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How to Backpack in the Rain and Stay Reasonably Happy

How to Backpack in the Rain

One of the most important skills of long distance backpacking is learning how to take care of yourself if you have to hike in sustained rain. Foot care, campsite selection, thermoregulation, pacing, layering, cooking, hydration, packing, and gear selection are all factors in learning how to stay happy and healthy when you get covered in mud and soaked by rain.

I can still remember the first long distance backpacking trip where I had to contend with several days of heavy continuous rain and muddy trails. It was when I was hiking Vermont’s 272 mile Long Trail, euphemistically called the longest river in Vermont because it’s so muddy and often ankle-deep in water. It was then I learned the most important lesson of the trail, that force of will can’t change reality. “It is what is it” became my mantra after I finished that trail, although I also learned a thing or two about how to cope with backpacking in the rain, which I relate below.

Top Tips for Backpacking in the Rain

1. Rain gear won’t keep you dry in sustained rain, no matter what it’s made with or how much you pay for it. It does retain a lot of warmth however, if you keep hiking vigorously and generating body heat.

2. Carry a trekking umbrella like the Euroschirm Swing Handsfree Umbrella to keep rain from falling on your head and torso. You’ll stay drier and sweat less, especially if it’s warm enough to shed your mid-layer or rain coat. Umbrellas have lots of other uses too.

3. Wear an insulating mid-layer or baselayer under your rain jacket. A wool or synthetic baselayer or a fleece mid-layer will retain heat even when they get soaked with internal condensation or sweat. However, while wool will feel warm when it gets wet, synthetics and polyester fleece dry much more quickly.

4. Wear footwear that drains quickly, preferably made with lightweight synthetic mesh
instead of leather boots or boots with a waterproof/breathable liner. Boots can take many days to dry out and won’t keep you feet dry when water comes in over the top, something that’s almost certain to happen when hiking through deep puddles and mud.

5. Line the inside of your backpack with a plastic bag. White plastic garbage compactor bags are best as long as they are unscented (to avoid attracting bears). Waterproof backpack covers are easily pulled off by surrounding vegetation or wind and do a poor job at keeping rain from seeping into through the seams of your backpack.

6. Always try to keep one layer of clothing dry and tucked away deep in your backpack so you can change into it before you get into your sleeping bag or under your quilt. A long sleeve jersey, long underwear and a dry pair of socks are ideal to help warm you up after hiking in rain all day.

7. Dry wet or damp clothing and gear, especially your quilt or sleeping bag and tent, whenever the sun comes out. Force yourself to take a break and spread your gear out in the sun to get it back into tip-top shape.

8. Let your feet dry out every night when you sleep. Put on a pair of dry socks if you have them; otherwise sleep with them uncovered.

9. Lubricate and massage your feet at night with vaseline or a heavy-duty moisturizing lotion like Eucerin. These will help your skin recover at night and provide some much-needed moisture resistance the next day if you have to hike through rain again. Vaseline is an excellent anti-chafing salve and fire-starter as well.

10. Eat while hiking in the rain to keep your furnace burning and generating body heat. Stay well hydrated too, to help stave off hypothermia and remain alert.

11. If the weather really sucks and you’re burned out from hiking through the muck, take a zero. Stay in your tent for a day or hike into town to dry-out and refuel. You don’t have to make big miles every day.

12. If you know you’re going to be hiking in rainy weather, get yourself a shelter that can be set up in the rain without getting soaking wet inside. Ultralight tarps are nice, but having a tent with a waterproof bathtub floor can be a real godsend if you have a crappy camp site in heavy rain.

13. Make sure you plan a few meals that don’t require cooking. While eating hot food is a good pick-me-up when you’re cold, cooking in the rain can sometimes be more of a hassle than it’s worth. Eat some fatty food, change into your dry layer, crawl into your sleeping bag, and you’ll warm up quickly.

Conclusion

Putting on cold wet hiking socks in the morning sucks, but it is what it is. If you never hike in the rain, you’re probably missing out on a lot of hiking days. Smile and remember that hiking in the wilderness is about as free as you’ll ever be.

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44 comments

  1. Philip,

    You mentioned the EuroShirm trekking umbrella in your post. How much experience have you had with it? How durable is it? I have been using a Gustbuster for a number of years and it is heavy and does not have an extendable shaft.

    Thanks,

    Shawn

    • Used one down on the AT this year. It’s the same identical umbrella that was sold as the Golite Chrome before they went out of business (see 20 years of reviews and trip reports on the web.) The specs are easy to look up online. I have limited web access today…

    • Euro in one hand trekking pole in the other! I take mine with me every time hit the A.T along with a rain jacket, keeps the rain off my face also I can read my map.

    • Bring a pair of sleeping socks. After hiking all day in wet socks and having to wear damp socks the next day, a dry pair at night
      Is appreciated.

  2. great article and tips! nothing will zap you of your will and morale than a stalled rain front.

    here I was thinking that I’m the only person saying that mantra.

  3. If rain is in the forecast and I am carrying a tent (as opposed to tarp or hammock camping), I feel the extra weight of a 5×8 or 5×9 tarp is worth it for meal breaks.

    In low temperatures if wearing low waterproof shoes or mesh shoes and oven bags, I like wearing an event shortie gaitor inside the rainpants as it helps channel the rain dripping down over the shoes. Doesn’t always work, but in certain situations, it helps.

    As far as rain wear itself, if not excessively windy and not a lot of brush, I prefer a waterproof poncho to the fanciest rain wear. Preferably one designed to cover the backpack also.

    • Yep, I have a poncho that covers me and my pack. I also use Sierra Designs chaps for the area the poncho doesn’t cover, ie the calves and below. They are very light. And 9″ gators and waterproof keen boots.

  4. Makes me smile. Learning to be OK.with rain is the toughest lesson we have to learn. Embrace The Suck.

  5. Shawn, if the EuroShirm is the same as the Golite chrome dome, I’ve carried that on many trails. It’s carbon fiber, so you can use it in lightning and wind. It only weighs 6 or 7 oz. My rain gear consists of a tarp poncho and the umbrella. Total combined is about 13oz and keeps my pack and core dry. Legs will get wet, but I concur…. “embrace the suck”

  6. Wait so “Waterproof backpack covers are easily pulled off by surrounding vegetation or wind” but umbrellas aren’t?

    • Yeah, in my opinion, umbrellas arent worth it in the dense eastern forests. They are hard to maneuver through the green tunnel. They make more sense in the American west to protect from blazing sun and the rare rainstorm.

  7. Take a 2-gallon zipper lock plastic bag to store your wet hiking clothing at night. Put it in the bottom of your sleeping bag, making sure it’s well sealed. Your hiking clothing won’t dry there, but at least it will be close to body temperature when you put it back on in the morning, thus saving some screaming! It will also dry faster from your body heat in the morning if it’s already warm. This will also keep the moisture from the wet clothing out of your sleeping bag insulation.

  8. Even in winter in the PNW at low levels I’m doing okay with the Swing umbrella and Houdini wind jacket, while wearing a merino or Capilene base layer and light weight fleece mid layer, and a down jacket at camp. What are people using with an umbrella for rain protection for the legs that vents good while hiking? I’m tempted by the MLD knee-high gaiters to go with sil chaps and a shortened rain skirt (A rain tutu? So much for my dignity. But then it’s the PNW, no one will notice).

    • Thinking about it, my question doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m looking for venting rain protection for legs when using an umbrella, but knee-high gaiters probably wouldn’t have much ventilation. I’ll look for side-zip rain pants that can be opened at the top sides. Or maybe regular rain pants with suspenders.

  9. You now have to make sure that your trash compactor bags are unscented because in the last year I have found and more and more that are available in my local grocery stores are scented, not unscented.

    • If you take a scented compactor bag out of its box and put it in a well ventilated area, it will lose most of its scent to the human nose in a few days.

      • It BEARS repeating that large, furry woodland creatures possessing immense teeth and claws also possess better noses than backpacking humans.

  10. Does anyone recommend a good rain poncho? One that won’t make you sweat to bed.

    • Ckm

      I never leave the trailhead without my zPacks cuben Poncho. And I’m an Oregonian: we have about forty different kinds of rain, so adaptability and ventilation control of a poncho is key.

    • Stephenson’s Warmlite makes silnylon ponchos with zipper sides to order, light, great and customizable.

  11. I gave up on trash compactor bags years ago. I couldn’t find any unscented! Also, when packing my stuff inside, every time I tried to shove down something small to fill a space, it would pop right back out at me. My critical insulation (sleeping bag and clothing carried) goes into two lightweight dry bags (about the same weight as one trash compactor bag), my food and misc toilet articles are in plastic, and it doesn’t matter if the rest gets wet! I swear it takes me 15 minutes less to pack up than it did with atrash compactor bag liner, and saves lots of frustration.

    Not just those large furry creatures but also smaller varmints (like rodents) are attracted to perfumed plastic. And, as Grandpa says, their sense of smell is far better than ours!

  12. Last year, when thru-hiking the Vermont Long Trail (VLT), Jane and I encountered constant, heavy, rain for the first two weeks. Mt. Mansfield set a new record for the period of over 15 inches. We managed to keep our critical stuff dry by following all of the above. Instead of trash compactor bags, we had extremely large Zip Lock bags. ( http://amzn.to/2huDNet ) I think there were four for about eleven bucks. I originally got them for my bicycle panniers but they worked well in a backpack too. I was carrying ham radio equipment that would have been very unhappy if it floated in water.

    I usually hammock camp when alone, but when hiking as a couple, we have a Hubba-Hubba tent. Somewhere along the way we lost the tent footprint that goes under it as a ground cover, so we now just carry two contractor bags. When sleeping in a shelter the bags also serve as something clean to put our sleeping bags on.

    Many times, when wet conditions threaten, we will pile up a considerable pile of leaves or pine needles and then put the contractor bags on them for the tent. The pile serves two purposes: 1. If it is high enough, any water flowing through stays below the surface of the pile and we stay dry. 2. The soft material makes for really comfortable sleeping and there is less danger of a rock or branch poking a hole in the tent.

    I liked the previous quote, they must have heard Jane as she lamented for weeks: “It is what it is…”

    Dennis, “K1”

  13. Curious about your pack cover warning. Is that you in the photo wearing a pack cover? ;-)

  14. Cool Umbrella. Great article.
    I discounted umbrellas since I use hiking poles. And muddy conditions are definitely when I need poles. So I will give this a try. I am in California and I ordered the silver one so I can try it for sun protection in the summer. Got it at Campmor. Came in about $63 with their current 20% discount

  15. I, too, have not had success with external “shower cap” style pack covers. I’ve wondered if a different design might work – such as making a giant pillow case shape out of silnylon or cuben fiber to pull over the top of the whole pack, and cut in slits or sew giant button holes for the straps to pull through. There’s still the risk of water seeping in through the slits, but not nearly as much as with the shower cap pack covers. Has anyone tried something like this? Did it work?

    • Years ago I met some Israelis on the trail using a pack cover design like that. Looked good: didn’t come off accidentally and it likely protected the back more. I kind of figured they might be some sort of Israeli army issue gear, but I don’t know. Not sure about how you’d easily access things from your pack, though

  16. Up thread Iago mentions carrying a small lightweight tarp in addition to a tent. This is very good advice.

    One can rig the tarp over the tent entrance to provide a space to shed wet raingear before entering the tent. In bear country, you can rig the tarp well away from the campsite to provide a bit of shelter for cooking and eating. In wet weather camping, a tarp has many uses to make life easier and more comfortable.

    Rather than trash bags, I agree with Grannyhiker about putting critical gear and spare clothing into lightweight SylNyl dry bags. They work better for me than trash bags.

    Umbrellas are OK as long as you are hiking in sheltered areas. On open tundra, they don’t do so well in the wind.

    • “putting critical gear and spare clothing into lightweight SylNyl dry bags. They work better for me than trash bags”.

      I learned the exact opposite the hard way. My synyl bag allowed my down bag to get damp in a 24hr snow storm here in the PNW. When I got home I held the dry bag under the sink only to discover a thousand pin prick holes (otherwise invisible to the eye) draining out of it. Be wary of synlyl bags.

      A trash compactor or contractor bag (not a trash bag) solves this problem and guarantees your clothing dry.

  17. Amazing that my many waterproof boots over the past 20 years have failed to keep my feet dry as espoused by so many experts, I guess the dry socks are a false testimony to hiking in the dry rain with the non waterproof boots?

  18. Great advice, much of which the trail has taught me over time (and a few new, cool pointers).

    Following my first long hike (Colorado Trail, 2015), I came home *determined* to figure out how to “beat the rain.” Hiking the Appalachian Trail this year, I soon learned the simple truth: There is no way to “beat the rain.”

    My friend MoonBeam taught me that on the AT, when the rain is warm, the very best thing to do is simply walk without rain gear on. Once the rain stops, “body steaming” is by far the most efficient way to dry out.

    It’s trickier in colder wet conditions, but as you point out, the rain gear plus an insulating under layer—I go with Merino wool—is the best approach.

    Thanks for the excellent summation of the problem and ways to mitigate.

  19. Great stuff! So last week I spent a few days in the Tasmania Central Plateau, walking solo and off-track. On the fourth day I was caught up in an unexpected snow storm. (It’s in the middle of summer down here in Australia). Firstly it started raining in the morning but I was planning on getting home that day so I kept walking. Had a rain jacket but had no rain pants. After a few hours my pants were completely wet. The water traveled down my legs to my socks, and very soon I had water puddles in my boots. I had to sit down and pour the water out of my boots every once in a while. Then, few hours before I reached the car park, a blizzard started. My upper body was not wet, thanks to the rain jacket, but I was still shivering. Had no choice but to set up my tent. My fingers were so cold that it took me like 2 minutes to unbuckle my backpack……

    Think I’ll get some rain pants. They would definitely help in strong wind situations. And bring a winter jacket everywhere I go.

  20. I think I’ve learned more from this post than any other one this year.

  21. Great advice……..especially “it is what it is”……..I don’t tend to do momentous hikes like you guys, but perhaps one day???
    I think everything has its limitations (like people), you just have to figure out what works for you……and lets face it, that’s part of the challenge! If it was easy everybody would do it.
    My biggest problem seems to be controlling perspiration whilst hiking. I almost need to stay slightly cold to avoid being soaked with sweat when I stop…..I’ve walked snow capped hills with gloves and hat, only to remove my jacket and find it soaked with sweat. I do like to use ponchos in the rain as I get good ventilation, but it’s not a popular choice in the UK……I’ve used army surplus before but they’re not the lightest!!!!
    Anyone got some poncho recommendations for the UK?

  22. Fascinating post. The last time I did any extended hiking in the rain was the winter of 1973 in the North Georgia Mountains while in the U.S Army’s Ranger School. We hiked in the rain with no rain gear, crossed streams just before dark, slept under poncho & liner, always had wet boots, and ate one meal a day – and were no more miserable than the posts here. As one so eloquently stated, “Learn to enjoy the Suck”.

    • Absolutely. I don’t know that particular comment, but I think the sentiment is key above all the other practical advice. Which is to embrace with a smile and glad heart the rain or thunderstorms or blizzards (without being a nut, of course). I mean at that particular time, on a mountain side, with the rain and leaves and little sticks blowing in your face. It’s glorious. Where else would you be? In front of the TV watching the Jets lose again? Please.

  23. Barbara L Matthews

    Great article. Personally, I love the umbrella and have mine rigged so it is hands free. I’ve used it for sun on the JMT and rain on the AT. Not having rain constantly pelting me in the face hour after hour and getting my own little piece of shade in the intense sun while hiking makes for a much more enjoyable hike for me. I never really had much of an issue with water in my boots. I used a low thin stretchy nylon gaiters that I treated to be water repellent over boots treated with SnoSeal during early spring months.

    There are a couple of things that I am sure that you have addressed in other articles but might be worth a mention here.The importance of campsite selection is amplified in rainy weather, especially when it is dry when you make camp but rain is anticipated overnight. I would also add to always include an emergency blanket. One of those mylar blankets can be picked up for about a dollar and only weigh an ounce or two depending on size and brand. If things go wrong, as they sometimes do, they can make a huge difference in the amount of time it takes to warm up and fend off hypothermia.

  24. Snug pack advanced patrol poncho is worth a look. Cheapish and covers a pack. Has a decent hood and full arm coverage. I was warm and dry in a four hour rain,hail storm recently. Weighs 300 grams.

  25. During sustained multi day downpours, soaked boots (including leather) will gently dry out over night when placing one of those O2 activated hand warmers in them. A sock in each will also end up dry.

    I’ve found that the psychological morale boost of starting day two or three of a PNW down pour with bone dry feet is immeasurable. Knowing that wet feet are by no means an inevitability also makes a multi day rain hike less of a soul crushing prospect.

  26. Hummingbird Elli8e

    I love all the information in this article. No one mentioned Frog Togs for rainy days. I sent home my Patagonia rain gear and used the Frog Togs instead. They were very light. Very protective. I didn’t need to replace them along the way but they are available at Walmart and other stores along the AT. I wear a brimmed hat under the hood and tighten it up so my eyes are protected from the rain with the brim.

    I don’t carry an umbrella because I do use two trekking poles.

    I don’t use a liner in my pack. I found it difficult to take things out without taking the whole bag with them. Everything in my pack goes in individual zip locks. They can squeeze down easily and taking them out keeps the like items together.

    Socks are most important. I do have my “sleep” pair that I only wear in my sleeping bag. I leave them in the sleeping bag.

    I like the idea of hand warmers to put in wet boots. A warm wet boot is better than a cold one.

    For my pack cover, I have added Velcro straps to each side and from top to bottom so it can be tight around the bag and not blow off in a storm. I had that happen on Roan Mountain. It was gone before I new it. Lucky everything in my pack was in zip lock baggies.

    I’ll be going back to the AT next year and will use some of these suggestions!
    Thanks a bunch!

    Hummingbird Ellie

  27. I love finding such valuable info since I’m in training to do thru hikes! Pinned!

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