Guide to Backpacking in the Rain
If you're interested in backpacking in the rain, here are some expert tips for getting started and even tweaking your current setup. One thing to keep in mind is that if you are backpacking in the rain for any amount of time, you will get wet–what can be controlled, however, is how you handle it and what you do to prevent core areas and items from getting wet. I will explain how an umbrella can be a crucial piece of gear, how a pack liner and dry bags invoke confidence during a downpour, how to make sense of the infinite outdoor clothing options available, and how to stay happy and dry when it's time to sleep.
Preparing for rainy conditions
A Hiking Umbrella is a Savior!
Ahhh… the beloved umbrella. A true lifesaver against exposure to a multitude of climates. Rainy, windy, snowy, sunny, you name it and the hiking umbrella is there! An umbrella allows for amazing protection from the elements, and when you're hiking continually in the rain, it keeps your core dry and shielded from light winds. There are times when an umbrella might not be handy, say, when scrambling on rocks or using trekking poles, but there are ways it can fit into your backpacking adventures if you choose to try it out. This summer on the Sierra High Route, my other half and I were expecting beautiful blue bird Sierra skies, as was predicted in the forecast, so we left our umbrellas behind. Almost every day provided precipitation, and it even ended up snowing, in July! The day after the snow, there was freezing rain all day and our rain jackets inevitably soaked through. We were a couple of cold, soggy messes, and if we had our umbrellas we would have been quite the contrary.
You can hold it over your backpack when you have to retrieve something from inside; aim it against the wind for an instant barrier, preventing degrees of temperature loss; works like a charm in the snow, as well as providing much-needed shade during times of intense heat; and you can even prop it into the opening of your tarp, securing the handle down, to give extra protection from wind and residual rain in your shelter. For times of bad weather on a backpacking trip, an umbrella does wonders for mental sanity as well! In a waterproof jacket, raindrops pelt my head and splash my face, but now I trot along with my protector. Umbrella, amore mio, thank you.
Hiking with an umbrella
Pack Liner and Dry Bags
Another item with which I am madly in love is a backpack liner. As an alternative to the finicky and less-than-adequate pack covers, a liner goes inside your backpack before packing in everything. I simply squish the things I want to keep dry into the liner: my folded sleeping pad to the bottom of the liner, then my sleeping bag on top of that, followed by my clothes and electronic doodads in a dry bag. I press it all down to get air out and create space in my pack, twist up the opening several confident times, and tuck it down against my pack. In several thousand miles of backpacking in all conditions (as well as a cross-country bicycle tour using pack liners in my panniers), I've never had a mishap where the goods inside my liner have accidentally gotten wet.
I also like to leave several items in the outside mesh pocket of my backpack for easy access and I avoid at all costs having to open my liner to grab anything, and risk jeopardizing getting my sleeping bag and clothes wet. I use a heavy duty large zipper bag and put inside my fleece beanie, Buff, wind jacket, and gloves. The same can be achieved by using a dry bag of your choice, but at the cost of a weight penalty. Using Loksak waterproof bags are by far my favorite choice.
Bad weather in the Sierras
Clothing and Appropriate Layers
Do not wear cotton in wet and cold climates because cotton does not wick away moisture and it loses any insulation properties when wet. Add in cold temperatures and wind, and you have a recipe for hypothermia. (It doesn't need to be below freezing for hypothermia to ensue.) Viable choices for a base layer in wet climates include wool and synthetics. Wool doesn't wick away moisture as well as synthetics, but it does retain warmth when wet. As for a midlayer, 100/200 weight fleece or a synthetic insulated vest/jacket is a great choice. From there, top it off with a breathable rain shell, and you're ready to stick it out in the freezing cold rain. For milder temperatures, pick and choose your layers accordingly. You can play around with your other clothing choices as well; my favorites are a wool or synthetic liner glove with a mitt shell combo, base layer synthetic pants and hardshell pants, as well as wool socks and trail runners (I prefer breathable trail runners that drain easily). The goal is to wick moisture away from you so that your body's warmth can circulate between the fabric and your skin. In the midst of it, be mindful that you don't sweat–if you feel sweat coming on, then stop, consider shedding layers, unzip, and ventilate! A sweaty body is a wet body, and that's what we're trying to reduce when it's already wet and cold out.
Utilizing an Ultralight Shelter, Ground Cloth and Sleeping Bag
Things to consider when choosing your shelter will be a tent or a tarp, silnylon or cuben fiber fabrics. A traditional tent weighs more than an ultralight backpacking tarp, can only be set up one way, but has full protection. There is also a middle road called a 'tarptent'. For the sake of ultralight backpacking and based on my own experiences, I will talk more about tarps. I prefer tarps for their ultimate diversity and ability to be pitched a myriad number of ways to accommodate changing weather. If pitched well, you can receive close to the same amount of protection as you would from a tent, at a fraction of the weight. You have complete control over how you want the tarp to perform with practice. Once mastered, it is the difference between driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission versus a manual–sometimes a little more work but overall more control and your "fuel" is saved with less weight on your back. As for fabrics, silnylon is less expensive than cuben fiber but weighs more. Cuben fiber is waterproof while silnylon is not, so it becomes heavier when wet. Consider the options, experiment, and see what works for your needs.
Shelter in the storm
When using a tarp, some type of ground cover will be necessary. If you use a bivy, you have one built in but you may also prefer to have a groundsheet to lay your things on as an alternative to the wet ground. A polycryo groundsheet is a lighter more packable option than other common fabrics, and it's our groundsheet of choice.
As for sleeping bags, the choices are synthetic or down. Synthetic is bulkier, weighs more, is less expensive, but will retain warmth when wet; the opposite is true for down. On our Appalachian Trail thru-hike last year, there were plenty of wet days and we chose to carry our down sleeping bags. Tucked safely inside our pack liners, they never got wet; however, there were very humid nights where our bags got damp, so when possible we would stop to dry it out. With improved materials, it's possible for the outside of a down bag to be damp without actually soaking through to the down. Definitely a matter of preference though.
One of the single most important things to take with you anywhere you go or for anything you do is being in the right mindset. I have seen many people's attitudes transform for the worse the moment moisture drops from the sky. Be light-hearted, maintain a positive attitude, relax your facial muscles and let a calm smile encompass your face. It may even help to romanticize the scenario, step outside yourself, and imagine you're reading a captivating book or watching a movie where the characters are walking mindfully and happily in the beautiful falling rain while the plants come alive, nourishing the land, and cleansing the air. Let it rain!
Most importantly - Have fun!
Post was written by Virginia Craft; photos by David Halterman - products highlighted in content