One of the most important backpacking skills 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 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. Wear an insulating mid-layer or baselayer under your rain jacket. A baselayer or a fleece mid-layer will retain heat even when they get soaked with internal condensation or sweat. While wool will still feel warm when it gets wet, synthetics and polyester fleece dry much more quickly.
3. Wear footwear that drains quickly, preferably made with lightweight synthetic mesh instead of leather boots or boots with a waterproof/breathable liner. Boots, especially leather boots, can take many days to dry out and won’t keep your feet dry when water comes in over the top, something that’s almost certain to happen when hiking through deep puddles and mud.
4. 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, shoulder straps, and hip belt.
5. Carry a trekking umbrella (with a backpack attachment system) 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 are also good for fending off aggressive wood grouse that may chase you on forested trails.
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. This will help your skin recover at night and provide some much-needed moisture resistance the next day if you have to hike through the 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 tent 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 campsite in heavy rain. Tarptent, Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs, Hilleberg, and many other tent manufacturers make tents that can be set up fly first, before hanging the inner tent inside.
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.
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.
Very good article and every backpacker should read it and heed it.
My one “strange” addition to colder weather rain is the use of seam sealed neoprene gloves. I have them from duck hunting and sea kayaking and they keep your hands warm regardless of whether or not they are wet inside.
As well I often wear 3 mm closed cell neoprene divers socks to keep my feet warm in very wet conditions. I’ve found US Divers brand the best B/C they have factory sealed seams and shaped Left and Right foot socks (and so marked). I always wear them ofer thin poly liner socks and take a clean pair of liner socks for each day I’ll be hiking. Sweaty socks go into a quart ZipLoc bag!
Excellent advice, Phillip. On my first section hike of the AT last year….80% of the time I was snowed on, sleeted on and rained on. At 63….I was completely surprised how the trails turned into ankle deep streams. While I was properly equipped….I was unprepared for how it mentally “dampened”my spirits. That said…..if I were to add anything, it would be to seriously consider carrying a synthetic vs down hoody. I left my Cerium LT at home, and opted instead to bring my Rab Xenon X. And how pleased I was to find that even wetted through, I remained warm. And it dried relatively quickly, too! Thanks again…..these periodic newsletters are simply outstanding!
Very good article . Good advice from Capt. Gary and Eric . Water proof gloves and socks were not in my gear on May 8 ’19 , hiking to Port Clinton, Pa AT. I carried snacks , but after 2 hours of downpour my hands were so cold I couldn’t open the packages in my rain jacket . I experienced early hypothermia ( if I stopped hiking I would shiver uncontrollably) A 9 mile hike from Eagles Nest Shelter turned into a disaster . I learned many things this fall and winter from folk like the Section Hiker and The Trek about dealing in cold non-stop horizontal rain .
Thanks for the reminders Guys !
Gossamer Gear sells a clamp to attach an umbrella to your pack strap. It works better than the shock-cord system I had rigged up. https://www.gossamergear.com/products/handsfree-umbrella-clamp
Philip, on the LT, my solution was “well, what’s another day reading a book?” One night in the shelter at Jay an out-of-work chemistry teacher came in sopping wet. We later calculated the millions gallons of water that had fallen on the mountain over the washout of a day. I thought I was a genius staying in all day, until I had to hike through those millions of gallons of water on the rutted trail the next day!
-Fire Road, LT ’12
Wood grouse and umbrella – love it,
Reminds me of the movie Foul Play.
Thanks, Philip! Especially the umbrella. I had a super light Snow Peak that the Long Trail toyed with, then destroyed. I got a Schirm that weighs 8ounces, but has yet to be turned inside out. School makes a hands free attachment, but there are other ways to go hands free in the rain.
another tip: keep your tarp handy so when you stop for lunch or a longer rest you can pop it up to get some relief from the rain. a tent ground sheet or even the tent fly can be pitched as a temporary shelter. Much better to be rummaging around in your pack for lunch when sitting under a tarp than out in a downpour.
Totally agree this is a good article.
I carry a very inexpensive set of Frog Togs and, when it is going to be an all day rain, I wear just those. Thus keeping all my regular clothes dry. These have saved me many times and I’m always thankful that I take the time to change out of my regular hiking clothes into the FTs for the rain.
Spending that extra day in the tent can be very nice and relaxing especially if you have been putting in the big miles. Make sure you have enough food – I tend to eat a lot more when I am lazing around….
Yup, hiked the Long Trail in July, “wettest July on record!” Took two zeros, used the shelters a lot, and got off the trail to dry gear and feet in town often. My umbrella and rain skirt saved me, kept me dry and comfortable even in the heaviest rain. And Darn Tough socks are the best! Pretty much one pair the entire trip (but they got washed a lot in town). Fear of backpacking in multiple days of rain conquered.
Appreciate the straight forward style of writing with minimal “chatter” getting right to the point.
You mention that vasoline is a good moisturiser and a fire starter. I think it is also worth mentioning that if you’re dealing with an open flame you risk having your freshly moisturised hands and feet catch fire! (And it will be on you hands because that’s how you apply it to your feet) This would be a good reason to use a different ointment that isn’t petroleum based.
Or to skip a campfire.
It’s good for starting fires because it slows the burn time of tinder. You won’t catch fire. You will however get trench foot if you don’t use Vaseline on your feet before eight hours of rain hiking.
Really, you can hike for 8 hours without getting trenchfoot. Just dry your feet at night and wear socks.
Rain jackets wet out where your pack touches the jacket. Ponchos are our go to for rain. They cover your pack and you and seem to breath better than a full on rain jacket. They tossle in the wind a bit, but when velcro’d and snapped in place, ours are tight enough. They also make a great groundsheet and impromptu tarp (although small). Well worth the 9 oz of weight.
That’s not what wet out is. Wet out occurs when the DWR stops shedding rain, the outer fabric becomes saturated, and water vapor can’t pass through a breathable jacket. It has the same affect as what you describe, namely condensation inside the jacket, but it’s not wet out.
Excellent advice touching on a lot of different aspects of rainy hiking. You cannot emphasize enough taking care of your feet. Get out of your wet shoes and socks at every opportunity, even if only for ten minutes during a break. I’ve stupidly found out through experience that leaving your feet in soaked shoes all day leads to skin separating and pain, lots and lots of pain. A week’s worth of wet feet took me nearly six weeks to completely heal up after I got home. Never again.
I like Phillip’s “It is what it is” mantra. My first trip with my Scouts at Philmont had rain almost every afternoon and sometimes into the night. We had mini-flash floods through our camp site at times too. Our mantra became “Embrace the suck!”