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5 Tips for Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking

5 Tips for Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking

By Michael Lanza

There are only three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and getting rained on when dayhiking or backpacking. As we all know, wet clothing conducts heat away from your body, making you colder. And simply donning rain shells may make you so warm that you sweat a lot, thus getting wet from the inside rather than the outside. Staying as dry as possible while on the trail or in camp is key to staying warm in the backcountry when the weather turns wet—especially in temperatures below around 60° F and in wind, which swiftly chills your body. Follow these tips for a much more comfortable and pleasant backcountry adventure—even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Backpacking in the rain on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
My son, Nate backpacking in the rain on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.

1. Carry an Umbrella

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? So why don’t more hikers and backpackers carry one when they expect rain (as my son demonstrates in the photo above, from Mount Rainier National Park, and my daughter in the photo below from Italy’s Dolomite Mountains)? A lightweight, backcountry umbrella can be very effective at keeping rain off you, as long as it’s not so windy that the umbrella keeps getting inverted or the wind snaps its arms.

Depending on the design of your pack, you might be able to tuck the umbrella shaft into side compression straps to position the umbrella’s canopy over your head, so you don’t have to actually hold it. For hiking and backpacking, I like the Sea to Summit Siliconized Cordura Trekking Umbrella ($45, 8.5 oz.), the Helinox Trekking Umbrella ($75, 7.5 oz.), or the Davek Mini ($49, sub-1 lb.).

My daughter, Alex, hiking the Alta Via 2 in Parco Naturale Paneveggio Pale di San Martino, Dolomite Mountains, Italy.
My daughter, Alex, in Parco Naturale Paneveggio Pale di San Martino, Dolomite Mountains, Italy.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

Backpacking in rain in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Todd Arndt backpacking in rain in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

2. Don’t Wear Pants

Rain pants, that is—unless you’re hiking in heavy rain and some combination of wind and temperatures cold enough that you need the waterproof-breathable pants for warmth as well as to stay dry.

In moderate rain and temps, a better choice is either soft-shell pants—which will eventually get wet in a hard rain, but also will dry fairly quickly on your body when you’re out of the rain (once it abates or you’re in a tent); or wear quick-drying shorts with either high or low gaiters to help keep your feet dry. (Low gaiters I like: the Outdoor Research Flex-Tex II.) When combining rain pants with gaiters, wear the pant cuffs over the gaiters, rather than gaiters over the pants, so water drains over rather than under the gaiters.

Stay dry, happy, and safe. See my “5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket for the Backcountry
and my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry.”

3. Slow Down… or Speed Up

Besides your clothing, your pace dictates whether you’ll overheat. If you’re sweating under a rain jacket on a long uphill climb, slow down for several minutes as you near the top, so that instead of perspiring, your body’s producing just enough heat to dry the jacket on the inside; you’ll be more comfortable when it doesn’t feel clammy.

Similarly, 20 or 30 minutes before reaching camp, slow your pace to where you’re warm but not perspiring, to start drying your base layer and the inside of your jacket—which will make a difference in comfort and put you on the road to dry clothes once you’re in camp.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.

Jeff Wilhelm getting muddy on the Dusky Track in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm getting muddy on the Dusky Track in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park.

4. Dry Wet Clothes With Body Heat

Once you reach camp, if the rain has tapered off or stopped, keep your wet rain jacket on while pitching your tent and setting up camp to let your body heat dry it. If the rain hasn’t stopped, once your tent is up, shake the water off your jacket as much as possible (under the protection of a tree if you can) before diving inside your shelter. Then either wear the jacket inside the tent to dry it, or try to drape it over your pack in the vestibule so that it starts to air dry; leaving it in a balled pile will guarantee that it stays wet.

Similarly, wear your damp T-shirt or jersey—as long as it doesn’t make you cold—to dry it before bedtime, so you’re not putting on wet layers the next morning. If the T-shirt I hiked in is only slightly damp, I’ll wear it over a dry, long-sleeve base layer—so that I’m warm with a dry layer against my skin while my body heat dries out the damp T-shirt.

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David Ports backpacking through rain and fog in Washington's Olympic Mountains.
David Ports backpacking through rain and fog in Washington’s Olympic Mountains.

5. Keep a Dry Change of Clothes

Keep an extra set of base layers (T-shirt, long-sleeve top, bottoms) in a zip-lock plastic bag or waterproof stuff sack for changing into in camp and sleeping in. Don’t hike in that dry set of clothes.

Be safe by hiking smarter. See my “7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry.”

Bonus Tip: Wet Bag, Way Bad

When you expect rain on a backpacking trip, keep your sleeping bag dry by either lining its stuff sack with a plastic trash bag or using a waterproof dry bag-style stuff sack with a roll-top closure. I have a variety of stuff sacks I use for that purpose; see them in my review of favorite backcountry accessories.

 

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

6 Comments

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  1. Avatar

    Excellent feedback Michael thanks for the wise counsel. Any tips from your website on how to prep or handle those intense thunderstorm situations?
    -Grant W.

    Reply
    • Michael Lanza

      Thanks for the great question, Grant, and for letting me help you plan your upcoming backpacking trip) in Idaho’s Sawtooths.

      Many mountain ranges across the U.S. can see intense afternoon thunderstorms, both in the bigger mountains of the West, where large temperature gradients and elevation ranges cause heat to build up and rise during the day, developing powerful thunderheads; and in the smaller mountains of the East, where high humidity and heat and proximity to moisture coming off the ocean produce the same effect. Thunderstorms are most common on hot days in July and August and taper off by late summer, when days get a bit cooler.

      Thunderstorms can be impressively powerful for a short period of time and be followed quickly by warm sunshine and calm air; they came come in a series throughout the afternoon and evening, interspersed with sunny or partly cloudy but dry weather; or they can land as a fairly large thunderhead that lasts for a while. Occasionally, you will hear thunder and see lightning in the distance, but it may be a small thunderhead that bypasses you.

      When I’m dayhiking, backpacking, or (especially) climbing, I keep one eye on the sky and try to remain aware of whether mountains, canyon walls, or other terrain obscure my view in the direction the weather tends to come from (and it usually comes from the west, unless it’s coming off a nearby ocean). Remember the general rule in measuring a storm’s distance from you: a mile for every five seconds that elapses between when you see the lightning flash and when you hear the thunder. But once you hear thunder, the thunderstorm is probably no more than minutes away.

      How I react depends on where I am and, to some extent, whom I’m with (such as a child or someone who might not hike very fast or might be very uncomfortable and unhappy if wet and cold). If I’m close to my intended campsite, I’ll hustle to get there and pitch a tent quickly. If I’m not near where I’m hoping to camp and the storm appears imminent, I’ll pull out rain gear, descend from or avoid high ground (VERY IMPORTANT!), and prepare to hike in the rain without getting too wet and cold. If you’re in the woods, you may be somewhat protected from the rain by tree cover, anyway.

      If there’s natural shelter nearby that’s not on high or exposed or otherwise dangerous terrain, like an overhanging rock ledge or alcove or really dense tree foliage, I may just hunker down out of the rain for a short rest, snack, and drink, and see whether the storm passes quickly. Sometimes it does, and maybe your group is ready for a break, anyway; and you just might avoid getting some clothing and footwear soaked by taking a break and resuming your hike after the rain passes.

      Hope that’s helpful. Have a great trip!

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Your idea of “tucking” an umbrella under pack straps is laden with calamity and frustration. Simple solution IS Euroschirm’s hands free trekking umbrella. Clips included for each side of your pack straps work wonderfully. As for rain protection from the waste down, how ’bout a rain kilt. Several companies make them and are easy to hand craft out of tyvek. Great for water shedding with the best of ventilation. ~Draggin’ Tail

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      “Calamity” may be an exaggeration, but as I wrote above, it depends on your pack’s design, meaning side compression straps. But I like both of your suggestions, the hands-free umbrella (which I haven’t used) and the rain kilt.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Some great tips in the post that will be really helpful in the future. I especially like and completely agree with wearing shorts when hiking. Nothing worse when your pants absorb the rain. Its just so uncomfortable. Getting the right equipment is so critical.

    Reply

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Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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