10 Expert Tips for Staying Warm and Dry Hiking in Rain

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.

Trekkers on Besseggen Ridge in Norway's Jotunheimen National Park.
Jasmine and Jeff Wilhelm hiking Besseggen Ridge in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park.

Many hikers mistakenly assume that all one needs to do when caught hiking in the rain is don a rain jacket. 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 New England, the Tour du Mont Blanc, the mountains of Norway, and New Zealand—formerly as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and now 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.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. 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 for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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.

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 like the Six Moon Designs Silver Shadow carbon umbrella ($40, 6.8 oz.), Sea to Summit Siliconized Cordura Trekking Umbrella ($45, 8.5 oz.), Gossamer Gear Liteflex Hiking (Chrome) Umbrella ($39, 8 oz.), and the Helinox Trekking Umbrella ($75, 7.5 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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Backpackers on the Wonderland Trail south of Indian Bar, Mount Rainier National Park.
Backpackers hiking through fog and rain showers on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. Click photo for my e-guide to backpacking the Wonderland Trail.

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.

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A trekker hiking through rain showers on the Tour du Mont Blanc in Switzerland.
My daughter, Alex, hiking through rain showers on the Tour du Mont Blanc in Switzerland. Click photo for my e-guide “The Perfect Plan for Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc.”

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 getting very wet from perspiration.

Many 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.

Are these tips helpful? See also my “7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry.”

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

4. Don’t Wear Pants

Rain pants, that is. 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 Outdoor Research Flex-Tex II.) In cooler temps and steady rain, wear soft-shell pants—which will eventually get wet in a hard rain, but trap heat reasonably well and dry fairly 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 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 extreme conditions, you need shell layers on top and bottom. When hiking in heavy rain and a combination of wind and temperatures cold enough that wearing shorts or soft-shell pants will not keep you adequately warm and dry, have waterproof-breathable pants to can pull on over whatever bottoms you’re wearing.

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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A hiker on Bondcliff in the White Mountains, N.H.
Mark Fenton on a rainy dayhike in the White Mountains, N.H.

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.

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Leave a Comment

14 thoughts on “10 Expert Tips for Staying Warm and Dry Hiking in Rain”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

    • 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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