Do You Need Rain Pants for Hiking and 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 and/or you’re exposed to cold wind, carrying rain pants, rain chaps, or a rain kilt is 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.

ModelVentingWeightMSRP
Outdoor Research Helium Rain PantsAnkle-Zip6.7 oz$119
Columbia Rebel RoamersNone11 oz$50
Marmot Precip Full Zip PantsFull-Length12 oz$70
Marmot Precip Eco Boot Zip PantsAnkle-Zip8.1 oz$80
Patagonia Cloud Ridge PantsAnkle-Zip10.9 oz$179
Kuhl JetstreamAnkle-Zip8.8 oz$175
Arc'teryx Beta SLFull-Length13.2 oz$275
Patagonia Torrentshell 3L PantsMid-Thigh11.8 oz$119
Montane Atomic PantsMid-Thigh10.7 oz$175
Montane MinimalistAnkle-Zip5.3 oz$140
Frogg Toggs Ultralite PantsNone5 oz$15
Montbell Stretch Full ZipFull-Length10.8 oz$149
Montbell Versalite PantsNone3.2 oz$139
Montbell Convertible Rain PantsKnee-length6.1 oz$119
Enlightened Equipment Visp PantsAnkle-Zip4 oz$160

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 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 ran 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.

Mountain Laurel Designs Rain Chaps
Mountain Laurel Designs Rain Chaps

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 / ModelTypeWeightPrice
Zpacks Rain KiltRain Kilt2.0 oz$59
ULA Rain KiltRain Kilt3.5 oz$36
Antigravity Gear Rain KiltRain Kilt4.3 oz$39
Lightheart Gear Rain WrapRain Kilt3.2 oz$55
Mountain Laurel Designs Rain KiltRain Kilt2.3 oz$40

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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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. In addition, Philip volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

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25 comments

  1. Great article!

    Of the pants you’ve tested, which rain pants have the best waist belt system? I have a pair with a crummy elastic system that, after a few miles, make them look like prison pants.

    • My main gotos are rain pants from Montane and Montbell. The waists are wraparound drawstrings and the legs are pretty low volume so they’re less noisy. They’re also good as wind pants. Fit can be a little tricky because they’re designed for people who are smaller than Americans. Just buy them someplace with a good return policy. That would be Amazon for Montane and you have to go direct for Montbell. I have nothing against the other pants listed there. This is just my personal preference.

      • I just replaced my Marmot full zips and was very disappointed. I wear them with a base layer for winter hiking because I can vent heat from the legs – a tip picked up from your site that works well. While they added two pockets, they eliminated the fly and belt. Had to add my own sewn in belt to keep them up and bio breaks are more awkward and less ..er.. discrete.

      • Marmot keeps messing around with the Precip line and I wish they’d stop making changes. Luckily most winter hikers aren’t bashful. :-)

  2. I think I’ll give rain kilts another look. They are much lighter and less expensive than pants and are probably adequate for summer temps. Great post Philip.

    • Montbell Convertibles for me. They are highly breathable, and worn as shorts over briefs work great when it’s wet but warmer. I tried a kilt but found myself soaked with sweat.

    • If you are handy with sewing or know someone who is, you can whip up a pretty cheap rain kilt out of silnylon (ripstopbytheroll.com), some elastic & Velcro.

    • Last year I bought a 100′ roll of Tyvec. I use a 9′ length of it as a ground cloth & a rain skirt. Lightweight, durable, and really cheap. It took such a beating during a really rainy week that it got soaked, but I’m not sure if it ended up being no longer waterproof or not.

      On the plus side, I still have 80′ of Tyvec to work with, so I can make a new one.

      I really like the skirt as I don’t overheat. I carry an umbrella, and during the near-constant drizzle in Washington’s Section J the umbrella & Tyvec skirt were enough to keep me dry.

  3. You could add the Rab Downpour pants to your list. Less than 7oz and come in different leg lengths.

  4. What no mention of the 4 ounce dance pants that many use?

  5. Another great read!

    I love my Montbell rain pants @ 4 ounces. I’m almost always in shorts, unless below freezing. If pants are needed, it is always my MontbelL rain pants. The exception is if I am off trail or I know the trail is going to be very over grown. Then I wear regular hiking pants.

    Another very good point is stopping and sheltering if conditions are too bad. Years ago, when on the PCT, I almost waited too long to set up my shelter. I was not ready for sleet and close to freezing temps in the desert! I waited too long and could barely move my fingers by the time I stopped to pitch my tent.

    • I have Reynaud’s syndrome, which causes my fingers to turn white from hampered blood flow when my hands get cold and/or wet. It’s very painful and makes my hands almost useless. I also have to be careful of weather conditions so that I’m able to set up my camp in deteriorating weather while my hands are working. With proper gear and applying lessons from experience, I’ve managed to reduce the problems Reynaud’s causes for me.

      Rain pants are just part of my overall response to environmental conditions to stay warm enough to function so that I can enjoy my hikes.

  6. Rain pants once saved me in a week long hike after I had severe chafing after hiking two days in wet trousers. The pain was so severe that I didn’t see how I could continue. But I hiked for the rest of the week using my fairly loose rain pants instead of trousers, and was able to keep going. I usually don’t carry them on day hikes though.

  7. Phillip, have you tried or reviewed the Packa you list above? That’s an intriguing-looking contraption. Thanks.

  8. I noticed the REI Essential rain pants did not make your list. I picked up a pair of these a few months ago and they worked on a cold rainy day-hike, but I haven’t taken them out backpacking yet. My plan is to use theses as rain pants when it is cold, wind pants, and camp pants when I am hanging around my camp in the evening and I need mosquito protection. They seem lightweight and we’re about $60. I am hoping you don’t have information that indicates they are poor quality.

  9. I tried “ultralight” rain kilt briefly and found it a useful light weight and quickly deployed addition to a rain jacket to take along when heavy or extended rain is possible but not expected. Rain jackets alone shed all the water onto you upper thigh and I don’t really understand why caghoul length jackets are not more common. The particular kilt I tried was a wrap around and not big enough for me. It tended to blow open even in light wind and when worn backwards it would ride up so I just took the rain pants I had… REI side zips…easy to put on but on the heavy side. One surprise was I found they kept me warmer compared to others wearing them on knee deep snow melt river crossings. It was raining and I was wearing them. I might try that again if it is cold and windy.

  10. The REI Rainier Full-Zip Rain Pants are also a good option. I’ve really enjoyed my pair, and the full-zip is very convenient. They often go on sale for a good price.

  11. I carry basic REI ones. Have used them more for warmth on chilly summer mountain evenings than in rain, but that’s important too.

  12. The best balance between keeping dry (in Scotland & Alpine thunderstorms), weight & durability I’ve found is the Berghaus Paclite over trousers, ~200g (7oz) in a medium & long leg zippers help venting when necessary.

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