Hiking Umbrella: A Must for Sunny, Blue-Sky Days on the Trail
By: Laura Johnston
Mom never said, "Make sure to have an umbrella for sunny days," but after thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with one, I know now a hiking umbrella is a brilliant idea.
Before I left for the PCT in 2017, I inventoried my gear from my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine the previous year. Nearly everything I had on the AT would come with me on the PCT with a few other necessities for record snow pack in the Sierra (i.e. crampons and ice axe).
However, one last-minute addition also joined my journey–Gossamer Gear's LightTrek Hiking Umbrella. And, it ended up being the most unexpected source of joy and relief along my many miles.
Discovering the Hiking Umbrella–and quickly buying two!
A few weeks before flying west to California to start hiking north from the trail's southern terminus in Campo, I came across a former PCT thru-hiker's blog with a video that caught my attention. She was hiking through the Southern California desert section–the first 700 miles of the 2,651-mile trail. She hiked with a shiny, silver umbrella. I took note because I hadn't read about or seen any other hikers with an umbrella, especially in the desert where it may sound counter-intuitive. What a practical solution for exposure and strong sun, I thought. Why aren't these on everyone's PCT gear lists?
My fair skin (the tan-challenged sort of Irish and Scottish descent), my planned protection against the sun–a hearty supply of SPF 50 sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and long-sleeved shirt–and the refrain of my mom's friendly insistence–"Laura, you can't afford another big sunburn"–had me considering what I saw. So, I googled: "Silver Umbrella Hiking PCT."
Gossamer Gear claimed the hiking umbrella could reduce temperatures up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit under its canopy. Any human who has spent a hot summer day outside–hiking or not–knows that the difference between 100 and 85 degrees is the difference between hot and unbearably hot.
Knowing I had many very hot days ahead on an exposed trail convinced me to order two–one for me and one for my then-boyfriend who would hike the first 250 miles with me. The irony was laughable, as we had hiked all 2,189 miles of the AT without hiking umbrellas, a trail known for being rainy and damp. But, by the end of my first day on the PCT, I was very happy to have a hiking umbrella.
Falling in Love with the Hiking Umbrella
It's mid-May on the PCT, day one of my thru-hike from Mexico to Canada in 2017. By 10am, and five miles in, I'm walking under a perfect bluebird sky. The sun is strong and shining overhead. The desert rock along the trail is absorbing and radiating the sun's heat.
It is bright–really bright. It is dry–really dry. It is hot–really hot.
For an east coast girl who imagined the dry heat would be tolerable compared to the oppressive heat and humidity of my native and humid east coast, I am humbled immediately. My face and arms form a dry film of salt left by sweat robbed of its moisture from instantaneous evaporation in the intense dry air–a happening that will characterize every day in the desert.
The intensity of the sun and lack of tree canopy means the rest of the day will only be more intense. This is one of the practical, elementally-aware ways PCT hikers quickly learn to schedule each day's miles in the desert in the early morning or late afternoon. The middle of the day is simply impossible to hike through some days. I sip water sparingly from the hose of my water bladder inside my backpack and ration it judiciously until the next water source in 10 miles.
Time to see what this hiking umbrella can do, I think. I take off my pack, slide the umbrella out of my backpack's side pocket, finagle its foam handle into an elastic strap on my pack's shoulder strap, open the canopy, hoist on my pack, and continue walking.
Holy cow, I exclaim. This is so much better. Thank goodness I have this. The relief under the shade of the hiking umbrella is immediate and just that–relief. I exhale a breath of gratitude for what feels like a small miracle. I smile wider. My head is shaded, my neck, too, even my arms that are shielded by the umbrella's coverage. My very own mobile canopy!
My head cools and my pack, which became a radiator accumulating the sun's rays, is no longer doing so. Everything from the waist up is under the shade and now able to hold onto some of the valuable perspiration on my skin.
With this relief and protection, I am able to think more clearly and less like a survivalist. I notice how the shiny silver of the hiking umbrella is doing its thing–reflecting the sun as opposed to obliging me alone to absorb it. The physical relief I feel mirrors a lighter mindset that comes with it. I am freed from exerting attention or worry to defend against sun. I am reminded of the enormity of this relief when I meet a weekend hiker at a water source convulsing from heat stroke only to be aided by a fellow hiker trained as a nurse.
Under my umbrella, I focus on the beauty in front of me. I can be my friendly self with passing hikers and acknowledge the thoughts passing through my mind rather than concern for the strong sun. I look out and enjoy the long horizon ahead of me–the trail winding around the golden California hills of desert chaparral, scrub oak, pines, blonde boulders, poodle dog bushes, and showy purple flowers. The natural spectacle the PCT is known for is a true nature lover's delight, and I am attuned to it.
The shadow of my silhouette on trail reminds me of Mary Poppins. My hiking umbrella, which Gossamer Gear affectionately calls the "chrome dome," sits above my figure bobbing in sync with the cadence of my footsteps. The hilarity of the scene and my shadow force a smile across my face and I start singing one of Poppins' best known songs, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down… the medicine go down… in the most delightful way… "
Progress and Perspective with the Hiking Umbrella
After my first month on the trail, I notice my hiking umbrella keeps me cooler–and perhaps a bit fresher–than fellow hikers without a hiking umbrella. By early June, I'm making progress up the trail, a little over 500 miles in, and it's getting hotter and brighter with each day. It's also happening earlier and longer each day.
Each night, I write in a journal with entries like: "It's a lucky life I am leading out here… Today included gorgeous walking and views… a sunset of mango, strawberry and peach colors and the blackest sky I've ever seen, crowded with stars… in the desert, especially recently, there are days when I feel a little like I'm racing the clock–I wish I didn't have to–to beat the midday sun at its strongest… my umbrella saves me from that and then some each day."
Shade on the trail in the desert is so rare that an infrequent boulder, cedar, or Joshua tree is the only promise for momentary relief. On many midday siestas, I put up my hiking umbrella and curl tightly under it, like a turtle in its shell, with only my feet or calves outstretched from beneath it. Under the umbrella's canopy, my head, neck, and shoulders are cooler, my sweaty (or intentionally water-soaked) clothes stay damper longer, my skin is protected from burning, and the temperature is noticeably cooler. I stay hydrated better, lose less moisture from my head, am able to conserve my scarce supply of water judiciously between sources, and stay stronger longer. Without a doubt, I smile more easily and keep a positive attitude.
In moments when other hikers appear to wilt like a flower without water, I feel blessed with this proverbial "leg up." On the hottest days, I marvel at fellow hikers without a hiking umbrella. It leaves me feeling a little guilty with this advantage. So, I share my love of this special hiking umbrella when anyone asks–and even when they don't.
Around mile 285, north of Big Bear Lake, I camp with another PCT thru-hiker known as "Invisible Man." His trail name is a play on trying to cover his fair skin with a wide cowboy hat and a generous buff covering his entire face and neck–except his eyes for sight and nose to breathe.
"I saw you walking with that umbrella today. Seems smart," he says. "Do you like it, and do you think I could still find one?"
I respond with enthusiasm and evangelism, "Yes! Order one to the next trail town. You won't regret it."
The next time I see him on trail, he, too, is sporting a silver chrome dome over his shoulder. In an unspoken code, we smile at each other. He points at me and then up at his hiking umbrella. He gives a thumbs-up. I smile and know how good he feels under his personal canopy.
Trust Me–The Hiking Umbrella is Worth It
My hiking umbrella became an extension of me on the PCT–an oversized hat, a portable canopy, a companion when I didn't see other humans on trail (including the 36 hours hiking out of Tehachapi during a heat wave with nearby Los Angeles's hottest recorded day in history).
When I think back to the PCT and read my journals, there are days when I wonder what might have happened to me without my umbrella. Would I have been ok? Probably. Would I have smiled so much? I hope so. But, I am happy knowing I had a magic hiking umbrella, like Mary Poppins, that made a really big difference.
Heat exhaustion, sunburn, and dehydration are a real risk and occurrence in the desert on the PCT. A piece of gear that can protect a hiker against these things is utilitarian, but also a lesson in using a piece of gear to one's advantage. My umbrella allowed me to ration water more easily, deflect and shield against the sun, reduce overexposure to my skin, keep me stronger longer, and lessen the air temperature from the waist up "… in the most delightful way."
And, most importantly, my hiking umbrella enabled me to stay present for what was around me. I was lucky to be able to enjoy a life outside, walking one of the most well-known and beautiful long-distance trails in the United States. As in the rest of life, being present on trail allows one to experience it fully.
I hiked at least 1,900 miles of the 2,651-mile PCT without my hiking umbrella, but for the first 700 in the desert section, it was a crucial piece of gear. Oh, and as a bonus, it is also works for rain or snow–it's an umbrella, after all!
I will never give up my Lightrek hiking umbrella, but I will let anyone borrow it, which I did for my mom when we took a week-long hike on the Camino de Santiago in 2018. After those six days, she started saying, "How nice to hike with an umbrella on a sunny day!"
Laura “Hey Girl” Johnston is a conservation, outdoor, and creative (writing, podcasting) professional, a people person, and an outdoor enthusiast. She thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2017 and the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2016, and a portion of the Camino de Santiago in 2018.