonia Torrentshell 3L PantsMid-Thigh11.8 oz
Frogg Toggs Ultralite PantsNone5 oz
Montbell Versalite PantsNone3.2 oz
Montbell Rain Trekker PantsKnee-length6.1 oz
Montane Minimus PantsAnkle-Zip4.4 oz
Lightheart Gear Rain PantsAnkle-Zip3.7 oz

Hiking Rain Pants – Purchase Considerations

When choosing which rain pants to get, you’ll want to consider the following factors in addition to weight.

a. Does the drawstring wrap around the entire waist or is it sewn in?

Drawstrings that run around the entire circumference of your rain pants are much more durable than ones that are only sewn to points located in the front waistband and have a tendency to rip out when you pull them tight. Hint: Loop the drawstring of your rain pants through a cord lock so that the cord doesn’t disappear into the waistband. This also makes them easier to tighten without a knot. 

b. Can you pull on the rain pants and take them off without removing your shoes?

This is mainly an issue in cold wet weather when you want to avoid getting your socks wet by having to stand on wet ground while you struggle to put on or remove your rain pants.

c. Are the ankle cuff openings too baggy or adjustable?

It can be awkward and noisy to hike in baggy rain pants. Some rain pants, like the Montane Minimus or the Montbell’s Versalite Pants have volume adjusters that let you reduce the volume of the legs or ankles.

d. Are they available in shorter and longer lengths?

Rain pants that are too long are also awkward to hike in. I like wearing mine short by a few inches and tucking them into stretch gaiters.

e. Do the rain pants have any external pockets?

Many rain pants are devoid of pockets, which can be a limitation if you plan to wear them during town resupplies when the rest of your laundry is in a washing machine at the local laundromat.

f. How good is the breathable membrane/factory DWR?

If you have a pair of waterproof breathable rain pants, there’s a good chance that they’re coated with a factory strength chemical coating called DWR (durable water repellent) that makes water bead up and roll off when rain lands on it. This coating wears off a little bit every time you wear the rain pants, you fold them up or wash them. Some DWR coatings are fabulous and can last a year or more while others fail much more quickly. While you can reapply DWR coatings to waterproof/breathable gear with a product like Nikwax TX-Direct, they’re seldom as long-lasting as a good factory treatment.

g. How warm are the rain pants?

Rain pants made with thicker and heavier materials tend to be much warmer than gossamer-thin or ultralight rain pants. Sometimes it makes sense to own two pairs and use the warmer rain pants in winter and the cooler ones the rest of the year.

Alternative Rain Clothes and Gear

A lot of people don’t like wearing rain pants because they’re an added layer to hike with if you put them over your hiking shorts/pants, they feel cold and clammy against the skin when they get wet, they’re too hot, or don’t fit well.

Rain Kilts

One alternative is to wear a rain kilt which is a long waterproof skirt that you can wear on top of shorts or underwear to keep your upper legs dry. The kilt provides excellent airflow to combat perspiration or condensation build-up in your sensitive areas, although your feet and socks are likely to get wet when hiking in rain. Rain kilts aren’t as effective at blocking wind as rain pants are, but they provide more freedom of movement and better ventilation than rain pants, especially in warmer climates.

The ULA Rain Kilt is long and provides a lot of leg coverage
The ULA Rain Kilt is long and provides a lot of leg coverage

Rain Kilts can also easily paired with high gaiters if you want more lower leg warmth and mud protection. Gaiters aren’t really waterproof, but they can add a lot of warmth for your lower legs.

Rain Chaps

Rain Chaps are essentially long waterproof gaiters that come high up your thighs but leave the area around your crotch and between your butt cheeks uncovered so less perspiration accumulates there. Whereas rain kilts are designed to keep your upper legs warm, rain chaps are designed to keep your lower legs warm. They’re also particularly well suited for wading through high wet grass or off-trail where you’ll brush up against wet vegetation.

Rain chaps also provide good wind protection. While they are a bit more involved than pants to put on, that’s offset by their lighter weight.

Make / ModelTypeWeight
Zpacks Rain KiltRain Kilt2.0 oz
ULA Rain KiltRain Kilt3.5 oz
Antigravity Gear Rain KiltRain Kilt4.3 oz
Lightheart Gear Rain WrapRain Kilt3.2 oz

Ponchos, Cagoules, Trench Coats, and Umbrellas

While rain kilts and rain chaps can be used with a regular rain jacket, they are more comfortable and effective with looser fitting upper garments like ponchos, cagoules, hiking trench coats, or when used with an umbrella.

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More Frequently Asked Questions

23 comments

  1. On top of all these good reasons to have rain pants, I find them extremely useful on backpacking trips because I can wear them in the morning and sit down on the dewy ground without getting my butt wet. They’re a good extra layer for chilly mornings and evenings, too.

  2. I can’t get the link to MLD to work.

  3. I have a relatively inexpensive pair of no-frills rain paints from Columbia that I frequently wear on winter campouts with our scout troop. They have performed very well at keeping my under layers dry and are a great wind block as well.

  4. Montbell has STRETCH RAIN FULL ZIP PANTS WOMEN’S on closeout now. I can’t think why, unless it is some mysterious marketing decision. I bought them way back, and have been very pleased with them. They have full length side zips, which makes them especially handy in the winter when one’s feet become so much larger re boots! Just to let your readers know about the sale. $104, and 9.7oz.

  5. I carry a rain kilt for hiking and rain pants for in camp. Unless it’s snowing, the rain pants are just too hot to hike in.

  6. Regarding ponchos, I found several front-zipped ponchos on Amazon. No-name brands; most were around $20.

    These things are terrific in warm weather. No DWR to fail. Maximum ventilation. Goes over my pack so that my back can breathe. Goes on and off without removing my pack (I clip a mesh sack to my belt, to store it on rain days, when I am not wearing it). Protects pack, hip belt, shoulder pockets, and me.

    I find the front zipper adds much more ventilation than a standard poncho, especially since the poncho is not restricted by hip belt or shoulder straps.

  7. I have 2 pair of rain pants, one of Gore-Tex PacLite, the other of eVent. Here in Nevada I seldom take them backpacking EXCEPT when I go to the Rockies where afternoon thunderstorms are the norm in summer.

    Mainly I rely on my GTX PacLite or eVent parkas and synthetic hiking pants, which dry fairly fast. I’ve been known to put my very light waterproof pack cover over my lap and legs when sitting out a storm, letting the pack get wet B/C everything inside that needs protection is already in waterproof stuff sacks.

    BACKPACKING IN THE RAIN IS AN ART FORM.

  8. the main problem with rain pants…is that when you walk for several mile in them, the inseam starts to fray and fall apart.
    The only place where they’re helpful is with really cold wind. Oddly enough not in the rain.
    The “rain kilt” works to keep your SHORTS dry (which is all I need). You’re shoes are going to be wet…not matter what you do.

  9. I use the Zpacks Vertice rain pants as my protection layer for wind, cold, and rain. At 3 ounces they’re super light and compact so I hardly know they’re in my pack. They’ve held up incredibly well to hours of steady downpours in the Olympics and howling winds in the Alps. I wear shorts 365/24/7 no matter where I am in the world but these are the only pants that go on my adventures.

    • I love my Vertice jacket and pants for much the same reasons. They’re extremely light, but handle moisture and wind extremely well. I sweat profusely, but have been comfortable in them when it rained for three days straight. They’re a part of my layering system no matter what the conditions.

  10. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    I have a number of options: I have one pair each of the Outdoor Research Helium and Foray pants…I also have the Z Paks kilt….which I hate, and used exactly once. So it sits in my gear closet…and it laughs at me every time I pick it up; so I laugh back at it, and put it down. My favorite by far, was my camo poncho issued to me as a Navy Seabee. It is heavy, but it doubles as a pup tent in emergencies.. And in my follow on career as a federal wildlife Law Enforcement Officer, I used it to hide in when doing surveillance on poachers (I spent many a cold rainy night under that thing, resulting in numerous apprehensions and successful cases against those that don’t appreciate wildlife and the outdoors as most readers do. The poncho, always with me on bikepack trips and long day hikes.. backpacking fave are the Heliums.

  11. The comments sure show the value of “hike your own hike.” ;-)

    I have an almost irrational dislike of rain pants. I tend to wait too long to put them on, then I overheat and wait too long to take them off. I started hiking with an umbrella several years ago. I did a week-long hike during which I got rained on every day. When the rain was a constant drizzle, I used the umbrella & a Tyvek skirt.

    I tend to overheat easily, so I prefer the ‘airiness’ of a rain kilt & umbrella or cape. (I bought a Gatewood cape last year but I haven’t had the opportunity to use it.) The caveat is I’m rarely hiking in driving wind & cold rain. I’m sure the day will come that I’m in a downpour with gale force winds & I’ll find myself regretting my hubris. :)

  12. Looks like MLD doesn’t do rain chaps any more. Im a kilt and umbrella guy with a rain jacket back up.

  13. Hi Phil, love the “Section Hiker”!
    What rain pants do you use? I have the OR Foray II rain jacket, love the vents on the sides, would the foray rain pants be a good choice for someone who perspires a lot?

  14. I used a pair of Red Ledge rain pants for several years. They have a full zip. A few years ago, I switched to the OR Gear Helium pants because they are significantly less weight.

    I used the pants last week when backpacking with my sister on South Rim in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend, not for rain protection but for the wind and brutal cold we experienced one night. It’s a hike we last did together 50 years ago.

    For me, rain pants are an integral part of my cold and wind management system, even more so than long johns (which I didn’t take on this hike).

  15. Another great article, Philip! I enjoy using the Snugpack Enhanced Patrol Poncho. It’s a poncho with full sleeves (which also have thumb holes) and a longer backside to accommodate wearing it with a pack. It’s 399 grams, so not really lightweight. However it’s fully waterproof with taped seams and keeps you dry down to knee/shin level (depending on your height).

  16. I live in Singapore, right along the equator. Humidity levels are at a constant 80 to 90+ %. Average temps of 90ºF. When it rains, it’s a deluge. Rain shells and pants absolutely do not work. Way too warm, too clammy. I swear by ponchos. Cheap, 100% waterproof, covers my pack and offers maximum ventilation. Although the insides do accumulate a fair amount of condensation, it is nowhere as bad as a rain shell or pant. Might consider a rain skirt, seems to pair well with a rain shell in cooler climates.

  17. Another important use of rain pants – town/refugio pants while you wash your regular hiking pants on a long hike!

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