An Expert Guide to Rain Gear: What You Need for Hiking in the Rain
Camping & Hiking expert Jessica LaPolla guides you through rain gear basics and tips to stay warm and dry on your hikes, camping trips, and backpacking adventures.
Call me crazy, but hiking in the rain is desperately underrated. The crowds disappear, the scent of pine or sage or earth envelops you like a welcoming embrace. It’s a chance to feel more connected to the landscape around you. That being said, no one likes to be soaking wet while spending a day on the trail. Magic can turn to misery in a second if you are unprepared for nature’s showers. You run the risk of, at the very least, being soggy and uncomfortable, and at the worst, becoming cold or even developing hypothermia. That is why it is vital to pack appropriate rain gear and to be prepared for the weather to change at any time.
There are countless options on the market in the way of rainwear with vast differences in technologies and standards for waterproofing. Without getting too deep into the technical aspects, we will guide you through some rain gear basics and tips to stay warm and dry on your day hikes, camping trips, and backpacking adventures.
Choosing the Right Base Layers
One of the most important things you can do to stay warm and dry is to choose base layers made of wool or wicking synthetic materials. Avoid cotton at all costs, as it will hold onto moisture for long periods of time, chilling you or leaving you vulnerable to hypothermia. Wool is the best choice, as it wicks away moisture and drys quickly, and it does not hold onto odor. Synthetic fabric may be more cost-efficient, but they tend to hold odor, despite one’s best efforts.
My baselayer pick: Craghoppers’ Women’s Merino Crew Neck
Choosing Appropriate Mid Layers
Depending on the expected weather and temperatures during your trip, you will want to pack one or more mid layers that will fit over your base layers and under your outer shell or rain jacket. If you are expecting mild weather or are in need of multiple mid-layers for extra chilly days, start with a fleece jacket. Fleece is lightweight and warm and will wick moisture when necessary. Your next layer should consist of a warm, insulated jacket. Water-resistant down may be your best option if you are expecting rain. It is lightweight and offers the most warmth. Standard down does not hold up after getting wet, however, so be sure to choose down that has been treated to be water-resistant, or choose a down/synthetic hybrid.
My mid layer pick: Outdoor Research’s Transcendent Down Jacket
Outer Layers and Rain Wear
This is the layer that will offer you direct protection from the elements, so you’ll want to choose carefully. A technical shell or raincoat is a versatile piece of clothing without insulation that can be used by itself over your base layer or layered on top of other pieces for extra warmth and protection. A raincoat or shell should be made out of durable and waterproof material. Brands will specify whether the jacket is “waterproof” or “water-resistant”. It is important to know the difference. Water-resistant means that the jacket will most likely keep you dry in light rain or drizzle. Waterproof means that the jacket will keep you dry in a downpour. Waterproof layers usually feature DWR or Durable Water Repellent. This is an extra protective coating that aids in the longevity and effectiveness of your jacket, and you can renew it periodically for best results.
Many rain jackets and coats offer breathability features that are essential when you are exerting yourself and sweating through your clothes. Non-breathable waterproof items like ponchos or slickers are a good cost-efficient choice if you will not be doing any physical activity, but for hiking or climbing, a breathable outer layer is a must.
Select a jacket with a hood that covers your head. Adjustable hoods featuring a drawstring are even better. This will offer the best protection for your head and your face, though it is a good idea to wear a hat with a brim or visor to help keep the rain out of your eyes, especially if you wear glasses. Other features, such as elastic cuffs on sleeves, adjustable cuffs, a two-way zipper, or a storm hood can help give you maximum coverage from the elements. For climbing or mountaineering, make sure to choose a jacket with a helmet-compatible hood. Typically, your outer shell should be a size or two larger than what you would normally buy, depending on how many layers you plan on wearing beneath it. For more information, check out our guide to technical shells here.
Expecting some serious rainy conditions? Bring a pair of waterproof rain pants or hardshell pants as well for extra rain protection. You can also purchase gaiters, which keep water and snow from getting into your shoes. These are ideal for wet, muddy, or snowy hiking conditions.
My rain jacket pick: Black Diamond’s Stormline Stretch Women’s Rain Shell
Don’t overlook the importance of footwear when it comes to staying dry and comfortable. Wet boots can take a long time to dry and if it is cold enough, can lead to frostbite. For summer and warm weather hiking, many people have come to prefer lightweight and breathable trail runners. Though they are not typically waterproof, they dry out relatively quickly as opposed to traditional hiking boots. If opting for a boot, look for waterproof technology like GORE-TEX to keep your toes dry. Opt for wool socks and always bring an extra pair in case your feet do get wet. You can put on the fresh pair at camp and let your other socks and boots dry out.
My footwear pick: La Sportiva’s Pyramid GTX Women’s Boots
Protecting Your Pack and Gear
Some packs come with a waterproof cover to keep your backpack and belongings dry in inclement weather. If your pack doesn’t have one, you can buy one or fashion one out of a trash bag. You can also purchase a dry sack to put valuables and electronics in. Ziplock or plastic bags are great to have as well. Pack your food and snacks in these and bring a handful of extra for each trip. Bring a microfiber towel or bandana to wipe down and dry off gear, or to dry off yourself.
There are a few miscellaneous items you can tote along that will increase your comfort and make trekking in the rain more bearable. Don’t forget your waterproof gloves if hiking in cold or snowy conditions. Even in mild weather, driving rain can lead to feeling quite chilled. Bring a couple of hand warmers to quickly warm up. If camping or backpacking, bring stormproof matches as a backup to light your stove and bring packets of tea or hot chocolate. There is nothing better than sitting down at the end of a long day and enjoying a hot drink. It is an instant morale booster. Trekking poles should be on your list of hiking essentials already, but in wet and slippery conditions they can be even handier, proving you with increased stability in uneven or slick terrain. A headlamp should also already be on your list of things to pack, but if the skies turn dark and foggy in the middle of your hike, it can be an even more vital piece of equipment. If you are camping or backpacking, bring an extra pair of clothes. Even though you’ll have your new rain gear to protect you while hiking, there is still a chance of getting wet.
Safety Tips for Hiking in the Rain
- Do some research on the area you are hiking in and always be aware of your surroundings. Be especially careful if hiking in canyon country and be sure to identify easy routes to higher ground in case of flash floods.
- Watch your step! Rain may make the terrain more difficult to navigate. Muddy inclines and slippery rocks should be approached with caution.
- If you come across a creek crossing and the water seems high or fast, walk downstream a bit to look for a calmer area to cross. If you do cross, unbuckle the hipbelt and chest strap on your pack so that you can quickly get free if you slip and fall.
- Eat and drink. This sounds easy enough to remember, but when it gets cold or miserable, many of us don’t feel thirsty or even hungry. However, it is essential to stay hydrated and to give your body the nutrients it needs while expending energy.
- Make sure your first aid kit is well-stocked before any trip.
- Rainwear with reflective stripes or bright colors can not only brighten your mood but can also make it easier for search and rescue to find you if for some reason your trip goes terribly wrong.
- Beware of summit fever. If the weather forecast is predicting thunderstorms and the second half of your hike is above the treeline, it may be time to turn around. Always err on the side of caution.
Now you know how to stay warm, dry, and safe while hiking in the rain. Not sure what rain gear is right for you? Reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert and we will happily help you decide. Remember, it is much easier to stay dry than it is to dry off once wet, so make sure you are well equipped for your next adventure. Happy hiking!