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When Should You Put on Rain Pants?

When Should You Put on Rain Pants?

Wearing rain pants when you’re hiking or backpacking can be a mixed bag because you’re going to get wet whether you put them on or not, when it starts to rain.

Huh? Isn’t rain gear supposed to keep you dry?

Good luck with that. I sweat when I wear rain gear and I’m hiking, and I sweat when I put on my rain pants. I defer putting my (so-called waterproof breathable) rain pants on until I need to because I can hike faster and more comfortably without them. Up to a point..that is.

When is that?

When I start to get cold because I’m wet or I know that I will get even colder if I get wetter.

The Purpose of Hiking Rain Gear is To Keep You Warm

I believe that the purpose of rain gear is to keep you warm, not dry. If you’re wet and you put on a rain jacket or rain pants, they’ll trap your body heat (if you’re hiking rather than standing still) and warm up. It doesn’t matter if your clothing is wet or not.

NOTE: This only true if you are wearing synthetic clothing, not cotton! (See Why Does Cotton Kill?)

When it starts to rain, I defer putting on my rain pants until the thighs of my long nylon hiking pants are soaked because I know that hiking pants will become just as wet from sweat if I put them on any sooner.

When hiking, your upper body and backpack will shield your pants from getting wet for a while unless it’s raining very heavily. Since most rain showers start as a drizzle and may peter out before it starts to rain heavily, you can often get away with never putting on your rain pants because you’ll still stay reasonably warm and dry unless it pours.

Why wait to put on your rain pants when rain threatens? You’ll hike faster without them and be more comfortable.


If it’s very warm or hot outside, you may never need to put on your rain pants, even in heavy rain, because your body won’t be chilled by being wet. But even summer rainstorms are often accompanied by a sharp drop in temperature which can chill you. The trick, called thermoregulation, is in sensing when having wet legs will chill you. That’s when you want to put your rain pants on.

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  1. Steve McAllister

    I’m a big fan of wind pants for this same reason. If I’m still getting chilled, I’ll wear my groundcloth as a skirt, over the top of the windpants.
    Anything worn as a rain-skirt over wind pants seems warmer to me than rain pants.

    I’m sure there are exceptions though.

    • I can see that, especially with a really thin ground cloth like Polycryo plastic (window wrap). My solution is to just use a very lightweight pair of rain pants that only weighs 5 oz. Good for wind. Good enough to keep me warm in pouring rain.

  2. You’re not the only one.

    I came to the conclusion rain-gears are better off as vapor-barrier liners than they are at keeping a person dry.

  3. Yup, I agree. There is also one other situation that rain pants help, when I took them anyway. That is cold mornings with LOTS of dew, the kind that hangs around till 1000 or so. Hiking at 40F can make you legs/feet quite cold. You are better off using them before you leave.

  4. For me I put them on generally first thing in the morning depending on how much Dew there is on the vegetation along the trail if I am wearing long pants. Or if I do not have tall Tall Gaiters.. Next is when the conditions are ripe for Hypothermia and I will not be putting in too much effort in climbing hills. So it just depends on the climate conditions, and Trail Conditions and have no General Rule…

  5. What’s rain? Living in LA, it rarely rains, but when it does get cold (30s and 40s) and rainy, I rarely wear a jacket when hiking uphill. The mountains here rise straight up out of the basin, so the climbing builds up enough heat that one will always be warm going up. After a couple hours of continuous uphill, you get to the top, and then cool down fast. I take a change of layers and a waterproof breathable jacket along for the hike down the mountain. Wearing too much while hiking uphill usually results in foul language and frustration. For rain protection, I tend to carry whatever is lightest, as it can always stay in my pack. I’ve used cycling leg warmers as an alternative to long pants with great success. They are breathable and really nice to slip on for the trip downhill. The arm warmers work well too.

  6. I live in a year-round humid, cool, windy climate (The Netherlands) and in spring and fall it can be cold, wet and windy one morning, and sunny t-shirt only the next afternoon (I’m talking 5 degrees Celsius one morning and 24 degrees Celsius the next afternoon. That’s roughly between 40 and 75F in one weekend.).
    I like to hike in fast-drying running tights for this reason: they’re thin and roll up to above the knee and still be comfortable. But they’re too thin for those cold humid days when the sun can’t chase away the water in the air. And that’s what I use my rain pants for. I have a cheap pair, fairly breathable, and I’ve never had clammy legs in them.
    I agree that wind pants would work in this scenario, but since I live in a a year-round humid, cool, windy climate (The Netherlands), I’m carrying the rain pants anyway, and I don’t fancy carrying both.

  7. What is the consensus on rain kilts? On Frog Toggs?

  8. I say that rain/wind pants are for around camp only or ” very cold ” temps.

    I wear wool under (top) and wool sweater then a poncho to go over all ,pack and myself.

    From the waist down I wear wool boxers and shorts ,put gaiters on and tape the top with med tape to keep water from running down my legs and getting socks and inside of boots wet (only 6 to 10 inches are exposed to wind and rain)

    If you can not take 6 to 10 inches getting a little cold and wet I don’t know if you should backpack in anything but good weather.

  9. I use my rain pants more for layering than to keep dry. If it’s blowing cold rain, they help keep me warm. If it’s very cold and windy but not raining, they help block the wind and add an additional layer of dead air space to insulate.

    My Red Ledge pants have full zippers down the legs so I don’t have to take my shoes on and off when using them and they also have a waterproof pocket that I can keep a few items in. The full zip makes them easy to don and remove so if the trail has lots of wet brush overhanging it from overnight rain or heavy dew, I’ll wear them to keep my legs from getting soaked as I go by. When my brother and I hiked to Hole in the Wall in Glacier National Park a few years ago, it was a very wet morning when we left Boulder Pass so we wore just rain pants over our shorts. Our regular hiking pants stayed dry in the pack, we didn’t get our legs wet and cold and when the day warmed up and dried out, we changed into our normal hiking pants.

    I’ve also worn the rain pants when washing all my dirty clothes at a laundromat while on an extended camping trip.

    I also have a pair of Frogg Toggs but haven’t yet used them on the trail because I’m afraid I’ll tear them up.

  10. Kurt in Colorado

    I don’t think I’ve ever hiked in a “warm rain” in Colorado. At 10,000 feet, rain is never warm. I don my DriDucks (now called FroggToggs), which pull on easily over shoes. During a week of light/moderate rain in the Wind River Range, the DriDucks kept me dry and warm, and I didn’t sweat excessively. As a bonus, it kept my pants clean! But full disclosure: I’m 5’8″ and 160 lbs. And I hike to destinations (5-10 mi) and stop.

    On a related note, I tried using my Merrell Glove shoes for backpacking last year. It rained, my feet got soaked, it got dark, the wind blew, my feet FROZE! (well, not literally) I had thought “The blogs say you can just keep hiking and your feet will dry out and warm up.” Not when the temperature is dropping to 35 degrees. Maybe this works in warm, low elevation climates?

    Anyway, I got a pair of Gore-Tex Merrells for the Wind Rivers, and my feet stayed dry and warm and happy!

    • Absolutely right about non-GTX in the Winds under cold conditions! Many backpackers doing High Routes use them, but those are typically in the summer months. Beginning late August or sustained cold, rainy conditions warm, dry feet are better achieved with GTX and an extra pair of socks. It was tromping through the frosty grass in the mornings that made me go to GTX, despite it’s drawbacks. (But, I also have Raynaud’s)

      Keeping water out of boots and extra warmth in camp or on cold, windy ridges are key requirements of rain pants. I’m beginning to wonder how much “breathability” is worth. EE Visp, etc are quite $$$.

  11. I haven’t found a “waterproof/breathable” jacket or pants that will do what they claim it will. I even went with the Super Mica jacket by Marmot with pit zips and I get soaked with sweat anyway. I recently bought the Cabela’s Gore-Tex Guidewear jacket with pit zips and it seems to handle my sweating better than many and I think it is because it is roomier than some of the name brand ones and it allows more circulation of air up from the bottom if you don’t cinch it tight. The only thing I would change with the Cabela’s jacket to make it more efficient is I would make the hand and chest pockets with a fine mesh so you could unzip the pockets to allow even better venting and air circulation. I would imagine pants would be the same way. Looser equals better air circulation. I went with a pair of Columbia Omni Tech pants that have zippers and Velcro down the outward side of the legs and that works well for me. I zip then down and open some of the Velcro if I am too hot and if I get cold I zip and Velcro them up all the way.

  12. My long-time preferred choice for rain gear is a knee-length cagoule coupled with gators. The open bottom of the cagoule allows for airflow around the legs. Unfortunately, there aren’t many companies that sell cagoules, so they can be difficult to find. My cagoule was made by Sierra Designs, but that model is no longer available. They do have a newer version of the cagoule (, which appears to have some interesting new features but doesn’t look to be as long. However they couple it with chaps ( instead of gators so the overall coverage area should work out to be the same.

  13. A rain skirt and gaiters work for me in the Cascades:

  14. A few years ago, when my brother hiked the Milford Track in New Zealand with his family, my nephew used a three dollar Walmart PVC poncho for his rain gear. He stayed drier than anyone else on the trail who’d spent the equivalent of his air fare on Gore-Tex.

  15. william woolson

    You guys missed the boat. The best rain gear is a poncho – not rain parka and rain pants. I’ve hiked a few times with professional guides in rain country and they all carry a poncho for rain protection. The first time was the Inca Trail in December. It rained liked the dickens – my expensive gortex was soaked. At a rest stop, my guide suggested I buy a plastic poncho from a vendor. I did and it made the trip much more enjoyable.

  16. I bought a pair of Frog Togs and converted the rain pants to a rain skirt by tearing out the seams and sewing the legs together at the front and leaving them open in back – this provides plenty of ventilation – especially if I am wearing shorts underneath and sheds rain and dew from low, wet vegetation, keeping my socks and feet dry.

  17. I do not use rain pants in spring through late fall. I find that I get hot and chafe. I find hiking in a rain shirt that I made out of sil nylon to be the best for ventilation.

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