5 Tips for Staying Warm and Dry on the Trail
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.
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 Davek Mini ($49, sub-1 lb.), the MontBell Trekking Umbrella ($45, 5.3 oz.), and the Sea to Summit Siliconized Cordura Trekking Umbrella ($45, 8.5 oz.).
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.”
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 in rain by not overheating. See my reviews of favorite soft-shell pants.
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.
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.
What touches your skin is important. See my “Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts for Hiking and Training.”
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.
Protect your expensive gear when traveling. See my “Review: The Best Gear Duffles and Luggage.”
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.
Don’t be cold at night. See my “10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag.”
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