By Michael Lanza
There are only three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and at some point, getting rained on when dayhiking or backpacking. As we all know, wet clothing conducts heat away from your body, making you colder. 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. This article will help you enjoy a much more comfortable and pleasant backcountry adventure—even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Many hikers mistakenly assume that all one needs to do when caught hiking in the rain is don a rain jacket—and sometimes, that is all you have to do. But in mild temperatures, even a high-quality waterproof-breathable shell can cause you to overheat and sweat a lot—especially when walking uphill and carrying a pack—making you wet from the inside rather than the outside.
The key to staying as warm and dry as possible while hiking is learning the strategies for balancing your body’s heat production with the ambient weather conditions and your clothing layers.
I’ve walked through countless downpours and long days of rain over three decades of dayhiking, backpacking, and climbing from the rainforests of the North Cascades and Olympic National Park to the Wind River Range (lead photo at top of story), High Sierra, New England, the Tour du Mont Blanc, Norway, Iceland, and New Zealand—formerly as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and for many years running this blog.
After that many trail miles in miserably wet weather, you either learn some tricks for staying dry or you give this stuff up, and I couldn’t give it up.
The 10 simple tips below will help you stay dry and warm through the wettest adventures. Please share any tips of your own or your questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.
Click on any photo in this story to read about that trip.
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 daughter is in this photo 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. I recommend the Six Moon Designs Silver Shadow carbon umbrella ($45, 6.8 oz.) or another Six Moon Designs umbrella, Sea to Summit Siliconized Cordura Trekking Umbrella ($45, 8.5 oz.), and the Gossamer Gear Lightrek Hiking (Chrome) Umbrella ($39, 6.6 oz.). The Six Moon Designs Hands Free Umbrella Kit ($10, 0.35 oz.), allows you to attach an umbrella to a pack’s shoulder strap, keeping both hands free.
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2. Eat and Drink
People hiking in rain commonly just put their head down and keep plodding forward without thinking about hydration and nutrition needs. It’s easy to do: You may not feel hot or thirsty—until a dry mouth and other sensations of thirst hit you, typically long past you becoming dehydrated—and you just want to get where you’re headed. You don’t want to stop in the rain to get food out or treat and refill your water.
But hydration and food provide the fuel critical to the body’s ability to generate energy and heat and for all cells to function normally. Just as when hiking under a hot sun, drink frequently—every 15 minutes or so—and eat something every hour. Keep snacks that are easy to eat on the move in pockets within reach so you don’t have to stop. When hiking in a place with frequent water sources, carry a water filter bottle, like the Katadyn BeFree, that you can simply dip and drink from without having to stop, drop your pack, and pull out a filter to fill a bladder or bottle; see the water filters I recommend in this review.
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3. Ventilate Your Jacket
Waterproof-breathable rain jackets have a membrane or coating that enables some moisture on the inside to pass through to the outside, while preventing rain from penetrating inside. But most are better at keeping rain out than releasing moisture and heat from your body that builds up inside. That’s why, when hiking in rain and warm temperatures, we can overheat and get very wet from perspiration.
Some rain jackets made for hiking have zippers under the arms that allow ventilating; open them when needed and unzip the front of the jacket partly to release heat and moisture.
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4. Don’t Wear Pants
Rain pants, that is. I rarely carry rain pants backpacking, especially when the forecast calls for mild temps and little or no chance of rain. In moderate rain and warm temps, just wear quick-drying soft-shell or nylon shorts with either high or low gaiters to help keep your feet dry. (Low gaiters I like: the Kahtoola Renagaiter Mid and Low.) In cooler temps and steady rain, wear soft-shell pants (I like the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Convertible Pants)—which will eventually get wet in a hard rain, but trap heat reasonably well, keep you warm enough in mild temps, and dry quickly on your body once the rain abates.
5. … Unless You Need Pants
By the afternoon of our second straight day of steady rain and cool wind on a September backpacking trip in the rugged Bailey Range in the Olympic Mountains, my soft-shell pants had become steadily soaked and the wind was blowing hard. I realized I had slowly become hypothermic—it can come on that slowly. Only by continuing to hike at a rigorous pace did I finally warm back up again over the next hour.
In cool temps, steady wind, and persistent rain, hiking in shorts or soft-shell pants will not keep you adequately warm and dry— you need shell layers top and bottom. Have waterproof-breathable rain pants, like to can pull on over whatever bottoms you’re wearing, like the Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pant or Black Diamond Stormline Stretch Rain Pant.
When wearing rain pants with gaiters, layer the pant cuffs over the gaiters, rather than tucking pant legs inside the gaiters, so water drains over rather than inside the gaiters.
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6. Slow Down or Speed Up
Use your pace, or exertion level, to stay warm without overheating. If you’re sweating under a rain jacket on a long uphill climb, but the rain is too heavy to take off your jacket, slow down until your body’s producing enough heat to remain comfortable but reduce how much you’re perspiring; you may even actually dry out the jacket on the inside, which feels more comfortable than when it’s clammy.
Similarly, 20 or 30 minutes before reaching camp, slow your pace to where you’re warm but not perspiring. This can dry out your base layer and the inside of your jacket—and you’ll be more much comfortable and happy putting on your hiking layers the next morning if they’re dry.
Are these tips helpful? See also “7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry”
and “How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking.”
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
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16 thoughts on “10 Expert Tips for Staying Warm and Dry Hiking in Rain”
Your suggestions seem to apply to biking as well.
Maybe you can elaborate a bit on option 6 and how to get the correct pace right away when you put on the rain coat?
Yes, these tips would apply generally to biking, although your speed on a bike often, obviously, creates wind and increases the intensity of rain hitting you, which changes everything. The pace at which you’ll avoid sweating when wearing a rain shell while hiking in rain varies greatly between individuals and depending on the air temperature, wind, whether you’re hiking uphill or downhill, how readily you sweat, etc. Some people are going to sweat regardless of how slowly they hike but moderating your pace can help you perspire less.
Thanks for sharing all these valuable tips Michael, Fabulous post!
What about ponchos like the Gatewood? If strapped around waist is breathable and covers pack and whole body. The Gatewood also has the ability to be set up as tent while wearing it and is ultra light.
Yes, Steve, the Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape Tarp ($155, 11 oz.) is a very minimalist solo shelter that doubles as a poncho-like rain shell. Thanks for the suggestion.
Great article! We recently ran into some heavy winds, sleet and cold in a great Wind River Wilderness trip that Michael put together for us. We ended up having to turn back as a highly exposed section of the hike would have had sustained 70+ MPH winds and rain. But the above tools were hard at work and we are going to reconsider lightweight pant shells for future trips as we are short-pant hikers and were not totally prepared.
Thanks, John, I’m glad this article is helpful for you. Sorry to hear you had to cut short your backpacking trip in the Wind River Range. I hope you get back there again. I also had to cut a trip short by a day in the Winds in August this year due to heavy rain that didn’t let up. But I’ll be back.
I have a waterproof shoulder bag, day-summit pack and backpack, depending on the length of my trip. If you don’t, then dry bags/garbage bags and pack covers are a good idea. This is most essential for sleeping bag, down parka and dry base layers for sleeping.
Use down-like synthetics on wettest backpacks, hydrophobic (water-resistant) down for lightness or on drier backpacking trips.
Going up long uphills or on mountain climbs, I wear the least I can to not overheat but stay just warm enough. At the pass, ridgeline, summit or camp, I take off the base layer I’ve sweat in and put it over a warm, dry base layer, often turning it inside out.
There are lots of tricks to moderate warmth, as Michael says, so you stay warm enough without sweating. Tucking in shirt, cinching wrist and ankle Velcro closures on pants, wearing hat, gloves and hoods provides warmth while untucking, uncinching and taking off hat, gloves and hoods provides cooling.
Umbrellas are great and I have five different sizes from a Snow Lion weighing about six ounces—lightest I”ve seen—to the GoLite Chrome Dome described, to 58″ and 60″ and 62-inch golf umbrella for dayhikes and waterfall spray. I like to dayhike when waterfalls are at their fullest in the heaviest rains, and I use my umbrella like a shield from often drenching spray.
Hiking or backpacking in the winter six or seven months of the year means fronts that can rain all day, as Michael has experienced so often. Shelters, stops using umbrellas and your tent are the best places to rest.
In the summer six or seven months of the year rain often comes from thunderstorm cells that can produce the heaviest rains but often averaging 15 minutes to half an hour. Stopping in shelters, using your umbrella and or having your tent up are especially valuable then. You can’t wait out an all-day rain from a wintry frontal system in the Northwest, but you can wait out in a cell during the spring-summer months in most of the rest of the U.S.
While it’s raining, you can stay drier camping and resting under the thickest grove of trees.
After a heavy rain and in the wind, the droplets will keep falling from trees and it’s hard to tell when it’s stopped raining. After the rain is over, it’s often best to pitch your tent or rest in an open area, hoping to get some sun or dry wind.
I’m writing an ultra-realistic post-apocalyptic novel where backpacker-types thrive without competition by being able to withstand very rainy areas, and I practice by hiking or walking most rainy days on the Coast, Mountains or Hills of the Pacific Northwest.
We’re in the middle of a big Pineapple Express, and I’m going waterfall hiking with my biggest umbrella during the heaviest rains tomorrow.
Hey Richard, thanks for the detailed tips, many of which I’ve described and practice. I always smile when I meet or hear from someone who enjoys hiking in the rain, like I do. Keep in touch!
Excellent feedback Michael thanks for the wise counsel. Any tips from your website on how to prep or handle those intense thunderstorm situations?
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!
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
“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.
Hi Michael: Here’s another umbrella to add to your list. Has good ratings. This company made umbrellas for GoLite at one time (Chrome Dome). Available online at various prices: http://www.euroschirm.com/schirm/liteflex/info.cgi?sprache_land=englisch
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.